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2 Jun, 2009 09:34

Al Ard: The Land of wine and hope

A Syrian organization has set up a vineyard that not only produces the best red wine in the region but helps mentally disadvantaged children and employs women who normally do not get economic opportunities.

The Al Ard center, close to Syria's border with Lebanon, is an oasis for forty mentally-disadvantaged children and adults and their only chance for help – with enough places for only one-in-three in need. The center provides specialized care otherwise unavailable in this rural part of the country.

The land is rich but the people poor. Two decades ago, a Dutch Jesuit priest and a Syrian industrialist joined forces to help – and Al Ard, or The Land, was born.

Abed Al Massih Attieh was a high-flying builder, but his life turned upside down when his son was born severely handicapped. He says his own grief made him sensitive to other people’s misfortunes:

“My wife and I went round the villages and saw how disabled people lived, with our own eyes. We wanted to change their lives; we tried to make them feel wanted.”

Al Ard doesn't just help those with mental difficulties. Many women in rural Syria get little education and have poor economic prospects. The founders planted a vineyard which now provides employment for the locals.

Workers get over 200 dollars a month- a good wage locally. It's a truly sustainable enterprise, with profits from wine sales going back to help the children. And the red wine it produces is among the best in the region.

The wine may flow, but the funding doesn't. Al Ard's future depends on donations, hoping one day to break even.

But if it doesn't, while some will lose a job, those with mental disabilities will lose much more – the only place for them where care and expertise is available on tap.