CNEWA
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God • World • Human Family • Church

Seeing the Face of Jesus

Three communities of sisters change lives in the Holy Land

Not far from Bethlehem’s ancient Church of the Nativity, which marks the site of the birth of Jesus, cribs line the wall of a nursery. Within them lie infants swaddled in pink and blue blankets; their names are displayed on stickers. Colorful mobiles dangle above their heads.

Most of the babies are asleep, but not little Nadia; she lies on her stomach while her big brown eyes seem to dance around the room. She is alert and beautiful, and she was found abandoned on the street.

Administered by the Daughters of Charity, the Holy Family Children’s Home, also known as the Crèche, is a humble site unknown to the thousands of tourists who flock Bethlehem, especially during the Christmas season. The sisters, who belong to the St. Vincent de Paul family of religious men and women, came to Bethlehem in 1884 with a mission to care for the poor, the sick and the marginalized. They founded a hospital and later, in 1905, set up an orphanage to house the babies abandoned on their doorstep. The Crèche has grown since, now offering shelter to expectant mothers and a home for children.

At the Crèche, the mission of the sisters and their team is to serve the most vulnerable children and mothers in Palestine. Many of the home’s mothers are single and are victims of sexual and physical abuse, often at the hands of their brothers, fathers or uncles. Many have serious health problems due to lack of prenatal care, unsafe deliveries or both. Most have yet to turn 18. In the nursery’s center, just across from the corner with a pair of 10-day-old twins, rests an infant wrapped in a pink blanket. Her mother is just 14 years old.

Sister Denise Abou Haider, who serves the sisters in Bethlehem as their superior and directs the Crèche, hails from Batroun in northern Lebanon. Her role requires confronting many challenges in this deeply patriarchal society, but her belief in her mission and her steadfast faith provide her with the strength she needs.

“Faith plays a major role, faith in Jesus and God in the faces of those who come here,” she says of her community’s commitment.

We celebrate Christ every day and the birth of the Savior in the children we save.”

In such a traditional culture, sexual relations outside of marriage, particularly in the case of women, are taboo. Unmarried mothers flee their homes in fear of “honor killings,” which in the eyes of many in the region are preferable to bringing shame upon the family. No matter what has been done to these girls, even if by members of their own families, they are always the guilty party; family honor is paramount.

As a result, “women who were able to conceal their pregnancy, either die trying to abort the baby, have to abandon the baby or are killed by their families,” says Andon Iskandar, 49, a social worker who has been with the Crèche for 20 years.

The sisters work to guarantee safe shelter and safe delivery. “We don’t judge people,” says Sister Denise. “We see the face of Jesus in them.”

Today, their efforts have expanded to include children from broken homes, divorced parents, substance abusers and others, says Mr. Iskandar, who studied social work and psychology at Bethlehem University and received his master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh.

The sisters maintain a hidden shelter for vulnerable expectant women or those who suffer domestic abuse. A similar shelter in Beit Sahour run by the government has much stricter entry rules, which exclude those with addictions or emotional illnesses, as well as suspected prostitutes. Oftentimes, such individuals face cruel condemnation from the local people.

At the end of 2018, 42 children were living at the Crèche; nearly all were from Muslim families and ranged in age from newborn to 5 years old.

“We are proud and happy to save lives,” says Mr. Iskandar, his kind smile tinged with sadness. For while the Crèche saves the lives of at-risk women and their babies, the outlook for the children’s future is murky.

Unless a mother can prove she is a Christian to the Ecclesiastical Court, abandoned newborns are identified automatically as Muslim. And “adoption of children is forbidden under Sharia family law,” says Mr. Iskandar, indicating that only kafala, a kind of Islamic adoption, is available. But “it is not permanent; there are neither papers nor services provided later for the children,” he says.

“Babies stay for six years and then go to different places,” Mr. Iskandar summarizes.

“We are sad with what is waiting for them.”

Along the winding St. George Street in the Old City of Jerusalem, just a few steps from Jaffa Gate, one can find the Terra Sancta School — an institute of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land but administered by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition.

“Our educational objectives have not changed since our community first came to Jerusalem in 1848,” says the school’s principal, Sister Frida Nassar. We are “rearing children through education — moral, scientific and spiritual,” her dark eyes sparkling with a welcoming cheer.

“Our mission is the participation in the work of God’s salvation of humanity,” she adds.

