From ONE Magazine

A Letter From Gaza

My name is Sister Nabila Saleh. I have served at the Rosary Sisters School in Gaza since 2007, directing its kindergarten for five years. After a two-year hiatus, I returned to take my present position as the principal. Throughout my years of service as a Rosary Sister, I have served as a theology teacher, helping children and university students learn the way of Christ, grow in self-knowledge and learn to practice reconciliation and forgiveness.

My mission began when I was very young in my native Egypt. My family was intensely committed to the church. Sundays were important — the Divine Liturgy, religious classes and youth and church activities formed the foundation that led me to consider religious life.

I first met the Rosary Sisters in Cairo. There, I was introduced to their charism, their faith and spirituality in accordance with the spirit of the Virgin Mary and of St. Dominic. I was truly impressed by the life of the sisters and would whisper in my parents’ ears that I wanted to become one and devote myself fully to spiritual work. At the time, I was unable to grasp the full meaning of these words. Yet, an inner voice persisted even as I pursued my university studies.

After graduation, I felt driven by a spiritual power to join this congregation for their way of serving the Lord through service to the poor and the marginalized — work that is highly needed in the Middle East. And so in 2003, I entered the novitiate, taking vows three years later and final vows in 2010.

Religious life carries great requirements and obligations: It demands vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; it requires the ability to break with worldly desires in order to pursue union with God. The road before us is quite thorny and fraught with hardships, but I knew then that the way to God is worthwhile if we allow him to work through us as he desires.

My life, heart and soul are enlightened by the existence of the extreme beauty of God. I tell him continually, “take what you have given me, and use me as you wish me to serve you.” I do believe in God’s providence because he has everything and he can do great things through me.

There are three sisters in the convent in Gaza: I am from Egypt; Sister Martina Bader and Sister Bertilla Murj are from Jordan. We dedicate much of our time to prayer, to the Liturgy of the Hours and worship of the Lord in the Eucharist. We have a harmonious relationship despite our respective differences — different backgrounds, cultures and accents. I cannot deny that I found it difficult at first, but our common love of Christ has brought us to work together in an almost perfect communion.

We believe that God has chosen us to work for him in Gaza to spread love by our care and to offer ourselves as a sacrifice to counter evil from wherever it arises. I am convinced our sacred mission is our daily struggle in teaching ethics, virtues and moral values and instilling the spirit of tolerance and mutual respect for all, regardless of race, gender or creed.

It is quite challenging to serve in Gaza, as it is either engaged in hostilities or recovering from them. A tiny strip of land isolated from the outside world by fencing and patrol boats, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas of the world and has little to no infrastructure or natural resources. Plagued by chronic high unemployment, Gaza’s unstable economy is exacerbated by international economic sanctions and blockades, as well as internal political conflicts, limiting future prospects and offering little hope.

In September 2014, when I took up my duties as the principal of the school, the school had suffered severe damage from the 51-day war that had ended merely weeks prior. We began the hard work of repairing and refurbishing the school buildings, initiating development projects and, most importantly, undertaking the challenging mission of working with staff, teachers and children who needed psychological support.

Being the principal of the school is a tough row to hoe; it’s not an easy task to deal with life in Gaza, where teachers, parents and students are living with the aftermath of war or are threatened by its renewal. Anxious and unnerved, tempers flared. I understood the burdens and fears of a people under siege and living in poverty with little hope in the future.

Most people in Gaza suffered from posttraumatic disorders in one manner or another — especially the children, who endured three bloody conflicts in only five years. I could hardly hold back my tears when I came to realize how much they were deeply and forever scarred. Some of the children had seen mutilated bodies or experienced the daily artillery shelling and heard the continuing roar of warplanes overhead.

“No place in Gaza was safe,” some would tell me, adding, that they experienced panic attacks whenever there was a bombing. So often when I heard these stories, I wasn’t able to contain myself and I cried.

