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A palm tree
between hostile worlds

The house of the Salesian Sisters in Jerusalem is located in the Musrara district which sprung up outside the walls of the Old City at the end of the 19th century. The house stands at the point where three worlds meet, the Christian, the Jewish (it is right beside the orthodox quarter of Mea Shearim) and the Muslim neighbourhoods (it is only a few metres from the Damascus Gate).

Today, as well as being the Salesian Sisters’ headquarters, their house is also a nursery school and a residence for pilgrims and scholars. This nursery school is attended by about 70 children. For the past 11 years refresher courses in biblical studies have been provided in the residence for sisters who come from all over the world. In the courtyard towers an extremely tall palm tree which is a great worry to the Sisters: it is so tall and bends so dramatically in the wind that they fear it might fall on the houses next door, owned by Israelis. They have tried to obtain authorization to cut it down but without success.

We talk to the Sisters – there are seven of them in all, of different ages – in a welcoming room. The atmosphere is relaxed. They are Sabina, Caterina, Lina, Giuliana, Margherita, Milena and Silvia. Some of them are Italian, others come from Slovenia, Hungary and Bethlehem. They too speak Italian, the language of the convent, but they all know Arabic and Hebrew. They speak of themselves with trusting openness, not without a hint of coquetry. And from their stories, as well as the problems of the nursery school’s management, their paths as energetic and enthusiastic women emerge, together with the breakdown of relations between Christians, Arabs and Jews. Such a mixture could only exist in Jerusalem, one immediately realizes while listening to their tales and above all letting a sense of this fascinating and complex world emerge through their words. Before settling in Jerusalem they all came from other regions of the Middle East – Syria, Lebanon or Egypt. These are difficult places, theoretically described as “missionary locations”, even though, in answer to my specific question, the Sisters tell me that they have never had conversions, either spontaneous or even less sought by them and that they have always respected the religion of others. At their school, today as in the past, there are lessons in the Catholic religion for the Catholic children and in the Islamic religion for the Muslim children. All the Sisters have been through periods of war, they have lived under bombardments and built and rebuilt after the destruction. They seem very serene.

Sr Sabina speaks; she arrived in Israel from Italy in August 1957: “At the gate of Naples they told me that there had been an assassination attempt in Haifa. I was a little frightened but then the employee said to me “Go, Sister, you will see that you will be able to do some good”. She came to the House of Musrara in Jerusalem in 1966. “Here was the last road; beyond there was the West Bank, but then we did not take this road to get here but rather by the route from the Mandelbaum Gate and we always had our passports with us. For religious ceremonies we went to Notre Dame, which was then far smaller than it is today”. They had the whole house to themselves once again after the Hebrew University, which had rented the two wings for a few years, had given it up. “However we had many thieves, I’d sometimes run after them but I was somewhat scared. They were Moroccan Jews and the poor. They threw stones at us but the Israeli Government and the police defended us”. These were the years immediately preceding the Six-Day War which was radically to transform the political panorama of this area. “There was so much poverty here, everything was decrepit, the other sisters had started on repairs, but in short there was still so much to do. It was the two of us, Sr Caterina and I: we rolled up our sleeves and set to work! I left two months before the Six-Day War. I was sent to Egypt, to Cairo, where I stayed for 16 years. I then returned to Jerusalem”. Sr Caterina adds her voice. She was born in Piedmont in 1933 in a village in the Province of Asti. She has been in the Middle East since 1964 and lived through the 1967 war in the Salesian Monastery of Cremisan, Bethlehem, which was then located in Jordan. She remembers the Arab, Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian novices, about six or seven of them, obliged by their families to leave the convent because of the war. The Arabs were terrified of the Israelis, she recounts, memories of the 1948 war were still vivid.

