ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Rebuilding Bethlehem

Despite a year of violence, individuals and organizations continue to offer help and hope.

Seven children between the ages of 2 and 13 played hide-and-seek around and in their small, jerry-built home on the edge of Beit Jala, a largely Christian village near Bethlehem. Two of the nervously grinning boys offered a gift to the visitors – bullets of various sizes found around their home.

Father Guido Gockel, a Mill Hill Missionary who is CNEWA’s Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus, inspected the house, its windows broken and interior walls darkened by soot and smoke from the fire of an Israeli tank shell. The shell had torn through one bedroom wall and destroyed much of the house.

The children’s mother turned to Diana Mubarak, Director of Social Services for the Palestinian Authority, who had accompanied Father Guido, and told her in Arabic: “You probably don’t remember me, but when you picked me up off the street when I was a teen-age runaway 15 years ago, you saved my life.”

“My husband and I don’t have much,” she said, “but we do have our children – alive – and our own little home that my husband has been working on…until the shooting started.”

Diana admitted she could not clearly place the woman she had saved; there were too many such cases over the 27 years of her career as a social worker.

Abused women and children, as well as persons with physical or mental disabilities, are the “invisible people” in Middle Eastern society, often deliberately kept out of sight by their families. One of the accomplishments in which Diana takes justifiable pride was gaining approval from the Palestinian Authority for the establishment of a center for unwed mothers and abused women and children. It is unique in Palestine.

“I will not always be here, so someone has to be able to help them in the future,” she said.

The stark reality of life in Bethlehem today is light years removed from the romanticism of Christmas cards and “Silent Night.” Fifteen months of shelling, sniper fire, road closures and blockades of villages during the Israeli-Palestinian violence have resulted in massive destruction of homes and businesses. With the almost total loss of tourism – Bethlehem’s primary industry – unemployment has soared to an all-time high of at least 80 percent.

Bethlehem and its surrounding villages were highly dependent on the tourist trade and were looking to a boom as the new millennium approached. New hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops were built in anticipation of the large influx of pilgrims expected during the Jubilee Year 2000, and thousands of Bethlehem residents worked not only in these but also in comparable positions in nearby Jerusalem. Construction jobs were abundant as foreign aid flowed in, donated to improve streets, renovate building facades and spruce up the city to a degree of beauty never before witnessed in its multi-millennial history. The traditional olive wood and mother-of-pearl carving trades employed many more.

But for more than a year now the hotels have stood empty and new construction is at a standstill. Pilgrims are few. Access to Jerusalem for Palestinians is sporadic at best.

According to Father Guido, the most urgent problem in the area is the lack of work. Unemployment saps the self-esteem of the individual, particularly when the breadwinner is the father of the family who finds himself unable to provide. And this is also the more acute in a society like Palestine’s, which is highly traditional and patriarchal.

Many formerly middle-class families in the Bethlehem area are newly poor after more than a year of unemployment, but they are ashamed to ask for help. This situation also presents a major problem for the area’s churches: They are criticized for not doing enough to help, yet the people won’t ask for assistance. Until tourism returns to the area, the plight of these families will only worsen.

The daily stress of living with violence and the related economic woes have generated new problems of their own: As social structures break down in the villages and cities, domestic violence now is on the rise.

With hundreds killed and thousands wounded, and a significant number of homes destroyed since October 2000, relief agencies have been struggling to provide for the new and urgent needs of those affected, while at the same time trying to carry on their long-term assistance work.

But amid the shattering violence and destruction pockmarking Bethlehem and its neighboring villages, there are glimmers of hope. Thanks to the perseverance of numerous agencies and individuals working in and around Bethlehem, social services continue and new programs are developing.

Shortly after the crisis erupted last year, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, organized systematic communications among the various agencies. A weekly information list of activities and persons is circulated, while monthly meetings of the directors ensure coordination of aid distribution and avoidance of unnecessary overlap.

Today the government of Italy has sent aid to Bethlehem, and this means Diana has a truckload of rice to distribute. When a family has been unable to buy food for days, a 10-pound bag of rice provides some relief, but certainly is just a small start.

Cash assistance is another form of aid, and does double duty to help two households: When no work is available and a family receives cash, they can then buy food from a local merchant. That means he works and receives revenue for his goods, and thus maintains his own dignity and is able to provide for his family.

