A few years ago, I volunteered with an NGO in Jerusalem that cares for people with varying levels of intellectual disability. I had tumbled into it with no prior experience or knowledge of Hebrew, and I wasn’t sure what to expect or how I would respond. The originally-planned 3-month trip, however, turned into a 15-month stay that continues to be remembered as the one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had, and it inspired this little write-up.
“Is it depressing?” asked the man offering us a ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
It wasn’t the first time I had been asked this question about the work I did. In fact, if I weren’t involved in it myself, I might have wondered the same thing. The truth, however, is that it’s hard to be depressed in a place where love is as omnipresent as it is in the Beit Leo hostel. The people I care for, whom we call residents, live with their friends, some of them are in romantic relationships.
It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, of course. There are good days, but also darker ones where uncontrollable mood swings and mental/physical inabilities overwhelm the residents. Living with any form of disability requires incredible strength and patience, both on the part of those affected and the ones who care for them, and can be immensely stressful. Still, never before have I encountered a group of people so generous with their hugs and ‘I-Love-You’s.
When it comes to adult behaviour, we possess an irrational need to restrict it within the confines of a box that we have created, one that is meant to determine what is “normal” and “acceptable”. But perhaps the lack of such a box is the most freeing aspect of being in Beit Leo.
It’s incredible what we can gain from hurling ourselves out of our comfort zones and into an unfamiliar world. As a girl who grew up in India, I could never have imagined that my most memorable experiences would occur in Jerusalem, while munching on falafel, meeting new people, pondering over the conflict, folding laundry with the residents and speaking Hebrew. I was there as a volunteer to help them with their everyday tasks, but the truth is, I have learned more from the residents than they ever could from me.
So to answer the man’s question, no, it isn’t depressing. I’m happier the moment I step through the doors of Beit Leo. In here, nothing is normal; there is no predictable behaviour, no social conventions or pretensions. And sometimes, it feels more normal than the world outside.
It is 4 o’clock. Uriel, who has Down Syndrome, is seated with me on the balcony, eating a snack. Mid-bite, he stops and looks up at me. “Be happy,” he says. Then, looking down at his plate, he continues chomping on his apple, leaving me to marvel at the beautiful simplicity of his words.