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MORE ABOUT FRIENDSHIP

At Ma'an, members spend one month at a time working in one of four different work stations creating felt decorations and household items. Each station crafts a different item. They purchase local sheep's wool which is washed and prepared. An assistant delicately fits the wool into a mold. The core members then use soap and water and press the wool in the molds, like in the picture to the left, transforming the wool into felt. It is then put out to dry on their balcony (photo below) before being dyed or decorated. The organisation is well-known for their felt interpretations of the nativity scene, but they have also branched out to countless other items, from ornaments to potholders to Easter chicks. The work day is interrupted first for breakfast, followed by announcements and a dance party (and apparently, "You haven't seen a dance party until you've seen a Ma'an dance party," or so Anna tells me). The next break is an afternoon lunch shared together before members work again until five, with a mid-afternoon snack break. All tasks, from the work itself to preparing meals, are shared equally between the members and the assistants. I spoke with Rania, the program's administrative assistant, who told me, "Everything is unique here. Our core members were used to being pitied and not having any expectations placed on them. Here, they are respected and valued. They are human and must be treated like any other human. This includes high expectations about their behaviour and work." The need for such a community in Palestine is strong, where there is still a lot of stigma around disabilities. Families feel shame and keep their children at home. There are few resources for education and empowerment. The programs that do exist are only for children, leaving those who age out of such programs without structure or purpose. The staff at Ma'an hope that the community provides both to their members, as well as a means for empowerment. Members earn a stipend each week, dependent on the hours they work. They are treated as equals to the staff, with the same expectations placed on them. Rania told me, "Their stipend teaches them that their work is valuable and gives them the opportunity to choose how to spend it. It is empowering for them to not have to ask their parents for everything." She tells me stories of core members'  transformation. For example, Rami, who sat next to me during the morning gathering smiling and showing off his notebook, was completely withdrawn when he first started coming. He refused to participate in any gatherings or work, even refusing to use the bathroom at the centre. He just stood by the door waiting for his father to pick him up. Now, a year later, he has blossomed. Rami is joining in everything, staying full days at the centre, and obviously enjoying himself. I ask Rania and Anna, left, what they hope Ma'an provides for its members, and this is when Anna tells me: "Belonging. Friendship. We all want friendship. This is one of life's most basic needs, and people find it here. They might not find it anywhere else, as so often they are not even taken out of the house. When you come, you can see we are all friends here. People also need to feel productive, to feel they are creating something beautiful and worthwhile. Here we all contribute to work that makes beautiful things, things we can be proud of." You can purchase these beautiful products to enjoy yourself or to sell in your congregation or community. The money goes back to Ma'an lil Hayat, to purchase wool, pay stipends, and keep the program going, giving their members joy and community every day. To order, email Rania at arche.bethlehem@gmail.com. You can find a catalogue on their Facebook page under "Files" here.

WE’RE ALL FRIENDS HERE

"We all want friendship. This is one of life's most basic needs, and people find it here," Anna Johnson tells me. Anna volunteers three days a week at Ma'an lil Hayat, a L'Arche community in Bethlehem. The first L'Arche community was founded in a small village in France by Jean Vanier with the intention of bringing people of varying ability to live together and share life in community. Through the years, the community grew, with members deciding to start similar groups in their own countries. Today there are 149 communities in 37 countries, including Palestine. Local culture dictates that Ma'an lil Hayat is not residential, but members share life together five days a week. Indeed, the meaning of their name is "Together for Life." Ma'an has 29 core members with various disabilities, ranging in age from 16 to 46, attending in two different sites- one in central Bethlehem and one in a village just outside the city. They arrive every day by 8:30 a.m., when they gather for announcements, share news, pray together, and sing songs, along with the "assistants," the program's term for members who are staff. The day I visited, news and announcements included one core member modelling her new sneakers and another smiling shyly when an assistant shared that she had attended a party the day before. Everyone clapped and celebrated these joyful events. They closed their sharing time by singing, Muslims and Christians together, with a Taize song adapted to Arabic, "Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten, God alone fills us." After a moment of silence, there was a flurry of activity as everyone prepared to receive their assignments and begin their work day.

Have You Heard of the White Helmets?

 
Dear friends, The UN just announced Aleppo is fast becoming 'one giant graveyard' and residents risk 'extermination'. Not one of our governments is in there saving lives, but an extraordinary group of Syrians are: The White Helmets. 73,530 lives in fact. That’s how many people they have saved, rushing to the scene of bombings to pull people from the rubble and carry them to safety. What's amazing is these heroes are just ordinary people — bakers, teachers, tailors — who felt they couldn't stand by, and threw themselves right into the line of fire. For their bravery, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and the $1 million of critical funding it comes with — but they lost! Forget the Nobel Prize — together we have the power to give the White Helmets the recognition they deserve and the funding they desperately need. For their heroic efforts, White Helmets volunteers are often targeted — Russian and Syrian regime planes bomb civilians, then circle back to bomb the rescue workers who scramble to help. It’s just a part of the picture of horror that’s rocked Syria for almost six years and killed as many as 470,000 people. It’s become harder and harder to stop — and has turned into the greatest shame of our generation. As the conflict continues to spiral, the White Helmets are doing work that no one else can, or will. They’re standing up as heroes while the world watches and fails to stop the conflict.
If you'd like to know more about these brave citizens:

And What About School?

I was distressed to learn that there are refugee youth who haven't been to school for over five years.   Does this mean we'll have a generation of unemployable young adults who can't read or write and therefore vulnerable to people who offer them a gun and some money to devastate a community? Here's what's happening in Lebanon.  Surely it's being duplicated in Jordan and elsewhere.  50% of refugee children between age 5 and 17 are not enrolled in school.  Only 17% of teenagers 16-18 are enrolled.  Why this high dropout rate?  There are over a million registered refugees, Syrian and Palestinian.  The schools are overcrowded.  School is taught in French or English, not Arabic.   An organization I've told you about, ANERA, is working to change that by offering education and vocational classes to give students the skills they need to support their families.  We are so lucky to be living here that it's almost impossible to imagine losing our house, our job, our loved ones,  our friends.  It's what happens when people have to run for their lives, leaving everything behind.  It's what makes them poverty stricken refugees.

Winter in Lebanon

I left for France after my last post, came back and left again for the Thanksgiving Holiday.   Until now I thought Tuscany was the place I'd return to again and again.  And now Provence has proved itself to be equally fascinating.   If the opportunity arises, don't miss them. Back to the reality of the current refugee crisis.  Winter is coming.  For the thousands and thousands who are living in shelters made of old pallets and discarded plastic banners, with plastic or an old blanket between them and the ground and no heater, the prospect is bleak.  Right now 1,033,513 Syrian refugees are living in Lebanon, 360,000 of them in settlements 3,000 feet above sea level.  Freezing temperatures and winter storms await them.   Are the churches in your communities banding together to send clothing, blankets, mats, insulation or heaters?  What about other charities?  If there are none, you might think about donating to the UN Refugee Agency.