Manal, Sr. Norma More, and Rasmi relax in the courtyard. (photo: Catherine O’Hagan)
The Maison in Haifa. (photo: Catherine O’Hagan)
The children feel the love of the Daughters of Charity and Br. Joe Loewenstein. (photo: Sr. Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Chippi at play. (photo: Sr. Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Sr. Pascale shares a secret with Morfaq. (photo: Sr. Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
You learn that these children have their own secrets. Behind their mask-like faces are human beings. These children of Maison du Sacre Coeur in Haifa give few hints of their secrets. Outward appearances odd shapes and queer sounds distract you. Given a little patience and affection, though, they eagerly reveal them. Their sharing is a remarkable gift to those who care enough to open themselves to their lives.
The Maison du Sacre Coeur, or Sacred Heart House, provides numerous services to the Arab community in Haifa. Its primary mission, though, is to be a happy, loving home where sixty severely handicapped and mentally retarded children are given excellent care. With the financial support of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, the French sisters who operate the Maison give dignity to lives which were previously ignored by the community. The Arab population knows the Maison as Beit el Nour, House of Light.
The program occupies a turn-of-the-century building in the crowded business section of Haifa, a major port on the Mediterranean. The beauty of its French architecture, with vaulted ceilings and arch-lined courtyard, had been deteriorating since 1948 when an outstanding womens school had to close after the flight of Palestinian students. In the early 1970s, rather than let it stand idle and decay, the sisters refurbished the two-story, U-shaped structure as a home for the severely retarded and deformed children who are shunned by their culture. Most of these children die before adolescence.
Five sisters, twenty employees, and occasional volunteers staff the Maison. Their commitment to the children ties them to what might seem an austere life. Yet they are charged with enthusiasm and contentment. Sister Simone has shared the secrets of the children since the home opened. She has learned that generous love is music to the humanity dancing within each severely retarded child. Every childcare worker in turn feels touched with a special grace and joy from contact with the children.
The children begin to reveal their secrets early each day. During her 7 a.m. bath Manal, a hydrocephalic who fiercely protects her large head from any contact, discloses that she really likes her hair washed under the spray. Iman, a four-year-old who lies silently by the hour, bursts into gales of laughter when bathed, towelled, and clothed.
The ingenuity, patience, and empathy of tireless workers let them communicate with each child. They always look for the best way to feed, dress, bathe, hold, and cuddle each child. Mitgal, whose lack of oxygen during birth left him spastic, needs to be tilted on his back so he can efficiently swallow food. Asaff, a microcephalic three-year-old, can feed himself so long as someone guides his hand from the bowl. Nonetheless, he can drink only if the milk is deftly poured down the back of his throat. Other temperamental children require their feeders to use clever tactics in order to penetrate their obstinant defenses during mealtime.
For all their peculiar needs, these children can act like others their own age. When basking in the morning sun, non-ambulatory children like to be surrounded by their buddies, usually those with whom they eat and sleep. Woe to the sister who inadvertently rearranges the order of assorted wheelchairs, carriages, and beds! The group makes its displeasure known in no uncertain terms. These children take comfort in the familiar. If they are used to one type of carriage, they do not adjust quietly to a different stroller. As one might expect, each child has favorite toys and preferred playmates.
When they can, the children express a great zest for life. Aref, a boy with round cheeks filled with thick gums and huge misplaced teeth, grins by the hours. By day he waves long spindly arms in an occasionally successful effort to clap. By night his peculiar hoot a signature call for attention echoes through the rooms and across the courtyard. Tickled around the rib cage, he dissolves into peels of laughter. Asaff shows his zest another way. A compactly built three-year old, he giggles until confronted with something new and strange, such as a ball, a doll, or even a different drinking cup.
The childrens physical disabilities often test the natural enthusiasm of childhood. Their struggle also expresses their hidden feelings. Morfaq, age eight, suffers from a muscle-wasting disease which has all but frozen his leg joints. Because he is too weak to swallow food, a nasogastric tube has been inserted in his nostril. He hates the tube in his nose, though. With arms which barely move he often manages to pull it out. He then grins victoriously, with the tube draped across his chest. When it is inevitably reinserted, his eyes become pools of terror and his mouth forms an awful hole bespeaking his discomfort. Once the tube is forgotten, his huge brown eyes luminously express his curiosity for his surroundings. When he hears loud noises and sees dancing, his tiny concave chest will heave with spontaneous laughter.
It is easy to care for and play with a child who smiles or giggles or somehow reaches out for attention. It is more difficult, though, when mental or physical handicaps disguise a childs personality. They may seem less lovable at first sight because they are loud, noisome, or frightening to see. Two children cry hour after hour, day after day sometimes only a wimper, other times a full-blown wail. But it is their only means of communication. Nanette, whose only movement comes from her nervous, darting eyes, cries when she feels forgotten. The mystery of Husseins tears is yet to be solved. The foul smells of some children can be offensive. No matter how often some children are scrubbed, their perspiration on a hot summers day reeks of sickness. Others have mouth odor caused by feeding tubes. Some children are simply ugly because disease has deformed their once beautiful features and has frozen their limbs into bizarre contortions.
To the sisters at Maison du Sacre Coeur, though, each child is a treasure. A spirited group, they know that to serve these innocents is a precious gift. The sisters deal with the disfigurements, odors, and noises of their charges with dignity. At the same time they delight in respecting the humanity beneath the fragile mantle of flesh.
The childrens responses affirm the sisters view. Amir, age four but with the mental development of a five-month-old, arrived at the Maison listless and silent. Now pampered with attention, he reaches out to be held and gurgles in satisfaction at being spoiled. His mouth may look painfully contorted, but his eyes smile. Manal, the five-year-old hydrocephalic, has an aptitude for music. She now gleefully hums French tunes which the staff has painstakingly taught her.
But some children cannot express their dark secrets. The love lavished upon these children often merely provides temporary surcease from the pain which is their life. Anothers touch may occasionally reach a child, who might coo with satisfaction. But the eyes may never brighten. When the touch is withdrawn, the child retreats into that other world.
These children receive love and patient care. Each one knows loneliness and appreciates affection. When they can, they shower the person who cares for them with unrestrained love. Their eyes and their noises offer clues to their moods, which are as changeable as ours. That they suffer even while they reveal their gifts makes their condition tragic in the truest sense.
These Palestinian children share in the sanctity of the Holy Land. The presence of the historical Jesus is immediate and tangible in the hills of Bethlehem, the narrow streets of Nazareth, the shores of Galilee, and the Maison in Haifa. The same humidity, the same dusty earth, and the same wind that touch these children touched Jesus in his own day. His presence continues even now, reaching into their shadowy world to touch the contorted bodies and share the secrets of the children of Beit el Nour.
Catherine O’Hagan is a New York lawyer who spent a month last summer as a volunteer at Beit el Nour.