ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Alleviating the Housing Woes of Jerusalem’s Christians

CNEWA is making a world of difference for poor Christians living in the Old City.

Some might consider it a great blessing to live within walking distance of Calvary and the tomb of Jesus, both of which are enshrined in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the walled Old City of Jerusalem. Many who do live there, however, live in hardship. The Old City is ancient, filled with centuries-old houses, churches, mosques, synagogues and shops, many in disrepair.

Osana Daldilian lives in the Old City. A widow with six children, Osana supports them by cleaning offices to supplement her modest social security. She and her children lived in a single tunnel-like room located a few steps below the street. Plaster continually peeled off its damp stone walls and there was little privacy.

Rents are very high in Jerusalem – rents are comparable to those in New York City – making it impossible for Osana, on her low income, to afford better housing outside the Old City. (The average Palestinian’s income is far less than that of an Israeli.) But thanks to CNEWA’s benefactors, Osana was able to subdivide her room and waterproof and replaster the walls. A rudimentary bathroom at one end was redone with new plumbing and wiring. The renovation of her apartment has made a marked difference in her family’s lives: though Osana and her family still live in very crowded conditions, they now have dry walls and greater privacy.

Osana was not alone in her need for better housing for her family. About 4,000 Christians live among the 30,000 inhabitants of the Old City; another 6,000 Christians live in adjacent East Jerusalem. Since taking possession of the Old City and its adjoining Arab neighborhoods in 1967, Israel has shifted the demography of the area with housing available for Jews, while severely limiting the construction of housing for Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. About 120,000 of the 170,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem live in substandard or overcrowded housing; there is a backlog of demand for 20,000 new housing units. Building permits are difficult to obtain, however, and land is very expensive; a quarter-acre sells for around half a million dollars.

As a result, the population density for Palestinians in Jerusalem has more than doubled since 1967, with one-third living in houses that have more than three people per room. Rents have skyrocketed, putting an apartment out of the reach of many young couples who want to marry and begin a family. Before 1948, Christians made up about 18 percent of the population of Jerusalem; now they account for about two percent. The emigration of Christians to other lands for housing and jobs is one of the major problems now facing the church in the Holy Land.

Various church efforts address the housing shortage for Christians. The Latin (Catholic) Patriarchate sponsors Solidarity Housing, a project that builds some new housing in and around Jerusalem. But even when the church provides the land, construction is expensive; an apartment complex for 30 families now being erected will cost approximately $1,900,000. Those receiving the apartments pay what they can; the balance must come from local and foreign benefactors. The Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land likewise have housing projects underway, as does the Greek Melkite Catholic Church.

Each of these projects alleviates the housing needs of Christians in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but the demand far exceeds what church agencies are able to construct with the limited funds available. CNEWA, however, has taken a different approach. Instead of building new housing, CNEWA helps people like Osana renovate their existing housing.

George Sahokian and his wife, Vivian, live in the apartment in which he was born, along with their four children and his grandmother. The building is many centuries old; it once served as caravan lodgings. One window of their apartment looks out on a pool used as a water reservoir in the time of Jesus; in recent times it has dried up and become a rubbish dump.

George’s apartment consisted of a room used for living and sleeping, plus a kitchen with a crude lavatory in one corner. CNEWA’s Jerusalem staff helped him put in a decent bathroom with a small loft above it. Now his three older children sleep in the loft, while he, Vivian and their month-old son, along with George’s grandmother, share the lower room. Most would consider this family’s accommodations still very crowded, but the renovation represents a real quality-of-life improvement.

Some Christians would like to move to escape the cramped conditions of the Old City. They cannot; their jobs are in Jerusalem and moving out of that city would jeopardize their Israeli-issued Jerusalem identity cards. Without a Jerusalem ID, Palestinians need special permits to enter Jerusalem to work, or even to go to church. These permits, which are hard to obtain, are void whenever Israel closes the borders with the West Bank. The unemployment rate in the West Bank hovers between 30 and 40 percent, making moving there unappealing. Thus Christians with apartments in Jerusalem hang onto them, however crowded or rundown they may be.

George Abu Rakabeh earns about $460 a month as a hotel janitor. He has lived in the same apartment for 18 years, with his wife, Nabihah, and their four children. One room doubled as a living and sleeping room and another as a kitchen and bath. The apartment, however, was in very bad repair. One of their sons received a severe shock from faulty electrical wiring; the roof leaked and the walls were damp. With CNEWA’s help, George was able to put in new wiring, repair the roof and add an outdoor balcony as a play area for the children. The balcony is small – about 3 by 10 feet – but it provides welcome relief: the living-sleeping room is virtually filled by a bed and two couches, leaving little space for the children to play indoors.

