HISTORY OF OUR PROGRAMS
Narrated by Mr. Nassib El Solh, Executive Director
"Al Amal Bakery
Back in 1982, the year I was appointed Executive Director of Al Amal Institute for the Disabled, I started a field research to find out what kind of professions our residents at Al Amal Institute could learn and what kind of staff could be successful in coping to teach these kids how to work.
Among other things, we found out that they could become successful as bakery workers. So, under the supervision of a volunteer economist, we wrote a feasibility study for the bakery in order to forward it to funding agencies operating in Beirut at that time. After we succeeded in getting a grant from AGFUND in 1984, we started the bakery construction work and booked the machines by paying down payments. The Canadian and Australian embassies, as well as WMCA and OXFAM of UK, funded the completion of our project. We were living in times of open war and people were suffering from lack of bread. While we were building and equipping the bakery, the local community was making negative comments about our employment of people with special needs. But as the bakery started operating and customers began to come to purchase bread they saw that everybody was so clean, properly dressed in white gowns, and would give the package of bread with a very cheerful and hospitable smile. So the project was accepted and became successful. We employed six persons with special needs and four specialized workers. We provided bread on a daily basis to nine villages around Broummana and generated a daily income that helped cover running cost expenses. At that time our income was almost 20% of the actual running cost.
Unfortunately the bakery was hit during an exchange of shelling in 1989 but its social impact was much greater than its financial benefits. Late Father Emile Alam once told me the following: ‘Your activities taught us a lesson. Bread was provided to the community at a time when people had to wait hours under shelling to get a pack of bread from very faraway places. Also, your sweaters warmed orphans and vulnerable persons cared for by monasteries run by nuns’.
The Winter Sweater Program
Late 1980s: It was a day of heavy exchange of fire and shelling. Our disabled residents at Al Amal Institute, including the staff, were frightened and hiding. Suddenly, we heard somebody shouting for us and the sound of a truck outside the main door. We invited the driver to come inside and offered him a cup of tea. His truck was loaded with neatly packed material. We helped him unload the truck and after we finished he pulled out several papers forwarded to us by UNICEF. We signed, confirming receipt. It was the first and only material support we received to date from UNICEF.
The packages included hand tools for carpentry, sewing machines, and two "Singer" machines that were not for sewing. We visited our neighbor who could read and speak Italian as the catalogues were in Italian. We were happy to learn that these two machines could make woolen sweaters. So we started to learn how to make sweaters with a trainer appointed by "Singer" whom we paid LP 100/hour (US$ 0.06). After few months the trainer started coming to us for free to learn the new capabilities of these two manual machines. This is how we learnt to produce manually our first "Winter Sweater". However, we failed to sell this production because, as we discovered, merchants were being smarter by importing sweaters from the Far East that cost much less, thus profiting much more. So, we put our heads together and found a solution: we would continue making sweaters and donate them to warm persons in need through welfare centers spread all over Lebanon. We set out to visit welfare centers and many of them accepted the program idea. The challenge now was to find sponsors to cover the cost of each sweater so that we could donate it on the sponsor's behalf.
This process and program was successful from the beginning. We all were very happy. We even could not meet the high demand coming from sponsors. In the first year, we had to buy 4,000 sweaters from other factories. We realized that we needed industrial machines to meet the demand. So, we purchased our first industrial machine, second hand, by end of 1992 and developed the factory machines slowly every year. Before that, our training period lasted around six years.
We did several things to advertise the program to the general public. The most important step we took was gathering the welfare centers benefiting from our sweaters and discussing a collaboration that would make a positive contribution to our country. We decided: we would reforest Kneiseh peak on Falugha side over the Suhat water brook, 1800m above sea level. More than 1,500 persons in need participated, with around 500 local citizens and 100 soldiers sent by the Lebanese Army. The ministry of Agriculture donated 3,000 trees suitable for that height. Local citizens of six surrounding villages participated also in irrigating the saplings during summer. This event was carried out in 1995, 1996, and 1997. Beauty Queens Ms. Dina Azar and later Ms. Joel Behlok participated too. Then, a new television company assisted us in producing a one minute advertisement that was broadcast six times a day for two years. I am surprised that people still remember very well the voice over to this day. Initially, sponsors were my friends living and working in the Gulf countries. Also, the German Embassy supported us for two consecutive years; then staff members changed and the new ones did not respond. We printed brochures and distributed them to big companies and banks. They responded. But after six years they changed to other programs. We were manufacturing about 6,000 sweaters every year. Year 2000 was a landmark time that pushed us further: we created the "Welfare Wheat Program”.
