Lebanese bakers with special needs master German rye and Stollen

BURJ AL SHAMALI, Lebanon (Reuters) - When Ali Kerdi, who has impaired speech and hearing, was a teenager, he would look on curiously as his mother kneaded and baked their homemade bread.

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Years later, he would do the same as he worked as a cleaner at a center in southern Lebanon where people with special needs were being taught how to make German bread.

Now, at 35, Kerdi is in charge, running the bakery with two other special needs employees.

“First, they wanted to teach me sewing, then carpentry, then I was running errands. But I would watch them as I worked. If I touched the dough, they would tell me to go away,” said Kerdi, who never gave up on his dream of learning to bake.

On a rainy day in December, Kerdi and his team were busy making Stollen, rye bread with fruits and nuts that is a Christmas staple in Germany.

The bakery, on the ground floor of the Mosan center for special needs students, began operating in 2003 after a German charity - Bread Against Misery - donated second-hand baking equipment from Germany.

Three German bakers came for three months to teach the staff how to operate the equipment and the principles of making bread the German way.

Kerdi now trains a group of students on how to make a variety of German breads that were previously alien to their area of southern Lebanon.

“The main aim of the project was to train them how to make bread, it was not to open a business,” said Ali Charafeddine, director of the Mosan center, which currently has 175 special needs students.

But the bakery has become popular among locals and expatriates - even including some U.N. peacekeepers - and its bread and biscuit products are neatly stacked outside for sale.

The bakery provides a taste of home for Maria, a foreigner who has been living in Lebanon for seven years.

“This bread is baked in my country, it tastes like from my home. It’s very nice,” she said, adding that she will not be going home to Belarus for Christmas this year.

Kerdi says his journey toward running the bakery has been a special source of pride because his income supports his family.

“People were surprised that I was baking. It was the first time they saw this kind of bread. Now they know me as the one who learned here and then became the boss,” he said as he showed a student how to fold a pretzel.

Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Tom Perry