Founded in 19th-century France by St. Emily de Vialar, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition operate in five continents and 26 countries. In the Middle East, they are active in Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

“We arrived in Palestine from France responding to the Franciscan Fathers’ call,” Sister Frida says, her wavy salt-and-pepper hair peeking out of her charcoal gray veil. Their mission was to support the Christian girls of the Old City of Jerusalem. They began with 30 girls, teaching Arabic and French, as well as sewing and embroidery.

At Terra Sancta, there are about 300 students — 150 boys and 150 girls — evenly divided between Muslim and Christian, with around 26 students to a class.

Until the autumn of 2018, this site was known as St. Joseph’s, an all-girls school. With declining enrollment — the emigration of Arab Christians from the Holy Land continues — and other financial concerns, however, the sisters merged St. Joseph’s with the all-boys Terra Sancta School under the latter’s name. In the exchange, elementary students of both genders now attend the sisters’ campus near Jaffa Gate, while middle- and high-school students attend the campus near New Gate, which is staffed by the Franciscans of the Custody.

Sister Frida is still getting used to having boys in her school. She notes that it has not been an easy transition.

“They need more space for running and jumping.”

Today, four of the community’s sisters teach in the school. The remaining 22 teachers are lay women, many of whom attended the school. But, Sister Frida adds, “we share with the lay teachers the sisters’ spirit.” Monthly faculty meetings often focus on sharing the charism of the community — their vision of faith and service.

At 7:45 every morning, students line up and pray together. Catechism is taught in all classes. Those students who are Muslim accompany the three Muslim teachers to pray and discuss the Quran.

The curriculum is Palestinian. Arabic, English and French are taught, as well as Hebrew.

A year’s tuition costs about $740-$760, varying slightly by grade. Occasional funds are secured in the form of donations — the United Nations gives some money for students’ lunches, and CNEWA recently remodeled the bathrooms and improved the school’s heating system. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land covers remaining costs.

“Students come from modest families; they work in hotels and restaurants, or as drivers,” Sister Frida says.

A rapidly changing society poses another challenge to the school.

“This is a new generation, one that has changed,” Sister Frida says, expressing concern. “We don’t feel the same belonging as before. The relationship and friendship is not the same.”

“Technology now has a big role in their lives. Families cannot control everything. The children don’t listen; they’re too occupied with cell phones, and computers. They are more absent minded.”

In the reception room, Sister Frida has four baskets full of cell phones that are collected each morning before school starts.

Most families of the students live in the Old City or on the way to Bethlehem. Thus, Identification Cards are an issue.

“With blue ones, you have to live in Jerusalem, pay national insurance, and you receive health insurance. All West Bank residents have a green ID, which means they do not have access to Jerusalem or Israel without permits from the Israeli authorities. And with green IDs, there is no health insurance, no pension, nothing,” Sister Frida says.

These differences can pose problems in terms of access, as well as in the health and well-being of students and their families.

Yet despite these challenges, the students’ performance is encouraging.

“After graduating from Terra Sancta, students go to Bethlehem University in Bethlehem, Birzeit University in Ramallah or Hebrew University in Jerusalem,” Sister Frida says.

“Few leave the country unless they get scholarships.” Some work at the French or Belgian consulates. The U.S. Consulate, a former favorite of the students, has now closed.

“When I hear the students are succeeding in their lives and are happy, this is my consolation,” Sister Frida says.

“School is beautiful, fantastic,” says 11-year-old Sandra Katanasho. Sandra lives in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Her mother is Filipina and her father, an electrician, is Palestinian. Her 8-year-old brother attends a Greek Orthodox school.

Sister Frida says integrating the sexes has been more difficult in the higher grades. Sandra agrees.

“We’re having fun with the boys but it was better before. Me and my friends play together. Some boys are not polite and sometimes boys don’t appreciate me,” says the sixth grader, her long jet-black hair falling over her pink down jacket.

Sandra’s dream is to go to university to become a teacher.

“I like teaching right and wrong,” Sandra says confidently. “I escape to pray to God. I don’t care what everything is happening outside.

“I pray for peace.”

Classes have ended for the day at the Rosary Sisters High School. Outside, teenage girls with cell phones in hand, some with their long hair hidden underneath their hijab, laugh and chat.

This scene from Beit Hanina, a neighborhood in Palestinian East Jerusalem, could have been a girls’ high school anywhere in the world.