CNEWA’s Project Coordinator, Mrs. Rose Karborani, helped Osana and the two Georges with their renovations. A native of the Old City, Rose received a degree in civil engineering from Israel’s top technology school, Technion University in Haifa. She worked for an Israeli consulting engineering firm before receiving a scholarship to study urban planning and infrastructure in France. Now Rose uses her skills to improve the housing of Christians in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

CNEWA-Jerusalem’s housing program began in 1992. Since its inception, about 250 people a year have requested help with renovations and additions. Rose gives their applications a preliminary screening based on factors like income and number of people per room, reviews each case with CNEWA’s Jerusalem staff, then follows up by visiting those who pass the screening.

“I also visit many who, at first, are given a low priority,” she told me, “because sometimes there will be cases of real need that the screening process might miss.”

Some of those most in need are elderly women living in buildings built long before the era of indoor plumbing. These buildings sometimes have an open interior courtyard with a communal toilet. Walking outside to use the bathroom during Jerusalem’s cold and rainy winter season is a hardship for the elderly.

Hanneh Iknomides is applying for help in obtaining indoor plumbing. Presently, she must use a primitive communal toilet some distance from her apartment. With her grant she plans to turn a small storage shed adjacent to her apartment into a bathroom and to improve her rundown kitchen. Plaster is falling on the apartment of Azizah Banurah, one of Hanneh’s elderly neighbors; Azizah will also apply for help.

CNEWA puts a limit of $5,000 on the amount it will grant to any one family and asks that 25 percent of the grant be repaid in monthly installments. About 90 percent of the people are able to make this repayment; the proceeds are accumulated and reserved for future grants. In 1997, more than $300,000 in grants were given to 103 families in Jerusalem and the West Bank, with funding coming from the Doty Foundation, Kinderhilfe Bethlehem and CNEWA.

Margaret Sakakini, an 85-year-old widow, has already benefited from the housing program. Formerly, there was a small wooden hut across from her apartment that served as both her kitchen and her bathroom; she had no hot water. The hut was torn down and rebuilt as a new kitchen and bathroom with a water heater. Now she is asking for additional help to cover over the walkway that links the bathroom to her bedroom.

Rose Karborani makes at least three personal visits to each of the families who benefit from the project. On her first visit she assesses needs and helps develop a renovation plan. Each family is responsible for hiring the workmen. Some families use their grant for materials, while completing part or all of the work themselves. Joseph Kesheshian works as a waiter but is doing the carpentry work necessary to divide his single-room apartment into two rooms and panel the walls; his grant paid for the wood. When completed, Joseph, his wife and their two children will have better privacy and drier walls.

Elias Khoury is turning a rubble-filled room across from his apartment into a second living area with a decent bathroom. He, his wife, Lina, and their three children have a single room for living and sleeping; they look forward to spreading out. Elias does maintenance work for an Israeli company and would not have been able to afford the extensive renovations the second room required on his $575 a month salary.

Rose visits each project again while construction is underway and again at its completion. Funds are likewise distributed in three stages to insure that they are used as intended.

Rose is far more than an engineer and project coordinator. As I observed last February while making the rounds with her, she has become a family friend as well as a family helper.

“My work is as much social work as engineering,” she told me, “and the satisfaction comes from bringing a little joy to people living in miserable situations.”

Damp walls are perhaps the most common and difficult problem facing those living in the Old City. Buildings are built of stone, often with walls two to three feet thick. They retain moisture, which seeps through the porous stone during the winter rainy season. Since houses lack central heating, the resulting dampness often causes bronchitis and other health problems, especially for young children. Crumbling plaster can be replaced, but without proper waterproofing plaster will peel again. Rose wants to convene a seminar for engineers and builders so they may explore better waterproofing techniques.

Meanwhile Rose does what she can with available technology. Victor Marizian’s apartment was so damp and in such bad repair that he was unable to live in it after he suffered a stroke. When his wife, Mary, learned of CNEWA’s housing program, she applied for a grant to waterproof and replaster the walls of their bedroom. Only after the work was completed was Victor released from the hospital and allowed to return home.

Father Adib Zoomot, Director of the Latin Patriarchate’s Solidarity housing project, observes that the Palestinian Christian attitude is, “If I have a house, I have something; if I have a house, I can stay.”

By relieving the lack of decent housing for Christians, CNEWA ultimately helps to maintain Christianity’s presence in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

George Martin is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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