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Home  >  Features  >  Grace in the Face of Fear


Jamal Shehade with the Rev Muriel Pearson, Church of Scotland mission partner.
Jamal Shehade with the Rev Muriel Pearson, Church of Scotland mission partner.

Grace in the Face of Fear

Wednesday February 15 2023

Jackie Macadam meets the director of a halfway house for released Arab-Israeli prisoners.

“The way my father, Kamil, told it, in the late 70's, a priest asked him to host a man who had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

"The prisoner explained about difficulties in prison and prisoners he knew and were released came back to prison because the society was not welcoming or happy to receive them afterwards. Sadly, the  prisoner took his own life in prison after knowing that his mother did the same while he was serving his sentence.

“My father realised there was no help, no community, for those released from prison, where they could learn the skills, both social and environmental, to help them stay straight and live once again, safely, in the community.

“My father was a radical thinker and decided to set up the House of Grace, a place where they could come, become a family, and live together, supporting each other and being taught the skills they would need when they went back out in to the community.

“And so the House of Grace was born in 1982 in the Cathedral of Haifa, a church building abandoned in 1948 by the Greek Melkite Katholics. With the help of volunteers, the church was gutted and rebuilt, giving a place for around 17 ex-prisoners to stay – alongside Kamil, a Palestinian/Israeli Christian, and his family, Swiss born wife Agnes and their five young children.”

Jamal Shehade is one of the children – now grown up and Director of the House of Grace.

“It was the first ever half-way house for released prisoners in Israel,” he says. “And still retains the family atmosphere. People used to ask my father if he was worried about having his young children grow up among prisoners, but he always shook his head and told them that God would protect us. The early years were hard – my mother said that sometimes there was barely enough to feed us all – but there was always a miracle wrought by friends, family or others that arrived on time.

Jamal insists all are welcome at the House of Grace, irrespective of their religion, colour or race. Many are addicts; most criminals and thieves. Some come from criminal families.

“They are here for nine months,” says Jamal. “While here they participate in a variety of workshops, social occasions and create a family atmosphere. There are families and there are young people who are vulnerable and come as ‘day visitors’ to participate in the services we offer, like debt counselling; interventions with social workers and other professionals that work with us; social counselling; help with travel and so on – we work with around 300 families a year,  with around 40 children, aged between 6 and 16 year olds.

“There are 17 released prisoners who live in the centre.” Jamal says. “They are two thirds of the way through their sentence and are then released into the rehabilitation programme.

“During the nine months they stay with us, we try to help them to re-establish links with their families in as healthy way as they can. Social workers will be involved in their rehabilitation, and they’ll get professional help and advise if they have debts or need help just with day-to-day activities for living.

“While there, they’ll also be involved with groups who share interests with them and will develop a social life; engage with weekend activities; go to cultural events and take part in workshops.

“We keep the centre only available to male prisoners to live in; it’s just not practical to do otherwise, and we cater only to ‘criminal’ prisoners, not those who’ve been imprisoned due to political considerations.

“The age range of the men who live there is between 24 and 68; many of the released prisoners are so institutionalised that they struggle to move back into normal society. They often come from difficult socio-economic backgrounds and due to the political environment and reality in Israel, struggle to find their identity because of the lack of infrastructure and education. They have lots of ‘free-time’ and this can lead to an emptiness in their lives that of course, can lead to crime.

“Some come from criminal families and we help them to break free from the norms of their childhood and encourage them in alternative ways to make a living.

“Many are involved with drugs and alcohol – and with a built-up frustration, that can lead to anger and ultimately jail.”

Jamal says the ratio is disturbing. “Though 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, 47% of the prison population is Arab. There are around 6,000 criminal prisoners in Israel, with around 4,500 political ones.

“Though House of Grace was the first half-way house in Israel, the model has been picked up by the authorities and other services and there are now many more being developed by local authorities and states.”

Though Kamil died in 2000, the Christian commitment of his House of Grace lives on, and Jamal is now Director, following in his father’s footsteps.

The Church of Scotland supports House of Grace through its work in Israel/Palestine. Jamal recently visited Scotland with the Rev Muriel Pearson, mission partner from St Andrew's Jerusalem and Tiberias.