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September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
11 July 2017
Michele Chabin

At St. Rachel Day Care Center, day care program director Claudio Graziano provides a caring and nurturing envionment to the children of migrant workers in Jerusalem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)

In the current edition of ONE, Michele Chabin reports on something Found in Translation: the promise of young Christian refugees learning Hebrew in Israel. But that’s just the beginning. Here, she adds some additional thoughts.

You can walk past a building a dozen times, but until you knock on the door and step inside you have no idea what you’ve been missing.

That’s exactly how I felt when CNEWA asked me to write a feature about the St. Rachel Day Care Center in Jerusalem, which is housed in a prefabricated building on the grounds of a monastery I hadn’t known existed.

The Rachel Center, which receives vital funding from CNEWA, cares for the children of some of Israel’s African and Asian migrant workers and asylum-seekers. Were it not for the center, the parents — including several single mothers — would be unable to work and feed their families.

Touring the center, from the babies’ nursery to the playrooms where the older children congregate after school, I was struck by three things: the cleanliness; the high ratio of adults to children; and the fact that everyone, from the sisters to the Catholic lay people, were speaking to the children in Hebrew, the predominant language of Israel.

Why Hebrew? Unless they learn Hebrew, these children — most of them born in Israel — will struggle in school and be unable to integrate into the country they call home.

The fact that — except for the ethnic makeup of the children and the Christian atmosphere — St. Rachel is indistinguishable from any other top-notch Israeli child care center is remarkable given the horrible conditions most migrant/asylum-seeker’s children are forced to endure in makeshift childcare centers that receive neither Israeli government funding nor inspections.

Several years ago, I visited one such center in south Tel Aviv, where most Israel-based migrants and asylum seekers live. It left such a sad impression on me that I remember every detail to this day.

There were dozens of infants and toddlers in the two-room preschool but only three caregivers for up to 80 children. They didn’t have the time to change all of the children’s dirty diapers or clean them if they were sick. Bottles were propped up on towels because there weren’t enough adults to hold all the babies while they ate.

The center had almost no toys, so the TV on the wall was the only thing that kept the children occupied — that, and an occasional group of volunteers who took the older children out to a nearby playground.

At St. Rachel the rooms are immaculate and there are so many wonderful toys and building blocks to play with. There is a library full of beautiful children’s books, plus dance classes and a safe playground with a soft floor to protect against injuries. There is healthy food, music and singing and laughter, all in a Christian setting.

A parent told me that “living in a foreign country, especially without any legal status, can be demoralizing.” But knowing that her baby was being so well cared for at St. Rachel “has given me peace of mind,” she said. “It’s given me the world.”

Read more in the June 2017 edition of ONE.

6 January 2016
Michele Chabin

Father Androwas Bahus has fostered a sense of community in his parish and often visits
with families. (photo: Ilene Perlman)

Writer Michele Chabin profiles an Israeli priest in the Winter 2015 edition of ONE. Here, she offers some background and additional insights into his world.

In Israel, especially, some journalistic assignments aren’t very upbeat, so when I accepted ONE’s assignment to travel to the Galilee to profile the Rev. Androwas Bahus, a Melkite priest, and his community in the Arab village of Shefa-Amr, I secretly hoped the father and his flock would share the joy and sense of purpose in their lives, and not just their challenges.

And then, on 17 June, less than a week before photographer Ilene Perlman and I were scheduled to visit Shefa-Amr, arsonists — the police later arrested three far-right-wing Jewish extremists — set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, the site near the Sea of Galilee where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus miraculously multiplied loaves and fish to feed the 5,000.

The fire injured two people and badly damaged some of the church and an adjoining monastery.

Although Israeli Christians, who comprise less than 2 percent of the population, consider themselves relatively fortunate to be living in a country with a stable government and the rule of law, this attack and tens of others on Christian (and Muslim) property during the past few years have taken a toll on Christian morale.

The fact that the Israel police did not make a single arrest in connection with these attacks until the Loaves and Fishes church was torched has left Christians feeling vulnerable and frustrated.

I braced for this frustration when, on 21 June, Ilene and I attended a moving Sunday liturgy at the beautiful St. Peter & St. Paul Melkite Greek Catholic church, but when I interviewed the community members about the arson, what I heard was resolve, not anger. I learned that Father Bahus and other local clergy had organized a solidarity rally at the torched church for that very afternoon.

In his sermon that morning Father Bahus urged his parishioners to attend the demonstration and assert their civil and religious rights in a peaceful, Christian way. Within hours the parishioners were boarding buses to the church, more than an hour’s drive away.

Father Bahus told his flock he needed to remain at the church to officiate at a wedding but said he would be with the demonstrators in spirit.

The parish priest told me that, until recently, many Holy Land Christians have felt like leaves blowing in the wind, at the mercy of political forces beyond their control.

“What they need,” he said, “is hope and a feeling of empowerment.”

As I accompanied him on his home visits to the infirm and elderly, it was clear that both are in abundance in the Shefa-Amr parish, where church members donate funds to the parish on a monthly basis to strengthen the communities institutions and expand programming. The parish’s schools are thriving and there is a new community center.

Today, when Father Androwas Bahus leads Sunday mass, the pews are full and the spirit is overflowing.

Read more in “A Day in the Life of an Israeli Priest” in ONE.

And check out the video below, featuring an interview with photographer Ilene Perlman, who adds her own unique perspective on this memorable priest.