The Al-Kafaàt story starts in the remote village of Salima where in 1957 a wealthy young Nadeem Shwayri who had just graduated with an MBA chose to devote his personal wealth to help the less privileged. During that year and in a Covent held by the French Congregation Notre-Dame des Apôtres in this village, he established a primary and a catering school for young girls from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
One morning in 1957, Nadeem was confronted to a sad reality: a young girl with severe quadriplegia asked to integrate the Salima program in Catering. He had never seen a person with disabilities before, and he realized when he met this young girl that the handicapped in Lebanon were not only secluded and alienated from society, but they were also in need of proper equipment, education and rehabilitation.
He was outraged by the situation.
Not wishing to make contingencies for this young girl alone, Nadeem decided to take his fight to the society at large, in defiance to its hitherto reclusive attitude.
He came up with an entrepreneurial idea. With only three employees, he started a leather production workshop in a rented apartment in Beirut (Karm el Zaytoun). The proceeds from that production were then invested in making artificial limbs, braces, and orthopedic seating for the handicapped. It all looked rather normal in that factory. But actually, the employees in that leather enterprise were all three with handicaps.
His concept was simple: Nadeem wished for Al-Kafaàt to prove to the society the importance of “auto-financing”. It is an approach that is crucial for countries of the Third World. For in a country that lacks basic infrastructure and the appropriate social overhead capital, Nadeem wanted to show through his pilot project the benefits of the concept of rehabilitation through employment.
What was considered by many to be a mad idea soon became a pioneering project.
Demands for employment increased dramatically, while sales grew internationally. A keen businessman, Nadeem had found markets for the goods in Europe and North America.
By then Nadeem had married Lily Stephan. Like him, she decided to dedicate her personal wealth to helping the less privileged. Together they set up an Endowment Fund dedicated entirely to the Foundation with both their personal inheritances, and they institutionalized Al-Kafaàt allowing it to blossom under the governance of a viable organization. Al-Kafaàt then became detached from the person of its founders to further develop under the guidance of an elected Board of Trustees.
Nadeem then decided to take his Mission further and build a center to house the developed leather factory that was welcoming by then 170 workers – all with challenges –, as well as an academic school for children with special needs, and a unit for producing rehabilitation equipment for both students and the public.
The Lily Shwayri Center was then built in 1971. On its official inauguration, late Prime Minister Saeb Salam placed the Presidential Order of Cedars on the chest of the very first 3 workers who joined Nadeem in 1957 in the rented apartment in Karm el Zaytoun.
It was a turning point in the history of Lebanon and Al-Kafaàt. The Foundation proved that behind every “disability”, extsits an “ability”. Al-Kafaàt proved that every person, regardless of her/his challenge, could be productive and could foster economic wealth in society, if given the appropriate training and exposed to an adapted environment.
Potentials, not Handicaps then became the Mission Statement of Al-Kafaàt (literally “Abilities” in Arabic).
Gradually Al-Kafaàt grew and developed new services in light of the increasing demands for proper rehabilitation, particularly in times of war.
Today, 60 years after the humble beginnings of the leather factory, a vast array of services and programs have been developed in 7 different Campuses, ranging from providing specialized educational services to the physically and mentally challenged, to delivering university education, vocational training and academic schooling to the financially challenged.
These services have served no less than 30,000 folks to date in Lebanon.