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Arab Workshop for the Blind, Jerusalem

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 18.09.2009:

By Irene Archos

Navigating through the labyrinthine streets of the Old City of Jerusalem is hard enough with a map, but what if you were blind? Many a morning outside my house near the fifth station on the Via Dolorosa I see blind men arm-in-arm on their way to work who easily make their way around the city without getting lost like me. They are workers at the Arab Blind Workshop nestled between the fifth and sixth stations on the Via Dolorosa. The workshop that produces fine-quality, hand-crafted brooms of all shapes and sizes from mostly natural materials is part of the larger Arab Union for the Blind, a private charitable, not-for-profit organisation run by the blind for the blind. It was founded in 1932 when a group of blind persons led by Subhe Dajani decided to organise an institute for the education, rightful employment, and servicing of blind persons in Palestine. At first located at Jaffa Gate, it was burned in 1948 as part of the war with Israel and was transferred to its present location around 1950. Even to the present day, the Israeli municipality and city hall in Jerusalem have been trying to gain control over it; however, because the workshop was established as a strictly Palestinian charitable organisation, the board of directors continues to vehemently reject all forms of Israeli control even if so doing means giving up valuable financial resources and even more importantly, needed supplies and instruments for the blind.

At any given time the small workshop employs between 12 and 15 blind workers, who busily assemble brooms and brushes from natural fibres. These workers are mostly Palestinians from the West Bank who do not have an Israeli ID. Due to the separation Wall constructed by Israel, which restricts the movement of many former workers, the workshop also operates a cottage-style piecemeal work-from-home arrangement which allows many needy blind persons in such places as Nablus, Ramallah, and Hebron the chance to work for their livelihood. According to Nadera Bazbaz, social worker, secretary, and general do-it-all woman who has been working at the workshop for 26 years, “There has been a long tradition of making brooms by the blind, not just in Palestine but in other countries all over the world.” The workshop employs persons classified as being from 60 to 100 percent blind, 18 years of age and older. Ms. Bazbaz emphasised how the blind on the Israeli side have many of the benefits that Palestinian blind persons do not such as a monthly stipend from social security, health insurance which covers many medicines, eye specialists, and, more importantly, that pays for special instruments such as watches, walking sticks, and gauges, which make a blind person’s life more tolerable. “The blind in Palestine,” she explains, “lack the services and instruments that those in other countries take for granted.” The simple walking stick, the staple for movement, sells for 150 shekels in the West Bank compared to 50 shekels on the Israeli side, precisely because the Israeli Ministry of Health subsidises it.

The workshop pays a high price for its independence from Israeli welfare. It has relied exclusively on donations from individuals, private corporations, and Islamic charitable institutions. Since the Intifada, these donations have dwindled. Both production and profits have decreased due to the restrictions of goods in and out of the West Bank. Stores in Ramallah used to order 100 brooms at one time, bringing orders to the several hundreds; now they ask for only 6 to 10. Israeli mass-produced brooms, which sell at half the price of those manufactured by the blind, are undercutting production as well. Even when it comes time to deliver the assembled brooms to Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities do not allow them to pass the checkpoints on the grounds that these goods already exist in Israel and are therefore unnecessary.

Despite these obstacles, the workshop continues to work. Nestled in two rooms in the interior courtyard, blind workmen measure out a palm’s length of natural nettled fibres, pull them into tufts using strong silver-coated strings, and wedge them through the drill holes into the bases of brooms. They have the most basic working tools: an ancient drill machine, a mechanical saw, a cutter. Most of their tools are outdated or broken. Yet they still persist in painstakingly making the best brooms that their hands can craft.

Atwah Hussein Abu Akkar spent 20 of his total 55 years as a broom assembler at the institute before getting elected to the post of director general. He was eight years old and in second grade playing with other children in the street when a boy hit him on the head with a stone. As he did not receive adequate medical care for his wound, the injury affected the visual cortex area of his brain eventually leading to his total blindness. After 1948 he was forced to leave his home village of Hossein near Bethlehem to settle in the Aida Refugee Camp. It was in the camp that an English lady approached him about enrolling in a special school for the blind. He finished the programme at the Lutheran School on the Mount of Olives eventually receiving a diploma as an industrial worker. He went on to open his own shop in Ramallah before coming to the workshop. “Blindness is not in the eye itself,” he explains, “but in the heart and mind.”

Salim Mohamed Al Arian, the financial officer for the institute, a member since 1956, confesses, “This organisation is not just a job. This is our mother. We take care of it as though it were our mother.” Mr. Al Arian became blind at the age of four. He worked at the National Library for the Blind on Shofat Road, during which time he worked on translating the Holy Qur’an into Braille and later, along with a team of linguists, the first 12-volume Arabic-English Dictionary for the blind. When asked how his life is different from those who have their sight, he replied, “I don’t feel any different from anyone else. I am used to it now because I have been living with it for my entire life. I know everything in my home; I can recognise people from their voices.” He went on to explain that another reason his blindness does not register to him is that Palestinian society does not treat the blind as such. “We feel like normal people because we are treated like normal people,” he says.

One’s overall impression coming away from the workshop is that in Palestine the blind are treated with respect and deference for their unique abilities in contrast to what others might see as their defining disability. I will end with a corny line: let’s not bat a blind eye to the blind. Those who wish to make a difference can do so through contributing to the following accounts:

Arab Bank, Al Bireh Branch, Beneficiary Account 9030/6071214

US Dollar Account: Credit Suisse Swift Code ARABBPS22030 Swift CRESCHZZ80A

European Currency: ARAB BANK, Frankfurt, Swift Code: ARABDEFF

TWIP September 2009

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