ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Pontifical Mission at 50: Reflections of the Nesnas Family

A profile of a family intimately linked to the Pontifical Mission.

After an arduous trip from Rome to Jerusalem last December, I looked forward to a friendly evening with a family who has figured prominently in the life of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. With a warm greeting and a welcoming drink, Tony and Eileen Nesnas and their lovely daughter Nayla received Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus, and me to their Jerusalem home. The table was set, candles were lit and the perfume of Middle Eastern spices emanated from the kitchen. A lovely evening awaited us.

“Tell me about your trip,” Tony asked. He wasted no time, I thought, in wanting to know the details of my journey. I told him about my extensive interrogation by Israeli officials at the airport in Rome that delayed my departure for more than eight hours in Tel Aviv.

“Ah,” he replied after listening to my tale, “you have experienced a little of what we Palestinians must confront – often more than once – every day. It was unfortunate, but probably necessary for you to experience these ‘inconveniences.”

Tony was correct.

The special relationship between this Palestinian family and the Pontifical Mission began in the summer of 1958.

“At the time, the [Jerusalem] office had no secretary,” recalled Eileen. “My family and I lived in the same building as the Pontifical Mission [office] and I came down from our apartment and applied for the job. They accepted me on the spot.”

Eileen remained an integral part of the work of the Jerusalem office for more than four decades, tirelessly supporting the endeavors of the Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem, until her retirement in February 1993.

“Between 1958 and 1965, the Pontifical Mission distributed food and clothing from a warehouse in a suburb of Jerusalem,” Eileen remembered. “We received bales of clothing and foodstuffs such as flour, oil, butter and milk for distribution to villages in [present-day] Jordan and the West Bank. The warehouse was a prefabricated building erected by the Pontifical Mission on property belonging to the Sisters of Charity.

“Immediately after the 1967 war [in which Arab Jerusalem and the West Bank were occupied by the Israelis], a food distribution program was created and lasted for two or three years. The food was prepared at the warehouse and distributed near the New Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, close to the Pontifical Mission office.”

Although an important member of the Pontifical Mission staff, Eileen and her family were not spared the hardships oppressing the Palestinian people:

“Before 1967, Jerusalem was divided. The New City, which lies outside the walls of the Old City, was occupied by the Israelis and was therefore inaccessible to the Arabs. The Old City…was under Jordanian rule. We had a very good life, although we were always looking forward to returning to our properties on the [Israeli] side.

“My family had property – land and houses – and we got out with nothing, without a penny, in 1948,” Eileen recalled. “My father died in 1950 from a broken heart.” The family had lost everything.

In 1965 Eileen married Tony Nesnas, a young man from the neighborhood. They settled into their own apartment in Jerusalem and looked forward to starting a happy and prosperous family.

In 1966, their first child, Carmen, was born. But the following year a meningitis epidemic swept the city. Little Carmen was taken from the Nesnas family.

“After Carmen died,” Eileen continued, “I told God that since he had taken my daughter, he must replace her with a son.” In traditional cultures such as the Middle East, a male child is a powerful symbol of hope for the family. On 25 December 1970, Eileen gave birth to Issa, which in Arabic means Jesus. Issa was preceded by Nayla, who was born in May 1969. Their second son, Nasri, was born in October 1973.

As we enjoyed a delicious array of foods skillfully prepared by mother and daughter, Eileen and Tony spoke of the other tragedy of 1967 – the Israeli-Arab war.

“It hasn been easy” summarized this family expressions and frustrations over the war. The current crises affecting all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza may be traced directly to the Israeli occupation of these lands, which began in 1967.

“Have you ever been tempted to emigrate to the West?” I asked sheepishly.

“We have had quite a few opportunities to leave, immediately after 1967, during the intifada [the Palestinian uprising of 1987-1993], and during the Gulf War,” Tony said. “After ‘67 there was no work but lots of restrictions. During the intifada, we were hard pressed to remain – our children were deprived of education and a normal childhood.”

“Classes were not regular,” Eileen added. “More than occasionally soldiers broke into classrooms. For example, Issa was only able to finish the first part of the Government High School Exam in 1988; he was unable to sit for the second part.

“From the intifada until now, schoolchildren have not had education on their minds. They are always thinking of strike days,” Eileen continued. “They no longer seem motivated to go to school and study.”

“To answer your original question,” Tony said, “Eileen and I are determined to stay here. As Palestinians, we love our country; we love our land. And, as Catholics, we believe that a church without its members is not a church.”

The Nesnas family is proud of its Catholic faith, with which they identify perhaps as strongly as their Palestinian nationality. Their tenacity to remain in their native land and their concern for maintaining the living church of the Holy Land mirrors the concerns of the Holy See and the Pontifical Mission.

Far from the “inconveniences” of life in Israel and Palestine, Tony and Eileen youngest son, Nasri, who lives in New York City, thought about his parents and their commitment to their church and country.

“I wouldn want them to leave [Palestine],” he stated. “It home.”

A graduate student at Columbia University, where he pursues a doctorate in biochemistry, Nasri is a serious young man faithful to the standards of his culture and church. He nevertheless acknowledges the tensions that exist when an individual formed in one culture confronts the values of another and tries to reconcile them.

“Im fortunate to have my brother, Issa, nearby,” Nasri said with a laugh. (Issa works in research and development at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of the designing team creating NASA next robotic mission to Mars). “We used to fight as kids. Now I rely on him and his advice.”

Tony and Eileen are proud of their children, but as with all parents, they wish their children lived closer to home.

“If the job opportunities for Issa and Nasri were available here as they are in the States,” Tony stated, “theyd return home. But unemployment for young Palestinian men is quite high.”

Unemployment and lack of opportunity are nothing new for most Palestinians. In 1976, the Jerusalem office of the Pontifical Mission, with financial assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), launched a small business loan program.

“The self-help program helped small business owners enhance their businesses by obtaining loans with practically no or very low interest rates,” Eileen recalled. “We gave modest loans, from $3,000 to $5,000, and many of them were repaid, until the intifada.

“[During the intifada] shops were closed and people were out of work; some participants in the program stopped their payments – they had no money. Yet so many came by the office to thank us.”

Eileen eagerness to “talk shop,” as well as her remarkable memory, demonstrate how she has come to value the Pontifical Mission.

“It is hard to remember everything over the 35-year period that I spent with the Pontifical Mission,” Eileen said. “In fact, I spent more time at the Pontifical Mission than I did with my husband! The work of the Pontifical Mission runs in my blood.”

Tony knowledge and interest in the work of the Pontifical Mission surpasses that of the merely interested husband. For years Tony acted as an advisor for and friend of the men and women who served the Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem.

“Tony Nesnas voluntary contribution to the Pontifical Mission,” says Carol Hunnybun, who co-administered the office with Helen Breen from 1966 until 1982, “was enormous.”

Currently, Tony and Eileen are preparing for the wedding of their son Issa to a Palestinian Christian woman in California. And, as with all weddings and families, the Nesnas family looks forward to a new union and new generations.

Michael J.L. La Civita is Executive Editor of Catholic Near East.

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