"I never imagined I would be doing what I’m doing today,” Lydia says as she works on her latest knitting project. Ms. Lydia lost her sight at the age of two. She knows first-hand the double discrimination that disabled women and girls in the region can face for both their disability and their gender. Having lived in Jerusalem for most of her life, she has also experienced the myriad difficulties that the local population continues to endure with the ever-changing political situation.
In 1984 she opened the Peace Center for the Blind, a school and vocational training center in East Jerusalem for visually impaired Palestinian women. The resident students are taught basic literacy in Arabic and English, Braille, vocational skills, self-care, and personal hygiene. Their communal boarding house environment helps nurture one-on-one mentoring relationships as well as the life skills of mobility, cooking, nutrition, and first-aid.
At the vocational training center, students have the opportunity to learn marketable skills, such as hand- and machine-knitting, crocheting, loom weaving, etc. Regular health examinations and counseling are also available to women residing in the boarding facilities. Through the academic program they are able to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma and several have even continued on to university studies.
Ms. Lydia‘s dream was to provide not just a place to learn, but a place to belong. In the beginning, she went door to door asking for contributions and eventually raised $200 from friends and neighbors. With only four students, she opened the Peace Center for the Blind, which has now grown to full capacity at two separate facilities and assists over 50 women and girls at any given time. These women leave the Center empowered to live independent lives, and to act as a voice for equal rights for all those living with disabilities.
Most importantly, the Center provides friendship and support for women who are often relegated to the margins of society. With an ever-increasing demand for its services from the blind community, the need for increased funding and expanded facilities is becoming even more critical.
In the midst of all the political, religious and cultural divisiveness that dominates the region, the staff at Peace Center for the Blind are working to promote tolerance and understanding. Ms. Lydia, who comes from a Palestinian Christian background, stresses that the center is a place of inter-faith education where Muslims and Christians can work and study together, with the stated goal of better integrating the students back into society.
In the complicated civil society of Jerusalem, blindness is only one of many traits that can stigmatize and separate people and communities, and the Peace Center for the Blind is proving that many of these obstacles can be overcome.Steve JeterFilmmaker + Photographer
How It Began
This beautiful and poignant short film by Steve Jeter details the life and beginnings of a courageous woman as she establishes a unique place where blind women on the margins of society come together to pursue education, job training and a future.
“My name is Lydia Monsour. I was born in the West Bank, and I lost my sight when I was two years old. The Center was founded especially to help women over the age of fifteen because they were the ones that were not looked after by anybody at all. The purpose for this Center is to help these women to be independent.
If we hadn’t started this Center, many people would be left without education, without a job, without any interest perhaps in life. We are faced [with] many, many things, but you know, at the end, we get through.”
The Far Side of Complexity
The words ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ are often, seamlessly followed by a reference to conflict. It is arguably one of the oldest, most historic conflicts. At its most basic level, the dispute is one over land – sacred territory and national borders – but the roots of the conflict run even deeper.
Prejudice and hostilities brew under the surface. Decades of conflict and generations of resentment, fear and aggression have resulted in an uneasy, segregated coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, all too often characterized by distrust and suspicion (if not outright antagonism).
A City Divided
Perhaps more than any other region, Israeli-Palestinian territory is defined by its divisions. The Green Line (on land, marked by a large highway) separates the more modernized and urban East Jerusalem from the historic and more rural land of West Jerusalem. A series of check points manned by military personnel delineate Israeli and Palestinian territory. And today, the most literal embodiment of division: a wall, establishing a physical boundary between Jerusalem and the West Bank, but also a barrier between villages, friends and sometimes families.
Even the historic ‘Old City’ of Jerusalem is divided. Split into four quadrants – the Muslim Quarter (northeast), the Jewish Quarter (northwest), the Christian Quarter (southeast), and the Armenian Quarter (southwest) – this historic section (a mere 0.35 square miles) is another physical representation of the divisions that exist.
