“Meen hayda?” Sara asked her educator, her finger pointed at me. Sara was sitting in the shade, shielding herself from the morning sun’s rays that were beating down on the courtyard of Al-Kafaat’s Lily Shwayri Center. “Ask him (Iss’alee),” the educator told Sara with a smile.”
Sara turned her head towards me and smiled. She was just playing games. Her sense of humor, however, was far more sophisticated than that of any other 11-year-old I had ever met. “Shou ismak (what’s your name)?” Sara asked me, her eyes slightly peaking over her glasses. “Andrew,” I replied, failing to hold back the smile that had now taken over my face. “Wa shou ismeek intee, mad moiselle?” I had hardly been in Lebanon for a month and the Lebanese were already rubbing off on me. “Sara,” she answered coyly.
I was delighted to meet Sara – but after I learned more about her story, my naïve delight was turned into genuine humility.
Sara came to Al-Kafaat in 2004 at the age of three. She has developmental issues that are sometimes exacerbated by severe epilepsy. She also has a weak visual field, as she also suffers from cataracts. As a result, her communication abilities were limited; before coming to Al-Kafaat, Sara could only answer questions with a simple “yes” or “no”.
But at Al-Kafaat foundation, a team of specialists – speech therapists and physiotherapists – assumed responsibility for Sara’s development. Over a short period of time, her situation improved dramatically, and her communication skills transcended the barriers created by her vision and developmental impairments.
Today, Sara understands long and complex sentences, and is able to have meaningful conversations. In addition, Sara now walks on her own initiative with the help of a walker, and no longer uses a wheelchair.
After learning about Sara, I understood why she was so engaging and why she seemed so excited to speak with me. Sara is simply able to do now what she could barely dream of accomplishing a year ago, and she is anxious to showcase her achievements.
Sara’s story is Al-Kafaat.
Founded in 1957 by Nadim Shwayri, a wealthy and devout Antiochian Orthodox Christian man who chose to give a pragmatic meaning to his faith, Al-Kafaat is a private, nonprofit and nondenominational organization that delivers its education and rehabilitation services across seven
different campuses in Lebanon. Al-Kafaat has successfully rehabilitated over 27,000 people with a variety of challenges and difficulties.
Walking around any one of Al-Kafaat’s seven Centers, you will find dozens of dedicated men and women from all religious backgrounds working tirelessly to improve the standard of living for people with special needs. Smiles on their faces, each and every one of Al-Kafaat’s employees forges a special relationship with the children and adults that they work with. Whether they are helping five-year-olds with several challenges and digestion problems eat their lunches, singing songs with a classroom full of ten-year-olds with speech difficulties, or stamping papers with adolescents who can only use their heads because of severe cerebral palsy, Al-Kafaat’s employees challenge the pervasive stigma that pollutes the public’s opinion of people with special needs. Here, people’s socalled disabilities are not considered obstacles. Rather, Al-Kafaat believes that there is an unrealized ability behind each person’s “disability” and provides an outlet for its beneficiaries to realize their potential: “Al-Kafaàt” in Arabic means “Abilities” in English.
The Foundation’s religious diversity also challenges religious intolerance and the idea that Christians and Muslims are fundamentally at odds with each other. In a much tormented country – and region –Al-Kafaat is a force of change across Lebanon’s complicated sectarian spectrum, encouraging all Lebanese to treat people with special needs as human beings with unique qualities, talents, and abilities rather than as burdens.
When spending time at Al-Kafaat, it is impossible to feel anything but happiness. Everywhere you look, children and young adults with special needs are either busy working on new projects – including paper mache stationary, intricate ceramics, and making dozens of kilos of fresh cheese – or are effortlessly enjoying the company and love of their peers and educators, learning how to read, write, and lead productive and
fulfilled lives. Al-Kafaat’s students cannot help but share their happiness with those around them, and frequently give hugs and high-fives to everyone that they meet. It was all that I could do to resist the temptation to spend the rest of my time in Lebanon inside the Center’s walls, learning valuable lessons about love, patience, and community from Al-Kafaat’s students.
Today, under the Patronage of Metropolitan Philip and the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese in North America, Al-Kafaat is raising funds across North America to build a new compound in one of its existing centers, the Village Center. At the conclusion of this initiative, Al-Kafaat looks forward to welcoming 650 new children and adults with cerebral palsy, mental challenges, and autism in 2012. In May 2010, I had the personal privilege of participating in a fundraiser dinner on behalf of the Archdiocese and Al-Kafaat, during which Nadim Shwayri was awarded the Antonian Gold Medal from Metropolitan Philip. During my recent stay in Lebanon, I seized the opportunity to visit the project myself. It is a beautiful complex, and boasts a state-of-the-art architecture that is designed to provide the best care and sheltered employment to children and adults with special needs.
The foundation’s robust history is firmly intertwined with Lebanon’s complicated and violent past, present, and future. Despite seemingly insurmountable political and social obstacles, Al-Kafaat has kept on delivering the same quality of services throughout periods of economic strife, civil war, and political instability. Although Lebanon’s tragic 15-year civil war ended more than 20 years ago, Al-Kafaat still plays the role of a government – if seldom in order – that sadly does not deliver proper civil services to its citizens.
The Ministry of Social Affairs is hardly active and has been bogged down by internecine political rivalries and corruption for decades. As a result, social welfare services are all but ignored by the government. Non-governmental actors are left with the enormous responsibility of independently caring for Lebanon’s disenfranchised communities. Basically, if Sara was not able to get the free rehabilitation delivered to her at Al-Kafaat, she wouldn’t have been able to get it free of charge from anywhere else. And while the Ministry partially subsidizes these services at Al-Kafaat, the subsidies represent a mere fraction of Al-Kafaat’s costs, and are seldom paid on time.
It was outrageous for me to learn that the Ministry has sporadically paid its dues since April 2010, in total disregard of its contracts with the various active organizations. It is within this context that Al-Kafaàt has also become a vocal advocate for the less privileged and actively uses the media to bring attention to the situation. During my last few weeks in Beirut, I saw the Al-Kafaat CEO, team, and children express anger with the Lebanese government on numerous occasions through television talk shows and various news outlets, which concluded with a major demonstration to bring the matter to the attention of Lebanon’s politicians.
Al-Kafaat’s work is thus not only vital; more than setting an impeccable example for all other non-governmental agencies to follow, it urges the Lebanese government to maintain a meaningful commitment to the welfare of people with special needs. Al-Kafaat’s work continues despite an irresponsible government and overwhelming social stigmas that exist against people with special needs. Al-Kafaat’s mission is embraced by a team of 15 volunteering trustees and shared with 830 employees, all caring for 4,500 daily beneficiaries and fighting for the many numerous underprivileged Lebanese whose voices are unheard.
What happens at Al-Kafaat is nothing short of miraculous. Personally, it makes me hopeful for Lebanon’s future, and for the future of the broader Middle East. Having taken on a truly selfless attitude, the Foundation and its trustees represent Christianity in its purest form, and prove that there is no greater labor than the labor of love.
To learn more about the project and to donate online, visit the website www.alkafaatusa.org .