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Witnessing Charity: A Journey to the Crèche

A Daughter of Charity cares for orphans at the Crèche in Bethlehem. (photo: Samar Hazboun)

In the latest edition of ONE, writer Diane Handal reports on the exceptional work undertaken by three groups of religious sisters in the Holy Land. Below, she describes how her journey began, as she arrived in Israel.

I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport from Istanbul, awaiting the last leg of the trip: Tel Aviv to Jerusalem’s Old City.

The blue-and-white flag of Israel with the Star of David was everywhere as I walked toward passport control.

I took the shuttle bus down to Jerusalem with half a dozen other travelers. We drove by the green rolling hills of Ma’ale Adumim, about four miles from Jerusalem, an urban Israeli settlement and city in the West Bank. In 2015, the population was close to 38,000.

A religious sister from the Ukraine in a white habit with a red cross embroidered on her veil sat across from me and a young man from Vancouver sat beside me; it was his first visit to the Holy Land. The three of us departed at the Jaffa Gate only to find we were at the bottom of the huge wall and had to climb up to the actual gate with our baggage. I asked the driver why he left us below and his reply was that it would cost 50 more shekels (about $14) to be taken to the gate. The ride from the airport was $20. I wanted to scream.

The sister helped me carry my two bags and a stranger grabbed her bags and we trekked up together.

This was her second trip to the Holy Land and she said she was with the Russian church, which I believe was the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky.

Jaffa Gate was bustling with tourists and families who came to hear a classical music concert next to a huge Menorah with bright blue lights.

I dragged my bags to my hotel on one of the narrow winding stone streets of the Old City, and later went in search of a new shawarma place in the Christian Quarter, said to be better than my favorite in Bethlehem, Abu Ali.

I walked for a half hour through the narrow stone passages with their uneven steps that were slippery from the pouring rain. Merchants on both sides were standing in front of their stalls of pottery, religious artifacts, embroidered Palestinian dresses, jewelry, spices, fresh orange and pomegranate juice; some were using a broom to sweep the water back.

Every shopkeeper I asked sent me in a different direction. But eventually, I did find Maria’s and was greeted with “Ahlan wa Sahlan,” (Welcome) by Jack, the owner. He named the restaurant after his daughter Maria whom he had lost.

A young German couple from Berlin was sitting at a table. They had just come from Tel Aviv and were surprised by the high prices, even the hostels. They loved Jack’s shawarma, as did I.

The following day, I went to Bethlehem. It was cold, raining, and very windy. The sky was a steel gray, matching the wall that surrounds the city, only brightened by colorful graffiti. International graffiti artists include the anonymous Bansky, also a political activist and film director. His street art and subversive sayings combine dark humor with graffiti using a unique stenciling technique.

For Israelis, this is a security wall, which they claim protects them from Palestinian attackers trying to enter Israel.??For Palestinians, this is the reality: a concrete wall, stretching over 430 miles, a 25-foot high cement barrier representing what they see as apartheid.

I visited the Crèche (Holy Family Children’s Home) in Bethlehem, the only orphanage in the West Bank run by the Daughters of Charity.

When I walked into the nursery, about a dozen cribs lined the wall with colorful mobiles over each. My heart sank. Most of the babies were sleeping; a few were whimpering.

At the far right corner were two babies tucked under pink blankets who were 10 days old. Their mother had been sexually abused by male relatives and was in hiding for fear of being killed for ”dishonoring” her family.

In the middle of the cribs was a little baby girl whose mother was 14 years old; the mother had also been sexually abused by a family member. At the far left, a little baby named Nadia was lying on her stomach. She had brown hair and her big brown eyes darted back and forth. She had been left on the street by her mother.

My heart ached for these innocent babies, thinking of what lies ahead for each of them in this very conservative Middle Eastern culture where adoption is forbidden under Islamic law.

On the way to the checkpoint, I stopped at the Bansky Museum inside “The Walled Off Hotel,” which he owns.

The hotel offers guests “the ugliest view in the world,” a novelty. Looking out from the windows of the lobby or one of the rooms, one is forced to face “The Separation Wall.”

And then, it was on to the checkpoint and young heavily-armed Israeli soldiers checking papers and passports and, asking many questions.

Read more about sisters Seeing the Face of Jesus in the March 2019 edition of ONE.

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