One small hotel – one giant leap for Palestinian society
New boutique hotel employs people with disabilities – presenting a model for inclusion in a region where cognitive challenges are stigmatized
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by Nicole Jansezian | September 29, 2022
Two employees of Ma'an lil-Hayat Boutique Hotel in Bethlehem (Photo: All Arab News)
BETHLEHEM—When COVID hit, a Palestinian organization that runs a day program for adults with disabilities scrambled to pay salaries and keep its doors open as donations plummeted with pandemic measures slamming global economies and rippling through charities around the world.
That is when Ma’an lil-Hayat decided to find a long-term solution that would provide it with a base level of income and, hopefully, self sufficiency. What they stumbled upon was an idea that could revolutionize not just the organization, but the face of Palestinian society itself.
Welcome to a new boutique hotel, close to the iconic Manger Square, where the beneficiaries of Ma’an lil-Hayat’s program for adults with intellectual disabilities are also the employees.
Community Leader Mahera Nassar Ghareeb and her staff transformed their program’s facility – a historic mansion with vaulted ceilings and thick stone walls – into exclusive accommodations for up to 23 guests.
Ma’an lil-Hayat Boutique Hotel officially opened on June 10, more or less under the radar and to very little fanfare. The hotel picked up its first several guests who found the location through Booking.com.
But then a news agency stumbled across the place through a local contact who stayed there – and the story went viral. The coverage provided awareness, and a bit of hope and income, after two years of difficult times.
Ghareeb is quick to note that the hotel maintains a high level of excellence and assigns jobs according to each person’s ability. For example, the employees with disabilities may clean rooms rather than run check in.
The hotel is listed on Booking with an “exceptional” rating of 9.5 out of 10 stars. Most of the initial guests had no idea of the hotel’s motif. They simply booked based on its great location and humble description, which makes no mention of the staff’s diversity.
“Situated in Bethlehem, a few steps from Church of the Nativity and 500 (meters) from The Milk Grotto, Ma’an lil-Hayat Boutique Hotel features accommodation with free WiFi, air conditioning and access to a garden,” reads the description on Booking.
Ghareeb said the shock and appreciation of the guests has been astounding – and is evident in the reviews on Booking. One guest called it a “gem.” Most praised the staff and the program itself. One wrote, “You can’t go wrong.”
Established to generate income, Ghareeb hopes the hotel will also engender acceptance and inclusion for people with disabilities among Palestinians.
“Our goal and mission is to give them a chance to be integrated in society,” Ghareeb told ALL ARAB NEWS.
The participants have different cognitive abilities and diagnoses, such as Down syndrome and autism to name a few.
Founded in 2009, Ma’an lil-Hayat is the Palestinian partner of L’Arche International, which runs transformative projects around the world.
While Ghareeb is not a therapist, she uses common sense and compassion to guide her interactions with the participants and her leadership of the organization.
“I insist to get each one of them to introduce themselves to people,” she said as she led ALL ARAB NEWS on a tour of the facility. “Everything we do has meaning.”
Indeed, the participants enthusiastically greeted this reporter and many introduced themselves in both Arabic and English as they completed their tasks on the wool nativity sets.
In Bethlehem, the programs at Ma’an lil-Hayat are focused on developing basic life skills – independence, food preparation, hygiene and self-protection – for 40 adults ages 16 and up.
These are significant tasks for an organization that receives no government funding and where its participants were largely tucked away and uneducated during most of their lives.
Ghareeb explained the challenges facing people with disabilities in Arab society who are often stigmatized – even at home.
“Many families hide their children or send them to live away. They feel ashamed,” she said. “We want to change what people have in their mindsets.”
She said families tend to invest in their other children instead of sending their children with special needs to expensive therapists.
But, Ghareeb insists, they can accomplish so much more – and the goal of Ma’an lil-Hayat is to showcase that to Palestinian society. Even before the hotel, Ma’an lil-Hayat’s participants have been making unique crafts such as their trademark felted-wool nativity sets and Christmas ornaments, leather purses and soaps. The wool is purchased from local farmers.
“We really believe that each person has different abilities, so if we train and learn, we can improve our abilities,” Ghareeb insisted.
Bearing this in mind, the organization divided the work of making the crafts into attainable tasks which are assigned according to ability – just like with the hotel.
“We see which person can do what and it goes down the line,” she said describing the work which sometimes simply involves rolling the wool and other more complex tasks, such as molding it.
In 2019, the organization managed to raise half of its budget through sales of these products, but sales took a dive during the pandemic.
The organization gets no help from the government and relies entirely on donations and income from its crafts and now the hotel as well. In the future, Ghareeb hopes to open a cafe on the premises.
Ma’an lil-Hayat is partnering with Albergo Etico – a project based in Italy which seeks to provide jobs in the hospitality industry for people with disabilities. The staff will be training with the organization in Asti, Italy this fall.
The organization hopes that putting their participants in the public eye will help dispel perceptions in society – and among their families – and show them that “people with disabilities are able to do something beautiful,” Ghareeb said.
“We can’t be a solution for the whole society, but we can be a model,” she added. “Here, miracles happen at Ma’an lil-Hayat.”
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