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Rebuilding Lives in Palestine

The ultimate goal of the Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem is to minister to the total needs of the Palestinian people.

Politics and poverty have disheartened generations of Palestinians. Whether in Gaza, the West Bank or Israel, most Palestinians live in desperate poverty, their standard of living clearly inferior to that of their Israeli neighbors. To ensure a just and lasting peace in the region, overcoming despair and disparity is crucial.

“No political agreement [will] last if the people of Gaza and Jericho…dont feel a tangible improvement in their living standards,” stated then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres after Israelis and Palestinians first reached an agreement in 1993.

Reversing the effects of isolation and despair and restoring to fullness the respect for dignity of the human person is the goal of the Pontifical Missions Jerusalem office, located in the Old City. In partnership with devoted priests, religious brothers and sisters and laypeople, this office tackles issues such as housing, education, childcare, the handicapped, health care and interreligious dialogue, which affect Palestinians of all ages and creeds. “Misery did not discriminate among its victims in Palestine,” Msgr. Thomas McMahon once noted. “Neither does the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.”

A key undertaking today is the housing renovation program in Jerusalem. This program helped Hanneh, a frail widow in her 80s, who lives alone in a few rooms located on the property of a Greek Orthodox convent in the Old City of Jerusalem. To visit her one must negotiate a maze of narrow passages vaulted in limestone that meander up and around churches, monasteries and apartments. One narrow room serves as Hannehs sitting, eating and sleeping area. Outside and around the corner are a tiny bathroom and a new kitchen. It was once a broom closet.

The Pontifical Mission waterproofed and replastered the ceilings and installed new fixtures for Hanneh. While modest, these improvements made a major impact on her life. “Her house is her castle,” says Rose Karborani, a Pontifical Mission engineer who coordinates this housing renovation program.

A native of the Old City, Rose visits approximately 250 applicants a year to ascertain need, which is based on income and the number of people per room. (Since 1967, the population of Jerusalem has more than doubled.) Rose then determines the amount to be granted to an applicant, not to exceed $5,000. The Pontifical Mission requests that a quarter of this grant be repaid in monthly installments. These funds are then accumulated and reserved for future grants.

Around the corner from Hanneh, a family of six needs a Pontifical Mission grant to remove asbestos from their ceiling. A young father carries his daughter from room to room as Rose inspects the house and asks questions of the man, who seems eager to roll up his sleeves and get to work. The availability of funds remains the only unanswered question.

More than 120,000 of the 170,000 Palestinians in the municipality of Jerusalem live in substandard housing. Damp walls, crumbling plaster, seeping sewage and exposed asbestos endanger their health. In addition, several problems prevent young Palestinian families from establishing their own households in and around the Old City. Unemployment among males reaches 40 percent; real estate values match Manhattan values (a quarter of an acre sells for around $500,000); and building permits are almost impossible to obtain. If Palestinians move to the West Bank they lose their Jerusalem residency status and the city is closed to them. As a result, many Palestinians, particularly Christians, seek a new life in Europe and the New World.

“If I have a house, I have something. If I have a house, I can stay,” says Father Adib Zoomot, a priest of the Latin Patriarchate, echoing a perspective on the relationship of the Palestinian to his homeland.

In 1987, frustrated by Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians rebelled. The intifada, or uprising, touched every level of Palestinian society, especially its youth.

For reasons of security, the Israelis closed Palestinian schools, colleges and universities. Among those closed was Bethlehem University, a Pontifical Mission-supported institution founded in 1973. Though denied the right to attend public lectures, Palestinian students nevertheless gathered in secret to continue their education. Displacement revealed a bitter lesson: you can lose your land, you can lose your house, but you cannot lose your education.

Through its support of schools and other educational programs, the Pontifical Mission has, since its foundation, consistently supported the concept that “education is the ticket out of poverty.”

Bethlehem University, the only Catholic institution of higher learning in the Holy Land, offers a curriculum designed to meet the intellectual and practical needs of its students. Studies include the arts and sciences, business administration, education, nursing, hotel management and tourism. The latter course of studies is quite popular.

Tourism is an income-generating resource for Palestinians. “We hope this program will continue its success,” says Brother Vincent Malham, F.S.C., Vice Chancellor and acting President, “and that more of our graduates will find jobs locally.” He notes, however, that tourism has its ups and downs. “Even if you try to minimize its impact,” he continues, “the political process nevertheless affects everything, especially tourism.”

As the elected Chairman of the universitys International Board of Regents, of which he is an ex officio member, Msgr. Robert L. Stern enhances the close link between Pontifical Mission and Bethlehem University established at the universitys beginning. Presently, the board is reviewing a five-year plan that Brother Vincent implemented in 1997.

Situated on the grounds of the university is one of three Pontifical Mission libraries. Well-stocked with books, videos and other resource materials, the library serves the people of Bethlehem and its surrounding villages as well.

In addition to the library in Bethlehem, members of a Catholic secular institute, the Teresians, also staff the Pontifical Mission libraries in Jerusalem and Amman. In a unique arrangement, two Teresians work as librarians in Ramallahs public library.

The Pontifical Missions involvement with the Palestinians of tomorrow begins at an early age. Down the hill from the campus of Bethlehem University lies the Creche, an orphanage for abandoned infants operated by the Daughters of Charity.

Through the Pontifical Mission, benefactors and friends support the Creche. Colorful toys and laughing toddlers fill this lovely residence built in the last century.

