Originally published in Allarab News
At a busy corner intersection that separates Beit Jala and the larger, sprawling city of Bethlehem and wedged next to a shawarma shop is a nondescript and humble storefront which spills into an oasis of hope where an organization keeps Jesus at the center of its work.
A school and residential quarters for the blind and others with special needs, House of Hope is a ministry Founded in 1963, the organization has continued to serve the community for 57 years. A blind Palestinian Christian woman – called Aunty May – started the home after having cared for vulnerable young people for years. The ministry has been sustained through donations and some revenue-making ventures ever since then.
House of Hope has space for 12 people with special needs to live on site. They go home to their families once a month for the weekend, but are eager to return to the warm environment where they spend most of their time.
Director Salim Zaidan told All Arab News that he gets to work earlier on those days – because the house feels empty without the students there.
“I am here waiting for them at 7am on the Monday they are coming back,” he said.
A retired educator, Zaidan was not looking for this kind of work and balked at the idea when someone told him the director position was available.
“I don’t know how to work with the blind and special needs,” he recalled saying.
But after attending a Christmas play where he saw the House of Hope residents singing, acting and reading from the Bible, he was moved.
“I cried when I saw it. I cried and cried,” he said.
His wife urged him to give it a try – and within a short time after taking the job, Zaidan said he felt this was his home.
And now he has become an advocate as well.
In many Arab societies, people with disabilities are often stigmatized. Zaidan said he believes that this mindset needs to change.
“These people are like all people,” he said.
In an effort to bring awareness and change in Palestinian society regarding people’s approach to the world of disabilities, Zaidan speaks at schools and invites others to come visit and to learn firsthand about the residents with challenges.
Keeping Jesus at the centre
Though some of the residents are Muslim, the organisation functions as a Christian entity and is very open in its language and actions when it comes to its faith. The house is run as a Christian organisation – and is “for God, not for anybody else,” Zaidan said.
“Jesus said the healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick,” Zaidan said of its mission. “We are a Christian organisation. We believe if we pray and if we speak the Bible, God will bless our home.”
There are rooms for 12 residents who receive 24/7 care plus schooling and a vocation. Their daily schedule begins with Bible study and worship – and prayer factors into much of the day.
At the two factories on the compound, the blind students make brooms and the others make olive wood products. Sales from both help support the organization.
The House of Hope also operates a humble guesthouse where visitors can stay.
If they weren’t living at House of Hope, prospects for the future of these residents would be rather low. A widespread lack of availability of services for people with disabilities in the Palestinian territories – and lack of support for their families – makes organisations such as House of Hope so critical.
The residents learn maths, geography and reading – and those who are blind learn to read the Bible in Braille. They are also all taught life skills, beginning with making their beds in the morning and preparing food. Some of the residents have Down syndrome or other cognitive challenges.
In one classroom, blind students sang This is the Day that the Lord has Made in both Arabic and English.
Zaidan said his main role at House of Hope is as a servant – and a fundraiser. House of Hope provides for the food, clothing and medical needs of the residents. The medical costs actually rise as the residents age and their challenges get more complex, Zaidan noted. The families pay a nominal fee which doesn’t actually cover the cost – and sometimes they don’t pay at all.
The ministry recently embarked upon a project to install solar panels in order to save money on electricity and is in the process of starting a garden so the residents can grow their own produce.
Zaidan works with other Christian organisations on how they can also help. As an outgoing patriarch in the community and long-time leader of Palestinian scout groups, Zaidan is always collecting goods for the home as he makes his rounds. People and businesses donate food, clothing, coffee and much more.
But it is the rent and salaries he has trouble paying, Zaidan said.
“I can get free coffee, but I can’t pay the salaries or the electric bill,” he said.
As with so many other organisations, the Covid-19 pandemic had a negative impact on House of Hope, which relies heavily on donations and welcomes volunteers from overseas as well.
But just walking around the facility – and interacting with the students – it becomes clear that the love and support for the residents has not waned. The teachers and house parents treat the residents with respect and are invested in their success.
Though vastly challenging, it is a simple formula: “We keep Jesus at the centre,” Zaidan said.
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