A special weave

Mentally ill Jewish and Arab workers find meaning and self-worth in a factory for unique baskets.

Passersby would never guess that inside the one-story building on the main street of Baka al-Gharbiya lies a factory. There are no modern-day cold, industrial steel smoke stacks, high signs or delivery trucks to advertise its presence. They would also be surprised to find that a very unique product is being made in this factory. The product is special in itself, but what makes it extraordinary is the people who manufacture it. This past summer, Shekulo Tov and the Center for Training and Advancement opened the doors of Paper Work, the first rehabilitation factory in the Israeli-Arab sector. It is the workplace of 40 Arabs and Jews aged 18 to 65 who have mental disabilities. As a team, they create baskets from recycled paper. Founded in 2004, Shekulo Tov is the brainchild of Irad Eichler. While organizing parties and trips for a friend who worked with troubled girls, he had the idea of opening an organization for the mentally ill. What began as one factory (and a headquarters) in Ramle has grown, and factories can also be found in Haifa, Rosh Ha'ayin, Baka al-Gharbiya and Rishon Lezion. Together, they provide employment for 1,000 mentally ill people. The implementation of the Community-Based Rehabilitation of the Mentally Ill Act of 2000 provides opportunities for growth and advancement to those living with mental disabilities. The act allows people with "at least 40 percent mental disability to receive community-based rehabilitation services designed to improve their condition and allow them to achieve an optimal level of social integration," according to the Health Ministry. Under this law, the National Rehabilitation Council and local district rehabilitation committees decide which services an individual is entitled to receive, and work with the recipient to create a rehabilitation program to suit his or her needs. According to the Health Ministry, rehabilitation services can include housing, vocational rehabilitation, supported education, peer support services, home care services, social and leisure activities, case management, help in funding dental care, and providing information about the rehabilitation services system. Zohar Yarom, marketing manager of Shekulo Tov, tells Metro that "Statistically, 60,000 Israelis are mentally ill, and of these it is estimated that half of them have at least 40% mental disability." The Health Ministry says that in 2007, 16,300 people used rehabilitative services, and of those, 9,600 participated in vocational work programs. Based on the belief that people with mental limitations should be allowed to live with dignity, and should be active contributors in their communities, rehabilitation programs are designed to encourage them to make the best use of their abilities by integrating them into the community. Work is so important in any person's life; for the mentally ill it also serves as a form of therapy, instilling them with confidence and a sense of self-worth. Vocational rehabilitation programs offer two types of workshops in which the mentally ill are taught skills and work habits. Those who are not ready for the open labor market are placed in "sheltered workshops" where they develop the vocational and social skills and behaviors that will help them to advance into ordinary work environments. "Supported workshops" are for those who are employed in a supported work situation in the open labor market. They receive support from rehabilitation professionals, who also remain in contact with the employers. The employees receive salaries that are negotiated by the agency that refers them, the person being rehabilitated, and the placement officer. In Shekulo Tov's factories, the mentally ill are taught to make valuable, useful products. This engenders self-respect, which in turn enables them to live fairly normal lives. According to Paper Work manager Sara Daass, the mentally ill do not always know about their employment rights and options, and sometimes remain unemployed and idle, unable to fill their time with any type of meaningful activity. "All mentally ill people in Israel have rights, including insurance money, which is part of the basket of [health] services," she says. Many of the mentally ill take medication, but the medicine is not always enough. She explains that, "Without medication, a mentally ill person is like a chair with three legs." For patients to stay in remission, they should stay on their medication. Many fear that purchasing medication will affect the amount of money that they are entitled to. But Daass says that, "The percentage of remission is high if they continue with their prescribed treatment program." "However," she continues, "they need help to live in peace [and control] their illness through medication and work programs outside their homes. Helping them to fit in with society is vital to their improvement." Many mentally ill people find that their lives and outlooks on life change because of their work. In many cases, before they are employed, tensions arise between them and their spouses, children or other family members. Daass says that work gives them "peace in their lives, and a reason to wake in the morning." The knowledge that they are contributing something to society gives them confidence, and this in turn creates respect from their families. The organization, therefore, is helping the whole family, she explains. However, the Arab sector provides little opportunity for the mentally ill. To compensate for the lack of such services, Shekulo Tov opened Paper Work in Baka al-Gharbiya, giving the mentally ill from nearby cities and villages the opportunity to be productive members of their communities. Paper Work employs Arabs from Baka al-Gharbiya, the Triangle area (Taiba, Kalansuwa and Tira) and from as far away as Umm el-Fahm, Jisr e-Zarka, Fureidis, the Wadi Ara area, as well as Jews from Hadera. The workers suffer from various types of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Before being employed by Paper Work, many had not worked for 15 to 20 years. Shekulo Tov recently joined forces with paper sculpture artist Guy Lougashi, designer of the recycled paper baskets, and his unique product has given hope to the workers in the factory in Baka al-Gharbiya. Lougashi, 32, is a self-taught craftsman. While experimenting with paper, he discovered the value of using various types of recycled paper, such as newspaper and cardboard, in creating strong, beautifully designed baskets. The artist spent five months training the workers in Baka al-Gharbiya before leaving them to use their newly acquired skills. The entire production of the baskets, beginning with preparing the paper to the final stage of packaging the baskets, now takes place in the factory. Each basket requires about 150 meters of paper. The paper is first cut into strips, which are spread with glue. The strips are then connected and turned into strong fibers, which are woven into baskets using traditional basket-weaving techniques. Once they dry, the baskets are painted and covered with lacquer, which strengthens them. It takes approximately five hours to make a single basket. Each worker acquires a skill so as to contribute to the final basket in his or her own way. Seven of the workers now specialize in weaving and have learned several types of braiding techniques. As it turns out, basket making is a perfect craft for the mentally ill. Yarom explains: "Each basket involves many stages of handwork, which is therapeutic, and the result is a beautiful product that allows the workers to feel satisfied and proud." The uniqueness of the baskets lies in their size and shape, and the fact that they are made from environmentally-friendly recycled paper. Although a coexistence project was not at the forefront of the owners' minds, opening a factory in the Arab sector has had its advantages. There were initial concerns that the Arab and Jewish workers might not treat each other well. However, these fears were short lived. The workers respect one another and cooperate. They are learning about each other's cultures and learning to respect their differences. Some have even changed certain behaviors - a young Jewish woman from Hadera now dresses more conservatively to avoid offending her Arab colleagues. In coordination with other organizations that work with the mentally ill, Shekulo Tov also initiated a project to sell the products that the workers make. Eighty-five stalls in shopping centers are set up in nine parts of the country. The employees work six days a week, in four-hour shifts - which provides 650 mentally ill people with work in which they communicate directly with the public. Lougashi says he can easily identify with the workers in Baka al-Gharbiya, as his brother is physically disabled. "Liron is one of the reasons for me to do things. I admire his presence and his state of mind. He has more strength then anyone I know. He is very special," he says. He describes the workers from the factory in Baka al-Gharbiya as "amazing." "Working with the mentally ill gives me a great vibe. They are so patient and do beautiful work," he said. For information about Guy Lougashi's work, see www.guylougashi.com or call 054-445-0203. For information about Shekulo Tov products, visit their Web site at www.s-tov.org or call Yoav at 050-209-0365 or (08) 920-0050.