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In Lebanon, Disability and Dignity Work Together

By David Snyder

Dressed in a gray work vest, his wheelchair pulled comfortably close to the sorting table, Charbel Elian chats easily with the other laborers around him. Today he is labeling packaging and might, by day's end, label 10,000 plastic bags. It is simple work, but at 28 years old, it is Charbel's first job and work he is thrilled to have.

Charbel Elian at work

CRS-supported Arcenciel in Lebanon places people with disabilities, like 28-year-old Charbel Elian, into jobs so they can earn a living. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"There is an office at Arcenciel linked with the Ministry of Social Affairs," Charbel says of the day in 2010 when his journey to employment began. "I went there, and I learned Arcenciel had a job placement center, so I went in."

Named after the French word for rainbow, Arcenciel is a nongovernmental organization headquartered in Beirut and established in 1985 with one main purpose: to improve the lives of people with disabilities in Lebanon. Through the Lebanese Employment Assistance for People With Disabilities (LEAP) project, Catholic Relief Services supports Arcenciel's efforts to find employment for people with disabilities ranging from physical and psychological disabilities to injuries sustained in war.

Life-Changing Effects

Launched in 2010, LEAP is working to place 215 people with physical disabilities in jobs by the end of the 3-year project. Aiding in that effort are full-time job placement officers—hired by Arcenciel—who handle each case individually. They arrange face-to-face meetings with potential employers to research their specific position requirements. They then match applicants' skills with positions. It is a long and laborious process, says Marie Melki, a job placement officer for Arcenciel.

"At each level, we have difficulties—from which companies to contact, to who to work with within those companies, to explaining the project and the process, and issues of accessibility and transport," Melki says. "There are a lot of challenges."

To better prepare staff to face those challenges, LEAP provides training for its officers. Training covers job analysis, time management and grant management. The training helps Arcenciel staff members better manage the complicated process of finding jobs for people with disabilities.

For Charbel, one of 42 people placed with employers thus far through the project, his job at a company outside of Beirut has already improved his life in ways he could not have imagined. Just a year ago, Charbel says, he was living at home with his family, unable to find work.

"Now that I have an income, I got married 9 months ago," he says. "Before, I had no salary."

At 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. shifts, 5 days a week, Charbel works with eight other people with disabilities hired through Arcenciel. They pack feminine hygiene products and diapers for export to countries across the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Charbel is now able now to afford his own apartment, where he lives with his new wife.

"My wife used to work here, but she's pregnant and cannot work, so I am able to support us," Charbel says.

The LEAP project faces many challenges, though, from lack of public transportation in Lebanon to an economic slowdown that has cut hiring in most sectors, Arcenciel's job placement officers continue matching workers with employers across the country. And although employers have described the arrangement as a win-win, allowing them to fill vacancies with qualified employees, the benefits for the employees extend far beyond the paychecks they receive.

"I cannot explain how happy I am to work here," Charbel says of his new job. "Before, it seemed like my life was stopped. Now I feel like life is moving on again."

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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