Claudia Graziano celebrates a birthday at the St. Rachel Center. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
As the day care program’s director, Ms. Graziano provides a caring and nurturing envionment to the children of migrant workers in Jerusalem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Edna Irsh, an Israeli, volunteers as a tutor at the St. Rachel Center. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Fadia Shamieh, from the Palestinian Christian town of Beit Jala, helps youngsters prepare for their meal. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Ursuline Sister Claudia Linati chats with youth at the after-school program she directs. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Born in Milan, Sister Claudia Linati directs the after-school program at the St. Rachel Center in Jerusalem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
As lunchtime approaches, Claudia Graziano and her team usher more than two dozen youngsters to colorful, pint-size plastic tables, while seating the youngest in highchairs.
As the staff and volunteers of the St. Rachel Day Care Center warm up food and fill sippy cups, Ms. Graziano leads a singalong, ending with a short, melodic prayer of thanks before the meal, and the sign of the cross.
Staff members, a mix of Catholic laypeople and religious sisters, address the children — born in Israel to migrants and asylum seekers — in Hebrew.
“If children who live in Israel don’t speak Hebrew, they enter the Israeli school system at the age of 3 seriously disadvantaged,” explains Ms. Graziano, the program’s director, as she spoons crushed carrots into a baby’s mouth.
Of the many day care centers in Jerusalem, the St. Rachel Center is considered a model facility for the children of migrants and asylum seekers, providing education and care at a level comparable to state-funded institutions. Moreover, it does this at a fraction of the cost, as the center draws most of its funding from organizations such as CNEWA and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
Even for Israeli citizens, the least-expensive centers providing full-day care cost upward of $600 a month — far too much money for migrants from the Horn of Africa, India, the Philippines or Sri Lanka, who mostly clean houses or act as caregivers to elderly and disabled Israelis. At the St. Rachel Center, parents enroll their children for just over $100 per month.
The center is the newest day care program launched by the Rev. David Neuhaus, S.J., the Latin patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics, in response to the growing needs of an underserved community.
Migrant rights remain a contentious issue in Israeli politics; the country’s government does not extend to workers from abroad the same breadth of social services citizens and permanent residents enjoy. For example, a 2014 study by Kav LaOved, an advocacy group for disadvantaged workers in Israel, found migrant women reported being dismissed due to pregnancy at increasing rates, a practice typically outlawed. When not fired outright, migrant women often work without maternity leave or risk losing the job on which their legal status depends.
Such parents have no choice but to place their children into the only facilities they can afford. Often these programs “warehouse” dozens of children — who are younger than 3 years old — under the supervision of a single untrained babysitter. In these filthy, overcrowded conditions, a number of children have even perished due to lack of feeding, untreated fevers or suffocation.
The St. Rachel Center, amply staffed and immaculately tidy, could not be more different. Its bright, cheery rooms, the abundance of toys and books as well as the happy atmosphere are a testament to the people who work there.
Lay staff and volunteers play a strong role in the center’s day-to-day operations, says Sister Claudia Linati, an Ursuline sister from Milan who directs the after-school program.
“Without our lay people we wouldn’t have the ability to function,” Sister Claudia says as she watches a group of boys play soccer in the courtyard. “We would have to find sisters and brothers to fill their shoes, and that’s not easy because most Catholics in the Holy Land speak Arabic, not Hebrew.”
In a country where migrants struggle to belong, language fluency becomes critical. Ms. Graziano echoes the importance of immersion in Hebrew as early as possible. It has become one of the paramount tasks among the St. Rachel Day Care Center’s efforts to support the migrant community.
“Our goal is to integrate them into Israeli society,” she says. “It’s the place where they were born and live.”
Under Father Neuhaus’s guidance, the St. James Vicariate of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem attends to the spiritual and material needs of the 1,000 Hebrew-speaking Catholics based permanently in Israel and some 60,000 Catholic asylum-seekers and migrants. The vicariate first opened its doors to children in 2013 in order to care for the very sick infant of a migrant worker who could not afford child care. Soon after, a mother who had been evicted from her home asked if she could leave her three young children there so she could work.
The fledgling center’s reputation as a safe and warm place for children ranging from 3 months to 3 years old began to spread and it soon outgrew its cramped quarters.
In September 2016 the center moved to a light and airy prefabricated structure on the grounds of a Capuchin monastery, located in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in West Jerusalem.
The new facility offers an outdoor space for infants and toddlers to play, while the older children run and socialize in the larger yard.
The center’s full-day program begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends between 5 and 6 in the afternoon. The program currently enrolls 28 children, with another 60 on a waiting list. Between 20 and 30 older children arrive later for the after-school program, where they play and complete their homework assignments, often with help from volunteers. As many as 80 older boys and girls attend the program during school holidays.
In between meals, play time and special activities, such as dancing, the center’s lay staffers spend part of every week teaching the younger children new Hebrew vocabulary words related to certain themes.
By the time they are 6 or 7, many of these children will be translating for their parents — most of whom live in Israel illegally, either because they entered without permission or because they broke the terms of their work permits when they gave birth to a child.
“Even if the parents know how to speak Hebrew, they rarely know how to read or write, so they can’t decipher the notices or help with the homework their older children bring home from school,” Ms. Graziano says.
“At parent-teacher meetings one of us is often asked to translate,” she adds.
