Voices From the Pandemic: In Solidarity With the People of Palestine

Sister Hildegard Enzenhofe, S.D.S, serves as the superior at the Beit Emmaus Home for the Elderly outside Jerusalem, which is supported by CNEWA. She describes the challenges posed at this particular moment, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic — and writes from quarantine, confined to a hotel room, while she awaits permission to return to her residence in Emmaus Qubeibeh.

The times of the pandemic hold special challenges and trials for all of us.

Together with my fellow Salvatorian Sisters I usually run the Nursing Home of the German Association of the Holy Land in Emmaus Qubeibeh, which is a small village technically a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem, but in the Palestinian territories just behind the wall.

By an unlucky coincidence I was stranded abroad when Israel’s borders closed and international flights stopped. Stuck in Austria for several weeks and managing the nursing home from there, I couldn’t find a way to return home until the end of April. Before my final return to the nursing home, I am obliged to go through a 14-day hotel quarantine, confined to my room. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that this is the last obstacle on the way back to Qubeibeh to join my sisters.

Until now the borders between Israel and Palestine remain closed. Each village in our area is still in a curfew by itself, also preventing the daily arrival of our workers and care takers. It also affects the supply of food and products that we need for the care of the bedridden residents. Delivery has become increasingly difficult.

Prior to the lockdown, we asked 10 of our employees to stay and live with us on the premises. It was the only way we could ensure the continued care for our 35 female residents, since another major pillar of support also broke away with the arrival of the crisis in March: all foreign volunteers and interns working at the nursing home had to return to their home countries.

We are very grateful for the commitment of our employees, as it is hard on them too, not being able to return home and being separated from their families. This is especially true at the moment in the festive season of Ramadan, when normally their extended families would meet every evening to break the fast together. However, through their commitment we are able to keep them employed and alleviate the financial pressure on their families. A large part of our former workers on the compound were day laborers, who can’t come to Qubeibeh now, so they are out of work and can’t be paid. It is incredibly difficult for these families, especially those who were already under considerable financial strain before the crisis. In the rural area where we live, the economic position of the general population is lower than average; many families live close to or below the poverty line.  

In a nursing home as remote as ours, a health emergency is often particularly difficult, but even more so in a lockdown. At the moment we are required to obtain several permits and large coordination efforts if one of our residents requires medical attention in a hospital and needs to be transported to Ramallah. Once they have been treated at the hospital, they cannot return for now, because of the fear of carrying and introducing the virus into the nursing home and possibly infecting the other residents – a risk we cannot take. On the other hand, the hospital is also a completely foreign environment to them, where they can neither receive the care of our familiar staff, nor receive visitors.

In many ways the situation warrants extraordinary measures for protecting us and the older women. One day we had surgery in a bed at the nursing home! Two surgeons had agreed to come and perform the procedure — lasting two hours — under these less-than-ideal circumstances. Of course, it was all coordinated with the Ministry of Health, the military, the doctors and the family. Still, it was a difficult process but by the team effort and thank God it all went well in the end.

Faith plays a special role in these days of hardship. Our community in Emmaus Qubeibeh lives and works in an exclusively Muslim environment. In these times, we all turn to God, trusting that he will help us in this situation. Our faith carries us and gives us strength, no matter if we are Christian or Muslim. We, the Salvatorian Sisters in Qubeibeh always experience that we are an integral part of the village and our community. We are ONE FAMILY. They always ask if we need anything and extend a helpful hand if we do. So our relationship has always been close, not only under these circumstances. But at this moment, we all need to reach out more to ask for and also accept the help that is genuinely offered by the other.

Personally, of course, I worry about many things. I worry because we haven’t had visitors in six weeks, as this would be too dangerous. It takes a toll on the residents, on the employees, on the sisters. It is difficult for the residents to cope with the fact that they cannot receive their loved ones, especially if they cannot understand why this is the case. I worry because we lack the financial support of pilgrims; we depend entirely on donations.

At the same time, our umbrella organization, the German Association of the Holy Land, is facing the great challenge that its most important source of income, the Palm Sunday collection, has been cancelled this year, together with the cancellation of all public services in most European countries. This has shaken our ability to continue our work here and cover running costs.

I also worry if we can manage to keep the virus outside our gates. But you know, in the end I have been in Palestine for 18 years now. I went through the Intifada, several wars and many difficult situations. To be in true solidarity with the people is to live and to experience the same as they do.

United with them, it makes the situation easier.

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