The Innocents of Bethlehem

by George Martin

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Past the courtyard of an old stone building in Bethlehem, up a flight of stairs, a door opens unto a corridor filled with young children and merriment: balloons are tossed and popped, giggles echo off the walls – a frenzy of fun. This is the Holy Family Children’s Home, popularly known as the Creche, a place of refuge and love for abandoned children.

There were 52 children in the Creche the day I visited, ranging in age from newly born up to five years old. The youngest sat in infant seats while others toddled or ran around them, tossing and chasing balloons, squealing when they broke. It was the afternoon play period, a time to work off energy before dinner and bed.

The Creche began four years ago when Sr. Sophie, D.C., began gathering abandoned infants in the corner of an unused and run-down hospital.

Sr. Sophie is a pediatric nurse from Lebanon who worked in the intensive care unit for the newborn. But her community, the Daughters of Charity, has the charism of helping the poor – and who could be poorer than an abandoned infant?

What began as Sr. Sophie’s personal apostolate expanded as more forsaken children found their way to her. A wing of the unused hospital was renovated with the help of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, and became the Holy Family Children’s Home. Now, three sisters and 11 lay people work full-time under the direction of Sr. Sophie, caring for the children it shelters. There are more children waiting to get in, but no room for them.

Where do these children come from? Some were left anonymously at the hospital. Some have been victims of child abuse. Some were given up by unwed mothers. Some are orphans; others have parents who cannot care for them, psychologically or financially. Some come to the Creche from social service agencies: there is no other home for abandoned infants and toddlers on the West Bank.

Normally such children would be cared for within the extended families that are a characteristic of Palestinian society. But these are not normal times for Palestinians. The quarter-century Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and the five-year intifada to shake the occupation off, have put tremendous pressures on the fabric of Palestinian society. Every society has its dysfunctional families; their numbers increase when a society is under stress.

Palestinians in the West Bank – which includes Bethlehem – are under military occupation. They are governed by more than 1300 military regulations that encompass virtually every aspect of life, from travel to taxes – a bureaucratic strangulation that makes everyday life very difficult. Because of restrictions on work and business, unemployment and underemployment are high. Schools, from the elementary through the university level, have been repeatedly closed during the last five years. Government-funded social services are minimal, and the Palestinian private sector has difficulty filling the gap: it has been hit hard by the occupation, the intifada, and the fallout of the Gulf War.

Many men able to have young children are in prison, or have been in prison, or are jobless. Some despair of ever being able to lead a normal life, and in their despair they forsake their responsibilities as husbands and fathers. Pain suffered becomes pain passed on.

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