In a tenth-grade class, a student named Salma told me, with tears running down her cheeks: “I will never get married because I can’t bear losing one of my beloved in war. I can’t bear seeing them mutilated; I don’t want to be responsible for the misery of my children by letting them live in Gaza to suffer as I do. I have lost hope in life.

“I’m expecting another war any time,” she said. “I struggle daily with the fear that next time will be my turn to die, or my father’s, or my mother’s, or my little brother’s.”

I am deeply concerned by what happens in Gaza. Siege, war, internal dislocation, pay cuts and long-lasting electricity outages impact every aspect of Gazans’ lives — particularly the children. Living in these circumstances has forced them to experience poverty, hunger and a daily struggle to exist. This situation has left most of the people dependent on humanitarian aid.

Whenever I have to face hardships and feel vulnerable, I remind myself of the words of St. Paul: “[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’

“I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.”

This comforts me and gives me strength, knowing that it is worthwhile to endure.

Knowing what the children have endured, I decided to carry out some activities before the new school year began. I worked on this with administrators and teachers — who themselves needed psychological rehabilitation.

We began the week with a thoughtful recreational and psychological activities program for more than 800 children from kindergarten until the tenth grade. It included drama, games, art sessions, dancing, singing, sport and debates. The students enjoyed it all. The teachers then led support sessions to encourage the children to talk about their experiences during the war.

Another activity involved showing movies with uplifting messages. The children especially enjoyed “The Butterfly Circus,” a short film about a young man without limbs who saw himself as an object of pity and ridicule, cursed from birth. Yet through the encouragement of others, the young man discovers inner strength and self-respect.

The last day of the week was an amazing one for all. The children wanted to have a water fight, and I accepted that challenge enthusiastically. I bought some squirt guns, balloons, buckets and hoses, and asked them to bring theirs, too, if they had any. The students, teachers, staff and even Sister Bertilla joined the match; it was by far the happiest day ever. They enjoyed filling the balloons with water and throwing them at each other in an atmosphere of safety and happiness, of laughter and joy.

This seemed to help them. I noticed during the weeks that followed that they seemed more relaxed and happier. They became eager to come to school and, from then on, little children rushed up to hug me whenever they saw me. I’m glad for this; it is truly touching.

I continue to pay great attention to carrying out extracurricular activities from kindergarten to tenth grade — from music and drama activities to events such as art exhibitions, holiday parties and sporting competitions that make the whole school very excited.

Despite these wonderful responses, the greatest impact on children may yet be found not in what they receive, but what they give.

Volunteer in-kind assistance events, with assistance from Islamic Relief, have created an opportunity for the children to connect and grow with their community by giving a helping hand to families in Gaza. Students collect for those most in need clothes, blankets, shoes, towels, toys and school bags. This encourages a sense of love and charity. I’m confident that instilling this spirit of generosity among young people is a critical matter of character building for a more kind and loving society.

The funniest of all events was our Environment Day, when we wanted to promote cleanliness. We started by cleaning all around outside the school, and all the students and teachers were enthusiastically committed to the task. After returning to the school and having a recess period, the schoolyard was the dirtiest it had ever been. It was a good opportunity for them to learn that being clean is about both external and internal.

“Beautiful is what you make beautiful.” I told them, at the end of the day.

My final vow was a lifelong commitment to God. Therefore, I have accepted and taken up a challenge to work and serve in a conflict area like Gaza to help make a difference in the lives of the children and to their community no matter the burdens. But the sisters cannot succeed without the help of our lay helpers and employees — true collaborators who, despite the ups and downs, have never failed us.

As for Sister Martina, Sister Bertilla and I: We are sisters in every sense, and our fates meet daily in the worship of the sacred. It’s true we are engaged with the world and could disagree on earthly matters, but we are united forever by the trust, love and consecration of the Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary through the virtue and holy soul of the Holy Father. Our hearts remain indissolubly united with his.