From ONE Magazine

Those Who Do the Never-Ending Work

More than half of the 1.5 million Palestinians in the occupied territories are refugees. 325,000 of them live in shanty towns throughout Gaza and the West Bank. Without an infrastructure to meet health, financial, and housing needs. the refugee camps are awash in social problems.

In the resulting bitter, often violent climate of the Holy Land, native Catholic and Orthodox women serve Muslims and Christians in their homeland. Their Christian mission is vital for the lives of thousands of Palestinians. Their work also shows that the Church is alive here.

“We want to help families help themselves,” says Nora Kort, an Eastern Orthodox social worker from Beit Hanina. a suburb of Jerusalem. “We help them keep their dignity.” Arab pride may keep Palestinians from accepting hand-outs. So the aid villagers receive must empower villagers to be more self-sufficient.

Nora Kort is a troubleshooter. She identifies the dire needs of communities and locates the necessary resources. Nora battled red tape six years to procure a license to build a small Orthodox retirement home across from the Jerusalem airport. Now in the ground-breaking stage, it will be the West Bank’s first housing for the elderly. When the two-story facility is finished, it will provide meals, full nursing services, and a gardening project for 10 to 15 elderly Arabs.

With a soothing lilt in her voice and a powerful command of English, she dispels the Western notion of the subordinate Arab woman in a male-dominated society. She works tirelessly, morning to midnight. She often must talk her way through intense questioning at military checkpoints to visit towns and villages in remote areas. Nora is direct, determined, and fearless – a natural leader.

Through the Pontifical Mission, World Vision, and her own project, Loving Care, Nora has connected 167 needy Palestinian families with Western sponsors.

This people-to-people support brings the refugees desperately needed medical and dental care, as well as some financial assistance. She is president of the Arab Orthodox Society for the Relief of the Sick, a charitable organization in Jerusalem’s Old City. She also coordinates youth clubs, health outreach programs, and services for the handicapped.

Beneath a detailed map marking Arab villages displaced by the State of Israel, Nora reminds Americans that the Palestinian people, especially Arab Christians, are more important than the Holy Land’s religious monuments. “The presence of the Arab Christians is ignored by most of the American Christians,” she says. “It’s not the sites we care for; it’s the Arab Christians we care for.”

Since the Palestinian uprising began last December, the needs of the refugees have increased, Nora says. With thousands of men in jail, many under curfew and unable to go to work, and others boycotting jobs in Israel, families are without incomes.

“We have been attending to many,” she says. But, admittedly, there are many more that need help. Some villages closed by the military cannot be reached easily. At the same time, funding is never adequate.

Nora sees “paying the duty of living in the Holy Land” as a privilege requiring self-sacrifice. She identifies the hardships in Palestine with the sufferings of Jesus. Mindful of Christ’s victory, she remains undaunted by obstacles. “How can we live in this country without hope?” she says.

About a mile away from Nora’s office, the Greek Catholic Society’s Infant Welfare Center is tucked amid the stone walls and arches of Old Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter. This small 700-year-old apartment is hidden from the nearby souvenir shops by a maze of narrow walkways and goes unnoticed by passing tourists. Inside, the clinic is a hub of activity for Palestinian mothers and their babies.

Georgette Rizek is the center’s director. She holds a special rapport with Palestinian refugees that come to her facilities for medical and dental treatment, literacy classes, and immunizations for their children. Like them, she is a refugee. During the Israeli War of Independence in 1947, her family fled Upper Bekaa, a town outside Jerusalem, and settled in Jordanian-administered East Jerusalem.

She calls herself “a nobody.” She has no college education and no formal medical training. But she loves the needy and is devoted to their care. The refugees call her “Im Johnny,” which is Arabic for “mother of Johnny.”

Im Johnny fights the injustice of neglect in health care and education. Without these basic services and job opportunities in the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians have emigrated to other countries to escape a seemingly hopeless situation.

Im Johnny has been solving problems since the beginning of the Palestinian conflict. Recognizing an absence of natal care among the poor, she and other women from her parish started a charitable society in 1950. They raised funds by church bazaars and dinners, calendar sales, society membership fees, and individual contributions.

In one room of a convent in the Old City, with a table, a stethoscope, and a volunteer doctor, she began serving Muslim and Christian refugees. Persevering through Arab-Israeli military conflicts, Jordanian and Israeli bureaucracy, and the continual need to generate funding, Im Johnny has managed the Infant Welfare Center six days a week for almost 40 years.

Today, the center has a staff of 13 Arab doctors and technicians, and one of the best medical labs in Arab East Jerusalem. Each year it serves more than 6,000 Palestinians who cannot afford private clinics or health insurance, yet who need quality care. Services have been expanded to include classes in preventive medicine and first aid, lessons for illiterate mothers, and a student fund to help children from the Old City parish to further their education.

The Palestinian uprising has put additional burdens on her work. Yet Im Johnny focuses on the need for justice. She speaks about “the rights that God has given” to all people in the Holy Land. “Palestine is not just for the Jews,” she tells her visitors. “God has given this land to everybody.”

A half-hour drive from Jerusalem leads to the poor, mountainous West Bank villages of Kebabe, Biddu, Beit Hanan, and Catanna, where families once felt shamed and compelled to hide their handicapped sons and daughters. Sister Theophane has changed their feelings. In turn, this Franciscan sister has been adopted by Muslim and Christian Palestinians as one of their own.

She came to Palestine with a Master of Science degree in maternal and child care. Bethlehem University invited her to teach the first graduating class of nurses in 1976. As her rapport with the students grew, she even coached young husbands to assist their wives through labor and natural childbirth – a novel idea in the Middle East.

Sister Theophane lived at the Franciscan Seminary in Kebabe, a community of several hundred needy families. She felt drawn to help the poorest and least educated of these Palestinian villagers. In 1982 she started English classes for 30 women and men. The following year she opened a 10-week pre-school, attended by 30 children.

Eventually Sister Theophane gave responsibility for the pre-school to two young village women who had completed her English class. She then set off with a translator on another mission.

“For a year-and-a-half we walked the streets of the villages, from house to house, Sister Theophane explains. While visiting a family, she discovered a four-year-old handicapped girl locked in her home since birth. Sister persuaded the mother to let her test the child and begin working with her.

As word spread, 10 more mothers came to her – one at a time and secretly – to ask her to visit their disabled children. By 1988 Sister Theophane was working with 120 families in the area with handicapped members.

Aware that alone she cannot attend to the growing response of villagers, Sister Theophane has nurtured a team of young Palestinian women to help her in the home visitation program. Two are Christian social workers, graduates of Bethlehem University. Two are Muslim villagers from Biddu and Catanna who attended 27 hours of Sister’s classes in Kebabe. Funding for three of the women was granted by the Pontifical Mission in 1987. Sister Theophane relinquished her own salary for one year to compensate the other woman.

Conflicts go on in the Holy Land, but the most certain victories are those of Christian women such as Sister Theophane. Nora Kort, and Georgette Rizek. Their quiet. resourceful efforts overcome major barriers to the growth of human dignity here. Their projects are the living stones building the Church in the Holy Land.

Lucinda Kidd recently returned from an extended visit to the West Bank.