From ONE Magazine

Miracles Happen in Bethlehem

In the complex circumstances surrounding physical handicap, the help given must not be merely physical, but also emotional and intellectual. Sometimes, release from bodily pain is only the beginning of a long struggle for independence and well-being, in which the mind and heart must also be nourished and strengthened. This kind of help is provided at the Arab Society for the Physically Handicapped in Bethlehem, a home for girls, and the result can be seen in the stories of three of its young residents.

Hilda was the only disabled member in a family of nine children. Severely handicapped in infancy as a result of poliomyelitis, she was left with the Sisters of Charity. It was not until the age of eleven that she came to the Home, illiterate and unhappy. Now, twenty years later, although confined to a wheelchair, she can read and write in Arabic and English, and has developed her musical talents. As a result, she is able to teach the children who are too infirm to go out to school, lead musical sessions both at home and at celebrations in the Bethlehem area, and deal with all sorts of jobs that need doing in the Home. In this way she has gained some measure of financial independence.

Nine-year-old Joumana has been at the Home since she was a baby. It is the only home she has, because her father is dead and her mother is mentally unstable, periodically having to spend time in the mental hospital. Joumana’s upper and lower limbs were severely affected by polio, and she started therapy at the age of two years.

Despite her problems, Joumana’s progress has been steady. After surgery, she was able to walk with the help of crutches and braces on both legs. Now she walks without crutches, and with only one brace. She is being taught to make the best use of the strength she has, doing her exercises regularly, so that in the future with the benefit of studies and training she will be able to earn her own living and be independent of welfare and institutions. None of this is easy, either for Joumana or for her physical therapists and teachers, and sometimes she has moods of deep depression and weariness. But normally she is a reliable helper with the household chores and a cheerful companion for the others.

Halimeh, aged only three, has just arrived at the Home. Also a victim of polio, she is at present too disoriented to speak, although she can. Her clothes are ragged and she crawls about on all fours, propelling herself with her arms and stomach muscles instead of her useless legs. The first priority is to clothe and feed her properly and to give her corrective surgery for her back and deformed feet and legs. After this, she will follow a regime of physical therapy in the well-equipped department in the Home. Eventually, she will be trained like Joumana to walk and become a fully independent member of society.

Such striking progress can only be achieved with money and effort. Until recently, the Home was able to provide little more than shelter and medical care for the 17 handicapped girls who lived there. It lacked the specialized equipment necessary for rehabilitative physical therapy and vocational training. The building itself had no heating in the winter, and was in need of renovation and repair. There were no facilities for out-patients.

Today, because of the help given by many benefactors, the newly-refurbished Home provides more complete care and training than ever before. The number of residents has increased to 30 girls; they are supported by sponsors through the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. A large donation from generous Americans not only re-furnished the Home’s sleeping quarters and kitchen and dining facilities; it also provided machines for vocational training and excellent physiotherapy equipment. Among the new purchases is a heated exercise tank which is powered by solar energy, although it can be switched to electricity on days when there is no sun.

Residents of the Home receive clothing, room and board and medical care, including the services of physicians and surgeons. They attend primary-level classes which are equal to those at government schools. Psychological needs are cared for by the social workers who make regular visits.

Recreation is an important part of every child’s life, and the girls at the Home look forward to weekly outings and trips to the movies. They receive training in music, and they also learn knitting, embroidery and weaving.

Because of the expansion that has taken place, the Home is now able to operate a clinic for out-patients of all ages, including non-resident boys. Thirty out-patients come to the clinic each day for treatment and exercises. They are also fed and sometimes clothed by the Home. Payment is accepted from those who can afford it, but the majority are very poor and cannot pay. No child is ever turned away because he lacks money, however; individual donations and some contributions from the government make up the difference.

Thanks to a German donation and in consultation with the Bethlehem Municipality Social Welfare Department, a special facility for the rehabilitation of handicapped children has just been erected. It is hoped that many youngsters from the Home and elsewhere, including Joumana and Halimeh, will graduate to this new program in due course to learn knitting by machines or some other useful trade.

The Arab Society for the Physically Handicapped has achieved a great deal in a few years. Its successes are the result of the hard work and devotion of three groups of people. First, there is the committee which guides the Home and sets its goals. Members include the chairman of the Home, who is an orthopedic surgeon, and the young physical therapist who gives much affection, time and energy both to outpatients and to the resident girls. The second group is composed of the children themselves, who earn their skills and their independence through long patient hours of therapy and training. The third group is the largest. It is made up of the many men and women in Europe and North America whose donations make the work of the Home possible. Without their help, the Home could not continue.

These three groups have joined together, and they have achieved great things. Each group brings a gift. First there are the committee members and the staff: their gift is dedication. Then there are the patients: their gift is courage. The donors are next: their gift is love. The gifts form a triple bond that unites all three and fires the Home with a special spirit. By these gifts and with God’s help, miracles still happen in Bethlehem.

Carol Hunnybun is an administrator at the office of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine in Jerusalem.