Abbass Abbass, director of an association to advance the blind in Israel’s Arab community, can just about see his e-mails if he uses a powerful magnifying glass. What he doesn’t see is his disability.
Like the soul singer Ray Charles, Israeli Arab Abbass Abbass, was born with a congenital defect that causes blindness. However his calling wasn’t music, but the law. A lawyer, today he is also general director of AlManarah, a Nazareth-based association for the blind whose Arabic name means ‘lighthouse’.
Legally blind, Abbass doesn’t allow his handicap to keep him at home, out of sight of his society that tends to shun the disabled, often viewing them as defective, shameful and unworthy of marriage.
Born in the city of Nazareth where Jesus was raised, Abbass loves to travel to conferences around the world. His most-recent trip was to San Francisco and New York, where he went to raise funds and awareness about AlManarah – Association for the Advancement of the Blind in the Arab Society in Israel, which he co-founded in 2005 and which is funded by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Ted Arison Foundation and the Moriah Fund,
“We called our association ‘The Lighthouse’ because we think that we should light the path. Not the path of the blind, but the path for society as a whole. Our society is blind. It fails to see the blind,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
To illustrate his point, a member of the AlManarah staff tells the following story: “There is an Arab blind girl aged 19, living in Nazareth, who suffers from economic oppression, imposed on her by her family, by controlling her finances and preventing her from applying to a university and getting a degree. This type of situation, unfortunately, is not uncommon among Arab blind women in our community.”
Fewer resources, intermarriage and social stigma
Abbass says that the Arab community is characterized by fewer resources than those accorded the Jewish Israeli population; high rates of intermarriage; and a serious social stigma that accompanies blindness. According to Abbass, being vision-impaired in the Arab community is a major handicap, despite the fact that in North America and Europe many visually impaired people have found opportunities and pathways to integrate into society.
A lack of Arabic books in Braille, audio books, programs in public institutions and even sidewalks in some villages, has meant that some 7,000 blind Arab Israelis are seriously neglected members of society. Through AlManarah, Abbass is beaming his big bright light of hope to educate, create opportunities and organize international conferences.
Abbass refers to himself as a social entrepreneur who is working to educate Arab society about the dangers of congenital disease from inter-marriage, the value of educating parents about their blind offspring and society at large about the disabled.
While the changes haven’t been radical, he believes that he is succeeding in modifying perceptions, as increased numbers of visually impaired people join the workforce and gradually move toward acceptance by their society.
His crowning achievement is the new Multi-Center for the Blind in Nazareth, a meeting place for the blind Arab community. Featuring a special computer room, a Braille printing machine and a sophisticated recording studio, the center serves a number of Arab towns in the region.
A model in Israel for the Arab world
Thanks to AlManarah, about 2,500 schoolchildren and adults from the Arab community in Israel are being educated about the blind. In fact, the Nazareth center has much to teach Arab communities worldwide about the value of people with disabilities. It is Abbass’ aspiration that his center in Israel will be a model for countries like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.
“We’d like to make this a model for other Arab organizations in the world. The situation with people in the other Arab countries is worse than in Israel,” Abbass tells ISRAEL21c.
“The communities are more conservative than the community is here, and the disadvantaged are suffering very much. The Arab society classifies disabilities as shameful, something like sin, and they don’t want to talk about it,” he continues.
Arab society considers the blind as impossible to match with a life partner; and in a society that is very involved in choosing spouses for its children, this is significant. That’s why Abbass also targets parents of blind children in educational programs. He hopes to change the situation of young blind women who are encouraged not to marry and are mostly fated to a life of dependency on the kindness of their relatives.
In 1976, Abbass was born with Retinitis pigmentosa, a congenital birth defect. He currently lives at home with his parents (his father is a lawyer, his mother is a housewife, and his three brothers and two sisters are all in academia), and up close with a magnifying glass he can manage to read his emails. What he doesn’t see is his disability. He plans to marry and raise a family of his own, one day.
“I am what you say is a…” he pauses to laugh for a few seconds and to figure out the translation from Arabic: “I am single because I am a workaholic. Like many crazy people in the world, we are looking to change the world. I too am infected – infected by this good virus.”
Closing the digital gap
With a BA and Master’s degree in Law from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Abbass intends to continue in academia, earning a PhD either in Israel or the US. He has worked as a volunteer at the Study Center for the Blind at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Bizchut, the Israel Human Rights Center for Peoples with Disabilities, and at the Arab Association for Human Rights.
Before assuming his position at AlManarah, between 2004 and 2006 he ran his own law practice. In 2007, he was part of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the US Department of State’s premier professional exchange program.
Four of the seven people working at AlManarah are blind. Abbass, who is computer proficient – he uses email, the Net, and Skype – recognizes the importance of narrowing the digital divide between those who see and those who do not and encourages the sight impaired to engage in high tech and the Internet.
While progress has been made, the center in Nazareth has only one Braille printing press (such a press costs about $10,000) and each book costs about $50 to print since the paper is very expensive. Even small donations can be a great help to the organization that is registered to receive tax-deductable funds through American givers.