Seeing the Face of Jesus

How three communities of sisters are changing the lives of the young — from newborns to teenagers — in the Palestinian West Bank

text by Diane Handal with photographs by Samar Hazboun

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Not far from Bethlehem’s ancient Church of the Nativity, which marks the site of the birth of Jesus, cribs line the wall of a nursery. Within them lie infants swaddled in pink and blue blankets; their names are displayed on stickers. Colorful mobiles dangle above their heads.

Most of the babies are asleep, but not little Nadia; she lies on her stomach while her big brown eyes seem to dance around the room. She is alert and beautiful, and she was found abandoned on the street.

Administered by the Daughters of Charity, the Holy Family Children’s Home, also known as the Crèche, is a humble site unknown to the thousands of tourists who flock Bethlehem, especially during the Christmas season. The sisters, who belong to the St. Vincent de Paul family of religious men and women, came to Bethlehem in 1884 with a mission to care for the poor, the sick and the marginalized. They founded a hospital and later, in 1905, set up an orphanage to house the babies abandoned on their doorstep. The Crèche has grown since, now offering shelter to expectant mothers and a home for children.

At the Crèche, the mission of the sisters and their team is to serve the most vulnerable children and mothers in Palestine. Many of the home’s mothers are single and are victims of sexual and physical abuse, often at the hands of their brothers, fathers or uncles. Many have serious health problems due to lack of prenatal care, unsafe deliveries or both. Most have yet to turn 18. In the nursery’s center, just across from the corner with a pair of 10-day-old twins, rests an infant wrapped in a pink blanket. Her mother is just 14 years old.

Sister Denise Abou Haider, who serves the sisters in Bethlehem as their superior and directs the Crèche, hails from Batroun in northern Lebanon. Her role requires confronting many challenges in this deeply patriarchal society, but her belief in her mission and her steadfast faith provide her with the strength she needs.

“Faith plays a major role, faith in Jesus and God in the faces of those who come here,” she says of her community’s commitment.

We celebrate Christ every day and the birth of the Savior in the children we save.”

In such a traditional culture, sexual relations outside of marriage, particularly in the case of women, are taboo. Unmarried mothers flee their homes in fear of “honor killings,” which in the eyes of many in the region are preferable to bringing shame upon the family. No matter what has been done to these girls, even if by members of their own families, they are always the guilty party; family honor is paramount.

As a result, “women who were able to conceal their pregnancy, either die trying to abort the baby, have to abandon the baby or are killed by their families,” says Andon Iskandar, 49, a social worker who has been with the Crèche for 20 years.

The sisters work to guarantee safe shelter and safe delivery. “We don’t judge people,” says Sister Denise. “We see the face of Jesus in them.”

Today, their efforts have expanded to include children from broken homes, divorced parents, substance abusers and others, says Mr. Iskandar, who studied social work and psychology at Bethlehem University and received his master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh.

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