27 October 2016
Issa Nesnas received help from CNEWA in his youth—and now helps others as a CNEWA donor.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
I first met Issa Nesnas last winter, during a visit to meet CNEWA donors in California. To my surprise, it turns out that CNEWA had helped him during a time of need in his youth. Born and reared in Jerusalem, he received scholarship help from CNEWA to study in the United States. Not only that, but our magazine profiled his remarkable family in the 1990s. Issa has come a long way from Jerusalem; he now works for NASA in California, where he lives with his wife and three young children. He continues to give generously to CNEWA and believes in the philosophy of “paying it forward” — giving back in gratitude to those who gave to him.
I contacted him recently and asked if he’s share some of his story. He graciously agreed, and sent us the email below.
I was born on Christmas Day 1970 in Jerusalem, to Antoine and Eileen Nesnas. I grew up with two siblings: my older sister, Nayla, and my younger brother Nasri. I attended Collège des Frères, a Christian Brothers’ school in the Old City from kindergarten through 12th grade. Both my paternal and maternal ancestries can be traced back well over 400 years to the city of Jerusalem.
While I was growing up, my parents both had to work to support our family. My dad worked at the American Consulate in Jerusalem, while my mother worked at the Pontifical Mission for Palestine [CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East] for more than three decades, starting at the age of 19. (In fact, it was 36 years in all, which included assisting both the late Helen Breen and Carol Hunnybun for the visit of Pope Paul VI to Jerusalem in 1964). Through her time there, many directors served in that office. In the mid-1980’s, when I was in the ninth grade, the Rev. Andre Weller was in charge there. He was an unassuming figure with a genuine care for people. During that time, personal computers started to hit the market and the Pontifical Mission had just acquired their first personal computer. I recall that computer laying there with its nylon cover for many months on end.
My parents had the great foresight to buy us a small computer, which was a substantial purchase for a family of modest means. To ensure that their investment was fruitful, they enrolled my siblings and me in a Palestinian summer camp that focused on early computer education, which had yet to reach the high school and college curricula. We eagerly embraced these unique but rare opportunities. Armed with this knowledge, I offered Father Andre help with setting up their computer and tailoring it to their needs. t that time, personal computers had few applications. The main purpose was to automate the office’s accounting system. His agreeable response reflected his trust in my abilities, which invariably left me with a sense of confidence.
I knew very little about accounting; however, I was adept at writing computer programs. So I started to work on programming their accounting system during my free time. I recall spending numerous hours working on that. It took many months and I was making good progress. It was through that experience and interaction that I got to work with and later know Father Andre quite well.
Father Andre appreciated my effort through the many volunteer hours that I spent helping with the computers in the office and he wanted to help me. There was one thing that I critically needed: a scholarship to study engineering and pursue my dream of becoming a robotics engineer. At the time, I also did not fully comprehend how grants and scholarships in the U.S. worked.
Unbeknownst to me and to my parents, Father Andre discussed this situation with Msgr. Robert Stern upon one of his visits to CNEWA headquarters. Msgr. Stern, whom I got to know quite well during my undergraduate years in New York, was another formidable man who was intent on helping people. Together and with others, including Brother Robert Wise, a Christian Brother at my high school in Jerusalem, they tried to work out an arrangement for me that would allow me to lump together enough financial resources to attend Manhattan College. These included small contributions from Manhattan College, from my family, and from my student work. However, the primary contribution would come from CNEWA’s newly established scholarship fund through the generous endowment of an Aramco retiree, Ollie DeVine. With the help of several players, one of whom I only met a couple of years ago, the fund was established and I became the first recipient of this scholarship.
Ollie was a gracious man with whom I exchanged monthly letters and pictures when I started at Manhattan College in the fall of 1988. We were both eager to meet one another. A meeting in New York City was arranged for November of 1988 but later postponed to January. Sadly, Ollie passed away in December and we never got to meet in person. But over the years, I held on to the letters and pictures that he sent me. It is these gestures — his willingness to help — that were transformative in my life. I dedicated my doctoral dissertation to Ollie and his legacy.
Perhaps my initial request for help with a scholarship was a little unusual. But the fact is that the people at CNEWA and those who support them made it happen. It is a testament to their dedication to creating solutions to help people in need. This left me in awe. Those people enabled my journey and I will always be indebted to them. What they have done helped change my life in very profound ways.
The people I met along this journey and the genuine kindness and caring that I experienced throughout left the deepest impact on me. That made me very determined to give back, with the hope that it would make a positive impact on others.
I felt blessed and fortunate, but it also inspired me to reciprocate. I felt the need to do something in return that would help others. Once your life gets touched by others, it changes you to the core.
I think people should know that the work that CNEWA does touches so many lives in the most fundamental way. It connects potential donors to people who are in need and who are victims of political misfortunes. The aid that CNEWA offers helps people get up on their feet and improve their living conditions.
We are all part of the human fabric: people of different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities and religions. Our lives are intertwined. Bombs and wars only sow seeds of anger and hatred, wreak havoc on the lives and livelihood of people for generations to come, create schisms and misunderstanding among cultures and never solve a problem at its core. Justice, kindness, education, and positive interaction will promote better understanding of our diversity and lead to more harmony, peace and prosperity in our world.