.- Although Bethlehem is partitioned from East Jerusalem by a 25-foot high Israeli wall, behind the massive concrete barrier there are places where charity heals the lives of the poor and disabled.
On a recent trip to the area, I discovered that the Pontifical Mission-Jerusalem, is at work in these hardscrabble confines.
Gabi, a project manager for the Pontifical Mission in Palestine, met me in Manger Square just outside of the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was born some 2,000 years ago. Soon we were joined by Rodolf Saadeh, who also helps coordinate and fund the missionâs numerous charitable efforts in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
These two men endeavored to explain both the great work being done and the needs of the children in the area by taking me on a tour of the places benefiting from the Pontifical Mission, an agency of the Holy See, established by Pope Pius XII in 1949 "to make available to every exiled or needy Palestinian the charity of the Pope and of all Catholics of the world," Saadeh explained.
The first stop on our visit was a government-run K-8 school that had clearly seen better days. The teachers and maintenance staff walked us through a classroom that had paint peeling from the walls, desks that were falling apart and water damage due to a bad roof. The school also suffered problems from a sewage system that periodically backed up.
Gabi noted that the Pontifical Mission is helping fund repairs to fix the problems the school could not afford, despite being a publicly funded school. The goal, he said, is to provide a good learning environment for the children.
We jumped back into the car and headed toward the Welfare Home for Girls. Saadeh asked if I noticed how recklessly the Palestinians drove as they sped up and down Bethlehem's hilly streets. "It's because they have nowhere to go. They feel trapped," he suggested.
Arriving at the Home for Girls a short time later, we entered a house that serves as a refuge and a place for healing. The girls who live there are strangers to a normal life, having been abused or neglected, sometimes by their own families. But away from the torment of their former lives, these teenage girls are able to recover from the trauma they have undergone and start over.
An architect who volunteers his time and expertise, explained that soon the girls will have a new gym, a welcome change to the dilapidated concrete annex they currently use.
By far the most moving encounter during my brief trip to Bethlehem was a stop at the Al-Ala'iya School for the Blind. One could sense the love that the school's teachers freely gave their students as they cared for these otherwise neglected blind boys.
Al-Ala'iya has a unique teaching model, with the blind boys being taught by teachers who themselves are blind. After learning how to make brooms, brushes and even weave a rug, these students will have a way to make a living, inspite of their blindness.
One particular boy, Abadeh Rashed Mutawe, comes from a large family that cannot give him the education he needs. As a shepherd, his father is not home often enough to help raise him, while his illiterate mother is struggling to provide for his three sisters and five brothers, ranging in age from 8 to 30 years old. Blindness also affects Mutawe's three sisters and one of his brothers.
Mutawe attends Al-Ala'iya and receives an education with financial support from the Pontifical Mission.
As I toured the school, Saadeh explained that the generosity of numerous Catholics has helped create a place where blind children are treated with dignity and raised above the confines of poverty.
The generosity of these boys and their teachers was confirmed as they announced to the class that they would like to give me a gift. "Take anything you want," they said. So I selected a blanket woven by one of the boys -- one I still have today.
The Pontifical Mission operates in conjunction with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Its website can be found at www.cnewa.org.