Rebuilding Lives in Palestine

The Jerusalem office of the Pontifical Mission restores lives shattered by exile and occupation.

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Politics and poverty have disheartened generations of Palestinians. Whether in Gaza, the West Bank or Israel, most Palestinians live in desperate poverty, their standard of living clearly inferior to that of their Israeli neighbors. To ensure a just and lasting peace in the region, overcoming despair and disparity is crucial.

“No political agreement [will] last if the people of Gaza and Jericho…dont feel a tangible improvement in their living standards,” stated then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres after Israelis and Palestinians first reached an agreement in 1993.

Reversing the effects of isolation and despair and restoring to fullness the respect for dignity of the human person is the goal of the Pontifical Missions Jerusalem office, located in the Old City. In partnership with devoted priests, religious brothers and sisters and laypeople, this office tackles issues such as housing, education, childcare, the handicapped, health care and interreligious dialogue, which affect Palestinians of all ages and creeds. “Misery did not discriminate among its victims in Palestine,” Msgr. Thomas McMahon once noted. “Neither does the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.”

A key undertaking today is the housing renovation program in Jerusalem. This program helped Hanneh, a frail widow in her 80s, who lives alone in a few rooms located on the property of a Greek Orthodox convent in the Old City of Jerusalem. To visit her one must negotiate a maze of narrow passages vaulted in limestone that meander up and around churches, monasteries and apartments. One narrow room serves as Hannehs sitting, eating and sleeping area. Outside and around the corner are a tiny bathroom and a new kitchen. It was once a broom closet.

The Pontifical Mission waterproofed and replastered the ceilings and installed new fixtures for Hanneh. While modest, these improvements made a major impact on her life. “Her house is her castle,” says Rose Karborani, a Pontifical Mission engineer who coordinates this housing renovation program.

A native of the Old City, Rose visits approximately 250 applicants a year to ascertain need, which is based on income and the number of people per room. (Since 1967, the population of Jerusalem has more than doubled.) Rose then determines the amount to be granted to an applicant, not to exceed $5,000. The Pontifical Mission requests that a quarter of this grant be repaid in monthly installments. These funds are then accumulated and reserved for future grants.

Around the corner from Hanneh, a family of six needs a Pontifical Mission grant to remove asbestos from their ceiling. A young father carries his daughter from room to room as Rose inspects the house and asks questions of the man, who seems eager to roll up his sleeves and get to work. The availability of funds remains the only unanswered question.

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Tags: Palestine Education Poor/Poverty Homes/housing