Building the future in the West Bank

March 02, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

RAMALLAH, Occupied West Bank -- James Ryan helped build Columbia, owns thoroughbred racehorses, won the Belmont Stakes, earned millions of dollars and gave much of it to charity.

Now he spends his time living out of a suitcase in a rented basement apartment in this battered Arab town.

Eight years after he retired from Ryland Homes, Mr. Ryan is back in the building business -- this time on a dare, trying to revolutionize construction here to build low-cost homes for Palestinians.

He is here, he said, because after giving away his money and giving his advice, he has now found a niche where he has to give rTC of himself to succeed. It is a mix of charity and conceit, religion and pride.

His company now is Shahrazad Homes, formed with architect Saleem Zaru and six other Palestinians. They hope to standardize houses and build them at a production-line pace, just as Mr. Ryan did in Columbia, to bring the cost down to under $50,000 each.

It is a radical concept here, where houses are built individually in a slow, what's-next style. There is no standardization: There may be no two windows the same size, no regulation-sized doors.

Model homes are unknown. Palestinians -- and Israelis -- scorn drywall construction, prefabrication and the other time-saving techniques that have been standard in the United States for decades.

The average house here is a year in construction. Mr. Ryan, who built houses in 78 days in Columbia, is hoping to cut that year by half.

He is plunging into this project, he said, because he is convinced the Palestinians must have assistance.

"They are the ones who are suppressed," he said. "They are the ones who need help."

Mr. Ryan pads around in corduroy slacks in a sparse Ramallah office. A few blocks away at the city square, Palestinians and Israeli soldiers regularly trade fusillades of stones, tear gas and bullets in confrontations that often bring injuries.

"I really don't hear it," he shrugs. "The people I know are very peaceful."

Mr. Ryan is one of about a dozen American business people who have started operations in the West Bank in the 17 months since the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, according to Joseph DeSutter.

Mr. DeSutter is the director of the Washington-based Builders for Peace, a group promoted by Vice President Al Gore to encourage investment in Palestinian areas.

Mr. Ryan is a "world-class expert" whose project has "enormous potential," Mr. DeSutter said.

Mr. Ryan left his family construction business, Ryan Homes, to form Ryland Homes in 1967 and build Columbia with developer James Rouse. He quit the company in 1987 at age 54, having built 30,000 houses. He was looking for a new challenge.

He returned to school, got a master's degree in pastoral counseling from Loyola College, and spent his time giving away money through the Ryland Family Foundation, mostly around Baltimore and Washington.

"There's need everywhere. There's need right around our house, and I funded that for 10 years," he said.

In that work, he met Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American psychologist who ran youth programs in the United States. In 1988, Mr. Awad was deported from Jerusalem by Israel for helping to start a Palestinian tax strike.

Mr. Ryan invited Mr. Awad and Mr. Awad's wife and two daughters to stay in his Mount Airy home. They began having chats.

"I would tell him about Palestinians. He really had no idea," said Mr. Awad by telephone from his Center for Non-Violence in Washington.

Eventually, "I got hooked," conceded Mr. Ryan. "I came to believe the center of world peace will revolve around this part of the world."

Mr. Ryan contributed money to 14 projects here. He built a hospital in a Palestinian refugee camp, sponsored a dental program in another camp, trained nurses, opened handicapped centers and helped support the Bethlehem Bible College.

He tried projects involving both Israelis and Palestinians. But that rarely worked, he conceded; the sides are too polarized, and "the Palestinians are hurting more than the Israelis."

He likes visible results. He pulled out a small photo album to show off work of a charity called Operation Smile, in which volunteer surgeons travel around the world to correct physical deformities. The grotesque "before" pictures of patients contrasted with the smiling "after" shots.

He first saw the surgeons at work in the Philippines. The patients formed a "horrible sea of deformity," said Bill Magee, the Norfolk, Va., surgeon who started Operation Smile.

"Jim was pretty uncomfortable with it. His avenue was always business. This was something very different," Dr. Magee said.

But Mr. Ryan brought Dr. Magee to the West Bank three times to perform operations on nearly 500 Palestinians. When he needed more money for the operations, Mr. Ryan sold "Ops Smile," a promising young racehorse he had named for the charity.

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