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The Innocents of Bethlehem

At the Creche in Bethlehem, the Daughters of Charity dole out huge helpings of love to abandoned children.

Past the courtyard of an old stone building in Bethlehem, up a flight of stairs, a door opens unto a corridor filled with young children and merriment: balloons are tossed and popped, giggles echo off the walls – a frenzy of fun. This is the Holy Family Children’s Home, popularly known as the Creche, a place of refuge and love for abandoned children.

There were 52 children in the Creche the day I visited, ranging in age from newly born up to five years old. The youngest sat in infant seats while others toddled or ran around them, tossing and chasing balloons, squealing when they broke. It was the afternoon play period, a time to work off energy before dinner and bed.

The Creche began four years ago when Sr. Sophie, D.C., began gathering abandoned infants in the corner of an unused and run-down hospital.

Sr. Sophie is a pediatric nurse from Lebanon who worked in the intensive care unit for the newborn. But her community, the Daughters of Charity, has the charism of helping the poor – and who could be poorer than an abandoned infant?

What began as Sr. Sophie’s personal apostolate expanded as more forsaken children found their way to her. A wing of the unused hospital was renovated with the help of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, and became the Holy Family Children’s Home. Now, three sisters and 11 lay people work full-time under the direction of Sr. Sophie, caring for the children it shelters. There are more children waiting to get in, but no room for them.

Where do these children come from? Some were left anonymously at the hospital. Some have been victims of child abuse. Some were given up by unwed mothers. Some are orphans; others have parents who cannot care for them, psychologically or financially. Some come to the Creche from social service agencies: there is no other home for abandoned infants and toddlers on the West Bank.

Normally such children would be cared for within the extended families that are a characteristic of Palestinian society. But these are not normal times for Palestinians. The quarter-century Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and the five-year intifada to shake the occupation off, have put tremendous pressures on the fabric of Palestinian society. Every society has its dysfunctional families; their numbers increase when a society is under stress.

Palestinians in the West Bank – which includes Bethlehem – are under military occupation. They are governed by more than 1300 military regulations that encompass virtually every aspect of life, from travel to taxes – a bureaucratic strangulation that makes everyday life very difficult. Because of restrictions on work and business, unemployment and underemployment are high. Schools, from the elementary through the university level, have been repeatedly closed during the last five years. Government-funded social services are minimal, and the Palestinian private sector has difficulty filling the gap: it has been hit hard by the occupation, the intifada, and the fallout of the Gulf War.

Many men able to have young children are in prison, or have been in prison, or are jobless. Some despair of ever being able to lead a normal life, and in their despair they forsake their responsibilities as husbands and fathers. Pain suffered becomes pain passed on.

The children who find refuge in the Creche are the ultimate victims of trickle down misery. They know nothing of the political and social conflicts that rage around them. They have only negative experiences. They lack a normal home, and stability and security are absent.

It is paradoxical then to walk into the Creche during playtime and be surrounded by so much exuberance and joy. Can these be children from broken homes? It is only after my eyes adjusted to the bustle that I noticed, off on one side, a girl standing silently, watching, not entering into the games. And a boy, lying motionless on the floor as if fallen in battle, watching with vacant eyes as other children played around him.

Sr. Sophie explained that some of the children come to the Creche deeply scarred emotionally. A battered child will be frightened of all adults. It may take two or three months before he or she smiles for the first time, and begins to trust anyone. “But with enough love,” Sr. Sophie said, “a person can survive anything. There is healing power in love.”

The purpose of the Creche is not simply to take in children off the street, but to touch them with the healing power of love. Those who work at the Creche spend much of their time holding the children and playing with them, giving them a security and acceptance they may never have experienced before. “An abandoned child needs security and love more than anything else,” Sr. Sophie said. “A child may come in malnourished and not begin to make any improvement until he realizes that he is loved.”

If love covers a multitude of sins, it also transfigures a rather Spartan life at the Creche. The sleeping rooms are crowded, one bed nestling against the next. If they could fit in more beds, there would be children to fill them. The main corridor must do as the playroom. There is an outside play area for use when the weather is nice, but only a limited amount of play equipment. An old crib serves for a game of crib-packing: you can get almost as many children in one crib as angels on the head of a pin.

Money as well as space is tight. Operational funds come from the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jesuits of France and a Swiss Catholic agency, Kinderhilfe Bethlehem. Catholic Near East Welfare Association makes up the deficits. The Pontifical Mission, in conjunction with Catholic Near East Welfare Association, is also taking responsibility for raising funds to renovate an adjacent wing, now gutted, in the old building in order to offer more educational and psychological services and quarantine rooms for sick children.

“With the children sleeping so close together,” Sr. Sophie told me, “if one of them comes down with something everyone else gets it as well.”

Sr. Sophie and her co-workers try to provide a normal childhood for the children as far as possible. Those who are three and four years old attend a local preschool during part of the day, for inter-action with other children.

Efforts are made to return children to their families or extended families when possible. For those for whom it is not, the Holy Family Children’s Home tries to arrange for adoption. Regulations require that at the age of five the children are to be transferred to other institutions.

Visiting the children being cared for in the Creche in Bethlehem inevitably calls to mind another group of toddlers from this region, when Jesus himself lay in a nearby creche. Like the innocents of today, they were also caught up in a political situation far beyond their comprehension. Sr. Sophie dismisses any simplistic comparisons, however. “It is not important that it was near here that the Holy Innocents died. It is not even so important that the infant Jesus lay in a creche near here. What is important is not Bethlehem as a place but the Incarnation as a reality. What began in Bethlehem continues everywhere, when we live out Jesus’ love.”

George Martin is the editor of God’s Word Today and a frequent visitor to the Holy Land.

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