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Reflections on an Afternoon in Ain Karem

Boys jockey for the attention of the visitors: mugging for the camera, perstering you to play…

text and photos by Michael Healy

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The boys of Ain Karem are “orphans,” from homes broken by the violence of drug abuse, divorce, and poverty. Today they live under the care of three religious sisters in this small building on the steep Judean hillside.

Ain Karem is the village where the young, pregnant Virgin came to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth. The child the older woman carried jumped for joy in her womb at Mary’s approach. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth greeted her with an acclamation recognizing Presence.

Here, where Elizabeth’s son John “grew up and his spirit matured” (Luke 1:80), 31 boys now also grow toward maturity. They play basketball, study computer and foreign languages, watch “Sesame Street” broadcast in Arabic on Jordanian television, drink cola on special occasions, and see the steady stream of pilgrims coming and going to shrines of the Visitation and John the Baptist.

On a warm Sunday afternoon, the boys enjoy the chance to let off steam by running and shouting the way ten-year-olds will. A riotous basketball match of one against all brings out their aggression and budding competition. Nearby, the quiet ones concentrate on their small building blocks. A few share secrets – chancing special friendships in this family, large by anyone’s standards.

When the game gets too rough and tears start to flow, the basketball is put away. Immediately the boys with energy switch to playing hide-and-seek. The others rest in the companionship of the weary, which never lasts long at this age.

Boys jockey for the attention of the visitors: mugging for the camera, pestering you to play or sharing a cookie … sometimes just looking to see who you are and what you want from them.

The boys move in an ebb and flow of attachments and detachment. Vulnerable and eager for approval, the boys mask their uncertainties with boyish aggression, vanity, and mischievousness – typical boys! A few of them flash confident grins or demonstrate the courage of their instinctive love of their fellows. Others allow fear and uncertainty to show in their jealousy and competition. They are typical ten-year-old boys from anywhere.

The sun angles across the terraced slopes in the late afternoon. The red and orange blossoms turn to catch its rays as the earth’s chill begins to rise with the shadows.

The children live in tight quarters: crowded dorm-style bedrooms, a cramped study hall in need of fresh paint, and a general room for dining, watching television, and playing when it rains. Good thing the boys are small! But today’s weather lets them revel outdoors.

While these chicks scurry about and send up a racket, the three Rosary Sisters rule the roost. They’re loving and stern, and old-fashioned down to their habits. They handle their responsibilities with patience, blending their genuine affection with discipline necessary to manage their home, the orphanage. As the boys run en masse to see the snake caught sunning itself on the driveway, the sisters let themselves reveal their pride with glances and smiles which speak of their year-round joys and frustrations.

“Blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” Elizabeth told Mary 20 centuries ago. The same could be said to the mother of each boy in Ain Karem.

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Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East.