Jerusalem, Sep 27, 2019 / 07:30 am
There are no tourists in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood. And even locals don’t always notice the Capuchin Franciscans coming and going from a non-descript three-house compound in the neighborhood. It does not stand out. But for many of those who know it, the St. Rachel Center is an indispensable refuge and a source of grace.
The St. Rachel Center serves a kind of immigrant unique to Israel: those born in the country, but living there illegally.
The strong economy in Israel is a magnet for many immigrants, mostly women, from places like the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India and Eritrea, who find jobs as housekeepers, caretakers of the elderly, or as maids in hotels. But the state of Israel admits those immigrants only under very strict rules: they cannot bring family members, and they have to commit to not get married or have children in Israel. Violating any of those terms would immediately void their visas and would make them eligible for deportation.
But life happens. And immigrant women who get pregnant sometimes opt to remain illegally in the country, knowing that their children, ineligible for Israeli citizenship, will live in a legal limbo.
The need of daycare for the growing number of such children has created a cottage industry of “children's warehouses,” especially in major cities like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. In such warehouses, kids are left mostly unsupervised, usually in deplorable conditions.
To respond to this need, the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Jerusalem started the St. Rachel Center in September 2016. The center aims to provide safe, healthy and nurturing day care for the children of immigrants.
This September, a group of Catholic leaders visiting the Holy Land through an initiative of the Christian advocacy group known as the Philos Project were received at St. Rachel House by its director, Italian priest Fr. Benedetto di Bitonto. Constantly interrupted by the joyous children who flock to him, Fr. Benedetto showed off the spacious one-floor building, with two playgrounds and two large rooms, one of them serving as a nursery for babies.
Another large room serves as a meeting place for the children who come to the center after school. Other rooms serve as offices, study and meeting rooms, and there is also a small apartment for volunteers, most of them young European Catholics.