From ONE Magazine

Unlocking Talents

Our Lady of Peace Center in Amman, Jordan, is more than just a rehabilitation center for the disabled; it is a meeting point for Christians and Muslims, caring adults and handicapped children, rich and poor. The center’s administration makes it so, ensuring that the facility is open to everyone regardless of ethnicity, religion or social background.

Inaugurated in April 2004 on behalf of Queen Rania by Prince Ra’d bin Zeid and his wife, Princess Majda, longtime advocates of Jordan’s handicapped, the center serves disabled children at no cost to their families.

The facility, whose funding took six years to secure, is the brainchild of Bishop Selim Sayegh, Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Jordan. He envisaged a comprehensive retreat and rehabilitation center offering academic classes, vocational training, physiotherapy, basic medical care, as well as community outreach programs.

“[The center] will be a source of consciousness raising, in order to teach and train the whole of Jordanian civil society to respect the basic rights of the physically or mentally challenged. It will guarantee equality of treatment both in their families and communities and in public institutions,” said the bishop.

Promoting community service is also an integral part of the center’s mission. The majority of those who work at the facility, which cost $3 million to build and equip, are volunteers.

“One of the things we concentrate on is promoting voluntary service and community work by opening our doors to volunteers and encouraging the integration of the handicapped with their local communities,” said Majdi Dayyat, the center’s general manager.

“We work to help parents understand they should never feel embarrassed by their children’s disability, and that their children have the right to become active members in their families and communities,” he added.

The center offers parent-child programs on weekends to encourage parents to be more involved in their children’s lives.

Jordan has a relatively high number of disabled people, with recent statistics disclosing that 9.8 percent of the country’s total population of 5.2 million has some form of disability. Some 260,000 of the handicapped are under the age of 18.

The general public, however, remains largely unaware of the rights of the disabled, with some choosing to ignore their existence altogether. In the past, parents would hide their disabled children for fear of shame and humiliation they believed their children’s disability might bring on them.

Mr. Dayyat, however, believes things are changing slowly, with negative attitudes toward the physically and mentally disabled on the decrease.

“Jordan has come a long way with respect to the handicapped,” he said. “It’s not a question of prejudice; it’s just a matter of ignorance. How does one deal with people who have special needs?”

With this in mind, Our Lady of Peace Center aims to promote awareness about these individuals. Furthermore, its support committees intend to train families and the public at large on how to respect the rights of these individuals.

Even before its official opening, the center sponsored awareness campaigns, including several marches, in the capital and other areas to promote those rights.

Support committees, consisting of both Christian and Muslim volunteers, oversee each campaign and lobby the local community to take part.

Mr. Dayyat suggested that such interfaith cooperation is both natural and widespread in Jordan.

“If we look deeper into the spiritual message of Christianity and Islam, we find that both religions share a common belief in God,” Mr. Dayyat said. “This belief is a source of strength for our national unity.”

In a region where sectarian violence has devastated many communities, Jordan has a strong history of collaboration and tolerance among its Christian and Muslim citizens. This bond can be witnessed when strolling through the grounds of Our Lady of Peace, whose surrounding gardens and orchards were planted by students from the Muslim Sisterhood Society for the Physically Disabled.

Mr. Dayyat also believes the establishment of the center constitutes an extension of the Christian community’s charitable work in Jordan, where religious communities of men and women remain deeply involved in the education of all Jordanians through their network of schools.

“The center was a natural progression of the work of the Christian community in Jordan,” Mr. Dayyat said.

Demand for the center’s services has been high. The wait for a preliminary examination now stands at two months. Some 500 applications have been received, but only 200 applicants could be accommodated because the center is not yet fully completed.

When the center becomes 100 percent operational, Mr. Dayyat said, its staff will see and treat around 2,500 cases both in-house and through an outreach program.

“In-house treatment will always face space limitations so we are focusing on reaching out to areas around the country,” Mr. Dayyat said.

The center also provides vocational training, offering disabled students the chance to learn a vocation and become independent and productive members of their society.

The curriculum was designed by specialists to cater to the students’ needs and mental abilities.

In addition to academic and vocational training, each student receives one-on-one rehabilitation and therapy from volunteer specialists at the center.

Despite low labor costs, running the facility is expected to total some $300,000 per year. The Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, has provided major financial support for its construction, but the center is also trying to secure its own funding, not an easy task in a cash-strapped society.

“We count on God’s grace in the first place and on the generosity of donors,” Mr. Dayyat said. “As for fund-raising we appreciate the economic circumstances of the majority of Jordanians, and right now we don’t want to put any pressure on them.”

The center, however, has established Friends of Our Lady of Peace, allowing donors to sponsor a student for as little as $140 per year. “This is one way to cover our cost,” Mr. Dayyat said. “By the grace of God, our donors and sponsors have not let us down yet.”

Journalist Sahar Aloul lives in Amman.