· Vatican City ·

Nabila, a nun and manager in Gaza

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02 October 2021

The Principal of a school of excellence in the center of the Gaza Strip


“We have to be brave women here, if you show weakness you’re finished, you can’t accomplish anything. Wearing the religious habit, sometimes, has been an advantage”. To understand the words of Sister Nabila Saleh, one must see her in action in Gaza, where more than one has nicknamed her “the Minister”.

Her green eyes are always alert, her Egyptian origins are a natural aid to relations which, in these parts, are rather complicated. All the more so if you are the head of the Rosary Sister’s School, the school of excellence in the Gaza Strip, also attended by some of the scions of those who govern it.  From kindergarten to high school there are 1,160 students, only 78 of whom are Christians.

The first school bell sounded, this year, on September 4, three weeks behind schedule.  The delay was not because of Covid, but because of work being carried out to repair the damage caused by the war last May.

In Sister Nabila’s office, the monitors from which she controlled the classrooms and the outside surveillance cameras are all turned off.  The last images recorded are from May 12, 2021, when a river of fire reached the main entrance of the school.

“Three hundred thousand dollars in damage, a huge amount compared to the five hundred thousand dollar annual budget. Fortunately, it is not structural damage and we have already found donors. In addition to the Latin Patriarchate and a few individual and touching donations, we have received a large contribution from a Catholic Association in Paris. Maybe it is also because our students are the best in French on the Strip”, she tells us with the smile of someone who knows that relying on Providence means rolling up one’s sleeves, learning to invest in the right projects and knowing how to do the math.

Sister Nabila is 43 years old and has not yet stopped studying. She is enrolled in a master’s program in Human Resource Management at the Palestinian University of the Strip. “During the first hours of class, students from other rooms came to see me, they had never seen a nun - she says - so much so that one day I gave a lesson on the Church and consecrated life. An unmarried and childless woman is half a woman for Muslims, something inconceivable. Yet the director of the master’s program wanted me to work in a workshop with a Salafist sheikh. It was not easy, but we collaborated. With the arrival of the pandemic I had to suspend classes, while he, as far as I know, finished his master’s degree. I hope to resume attendance this fall”. 

Sister Nabila proceeds more slowly, but with tenacity. Not least because she wishes to set an example as a religious of a congregation founded to serve the local Church and emancipate Arab women in the Holy Land, starting with education.  A congregation founded in Jerusalem in 1880 by a Palestinian priest of the Latin Patriarchate and Sister Maria Alfonsine - canonized in 2015, the Sisters of the Holy Rosary are the only ones who, by statute, welcome only postulants of Arab origin.

Sister Nabila met them in Egypt. Not in Asyut, her hometown overlooking the Nile, but during her college years in Cairo.  “I come from a practicing family and since I was a child I had the desire to consecrate myself to God - recalls Sister Nabila - when I was 23 I entered the Sisters of the Holy Rosary.  I was fascinated by the Marian charism and their way of welcoming and helping our people”.

Egypt, Lebanon and, in 2006, the arrival in the Holy Land. In the general house of Bethanina, a predominantly Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, seat of one of the many schools founded by the Congregation in the Middle East. There are also schools in Kuwait, Qatar and Shariqah, important economic lungs for supporting the Institutes in poorer Countries. Such as Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Gaza.

The mission in the Strip is on a voluntary basis, Sister Nabila arrived there for the first time in 2008 to direct the kindergarten inaugurated in 2000 and named after Zahwa Arafat, one of the first girls to attend. It was her father Yasser who donated the land to the sisters to build a school in Gaza, where the first president of the Palestinian Authority had a sumptuous residence and the desire to make Gaza City, the only Palestinian city overlooking the sea, the Tel Aviv of the West Bank.

When Sister Nabila arrived, everything had changed. After waiting ten hours at the Israeli checkpoint, walking through the bumpy streets with piles of garbage everywhere and finding the nun’' building unsafe and half burned down, the young nun burst into tears.

The first war between Israel and Hamas, in power in the Strip since 2007, had just ended. The atmosphere was tense even among the different Islamist factions in Gaza. Some did not see the nuns in a good light, so much so that they placed a six-pound bomb in front of the convent door.

“We heard a very loud roar at four o’clock in the morning, we survived by a miracle, because the bomb went off in the middle. Even the Hamas militiaman who came to see what had happened told us so”, recalls Sister Nabila. A baptism of fire that forced her to wonder what she was doing there. “Obedience in my life has always been a beacon: if God wants me in a place, he gives me everything I need”.

The first gift was the eyes of Soha, a little girl just five years old, daughter of a very observant Muslim. The little girl was so enthusiastic about kindergarten that she repeated at home that when she grew up she would become a nun. Not so enthusiastic was her father, who was determined to withdraw the child from school. “One day the mom came in and she deeply desired a different education for her daughter.  She asked me to talk to the little girl and explain to her that it was better if she didn’t talk about kindergarten at home. A simple dialogue ensued, centered on the fact that we must cherish in our hearts what is beautiful that we encounter. From that moment on, there were no more problems. Educating does not mean giving up one’s own identity, but it is a long and patient sowing”.

It is no coincidence that the only mixed schools are the three Christian ones in the Strip and that the most expensive one has no enrollment problems. $750 in annual tuition, with an increase of $50 for each school cycle, is not a small amount for those who live in Gaza, where more than half of the two million inhabitants do not have a job and where overnight you can lose your home and what little you belong. Students graduating in 2021 from Rosary Sister’s School have already experienced four wars.

The longest, which lasted 51 days, occured in 2014, when Sister Nabila, after a break of a few years, had returned to Gaza to run the entire school.

“The most difficult reconstruction is not the material one, but the psychological one and relationships. So many children suffer from post-war trauma, so many have lost someone in the bombings, all the inhabitants of Gaza suffer from the permanent condition of siege, the lack of freedom and hope for the future. It’s not easy to teach people to love their enemy and at the same time defend their rights as human beings”.  Among the 115 employees there are also psychologists who help the children in the moments when the conflict escalates, when it is even more important to organize recreational activities, meetings, mutual solidarity. The door of the sisters often opens to welcome the children for extracurricular activities and parties, because it is a place considered safe by the families.

“When they come to enroll their children, we don’t ask anything about who they are or where they come from. Of course then it’s not hard to figure it out, the important thing is that they are willing to follow our rules. Respect and mutual understanding also mean discipline. And every now and then we need to reiterate this firmly”. When Sister Nabila’s is not enough, it is the two priests of the small Catholic community of Gaza who intervene. Barely 130 souls, of whom about fifteen are religious missionaries. Mass, Eucharistic adoration and the daily Rosary remain the heart of Sister Nabila's life, as necessary as sharing with her two sisters Martina and Bertilla.

The most recent conflict put them to the test. “We were repeatedly afraid of dying. We confessed to each other and decided to always sleep wearing the habit and in the same room. Ready to give our lives”,  recalls Sister Nabila, who even during the Israeli air force raids did not lose her pragmatism.

“I ran twice to the computer room, where there were twenty-three computers still packed away. A gift worth fifteen thousand dollars that arrived before the Covid pandemic. I could not help but put them away, partly out of respect for those who had given them to us.  The mother general gave me a lecture for what I had risked.  Responsibility does not make one feel too much fear and then in suffering one encounters Grace”.

by Alessandra Buzzetti
A journalist, Middle East correspondent for Tv2000 and RadioinBlu