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The Hidden World in the House of Light

by Catherine O’Hagan

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You learn that these children have their own secrets. Behind their mask-like faces are human beings. These children of Maison du Sacre Coeur in Haifa give few hints of their secrets. Outward appearances – odd shapes and queer sounds – distract you. Given a little patience and affection, though, they eagerly reveal them. Their sharing is a remarkable gift to those who care enough to open themselves to their lives.

The Maison du Sacre Coeur, or Sacred Heart House, provides numerous services to the Arab community in Haifa. Its primary mission, though, is to be a happy, loving home where sixty severely handicapped and mentally retarded children are given excellent care. With the financial support of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, the French sisters who operate the Maison give dignity to lives which were previously ignored by the community. The Arab population knows the Maison as Beit el Nour, House of Light.

The program occupies a turn-of-the-century building in the crowded business section of Haifa, a major port on the Mediterranean. The beauty of its French architecture, with vaulted ceilings and arch-lined courtyard, had been deteriorating since 1948 when an outstanding women’s school had to close after the flight of Palestinian students. In the early 1970s, rather than let it stand idle and decay, the sisters refurbished the two-story, U-shaped structure as a home for the severely retarded and deformed children who are shunned by their culture. Most of these children die before adolescence.

Five sisters, twenty employees, and occasional volunteers staff the Maison. Their commitment to the children ties them to what might seem an austere life. Yet they are charged with enthusiasm and contentment. Sister Simone has shared the secrets of the children since the home opened. She has learned that generous love is music to the humanity dancing within each severely retarded child. Every childcare worker in turn feels touched with a special grace and joy from contact with the children.

The children begin to reveal their secrets early each day. During her 7 a.m. bath Manal, a hydrocephalic who fiercely protects her large head from any contact, discloses that she really likes her hair washed under the spray. Iman, a four-year-old who lies silently by the hour, bursts into gales of laughter when bathed, towelled, and clothed.

The ingenuity, patience, and empathy of tireless workers let them communicate with each child. They always look for the best way to feed, dress, bathe, hold, and cuddle each child. Mitgal, whose lack of oxygen during birth left him spastic, needs to be tilted on his back so he can efficiently swallow food. Asaff, a microcephalic three-year-old, can feed himself so long as someone guides his hand from the bowl. Nonetheless, he can drink only if the milk is deftly poured down the back of his throat. Other temperamental children require their feeders to use clever tactics in order to penetrate their obstinant defenses during mealtime.

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