Strengthening Father-Son Bonds in the Face of Disability

June 1, 2011


The emotions that arise within families when illness or disability strike can be unpredictable and exact terrible toll; so Haled Mugrabi, an Israeli Arab father of three living in Raine discovered when his middle child Muhammad was born with severe mental and physical impairments.

“After his birth and when I found out about his condition I was very angry and mad at life, at God, at my wife, at myself,” Haled said of his young son, who would eventually be confined to a wheelchair because of motor difficulties. He would also suffer vision problems, and possess only minimal ability to communicate verbally.

In tears, he continued: “The anger and outrage was such an obstacle between myself and my son that I didn’t relate to him. All of my relatives and friends, when they would meet my son at home would be so excited by the angelic smile of his. And all I could see was an abomination in my home.”

For a long time, Haled couldn’t talk about his feelings of anger, guilt, and embarrassment to his family or anyone. Worse, his emotional neglect of Muhammad influenced how the boy’s siblings—a younger sister and an older brother—related to him. Often they ignored him or mocked him.

Fortunately, Haled took a critical first step toward healing the rift in his family when he attended his first meeting of the Brit Avot (Father’s Alliance)—a support group created for Arab-Israeli fathers of preschool children with special needs. The original model of Brit Avot, developed with the Ministry of Social Affairs, targeted fathers who are unemployed or underemployed in low wage jobs, and helps to open avenues to employment and improved father-child relations. Brit Avot is one of many components of the ECHAD (Early Childhood Achievement and Development) Partnership, a unique collaboration between JDCAshalim and the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco together with the Israeli government that aims to effect significant changes in how young Israeli Arab children are educated, related to, and cared for in their communities. Brit Avot is helping Israeli Arab fathers like Haled forge stronger, more supportive bonds with their children age six and under by encouraging father-child activities, enhancing parenting skills, and improving access to community-based social services.

“I joined the group primarily because of my wife’s pressure and my curiosity to meet other fathers that have children with special needs like my own son,” Haled said. Indeed, Haled’s experience is not unique. ECHAD—and the Brit Avot program, specifically—were created in the response to the sobering reality that Israeli Arab children are among the most disadvantaged of all of Israel’s citizens. More than 50 percent live below the poverty line, and many grow up in large families, factors that make it especially difficult for parents to create healthy environments for their children’s development.

For Haled-and for many other fathers dealing with the challenges of poverty, unemployment and disability-the first step forward is often the hardest: “In the beginning, I didn’t participate much in the meetings but I didn’t miss the meetings because it was important for me to be present. As the group progressed I realized that my son’s condition was much better than some of the others. And from there I made the decision to get close to him and enjoy his smile.”

The results for the Mugrabis have been affirming and empowering.

According to Shahnaz Habashi Maree, the ECHAD Partnership coordinator who recently visited the family, theirs is a home no longer burdened by anger and shame, but is instead “full of life, warmth, and love for one another.” She added that the parents regularly visit the educational program Muhammad attends and are attentive to his progress, which has been considerable.

At age five, Muhammad began to show substantial improvement in his behavior and development. Where he once only used frantic gestures and unintelligible sounds to communicate, he began using his first discernable words—“Ba” for daddy and “Ma” for mommy. The siblings also began to interact more freely and positively with their brother.

Both parents credit these positive changes to a concerted effort to take greater responsibility for Muhammad’s care. In the past, he spent almost his entire day at day care facility, returning home an hour before bedtime. Now, at Haled’s insistence, he only spends half days at day care, so there are more opportunities at home to interact.

Today, Haled says he is at peace with the fact that his son has special needs: “This is what God has given me, and today I am pleased with this gift and I will do whatever I can so that my son will be happy.”

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