She arrived in Jerusalem in 1988, hence at the end of the First Intifada: “At that time there was only a small children’s school with five Arab children, they were afraid to send them, then they calmed down, in all these years nothing has ever happened”. Later the Sisters set up a computer school and a school for dressmaking and embroidery. Sr Sabina goes on: “The girls who left here after three years with their diploma signed by the Patriarch went to work in the Jewish workshops where, as soon as they saw the qualification from our Salesian school, they took on these girls without making them take exams. It was a school that provided an introduction to various professions with a diploma. However, when cheaper clothes began to arrive from China and computer lessons were introduced in all schools, we closed. We enlarged the nursery school that already existed and we went ahead. We managed to have 140 children. We also began to give English and Hebrew lessons”.

At the time, they had boarding students, Arab girls who were studying at the University of Jerusalem. The fact that they were able to stay in the House at Musrara offered them no small protection, as David Cassuto, the Deputy Mayor, recognized when he paid a visit to the House. The feeling is that the Israeli Government did not limit itself to protecting the Sisters but also held in high esteem the role that they played.

The Sisters’ memories of the Gulf War in 1991 are also very vivid. They had three alarms on the right, on the left and on the upper floor, and two sealed rooms for use in case of an attack with chemical weapons: “They gave us all telephone numbers and masks, and we took photos of ourselves wearing the masks. The Government was protecting us, they telephoned us to find out how things were going and they advised us to stock up on provisions for several months. We saw the Scud missiles fired at Tel Aviv by Iraq. We promised Our Lady that if we were saved we would go on pilgrimage to a Shrine of Our Lady and we went to Rafat (a Marian shrine half-way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv). Nothing ever happened to us”, Sr Sabina recounts.

Sr Giuliana is Hungarian and left her country in the post-war period. Before coming to Jerusalem she too wandered all over the Middle East, particularly in Syria. “My heart is still in Damascus”, she tells us. Sr Lina spent the 1982 war in Lebanon. She was born in the Province of Padua in 1937, she became a religious in Novara and in 1978 set out for Lebanon, to the Beqaa Valley where there was a school of 800 or 900 children, only 10 per cent of whom were Christian. When their parents came to enrol them, they were armed and had to be told to leave their weapons outside. The families were very poor, sometimes the children were practically naked under their overalls, even in winter. Once, during the war, the Sisters’ car was bombed. In comparison with her experience of the war in Lebanon, Jerusalem – where Sr Lina arrived in 2008 – seemed to her an oasis of peace.

Over the years life continues in Musrara without damage, despite the wars, the Intifadas and the fact that in theory at least the Sisters are living beside worlds that might be hostile to them, the ultra-orthodox Jewish district of Mea Shearim and the Muslim neighbourhood. Of course, there has never been a real relationship with Mea Shearim. Before the 1948 war 700 girls attended the school, Muslims, Jews and Christians. There were excellent relations between them. After Israel became independent, the Sisters tell me, the Jewish children stopped coming; many more Muslim children, as well as Christian children, came instead. In Jerusalem, as in Syria and Egypt, the Salesian Sisters have more Muslim than Christian pupils. The Sisters never seem to have had problems with the families of these Muslim children, on the contrary they appear to be greatly loved. The house of the Salesian Sisters is like an oasis of tolerance and this helps to protect it.

“What are your difficulties today?” I ask them. The Sisters have taken a decision: to ask for very low school fees. This decision was dictated by the Salesian educational tradition and by love, as well as by the sense of solidarity which accompanies their work. Nevertheless the number of children has diminished. “This depends on the fact that the Israeli Government subsidizes schools with classes from a certain number up and in other Christian schools all age groups are covered, they take little ones from kindergarten through to the end of secondary school”. However, in Musrara there is only the nursery school, even though the Sisters are considering adding elementary classes. They now have 70 little ones. These are children from modest or poor, and sometimes extremely poor, families.

“There were some fathers”, one of the Sisters recounts, “who insisted on enrolling their children in the school and there were no places, but they insisted, they said that they would bring them their own bench”. The Sisters answered them that it was not a matter of benches but of numbers. “Take them to the large Muslim school next door”. “No, because there they instil in the children the worm of intolerance”, they answered. Catholic schools, like the Salesian Sisters’ school, are characterized by their openness: “Each child goes the way he or she wants, with each religion respecting the other”, the Sisters say. This is an important teaching, which explains the love and respect that surround them and which can be a seed of hope for the future.

Anna Foa

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