BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Activity was in full swing at the Ma’an lil-Hayat workshop as 16 adults shaped felted wool into round balls for a large order of sheep to fill people’s Nativity scenes.Ayat Sand, 21, a Palestinian with an intellectual disability, holds a Nativity set made from felted wool from Bethlehem sheep at the Ma’an lil-Hayat in Bethlehem, West Bank, Nov. 14. Ma’an lil-Hayat is part of the international L’Arche network founded by Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian Jean Vanier in 1964 for people with intellectual disabilities. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

“Now at Christmastime we have a lot of orders for sheep and grottos,” said Rania Hawash, administrative assistant at the workshop.

Ma’an lil-Hayat is part of the international L’Arche network founded in 1964 by Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian Jean Vanier for people with intellectual disabilities. The workshop takes a local resource closely associated with the Christmas story but normally squandered – sheep wool – and uses it to bring dignity and recognition to a population often overlooked and hidden in Palestinian society.

Five years ago, Mahera Nassar Ghareeb, director and founder of Ma’an lil-Hayat – Arabic for “Together for Life” – was looking for a way to open up a workshop for adults with intellectual disabilities and was drawn to the L’Arche model of respect and mutual assistance.

“There is a real need in Palestine for more places for disabled people; there are not enough places, especially for adults,” she said. “There are schools and day care centers for disabled children, but when they grow up they are usually on the streets or locked at home.”


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Once the connection was made with L’Arche, the founders searched for a project that would be suitable for the “core members” – a reference to disabled members of the workshops – as well as something that would bring in some income to the organization. A French volunteer suggested wool felting as an option, and the workshop opened its doors in June 2009.

“In Palestine, we had never done that – there was knitting and weaving, but we had never heard of felting,” said Ghareeb. A French volunteer taught the basics of wool felting; the work with wool, soap and warm water was easy and relaxing for the core members.

“Because we are near Shepherd’s Field, there are a lot of shepherds, a lot of wool,” Ghareeb added.

Usually, the wool is burned once the sheep are shorn, said Ghareeb. By buying the wool from the shepherds, the project adds to their income and helps protect the environment from the pollution of the burning of the wool, she said.

At Christmastime, said Ghareeb, most of the project’s stock flies off the shelves, either at their workshop store, at other Bethlehem and Jerusalem gift shops or via Internet sales ( In addition to the gnomes and Nativity scenes, workers produce wool felted coin purses, Christmas ornaments and caterpillars.

Because program officials want the work done by the core members, and not by the four associates working with them, the capacity to produce quickly in mass numbers remains low, Ghareeb said.

“We work the whole year to sell for the last three months of the year,” she said. And though products are always sold, their profits cover only half of their expenses, she added, so their budget must be supplemented by organizational grants and private donations.

Families do not pay for their members to attend the workshop, and all expenses such as transportation and meals are covered by Ma’an lil Hayat.

Hilme Mizer, 20, one of the first core members to join the workshop, said the work provides him with an opportunity to build his self-esteem, be among his peers and increase his sense of independence. Core members also earn a small amount of pocket money from the workshop.

“I love working here,” he said as he rolled out a red felted wool hat for a Swedish-styled gnome. “Here I can be with my friends and I feel I am important. I see my life here.”

But it is not only the core members who gain from workshop activities, said associate Khouloud Khoury, as she worked with the group making the sheep.

“I have learned many things from them,” said Khoury, who has worked with the disabled in other local organizations. “I have learned things like listening to each other. I have learned to be patient, honest and loving. I have worked in other places, but here there is something different. I found friendship here.”