Ms. Lydia works on a knitted cardigan
“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 and 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 continue to endure with the ever-changing political situation.

In 1984 she felt compelled to open The Peace Center for the Blind, a school and vocational training center in East Jerusalem, for visually impaired Palestinian women. The goal of this non-profit organization has been to address the needs of the under-served blind women from Jerusalem and the West Bank. 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 (some of whom are men) have the opportunity to learn marketable skills, such as hand-knitting, 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 4 students, she opened the Peace Center for the Blind, which now has 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.

Hadil works with a wooden puzzle; an important tactile exercise for the visually impaired.
A student collects lemons at the Peace Center garden.
Most importantly, the Center provides friendship and support for women (and more recently, men) 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 which dominates the region, the staff of the 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.