Sister Lucy Jadallah, 48, the principal for both the primary and the secondary schools, is from Ajloun, in the northern highlands of Jordan near the traditional site of the birth of the Prophet Elijah.

Her cousin, Sister Alphonsine, 26, serves as vice principal and takes care of administrative work, and also teaches religion.

In 1880, the two founders of the Rosary Sisters Congregation, Mother Marie Alphonsine from Jerusalem — who was canonized a saint in 2015 — and Father Yousef Tannous from Nazareth, aimed to serve the people through schools, cultural centers and hospitals, as well as training in trades such as tailoring. The community works throughout Palestine and Israel, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria and Abu Dhabi and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

The sisters established their high school in Jerusalem in 1964. Its mission was to provide a strong education to Arab women — spiritually, academically and socially. Tolerance, coexistence and above all respect for the other were paramount.

The school’s primary objective remains the same: “We are serving the people, not ourselves,” says Sister Lucy. “It’s God’s way. We believe God is working more than us.”

Sister Lucy has an undergraduate degree in music from Yarmouk University in Jordan and a graduate degree from Birzeit University in the West Bank, where she studied democracy and human rights. Despite her advanced studies in political science, she still plays the piano and the flute; classical music remains her favorite.

“This is my school; I graduated from here,” she says. “I love my mission.”

The children range in age from 3 months to 17 years. “The school serves Jerusalem and Ramallah — poor, rich, middle income,” Sister Lucy says. The Israeli Ministry of Education provides 60 percent of operating costs. The school must raise the remaining balance, largely through tuition fees that range from $1,300 to $1,900. Neither the sisters nor the students receive money from the Palestinian Authority or the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The school day begins at 8 in the morning with 2,250 students — about 400 of whom are Christian.

While buses begin to pick up the students as early as 5:30 a.m., most arrive at least 30 minutes late, depending on the situation in the West Bank. Sometimes, it takes them an hour or more due to the checkpoints, Sister Lucy says.

Moreover, she needs to gain permission from the Israeli authorities every six months for teachers who live in the West Bank, Bethlehem and Ramallah so they may travel to Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem.

“It is a struggle and sometimes takes a month to get,” says Sister Lucy. “It makes me frustrated and angry and sad for the students and sad for the teachers.”

It’s a perpetually stressful situation. When the sister finds time, meditation, prayer, music and evening walks make it all more manageable.

“I have to balance between two authorities every minute of every day,” she says. “I need Israeli funding. I need the Palestinian Authority because of curriculum and certification.”

The school utilizes both the Palestinian standard examinations, known as Tawjihi, and the British International General Certificate of Secondary Education.

“As a nun and as a principal, I have to deal with that and I sympathize with the people,” she adds. But her main focus is educating women.

“I am always looking to make the school the best in Jerusalem. Ninety-nine percent of the girls start early and go through 12th grade.

“The sisters have invested in them since they were 3 years old,” she adds.

“Few come just for high school. Most girls who graduate from Rosary go to universities. They become professionals — doctors, lawyers, journalists.” About 5 percent go abroad to England, Germany, Italy, Scotland, Turkey and the United States.

“We encourage them to be prepared for higher education, to engage in extra-curricular activities and to volunteer at organizations for the elderly and disabled,” Sister Lucy says. Such activities include the Dabke (an Arab folk dance), ballet, modern dance, music, taekwondo and gymnastics. Of particular note is the school’s Model United Nations Program, which interfaces with other schools to learn about diplomacy and U.N. procedures through hands-on conferences.

Sister Lucy says Jerusalem’s society is changing.

“Women are able to be more independent. Jerusalem is open and modern while the general atmosphere is conservative and, therefore, complicated,” she says.

Local nongovernmental organizations, especially those in health and advocacy, are working to educate women as leaders through health education and gender mainstreaming programs, which are done in coordination with the Ministry of Health and Education.

But it is a struggle in the present male-dominated culture.

“As a Palestinian girl, Rosary has made me focus on the need for education,” says Nicole Hazou, 17, her dark oval eyes and high cheekbones framing her sweet smile. Her mother and father are from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, respectively. Her younger sister, Julie, is in the eighth grade.

Nicole describes the school as competitive and strict. “One needs to work hard to get good grades. But, it offers lots of opportunities.”

At a sociopolitical art museum not far from the school, a banner ripples in the wind. It reads: “Raise boys and girls the same way.”

Sister Lucy offers both girls and boys the same advice:

“Your weapon is your education. Don’t accept only a high school education.”

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