In 1863 Father Antonio Belloni came from Italy to found what he thought would be a simple, quiet orphanage for boys in Bethlehem. As part of the curriculum, he decided, the boys would learn the local handicrafts.
Little more than a century later, Father Bellonis orphanage is anything but simple or quiet. Sparks literally fly every day as students learn to operate complicated machinery, and mingling with the buzz of drills and sewing machines are the cheerful voices of boys working in class or playing handball in the courtyard.
The Salesian Technical School trains Arab boys to be mechanics, electricians, carpenters, tailors and welders, in addition to giving them a regular high school education. The enrollment has steadily climbed over the years to its present figure of 200 students. About 150 boys are regular students; the rest come just for technical training.
Entering after the sixth grade of elementary school, full-time students take on a dual course of studies for the entire six years they spend at the Technical School. During the morning they attend classes, and in the afternoon they work in the shop. Upon graduation they receive two certificates, one academic, the other vocational. Thus each graduate is prepared to enter the job market, and those who have taken the full-time course have the option of going on to a University. At a time when many young people are forced to leave the Holy Land to find work or opportunities for study, Salesian Technical School graduates have the precious chance to live, learn and work in their homeland.
Though the Technical School is now a firm establishment in Jordan, its existence was not always so secure. In the course of its not-so-long history, the school was closed twice during both World Wars. It was not until 1966 that the Jordanian government granted permission for the growing Italian institution to become the Salesian Technical School.
The school is now run by seven Salesian fathers and nine lay teachers. Most of the students are very poor. Those who can afford it pay a very small fee, some pay nothing at all, and the Salesians continually try to find ways to pay the balance.
Through the generosity of groups in the United States and Europe, the Salesians have been able to buy much-needed machinery and other equipment. And in 1969, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, sister organization of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, for the first time awarded ten scholarships to the Technical School. These contributions have done much to help both Christian and Moslem students.
But more financial aid is needed. In spite of the support of such groups as the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and American Near East Refugee Aid, the school still has great difficulty making ends meet. For many young people, it is their only alternative to emigration. Now the Salesians fear for its continued existence.
And yet the prevailing mood at the Salesian Technical School is one of hope. Thanks to the prayers and support of its many friends, the school will continue to provide for its students. Unlike so many other youths in the Holy Land today, they know that their future holds the promise of employment, advancement and security for themselves and their families. As the promise becomes a reality for more and more young people, it will enable them to stay in the homeland they cherish living and working for peace.
Virginia Rohan is a freelance writer.