“Most of the children are brought to us from Bethlehem Social Services,” explains Sister Ursula, who holds an infant while grasping the hand of a toddler. “Many, although not all, are born out of wedlock, most of them are Muslim, and all of them are found wrapped in blankets.”

If the families of these children do not claim them once they reach the age of five, the sisters place them in one of two childcare institutions, both of which receive support from the Pontifical Mission: Bethany, a home for boys, or Home of Peace, a home for girls located on the Mount of Olives.

Both Bethany and Home of Peace are immaculately maintained. The rooms are painted in pastel shades; pictures of healthy, happy children line the walls. Daily routines are followed. At Bethany, on each neatly made bed, the sisters lay out fresh underwear and clean socks. Every child has his individual station in the bathroom. There, a clean comb, washcloth and towel are perfectly arranged for each boy. The same sense of structure exists at Home of Peace.

“Many of these children come from broken homes,” says Sister Raphaela, a Polish-born sister of St. Elizabeth who founded Home of Peace in 1967 with almost nothing. “We give them a simple home, but it is clean and peaceful.” She interrupts herself to urge her young ladies, who want a hug, to “Study! Go study!”

What do these children take with them if they return to their families? Do they recall the quiet, the order and the peace these sisters provide? Does the love and care offered by the sisters make a difference? Do these institutions break the cycle of violence and poverty?

“Not too long ago, on my way back from Ramallah, I stopped to see one of the girls who lived here with us for 11 years,” Sister Raphaela recalls. “She recently married and moved with her husband into a modest house not far from here. I was pleased to see how clean her home was but, more importantly, how proud she was of it. She is not an exception.”

What is exceptional is the Paul VI Ephpheta Institute, a school for hearing-impaired children in Bethlehem. Completely subsidized by the Pontifical Mission and operated by the Sisters of St. Dorothy and their dedicated team of 22 professionals in hearing education, Ephpheta opens new worlds for children previously isolated from society.

About 120 Palestinian hearing-impaired children, most of whom are Muslim, attend Ephpheta, where they are taught to lip-read and speak, beginning at the age of three. In addition, the sisters and their staff follow a traditional, elementary academic curriculum that includes the use of computers. The goal is to integrate each child progressively into a mainstream school, and eventually into mainstream society, thus ending the isolation that normally accompanies a handicapped child.

“A deaf child can be taught everything, even music,” explains Sister Francesca Batato, Provincial Superior for the Sisters of St. Dorothy. “Learning to read music is important because it teaches a sense of rhythm. Normal speech is rhythmic speech.”

Grim Gaza, the most densely populated region in the world, has practically no infrastructure to support it. Shoeless toddlers play on mounds of refuse and in pools of stagnant water. Raw sewage flows through open sewers on busy city streets.

The Atfaluna Center for Deaf Children is an oasis of color in an otherwise bleak environment. “Although the children in our school are deaf,” reports Mrs. Geraldine Shawa, founder of Atfaluna, “their sense of sight is sharp.” Brightly painted pictures, all created by the students enrolled in this institution, adorn hallways and classrooms.

Although most folks in Gaza are poorly educated, “they all understand genetics,” Mrs. Shawa continues.

“In the past, any child who had a disability was hidden from the community by his family. This handicapped child could ruin the marital prospects for the rest of the familys children. Here,” she concludes, “a handicapped child was a burden. Who would want to pass this burden to the next generation?”

Through word of mouth, Mrs. Shawa found her students. Today, more than 100 children are enrolled in the day program, while the number of hearing-impaired adults admitted into the centers job training program increases daily.

Atfaluna is one of several programs aided by Pontifical Missions Gaza Health Project. This also includes three mother-and-child clinics and laboratories, sponsored by the Near East Council of Churches, and three clinics operated by the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees.

In one mother-and-child clinic, operated by the NECC and supported by the Pontifical Mission, a doctor, two midwives and a pharmacist see daily more than 40 mothers and their babies. More than 8,500 families (with the average Muslim family counting no less than eight members) are registered with this clinic.

Recently the doctor has seen an increase in the number of undernourished children visiting the clinic. “And if the children, who are breast-fed, are undernourished, so are the mothers,” he says.

Yet the atmosphere of the clinic is uplifting. While waiting, the women exchange news, share maternity tips, catch up on their sewing or even take short catnaps.

Although there are only a few thousand Christians in Gaza – the vast majority of the population is Muslim – the Pontifical Mission is nevertheless present. “Need not creed was our yardstick,” writes Carol Hunnybun, who co-administered the office in Jerusalem from 1966 until 1982. “The Pontifical Mission would have nothing to do with Catholic cows and Catholic meadows producing purely Catholic milk.”

The Pontifical Mission for Palestine, as an agency of the Holy See, acts as a leaven, bringing together the Holy Lands diverse Christian community. Perhaps the finest example is the restoration and re-decoration of the great dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This project, accomplished through the generosity of George and Marie Doty and administered by the Pontifical Missions staff in Jerusalem, brought together the three custodians of this sacred place – Greek Orthodox, Franciscan and Armenian Apostolic.

“The stage we have reached today,” said the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros I, at its unveiling, “is very significant for this holy place.… It is an expression of our brotherly coexistence…which teaches forgiveness, reconciliation, love and unity.”

“Coexistence”, “forgiveness”, “reconciliation”, “love” and “unity” are words that, if only lived out among Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims, would render obsolete the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

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

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