Jerusalem’s Good Samaritans

The Old City’s elderly find they do not walk alone

by Hanne Foighel with photographs by J Carrier

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Aida Yassi used to be a woman of the world. Born in the Old City of Jerusalem, she proved to be a gifted dressmaker at a very young age. Her talent took her to several royal courts in the Middle East. As a young woman she was the personal seamstress to the Hashemite queen of Jordan. Later, she worked for the women of the Saudi royal family, embroidering gowns with gold and silver thread.

“Look,” she says, showing a picture of her work. Her remarkably long fingers delicately hold a small plastic-covered photo album.

“This is me, and I wasn’t even 14 years old when this picture was taken. I made the dress myself.”

All of the album’s pictures record the career of the now 72-year-old woman faded and worn images of the creator clothed in her dresses and gowns made at various stages of her professional life. She wants to show off her creations, but she gives up when she fails to locate her work in her crammed studio apartment.

Ms. Yassi lives in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. To reach her home, one passes through a green-painted iron gate — decorated with a cross — just off a tiny, narrow lane. She shares a courtyard with a number of neighbors, but they do not share in each other’s lives.

The room is dark: Slim beams of daylight slip through a small window carved into the wall in her “kitchen,” which is actually a shelf holding a cooking plate and a few utensils. Only when the door is left ajar does sunlight flood the tightly packed room, revealing pockmarked walls and peeling paint.

Aicda Yassi has no family network. She visits the doctor on her own, walks unaided to the post office and manages other routine errands alone. Yet she needs help cooking her meals. She also depends on the regular care of a nurse, and she longs for comfort to help shut out the fear and loneliness that overcome her every so often. Fortunately, the Elderly Supportive Community Services Center, known locally as the Good Samaritan Center, provides such assistance.

Raja Salameh, who administers the program, knows well the needs of the 450 or so people who have come to depend on it. But the lives of elderly people, almost all of whom are Christian, are far more complicated than they appear. The Old City’s walls hide secrets as well as inhabitants.

“Aida has never been married and has no children,” he says walking into Ms. Yassi’s room.

“I was married to a British soldier while in Saudi Arabia,” she protests.

“I had a daughter and a son. But their father took both children with him back to England and I have never seen them again.

“Once, someone gave me a picture of a young man and told me this was my son,” Ms. Yassi says, pointing to a small black and white photograph on the wall.

The silence that follows is deafening.

The Good Samaritan Center was founded in 2000 and received recognition as a nonprofit three years later. Since 2005, the center has been based in a former hostel owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the heart of the Christian Quarter, but Raja Salameh emphasizes that the center does not belong to any one church. Rather, it provides services for all those who live in the city’s ancient Christian Quarter.

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Tags: Jerusalem Health Care Funding Caring for the Elderly Pensioners