But the divide is not merely territorial. Beyond the physical demarcations, divisions are further entrenched by differing cultures, languages, histories, religions, economies and even different weekends.
The Palestinian population has demonstrated a high prevalence of blindness. According to St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, the incidence of blindness is 10 times higher amongst Palestinians than it is in developed countries.
Movement restrictions and the wall have inhibited access to critical vision care. The lack of available health care means that many preventable vision impairments go untreated. Health care technology and resources in the Palestinian territories are limited.
Among Palestinian adults, the primary cause of blindness and visual impairment is cataracts. In fact, throughout the Palestinian territories, 20,000 people are estimated to suffer from cataracts, one of the most curable causes of vision loss; of these, 4,138 may be blind and 2,483 may have severe visual impairment (St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital).
The restriction of movement has also contributed to an increase in children born with congenital diseases, and impoverished conditions have further limited their access to care. It is not unusual for a family to have more than one child with a congenital condition, and children with visual impairments are often kept home from school and hidden in the home.
Breaking Down Walls
A land filled with tension and conflict is not easy terrain for the blind. Imagine living near streets where riots periodically break out, and then imagine that you cannot see. All of the typical challenges of blindness become invariably more difficult in a context of violence and unrest. Crossing the street, walking to the market – these simple, daily activities are complicated by the tension and hostilities.
It was into this volatile world that Ms. Lydia was born. Blind in a world tailored to the sighted, a woman in a culture historically dominated by men, Palestinian in an Israeli-controlled land and a Christian of Arab descent, Ms. Lydia is no stranger to ‘different.’
Like many Palestinians in Jerusalem, she has no passport and no clear national identity. She understands the challenges of navigating a health system that does not easily accommodate the disabled.
She has lived with these divisions every day of her life. But to talk with her, she is no victim, no respecter of differences.
Ms. Lydia holds a deep conviction of the value of every human life. And while she herself could have waited for others to help her, instead she dedicated her life to serving others.
She finds the most vulnerable – those who are not only blind, but poor, under-resourced, lacking options – and offers them not just aid and assistance, but a new life, one built on community, and one dedicated to a larger purpose.
While some consider blindness a limitation, for Ms. Lydia and the Peace Center, it is an opportunity. It allows them to see beyond the walls and hostilities that surround their city, and to reach out to others desperate for care and in need of a helping hand.
The Challenge of Location
The Peace Center for the Blind is strategically located in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shu’afat. Its location in Jerusalem brings economic and political challenges, but it also ensures that the Center can provide services to the blind communities in both Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Center is currently split between two rented facilities in different parts of the neighborhood. The educational facility and administrative offices are housed in one building, and the boarding house and Vocational Training Center are in a separate facility 1.2 kilometers away. The route between these two buildings crosses the newly built commuter rail tracks and several busy intersections, making walking between the two locations nearly impossible for the visually impaired. This has resulted in high costs for taxis and other forms of transport.
The high cost of living, difficulty of transportation between the West Bank and Jerusalem via military checkpoints, and commuting across increasingly busy roads and train lines are all challenges that necessitate that students board, work and study in a single facility. With increased enrollment, limited space and rising prices, the need for an expanded single facility is becoming more and more urgent.
A Doctor's Lens
On a bright, sunny morning in Jerusalem, Ms. Lydia escorts Halla, a young girl of five or six, to St. John’s Optermic Hospital. They are guided by a friend who limps along beside them. The three of them receive compassionate glances from those who pass them--a young girl with a visual impairment, a blind, elderly woman and a guide supported by her cane. Nevertheless, they are buoyed by their combined strength and united goal. Together they move along steadily through the crowded buses and streets of the Holy City.
For over thirty years, Ms. Lydia has been helping young, blind children like Halla live life more self-assured by ministering to their emotional and physical needs. She established the Peace Center for the Blind in the early eighties to equip them with an education to work so that they can each contribute to society despite their disabilities.