The staff also works to infuse the center with a Christian ethos. Older children study catechism after school. However, the center also welcomes non-Christian children, including a handful of youngsters from Muslim and Buddhist families.
Last Lent, the children received a visit from the Rev. Rafic, a priest for the Hebrew-speaking community in Jerusalem. The younger children listened raptly as he instructed them to choose a pebble and to place it in their shoes, to see how uncomfortable it felt.
“This is how we feel about having sins,” Father Rafic explained. “We want to get rid of our sins in the same way as we get rid of a pebble.”
In another exercise, older children were asked to write down what they would like to improve in themselves. “At the end of Lent we see if we’ve really changed.”
Father Neuhaus says the center’s workers and volunteers — the latter of which nevertheless receive housing and a small stipend — are a kind of dream team.
“We’re asking people to do very demanding work on minimal salaries. Despite this we have been incredibly fortunate.”
The priest describes Claudia Graziano as having “dropped out of the sky” when the center needed a director.
Born in Italy, Ms. Graziano moved to Jordan a number of years ago to found and administer a home for disabled children.
After eight years, she decided to undertake an intensive study of the Bible. “The best place to do that is Jerusalem,” she says.
She began to pray with the Catholic Hebrew-speaking community, who invited her to head a summer camp for the community’s children and, later on, to volunteer at the fledgling child care center. When the St. Rachel Center moved to larger quarters last September, Ms. Graziano, by then fluent in Hebrew, halted her studies to became its director.
Ms. Graziano’s staff and volunteers hail from various parts of the world.
Ainsely Rawlings, a staffer from Denver, Colorado, found her way to the center after she accompanied her husband to Jerusalem, where he now studies at the Hebrew University.
An elementary school teacher, Mrs. Rawlings has spent the year not only caring for the children but also getting to know their families.
“I didn’t realize they had formed such a close-knit community. They eat together, work together, go to the same church,” Mrs. Rawlings says of the migrants with whom she works. “They’re not Israeli, and this isn’t an easy place to live if you belong to a minority.”
Nataly Younes, a Palestinian Christian staff member from Bethlehem who lives in East Jerusalem, says she feels a special obligation to help the foreign workers and asylum seekers, who receive virtually no support from the Israeli government.
“As a Christian, I feel this is our duty — to help those in need,” Ms. Younes says as she cleans the face of a toddler. “These people are so vulnerable.”
Fadia Shamieh, 31, a Palestinian from the West Bank town of Beit Jala, is studying early childhood education and felt called to the St. Rachel Center. She admits that the work has its challenges; overcoming the language barrier, from learning unfamiliar names to beginning to convey ideas, was “very difficult at first,” she says.
“There is no common language,” Ms. Shamieh says, “because the younger children are just beginning to learn Hebrew.”
Yet this work rewards patience, and successive lessons grow easier with time.
“Children are like sponges. They learn so quickly.”
Guillaume Desbarbieux and his wife Amandine have spent the past two years volunteering at the day care center. They were sent by the Catholic Delegation for Cooperation, the international voluntary service agency run by the church in France.
Mr. Desbarbieux, 26, says he and his wife, 24, were at first reluctant to volunteer in Israel, uncertain of whether they would be responding to a great need.
“We heard it was a rich country,” he explains.
“But we were excited to learn we would be caring for refugees’ babies.”
The couple enrolled in an intensive Hebrew course, where they learned enough to communicate with the children.
“I didn’t want to be a babysitter,” Mr. Desbarbieux says as he helps one toddler after another climb up the playground slide. “I originally wanted to do activities and work with the parents on educational benchmarks,” he says.
Yet the young man observes that this has been a growing experience for himself, alongside the children — in addition to honing skills, his two years in Israel have made his faith “more concrete,” he says.
“In the Mass you hear a lot about the biblical events that occurred in Jerusalem, but it’s only when you visit the churches and walk the Via Dolorosa that the Bible truly comes alive,” he says.
Kicking around a soccer ball with some of the other boys, 10-year-old Adam says he likes coming to the St. Rachel Center’s after-school program because he would otherwise be coming home to an empty house. His father, who came from Egypt, and his mother, from the Philippines, often work late as cleaners.
“I like being here with my friends and getting help with my homework. My parents speak a little Hebrew, but not much,” he says.
One house cleaner from Sri Lanka who requested anonymity says the center “has been a godsend.”
“My son is learning so many things, numbers and colors in Hebrew,” she says of her nearly 2-year-old boy. “I speak English at home but that won’t help him once he’s enrolled in the Israeli school system.”
Father Neuhaus says he dreams of the day the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv municipalities will begin to officially recognize the center and the children’s right to government-subsidized services — including access to Israel’s excellent universal health care. For now, the St. Rachel Center pays for a child’s private health insurance when his or her parents cannot afford it.
Ms. Graziano dreams of expanding the St. Rachel Center, adding enough space and staff to accept the 58 children on the waiting list.
“We don’t have a large room for the children to play indoors. In the summer we host up to 100 children.” She says she would also love a dedicated study, solely for the older students to do their homework.
And in an ideal world, the government would also provide migrants and asylum seekers and their children the support services on which citizens rely.
Our children have a lot of trouble with self-confidence,” Ms. Graziano says. “Most have their basic needs met, but what they lack is a person to guide them through the place where they are born, but where they aren’t welcome.”
Jerusalem-based journalist Michele Chabin has written for USA TODAY, National Catholic Register, Jewish Journal and ONE.