The Pontifical Mission has been able to launch and fund labor-intensive community projects. These not only provide work for the unemployed but benefit the community as well.

Local facilities provide work materials and the project’s funds pay a just wage to laborers. Work projects are coordinated with local agencies such as the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Caritas International and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Many of the projects sponsored by the Pontifical Mission for Palestine are made possible by help from key Catholic aid agencies around the globe – Misereor, Missio, Kinderhilfe Bethlehem and the Archdiocese of Cologne, as well as the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Catholic Relief Services has a food-for-work program. In the past year CRS, the international relief agency of the U.S. bishops, has also been putting special focus on new, urgently needed projects. Among them are programs that provide counseling and treatment for both adults and children traumatized by gunfire and bombardments.

In Beit Sahour – known to millions of pilgrims as the “Shepherds’ Fields” of the Christmas story – the Pontifical Mission is helping the municipality employ otherwise unemployed people to repaint public schools. Father Majdi al Siriani’s parish of Our Lady of Fatima renovated the kindergarten and playground of its Catholic school. Across from Bethlehem at the Cremisan Seminary of the Salesian Fathers, aged stone walls along the approach road are undergoing long-needed repairs. Cemetery monuments desecrated last year in Beit Jala are being restored. And within Jerusalem, the Augusta Victoria Lutheran Hospital compound is undergoing renovation.

Caritas provides loans, food distribution and medical care as well as social assistance. Despite damage sustained in the violence, the Caritas Baby Hospital and the Knights of Malta’s Holy Family Hospital continue their health services for Bethlehem-area residents while also caring for the wounded.

As much of normal life seems to be crumbling around them, children more than ever need the stability and challenge that education can provide. In an effort to keep children in Catholic schools, which rely on tuition, the Latin Patriarchate’s National Office for Catholic Schools struggles to provide scholarships for the growing number of needy students. For every 10 scholarships provided, 100 are still needed.

In Beit Jala, a rare expression of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians gives physically handicapped children new hope for the future. There, Burghard Schunkert and his wife, Ute, a physical therapist, direct the Lifegate Rehabilitation Center, where handicapped students ages 16-25 learn to sew, do metalwork, carve olive wood or make pottery.

The Burghards have lived in Palestine for 14 years. Deeply committed to sharing God’s love with youth, this German Protestant couple now devote their lives and energies to helping those with disabilities gain confidence and new skills. CNEWA has been able to provide funding for Lifegate’s programs for several years.

There is a higher-than-normal rate of genetic defects in the Palestinian population, especially deafness, muscular dystrophy and spina bifida, and there are few facilities to serve children and adults with these disabilities. Burghard tells of finding a 20-year-old crippled man named Issa crawling across the floor of his family’s home, unable to communicate and despairing that his life could be different.

Despite the roadblocks and closures, Lifegate arranged for Issa to visit one of the Israeli hospitals so that he could see the positive results other handicapped persons had achieved through surgery. The Israeli doctors took Issa in, operated on him, and today Issa gets around with a walker. But Lifegate did even more: Speech therapy taught Issa to speak with both his voice and sign language. Now he makes a living carving olive wood statues for the Lifegate shop to sell abroad.

In Beit Jala, Lifegate occupational therapists and social workers conduct follow-up sessions with families, training them to care for their handicapped member. They also help families make their homes wheelchair-accessible and organize support groups where mothers of disabled children can share their problems and successes.

On the Israeli side, social workers arrange permits for medical care and procedures in cases for which only Israeli hospitals have trained personnel and proper facilities. A handful of orthopedic and other Israeli surgeons at the Aline and Hadassah Hospitals in Jerusalem and neurosurgeons at the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv donate their time and skills to the care of these young Palestinians.

Like all of those agencies and individuals working to make life better for the people of Bethlehem and neighboring communities, this collaborative effort between Israelis and Palestinians shows that trust and charity can win out over the deep-seated bitterness of two peoples engaged in almost daily and deadly strife.

Even amid the darkness and sorrow that hangs over this beloved city of the Holy Land, the star of hope still shines brightly.

A biblical archeologist, Father Charles Miller is Rector of the Ratisbonne Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem.

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