Almost from its inception, Ms. Lydia formed an unlikely friendship with an Israeli optometrist, Dr. Livinger. At the time, Dr.Livinger worked in the Hadassah hospital where he would often see Ms.Lydia while she accompanied her students to appointments. Years later he formed his own hospital, St. John’s Optermic Hospital, where he still works today. When the time came for him to move hospitals he told Ms. Lydia, “Do not think that I’m going to leave you. Whenever you have a patient, please bring that patient to me and I will see them for nothing, for free.”
It is Dr. Livinger’s generosity and Halla’s poor sight that draws these women out into the bustling streets of Jerusalem on a cool day. When they reach St. John’s, Dr. Livinger greets Ms. Lydia warmly, “How are you, Lydia? It is nice to see you.”
He gently guides her into the room, a tall man, towering over her small frame. His large, skillful hands tinker with the instruments as he inspects Halla’s eyes. Halla sits patiently, inquisitively, as he evaluates her. “She has been misdiagnosed. She is okay,” he deduces, “but, she needs glasses.” He sees that she gets new frames for free today, two frames to be exact: a pair of sunglasses and a pair of eyeglasses that will improve her vision.
Ms. Lydia recalls his benevolence, “He has a high fee for everybody else, but for our children he sees them all, our adults, or whoever they are, he sees them for free, and I’m really very, very grateful for that.”
What’s more remarkable is that Dr. Livinger is an Israeli. Ms. Lydia is a Palestinian, and her students are Palestinians. Dr. Livinger isn’t merely sending her students home with glasses and diagnoses; he is leaving them with the memory of his profound care for them, care that transcends religious and economic boundaries.
In a city that has been ravaged by religious strife and violence for thousands of years, Dr. Livinger and Ms. Lydia are finding an uncommon pathway to peace.
From the Palestinians there are good people, and from the Jewish people, there are also very good people.Ms. LydiaFounder
Though Ms. Lydia lacks the physical ability to see what lies before her, her courage and compassion for those living at a disadvantage, like herself, does not limit her ability to act on their behalf. She braves the challenges she and her students face by leaning on her faith and friendships she has formed with unlikely acquaintances like the Israeli Dr. Livinger.
Together they are working to help the students at the Center to overcome their limitations through education and adequate medical attention. As Ms. Lydia educates them, trains them, counsels them and more importantly, loves them at the Center, Dr. Livinger supplies them with the proper care so they can be as physically healthy as possible. The approach to their well-being is holistic.
These students’ lenses will forever be framed by the love that was shown to them by these two individuals. Perhaps Dr. Livinger’s generosity flows from his magnanimity. Certainly, his admiration for a tiny, Palestinian woman plays a key part as well. Her courage to fight against insurmountable obstacles is evident and undoubtedly contagious.
The Peace Center for the Blind faces many financial challenges. More often than not they must cover the expenses incurred by medical treatments their students need. Dr. Livinger’s free eye care is an example to those not only in Jerusalem but also all over the world that one can use their skills and talents for more than financial profit.
The Center’s needs are indeed overwhelming, but today is a good day. Ms. Lydia, Halla and their friend begin their trip back to the Center. They are tired from the morning commute and appointment, but their spirits are bolstered by the generosity and medical care of an Israeli doctor. Halla fiddles with her new glasses and a smile spreads across her face as she looks out the bus window. It is a new start for her and there is a renewed sense of hope for her future.
A Center for Peace
The Peace Center for the Blind is a vibrant, productive and generous community of beautiful and courageous individuals who defy the expected limitations of their disadvantages. For many within the blind community, the Peace Center is their first and only truly empowering opportunity.
A holistic approach ensures that members of the Center are educated in academic subjects and vocational skills and are also trained in self-care, hygiene, health practices, cooking, gardening, mobility and other practical life skills.
For Ms. Lydia, being blind is not a curse. Her visual impairment may be an obstacle, but she is no victim. And neither are the women, men and children at the Center.
