Kamil Shehade Square, Haifa

Kamil Shehade looked out from the balcony of his apartment, he witnessed the everyday poverty, homelessness and underprivileged, and decided to do something about it.

THE STREET sign for Shehade Square, dedicated last year. (photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
THE STREET sign for Shehade Square, dedicated last year.
(photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
Walking past the glass and steel multistory National Insurance Institute and the cavernous entry to the underground car parks, with the traffic roaring by on the three-lane artery to the bayside, it would be easy to miss this almost-hidden square, which is the garden entrance to House of Grace, were it not for the new blue street sign.
This little square to honor the late Kamil Shehade in downtown Haifa, dwarfed by the tall modern buildings of the law courts and the Kirya government complex, was named only this year by the Haifa Municipality. The naming of the square was a tribute to a man and his family who continue his work.
Nearly 40 years ago, when Haifa-born Kamil Shehade looked out from the balcony of his apartment with the lower neighborhoods of the city before him, he witnessed the everyday poverty, homelessness and underprivileged, and decided to do something about it.
Shehade was newly married to his Swiss wife, Agnes, when two released prisoners asked him for shelter. Both devout Christians, they reached out to others in need and soon his apartment became a haven – not only for released prisoners but for the homeless and for victims of abuse.
Through the Greek Catholic bishop, the Shehades acquired a derelict church, originally built in secret in 1886 during the Ottoman occupation.
Through crowdfunding and hard physical work, the building was restored and renovated, opening in 1982 as Beth Hahessed (House of Grace), a hostel to house 20 residents at a time.
Tragically, Kamil passed away in 2000 at the age of 46, but his legacy has been faithfully continued by his widow, Agnes, and his five children.
WALKING THROUGH the peaceful courtyard garden, I stopped at the memorial stone for Kamil, surrounded by carefully tended plants and foliage. Inside the office was the oldest son, Jamal, who is now director of the hostel and all its affiliated projects and activities. He was busy answering phones, directing questions from volunteers and workers, but he graciously made me a cup of coffee and sat down ready to tell his family story.
“I was one month old when we moved into the renovated building,” he says. Now 36, he describes the life that he and his siblings shared with the residents and how they continued after his father’s death.
“My father always believed that life goes on whatever obstacles are in the way,” says Jamal. “My mother had tremendous strength and we continued according to our parents’ values.”
Agnes and Kamil had met in Switzerland quite by chance when Kamil was on a family errand. Soon after, Agnes came to volunteer in the Sisters of Charity in Haifa. They shared a dedication to serve those less fortunate, and Agnes, on marrying Kamil, joined him in the city where he was born.
“Leaving Switzerland and her family was very hard for her,” says Jamal, “but she is dedicated to this very day in spite of the grief of losing her husband at such a young age.”
When the hostel opened, there was little awareness of the needs of released prisoners, rehabilitation of recovering drug addicts or of victims of domestic abuse. Therefore, the Shehades provided a halfway house, and it was their efforts that alerted the government to recognize the need for shelters for abused women in 1993, while only in 2008 did the municipality start providing services for the homeless. In the 1980s, the women’s movements also became aware of the neglect of abused women and, also without any public funding, opened the first shelters in Haifa and Herzliya.
It may seem a strange combination of residents at the House of Grace, but the hostel was open to all in need, irrespective of race, religion or nationality.
“My father believed that if you give respect and expect the best of people, then they live up to those expectations,” says Jamal. “My siblings and I lived and grew up in the House of Grace, the residents often babysat for us, but there was not one case of an ex-convict or rehabilitating drug addict who harmed us or any of the other residents. On the contrary, they protected us and looked upon the hostel as home and us as their family. There was a common goal of partnership with people and the philosophy of respecting the difference.”
Working with the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, released prisoners stay for nine months with one year of follow-up.
Apart from the residential facilities, House of Grace offers counseling and workshops, collects food and clothing for the poor, provides empowerment programs for youth at risk and families struggling with poverty and organizes arts and sports. It employs a qualified social worker, a criminologist and psychiatrist, as well as a professional fund-raiser and resource developer and domestic staff, while a team of volunteers, including dentists, doctors and lawyers, is available for specific tasks. There is a secondhand shop on the premises, also run by volunteers.
As we talked, Lena the social worker came in to collect her materials for a parenting workshop, one of the nonresidential programs.
“Our external programs and hostel accommodation are offered to all who need them,” says Jamal. We have religious and secular Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, all living and working together in tolerance and harmony.”
Jamal speaks of growing up from childhood in this environment.
“It was not always easy for our parents,” he says. “Living on the premises, they always made themselves available, and we as children understood those values and coped with a relative lack of privacy.
“After our father’s death,” he continues, “our mother did not push us into continuing his vision; she gave us freedom of choice.”
However, Jamal and two of the siblings are actively involved in the day-to-day running of House of Grace, and the other two are frequent visitors.
“We are all married now with our own children, and although we don’t live on the premises, our children feel at home here,” says Jamal.
Where does the funding come from, to maintain this beautiful building and sustain its activities?
Jamal smiled and admits that they have had some rocky times. “There is some government and municipal contribution for rehabilitation projects, but in general we have to use our resources and raise funds.”
He said that there are some very dedicated donors from within Israel and overseas, but there is always the constant worry that with the economic crises in the world, donations will dwindle.
Agnes and Kamil Shehade received a certification of appreciation in 1991 from then-president Chaim Herzog, and the Haifa Municipality recognized Agnes as Mother of the Year.
As I left the building, a large group of visitors arrived to view the beauty of the garden and church and hostel and to hear about the work of the House of Grace.
“The doors remain open to all,” says Jamal.