Aisha’s family is large and very poor. It is made up of nine people: Aisha, her husband Samir and seven children. Samir is employed as a mechanic, but his health has deteriorated considerably as a result of having been imprisoned for several years for political reasons. Aisha is seeking to earn something for her family by working several hours per day as a hairdresser, but this is not easy with seven children to look after. Afrah, on the other hand is 68 years old, a widow who lives alone. She has three children, who are married but unemployed. As there is absolutely no social welfare system in Palestine, she is by herself and without resources: she does not even have the means to visit a home for elderly people.
These are commonplace stories in Bethlehem, a city located only a few kilometers from Jerusalem and one that has been facing a constant social emergency for some time. A situation exacerbated by the long and continuing conflict and by the growing tensions arising from the worsening of the armed confrontation in the Gaza Strip. Many men and women have lost their jobs and are struggling to maintain their families, which are frequently very large. Those most affected by this crisis are the Christians. They were the majority of the population up to 1965; due to emigration and lower birthrate, they are now 12% of Palestinians. The situation of poverty is made even worse by the fact that there is no welfare system in place. Families in need are forced to rely on the Church, on the Franciscan Friars who serve as custodians of the Holy Land.
On occasions such as Holy Christmas it is more than ever important to support the Christian community of Bethlehem, to aid the most fragile of the “living stones” in this place in the Holy Land that is so special, where God became a child. At Christmas time one goes back to the beginning. And it is, in fact, on the occasion of this Holy Christmas that ATS pro Terra Sancta – the nonprofit NGO of the Custody of the Holy Land – is promoting through St. Catherine’s Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and with the participation of volunteers, nuns and friars, the initiative “At Christmas Time a return to the beginning”, a fundraising campaign aimed at supporting the Christian community of Bethlehem where the needs, particularly those of children and the elderly, continue to remain pressing. The campaign will benefit children and families, as well as the elderly, in Bethlehem.
Children, along with their families, represent the category that has most suffered from the difficult political and economic situation in which Bethlehem finds itself. The Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land are working to aid the population, and seek to respond to the most immediate needs of the weakest elements of the population, in particular those arising from the lack of public health care. They are also working to support school attendance as well as to provide residential and day care for children in difficulties.
The elderly, who at one time played a fundamental role in family and society, and who now find themselves abandoned by a State that is unable to care for them, have become one of the weakest elements in society. The Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, through the campaign At Christmas Time a return to the beginning, are seeking to raise support for the elderly who live alone in Bethlehem and in the rest home managed by the Antonian Charitable Society. This support will take the form of subsidies for medical visits and medicines, home care, acquisition of small furniture, mattresses, beds and medical equipment, as well as physiotherapy programs.
As pointed out by Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land, “the Holy Land is not just any site, it is the land that gave rise to our faith, it is where our roots are (…). It is indeed essential that we root ourselves in the Christian testimony: to be witnesses through our deeds to a hope that is maintained even in the face of adversity (…). The works and the concrete commitment of each one of us, our testimony, should say clearly who we are.”
This great task and the profound desire to be near to the Christian community of the Holy Land lie at the very heart of the actions of ATS pro Terra Sancta, which was established to support the mission of preserving not only the Holy Places, but also the Christian presence itself in the Holy Land, thus reflecting the wish of the Custody of the Holy Land that all should cooperate in this undertaking of such great importance.
This is the case for Layan, a mother of three, betrayed and abandoned by her husband. She is supported by the Custody. Having no source of income and not knowing how to support her children, Layan was overcome with despair and on several occasions tried to commit suicide. She turned for help to a social worker from the Bethlehem parish, and was initially offered a small economic aid. Layan now works as a secretary, receiving a regular salary while benefiting from the possibility of getting out of the house and enjoying herself: a small step towards beginning a new life.