Mentoring relationships with instructors who are also visually impaired provide a safe place for students to learn and grow. Faculty and staff live and work together in a boarding house, where they share responsibility for the cooking, cleaning, gardening, and shopping at the local market.
These relationships form the foundation for the cooperative environment at the Center. Its role as an educational and vocational center meet a critical, otherwise unfilled need, but the Peace Center has become more than just a school, it has become a home – a place where the unloved are loved, where the displaced belong – a center for peace.
The Peace Center for the Blind works hard to ensure that the blind and visually impaired students it serves receive the best education possible. The Center works with students individually, seeking to harness their unique potential and help them become fully integrated members of their communities. ”Every child has to be given a chance to prove what they can do,” Ms. Lydia says.
Each school year about twenty students, typically ranging in age from eight to twenty-six, are enrolled in the academic program. Students receive instruction from both blind and sighted licensed teachers. The curriculum, taught through Braille textbooks, includes courses in Arabic, English, Science, Math, History, Religion, Geography, and others.
Some people are going to be successful, others not. It has nothing to do with blindness.Ms. Lydia
Access to education can be limited for a blind woman in a society that often perceives blindness as a debilitating and shameful disability. The Peace Center seeks to address this unfortunate reality and educate women who are among the most remote and marginalized. Upon arriving at the Center, students are assessed and placed in the appropriate grade, regardless of age. Students work both in class groups and in one-one one teaching sessions, with the goal of eventually reaching appropriate grade levels. The Peace Center’s educational approach is holistic in nature, addressing not only the academic struggles, but also social and psychological issues.
Muna was one of the most difficult students we’ve had,” Ms. Lydia reflected. “She is a completely different girl now.” Muna Taher arrived at the Center three years ago as a frustrated and frightened six-year-old girl. Whereas other kids her age were reading and writing, Muna was barely able to speak, lacked any social or self-care skills, and was severely undernourished. “She would bite and scratch and scream whenever she wanted something,” added Ms. Lydia. She and the other staff members worked diligently to help her develop socially, psychologically and academically. Today Muna talks, cares for herself, and although she still faces many challenges she is a cheerful and enthusiastic student.
The staff at the Peace Center continue to provide Muna with the individualized attention she needs in order to progress academically. Muna says that she loves school and hopes to be a teacher one day. Despite her difficult start at the Center, Muna, who is from the West Bank city of Nablus, now eagerly awaits the start of the school year and the chance to spend time with Ms. Lydia. “Sometimes at the boarding house she sits in my room at night and refuses to leave,” Ms. Lydia said with a laugh. “She’s very determined, much like me I suppose.”
Muna’s father, an accountant who has also been disabled from childhood, has had difficulty obtaining the necessary permits to visit his daughter in Jerusalem. He is extremely grateful, however, for the dramatic change the Center has brought about in his daughter. “I had polio when I was a child, but it didn’t stop me,” he explained. “I was educated and graduated from the university. This is what I want for Muna as well.” He remains optimistic that he will receive the necessary permits to visit Muna and witness her ongoing process of transformation first-hand.
Kareema’s fingers fly over the knitting machine, skillfully programming patterns and resetting errant threads. The room’s dim lighting and her expressionless gaze towards the blank wall in front of her are the only reminders that these complex tasks are being performed without use of sight.
Kareema Rayan is a master knitter. She consistently produces high-quality machine-made and hand-knit garments to be sold by the Center. Despite Kareema’s full time work-load at the Center, she takes time to mentor younger students learning to hand-knit and use the complicated machines. But this hasn’t always been the case. When Kareema came to the center as a twelve-year-old in 1989 she didn’t know the first thing about knitting.
