The nun who works in East Jerusalem

Sister Aziza’s mission is to talk to everyone

 La missione di suor Aziza:  parlare con tutti  DCM-007
02 July 2022

The meeting is at a rest area on the highway running north, a few kilometers from one of the checkpoints on the barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories. From the small minibuses that have arrived from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, about twenty women get out. They are doctors, psychologists, nurses, and interpreters. They are almost all Israeli, whether they be Jewish, Christian and Muslim, they devote almost every Saturday to the health care of Palestinians. Once a month the mission is dedicated exclusively to the women of the villages. Most of them are Muslim, which is why an all-female team is more effective.

At the end of the quick round of introductions, Sister Aziza pulls a box of chocolates out of her bag. It is her friend Bettina Birmanns’, a German-born neurologist, birthday. She is one of the veterans of the mobile clinics coordinated by the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights. “It is clear that there is not much we can do, I have been participating for many years out of a sense of responsibility and solidarity with those living under occupation”, explains Bettina, before getting back into the minibus.  It is an hour and a half’s drive, mostly made up of steep hairpin bends, to reach the school in the village near Ramallah, where dozens of women are already lined up waiting for the “Israeli doctors”. Sister Aziza is Azazet Habtezghi Kidane, who is Eritrean by birth, Combonian by vocation and nurse by profession. She is the only “foreigner” and Christian in the group. She speaks fluent Arabic and knows Palestinian culture very well, which is why she also lends herself as an interpreter to Ziva Gotlibe, a Jewish gynaecologist from Tel Aviv, in the room converted into an outpatient clinic. They visit patients for three hours, without ever stopping. Their patients include pregnant women or women with other problems, who often kept silent out of modesty, fear, ignorance or lack of trust. “There are cases of suffering that go on for years, before the women talk about it and get treatment”, says Sr Aziza, “but I think the most important thing about these mobile clinics is the possibility of an encounter between two worlds that, in fact, do not know each other.  The Israeli doctors listen a lot, they realise at first-hand what the condition of the Palestinians actually is”.

A bridge between Israelis and Palestinians that is also strictly medical. In the room next to Aziza’s, Bettina visits a little girl with a complex pathology requiring multidisciplinary surgery, which is not possible in the Palestinian Territories. The diagnosis is correct, but admission to an Israeli hospital is required. “We provide all the necessary contacts, but the Palestinian Authority has to pay the costs”, explains Bettina, “and this only happens in particularly difficult cases”.

Supervising that everything goes well is Khadeje, the right-hand woman of the village mayor. She smiles with satisfaction because in two years of cooperation, more and more villagers come to be examined by the human rights doctors.  “We put aside religious differences and politics. At the centre, there are only doctors who give free treatment to our people”, Khadeje cuts in, while out of the corner of her eye, she monitors the distribution of medicines and the arrival of chicken with rice to offer to her guests for lunch. “It is one of the most beautiful moments”, says Sr Aziza, “we share the work done and the experience. Some are on their first outing, others come every Saturday. Like me”.

A Combonian nun, sixty-four year old, Azezet Kidane’s loyalty lasted 12 years, from when she was 20, until the start of the mission in the Holy Land. Her father had wanted to marry her off, but Azezet had long had another attraction. So as to be able to wear a religious habit she ran away from home. During her years as a volunteer at the Comboni Missionaries’ orphanage in Massawa, she sensed that she had wanted to give her life to serve those most in need. “I discovered later that at the origin of my desire to serve the poor was the desire to serve God”, says Sr Aziza, looking back on her 40 missionary years in Ethiopia, Sudan, London, Tel Aviv.  She finds her people among the skyscrapers of Israeli start-ups, the Eritreans fleeing the country and the war in South Sudan, who fell into the hands of criminal gangs trafficking men in the Sinai Desert.  A trade that in 2008 brought thousands of refugees to the southern Israeli border, who arrive to find devastating conditions. So many women are pregnant and ask for abortions. The human rights doctors find it hard to understand, not least because of the difficulty of the language, the extent of the hell of violence and abuse they have endured. Sister Aziza became their voice, collecting more than 1,500 testimonies. She helps the women in particular to find a reason to live and the authorities to reconstruct and trace the network of traffickers, many of whom are of Eritrean nationality, torturers in real torture camps.  Sister Aziza’s denunciations proved so indigestible to her country’s government that her passport was not renewed.  More than ten years later, the courageous nun is still “persona non grata” in her homeland. With the construction of an Israeli separation barrier on the southern border with Egypt in 2013, the migration emergency ended, but the women who are taken in by Sister Aziza needs did not.  Launched in 2011 by the nun with an Israeli psychologist, there are now 450 young mothers involved in the Kuchinate project. Crocheting – ‘Kuchinate’ in Tigrinya - is the main means of work for these women, who have no legal status in Israel. They produce handicrafts to sell in order to earn their daily bread and feel wanted and loved like human beings.

“When the UN decreed the end of the emergency in Sinai, the contributions to our shelter also ended. These women are asylum seekers, but without the right to social and health services. They live as if in limbo”, sighs Sr Aziza, who shuttles between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where she lives with her community.  Two Italians, two Mexicans, two Spaniards and one Ethiopian. “The Combonian charism is very much linked to the Holy Land because St Comboni came here, before the mission in Africa”, says the provincial, Sister Alicia Vacas. “We feel at home in a land that is so much in need of reconciliation, wounded by ancient traumas, made up of disputed borders.  We have experienced it personally, having found ourselves with a wall of separation in our backyard. We had to make choices. You only have to climb up onto the terrace to understand at a glance why.  The wall surrounds the nuns’ property, bordering the Bethany children’s kindergarten. To reach the village of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, a few metres away as the crow flies, you now have to travel 25 kilometres.  “We also divided our community in two”, says Sister Alicia, “and two sisters went to live there”. Sister Aziza lived there until a year ago, until she coordinated the activities with the Bedouin communities scattered in the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho.  Twenty-six villages made of tin shacks, constantly at risk of demolition by Israeli bulldozers. “They are the most miserable and needy in the Holy Land. They really have nothing”, Sister Aziza tells us. “We started working with them because we realised they were the most abandoned. It struck me that they asked us, right from the start, for education to give their children a future”. There are now more than seven kindergartens in the villages, and more than one young woman has graduated, others have become teachers, nurses, and hairdressers. There is even a taxi driver. “In order not to depend on car rides from the male members of the family, she invested her little savings to buy a car”, Sister Aziza recalls. “It was the first step that led her to say no to the marriage proposal with a cousin to avoid the frequent genetic problems, she married a young man from Hebron and moved there. Our task is to sow, with patience, for God to bring forth fruit”.

by Alessandra Buzzetti
Middle East correspondent for Tv2000 and inBlu2000