The Welfare Wheat Program
It was end of May 2000 when South Lebanon was liberated. The next day we traveled there and visited the Beaufort Citadel, an archaeological site overlooking Northern Palestine and South Lebanon in the village of Arnoun. We have a plot of inherited land there at the plain area below the citadel, 6 km South of the city of Nabatieh, on top of the hill 7 km West of the Litani river. My mama, late Mounira El Solh, put this land under my disposal provided that we, as Al Amal Institute for the Disabled, made a center for those with special needs. Inspired by her eldest son Selim, who suffered cognitive disabilities, she had dedicated her life between the 50s and 60s to advocate for the cause of persons with special needs to offer them a better life. We contacted several agriculture specialists to discuss agriculture projects that would be suitable to the land and the area. Meanwhile, many volunteers joined in to travel to most rural areas of Lebanon looking for persons with special needs and marginalized families that lived under the poverty line. These investigations lasted almost three years. We found out that persons with special needs and marginalized families are plenty in rural areas. Later, the UNDP published the Millennium Development Goals in 2003 confirming that 85% of people with special needs live in rural areas and that 35% of people in Lebanon live under poverty level. At this point we decided to start building networks with marginalized farmers including those with special needs, which marked the beginning of the "Welfare Wheat Program".
We felt we needed support in order to start. Society was, and still is, extremely segregated and authorities, plus local and international media, have been and still are working hard to ensure that it stays that way. This is why we applied to the Lebanese Army as this is a non-partisan entity that agreed to be the main Government institution to represent all Lebanese citizens regardless of their affiliation. The Army backed us up in providing tents, beds, blankets and a truck for one month. Also we applied to the Ministry of Education to lend us the public school in the village of Arnoun. They both accepted and this is how we held our 1st "Welfare Wheat" festival in 2002. We had no money and no bus, but we rented a bus from the public transport service at very low rate for one month. This enabled us to start contacting farmers with special needs and marginalized people around us in Arnoun and in North Lebanon. The army truck would collect the grains wherever we made agreements with the farmers. We had little money for that, collected from few donors. We had no plan for marketing. The cost of grains was really high and still is. One kilo of lentils, for example is about LP 2,500 (US$ 1.65) at the supermarket shelf but we purchased it at LP 3,500 (US$ 2.31) from the farmer. Also, the supermarket had much cheaper and better quality grains. So we had to start working differently. We tried to get more funds but failed. Moreover, the grains have to be sieved to separate them from stones and then they need to be disinfected. We managed to take care of these two processes in Zahle at a company that accepted to help us stand on our feet and to even act as intermediary between us and the small farmers. This is not ideal but for the time being we could not afford better. Ideally, we have to employ an Agricultural Engineer, a Social Worker and an Administrator to supervise daily the farmers in 30 villages at the same geographical area. While we were preparing the camp for the Welfare Wheat Annual Festival in July 2006, the Israeli 33-day aggression started. We were 11 people: seven kids with their leader from Baladna Scouts group of Palestinians from Burjbarajni camp, two adults from Al Amal residents, and a friend and me. We had to get away as soon as possible on that day (Wednesday July 12), distributing the scouts at the camp and driving to Broummana. Nobody could believe that we arrived safely. The next day the idea of the "Sweater & Wheat Relief Program" emerged.
The Sweater & Wheat Relief Program
I started contacting by email the people I know and they started sending money. At the same time we started receiving displaced women and children coming from Arnoun. We hosted them at our center in Broummana with the residents. We shared with them food and accommodation. As we started receiving money, we sent trustworthy people to rural areas in Northern Lebanon and North of the Bequaa to purchase whatever they could find of the five kinds of grains, load them on small trucks, and send them to us in Broummana. We built a big tent in the garden of our center and we all started packing the grains. Meanwhile our Winter Sweater factory started manufacturing at full capacity. Our residents produced 3,600 sweaters in 30 days. They worked over 10 hours daily. We started counting the displaced persons in Broummana and surrounding villages. Fortunately the war stopped and immediately the displaced went back to their devastated homes. We appealed to the Lebanese Army who sent us eight 2.5-ton trucks. Forty volunteers stayed at Al Amal and the next morning they loaded the army trucks with 2,400 units containing 15 kg of 5 kinds of grains + one Winter Sweater + 2 locally made soap bars (170g/each) packed in a specially made carton box with our logo on it.
We hired six public transport buses to take all the volunteers and Al Amal kids to distribute the units through municipalities, clubs and associations that were busy caring for people and families that had arrived to their devastated homes and villages. We collected Thank You letters from those who received the units and sent them to all those who donated. This is how the Sweater & Wheat Relief program started.
Home Packages Call Center
In 2007 we had the idea of establishing a call center that reaches out to people at home and sends them a 5 kg bag of 5 kinds of grains (wheat, burghul, lentils, chickpeas and beans). The packing takes place at our center by our residents who form a chain at a table while cloth bags with our logo printed on it get filled gradually and joyfully. These packages are for sale and comprise 1 Kg of each of the 5 types of grains our farmers produce. We deliver this bag to our customers' doorstep. Also, the crops are packaged in a nicely designed reusable textile material (also sewn at Al Amal Institute). We encourage consumers to purchase our product as a win-win for all: 1) it meets the consumer’s nutritional needs; 2) it encourages Lebanese agriculture; 3) it promotes the legal labor of people with special needs; and 4) it is good for the environment too, since we avoid plastic. This program still goes on to this day, with its up and downs, and is part of our funding as we sell around 7,000 bags annually for LP 35,000 (US$ 23) per bag.
Wars are exploding in the region and Lebanon is receiving millions of people, not only from Syria but also from other countries. Our aim is to widely publicize Al Amal Institute for the Disabled and for our programs to become very well known all over the world. Our organization is one of the very few that operates at a truly community-based level."