From ONE Magazine

The Young, the Old, and the Handicapped: The Mission in Israel/Palestine

When I arrived in Jerusalem in 1966, the office seemed extraordinarily empty. I discovered the work here mostly was giving handouts to institutions which had done a lot in 1948-1949 to help the refugees. I thought the sums were ridiculously small.

We played the role of “lady bountiful,” so to speak. And we were resented for it. This role set up a dependency relationship. If you want to help a man, you don’t buy him apples; you help him plant an apple tree. We realized that was what we had to do.

I began to get to know people from all the different communities. And I began to see what we all know now, that the Palestinians do not need to be told how to run their own show. They need to be helped with the means to do so financially and sometimes materially.

There are a number of doctors and professional people who do not need to be told what to do. They know what to do. They all have experience, mostly trained outside, and they’re very competent – some less so than the others, the same as in America or Great Britain, but lacking a government and lacking institutions that could facilitate building structures. This is the situation during both the Jordanian and Israeli occupations.

Helping build a structure of services is the role of the private voluntary agencies in a situation like this, during a military occupation. Back then, though, we were doing little about it.

The Pontifical Mission Orphanage was a response to community needs. I remember the first time Helen and I visited it, at Christmas time that first year, 1963-1964. The children did a play, and we had to hold our sides to stop laughing. If you went on a Friday, the children were in long grey overalls and were washing the floor, and it was just like something out of Dickens. It was dreadful. It was partly due to the lack of funds. All that changed later with Sr. Elisabeth Marie; the children blossomed. The whole atmosphere there at the orphanage changed.

The scholarship project at the Salesian Technical School in Bethlehem is another example of Pontifical Mission expanding into the community. It was very valuable because it was one of the few places which was training boys for work with their hands in the area. Still today there are too many intellectuals and too few workmen.

The difficult part of that phenomenon is the increased importance education takes on with the loss of land, with the loss of a country. Refugees cannot carry their household with them. If every twenty years or so something occurs and they have to flee again – well, education you take with you, and that is very valuable.

Another response of the Pontifical Mission to local needs was the Ephpheta School for the Hearing Impaired. The idea was started as a result of the papal visit in 1964 because Pope Paul VI was known to have a particular feeling for deaf-mute people. The Sisters of St. Dorothy staff it, and the Vatican did a lot directly for it. It is one of the most successful institutions, one of the most professional in the country.

The Pontifical Mission library in Jerusalem also was in response to a community need. It began in Brother Eugene’s time, 1956-1965. It was one of his solid achievements. He started it by asking pilgrims to bring in books of all sorts, but he particularly wanted up-to-date books about the Church. The Secular Institute of the Teresians were made responsible for the administration of the libraries, and they continue in that role to this day.

Gradually, over the years, other libraries have developed. The library in Bethlehem was originally in the Greek Catholic church premises. The brothers at the newly built Bethlehem University proposed that the library be located there. Catholic Near East made a huge financial contribution to the university, and they built the library as a service to the people of Bethlehem. It’s fulfilling its original function, that is, children whose homes are limited and provide no room for study now come and work there.

Of course, it’s doing far more now. The Pontifical Mission library is quite separate from the university, which has been closed since late 1987 by order of the military governor. As a result, the library is still functioning. It is, in fact, serving that same population not allowed access to the university.

Eventually, after 1967, there was talk about a library in Nazareth, and eventually it was opened.

The Pontifical Mission’s sponsorship of the Gaza School for the Blind also was a response to a community need. There has always been a history of blindness in Gaza. It was thought a very valid thing for the Pontifical Mission to do, to address themselves to this problem, as they worked for people of all religions.

During the 1970s we were well into projects. I was responsible for the endowed beds in St. Joseph’s Hospital directly following the ’67 war. The Pontifical Mission has increased the number of beds in response to the intifadah.

The Society for the Physically Handicapped in Bethlehem was initiated in the ’70s. I became advisor to the local committee. I refused to take part on the committee. I said, “You run your own committee, and I will advise.” It has grown and matured through the years, and now there is the new center going up in Beit Jala.

There also has been coordination of efforts among the relief and aid agencies over the years. I worked very closely with the Mennonites, particularly just after the Yom Kippur war. Immediately after the ’67 war was a busy time. Also, with people like Caritas in Jerusalem, we developed an electrification project for villages.

The work, then, was mainly confined to social services – health and rehabilitation, and also institutional support. Mostly community support, I should say, like the Arab Society for the Physically Handicapped. Many of the most community-based service organizations were organized by the Palestinian women.

One thing I feel very strongly about: if you are a Christian and you are representing a Christian agency, there can be no fighting for position. Perhaps sometimes you hope that notice will be taken. Some recognition of the work that’s been done by your organization is important. But this jockeying for position to me is unimportant as long as the work gets done.

We have a very quiet job to do as Pontifical Mission. It is supportive, not directive, in nature. It must be a supportive role, especially now, after the Palestinian declaration of independence on November 15, 1988.

There is still a lot to do, and there is a long way to go. The Pontifical Mission has enough flexibility to adjust to the present circumstances. We fought for that flexibility all the way, and I am glad to say that our successors did, too.

The Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem now has a role that is again building on what was contributed in my time. It listens to what the current needs are and responds. It is a small office, a small organization which can respond quickly and responsibly. What is it doing now is another phase of a long, uphill climb. That’s what I have always said.

Miss Hunnybun arrived in the Middle East in 1963, became the administrator of the Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem, and stayed until 1982.