Kareema says she’s indebted to her knitting teacher, mentor, and fellow boarder, Samira, for teaching her to knit. Both Kareema and Samira have total sight loss, and this shared circumstance enabled Samira to teach Kareema in a way that met her unique needs. Kareema both lives and works at Center, sharing cleaning and cooking tasks with the other boarders. After more than 20 years working 5 days a week in the VTC, Kareema still enjoys knitting and patiently teaches others the skills she has learned from Sameera. Kareema says that what she loves most about knitting is that she is “able start from nothing and create something useful.
Home + Garden
Although blindness can turn basic household tasks into overwhelming obstacles, learning to overcome these challenges increases a student’s self-esteem and self-reliance. By showing one of the women how to make a meal, or teaching a young girl how to style her hair, women at the boarding house help create a continual learning environment that extends beyond the classroom or vocational training center. Older residents mentor the younger ones and instill in them good habits of self-grooming, dressing, cooking, and cleaning.
Residents also maintain a garden. Students plant and care for tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, squash, eggplant, fava and green beans, bell peppers, hot peppers, and other seasonal vegetables and herbs. The garden also includes six grape vines, seven olive trees, lemon trees and fig trees.
The garden project, which began in 2008, provides practical training for the women at the center, many of whom come from rural or agrarian backgrounds. Despite the wide variety of produce currently grown in the garden, some of the space remains under-utilized, and there are plans to expand the garden to the back of the building and to build a small greenhouse.
Proper eye care for the blind is often under-emphasized as an important part of daily hygiene. The Peace Center for the Blind educates and assists the students in proper eye care techniques. They ensure that students receive adequate medical attention through biannual visits to the ophthalmologist and to specialists for specific conditions. Due to limited education and access to adequate health services, many students had not taken proper care of their eyes before coming to the Center, often resulting in otherwise preventable health problems.
Music & Theater
Music brings people together, sparks imagination and creativity, and can even enhance learning. For someone whose primary experience of the surrounding world is through sound and touch, the importance of music is even greater. The potential for self-expression and self-confidence through the art forms of music and theater have made them an indispensable part of the center’s holistic approach to education.
Through weekly classes at the Center, students are exposed to both classical symphonic and traditional Palestinian forms of music. Students also enjoy singing contemporary Arabic songs, Christmas carols, and other seasonal music. Lessons in piano, hand drums and other instruments are also an important part of the music curriculum.
Theater workshops teach puppet making, acting, and other forms of dramatic expression. The students enjoy performing for a live audience for Christmas celebrations and other events. In 2009 the Center was invited to participate in the year-long festival “Jerusalem: Capital of Arab Culture.” Six students prepared and performed a play comparing the Palestinian connection with Jerusalem to the relationship between a parent and child. Along with providing another valuable outlet for artistic expression, these performances help raise awareness of the struggles and triumphs of people with disabilities.
The Center has a holistic approach to both education and health care and goes beyond basic medical treatment to address the psychological well being of each student. On-site counseling, speech therapy, and other mental health services are provided by the center through licensed social workers and other specialists.Ms. Lydia
Every now and then there are stories that stop you in your tracks; that snap my perspective back into shape. Ms. Lydia’s was one of those.
“Listen to this: An elderly, Palestinian, Christian, blind woman started a school for the blind thirty years ago in East Jerusalem. Seriously, you don’t get more ‘minority’ than that!” says Steve Jeter as he explains to me the incredible resolve of dear Ms. Lydia. Expecting nothing from anyone, she graciously gives and serves faithfully in the midst of tremendously challenging circumstances.
For as long as I’ve been alive, Ms. Lydia has bravely cared for the marginalized, leveraging her every talent and resource to create opportunity where none exists.
A frail woman of tremendous strength, Ms. Lydia is a powerful living portrait of Bittersweet conviction—that though there is poverty, disease, devastation, corruption and abuse in this world, in the midst of it we find people serving selflessly, loving sacrificially, giving generously, seeking justice, creating cures, providing compassion.
There is powerful, inspiring good in this world—like the Peace Center—and we thank you for reading and sharing it.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly