In 2004, Al-Atrash was a university student studying geography and working part-time as a clerk at the court office in Bethlehem. He was shot by Israeli soldiers while participating in a protest rally and sustained major spinal cord injuries. After one month in a coma and many months of hospitalization, it was clear that he would spend the rest of his life as a paraplegic.
“It was very hard for me to accept the fact that I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life,” he said. “I felt bitter and depressed. I felt that my life was over.”
Al-Atrash had to drop out of university and lost his independence because the university, buses and commercial shops are not wheelchair accessible.
He also lost his dreams of getting married and having a family. “Our society doesn’t accept the idea of a man having a female friend to go through things like this with you,” he said.
Counseling and vocational training provided by the East Jerusalem YMCA rehabilitation program helped him deal with his anger and depression.
“The psychological support I received from this program changed my life,” he said. “That is the best thing that happened to me. If I was still angry and couldn’t accept my condition it would be hard for me to find a vocation.”
He soon discovered the joys of woodworking and used the skills he learned in the YMCA workshop to open his own woodworking shop and start his own business, carving nativity scenes and Christmas tree ornaments.
“The most rewarding part is finding the best olive wood that I can to make the piece beautiful,” said Al-Atrash, explaining that the varying grain in olive wood and the distinctive red pigment make every wood carving a work of art.
The most challenging part of owning his own business, he added, is marketing his products. Although the streets in Bethlehem are not wheelchair accessible, he uses his wheelchair to take his wood carvings to shops in Bethlehem where they are sold. His products are also sold in the YMCA craft shop.
The personal satisfaction of achieving greater personal independence inspired him to employ people with disabilities—he currently employs two people who have speech and hearing impairments.
“I want to give people with special needs an opportunity to be productive so that they don’t feel like a burden on society,” he said.
Looking toward the future, Al-Atrash would like to help the YMCA start a project that would provide employment for people with disabilities. To lessen feelings of isolation he would like to see participants work outside their home but he envisions that this project would also make it possible for people with disabilities to work from their homes.
MCC has been supporting the YMCA rehabilitation program since 1989. MCC also supports YMCA’s training program for women.
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