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This Way to the Ark

CNEWA’s Beirut office generously supports programs for Lebanon’s mentally and physically handicapped.

text and photos by Marilyn Raschka

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Call it the Ark in English, l’Arche in French, or Zawrak, its Arabic equivalent. Whatever you call it, this Lebanese community of the mentally and physically handicapped, and assistants called to serve, is a home away from home.

Day by day, step by step, the community’s members learn the joy of self-reliance, the satisfaction of achievement and the all-embracing love of God.

This way to the ark.

A salad-making project begins with a shopping excursion. An assistant takes Husana and Michael to a nearby open air market to buy fresh tomatoes and lemons, two of the ingredients needed for the salad. Then they must wash, cut, squeeze and open the cans of corn and peas. These are challenges for the handicapped whose eye-hand coordination makes even the simplest of tasks difficult. When Tony successfully completes a task, he proudly announces it – “I did it, I cut the lemon!”

Zawrak’s staff of 35 have worked out a program that judging from the smiles and enthusiasm has been very successful.

“We do not try to reproduce school activities nor treat the handicapped as children,” explains psychologist David Sahyoun.

Memories of school are unhappy; recollections of failure and mocking by other students and even teachers remain instilled in the memories of the handicapped. Thus at Zawrak, basic math and reading skills are presented as games so the handicapped disassociate them from their classroom experiences.

“Lebanese families are overprotective,” says Sahyoun. “They have a tendency of eternally treating their handicapped sons and daughters like children.” The community ages range from 18 to 47.

Such attitudes are as much a challenge for the assistants as they are for the handicapped. A simple hygiene project designed to raise awareness of tooth care was delayed because of parental resentment. The handicapped were asked to bring toothbrushes with them but day after day many left them behind. Later, the assistants learned the families had interpreted the project as an intrusion into a private matter.

On another occasion they were asked to bring in photos of their families. The collection revealed the unconscious shame and rejection that many families feel – their handicapped children were included in only a handful of the snaps.

Regaining a sense of dignity, developing talents and creativity, are major goals at Zawrak.

This philosophy began with Jean Vanier, a former Canadian naval officer and philosophy professor. In 1964 he purchased a dilapidated house in a French village and invited two handicapped men, Philippe and Raphael, to live with him.

This simple family has mushroomed into a worldwide federation boasting more than 80 communities, including ones in Erie, Penn., and Washington, D.C.

Roland Tamraz founded Zawrak in 1985, fashioning it after Vanier’s model. But establishing an atmosphere of fellowship, peace and personal awareness were uphill challenges for Tamraz and the community in a war-consumed Beirut.

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Tags: Lebanon Education Disabilities Employment