“In Bethlehem, like everywhere in the world, Jesus is the face of the suffering” – Nicoletta’s experience with the elderly in Bethlehem

Giacomo Pizzi22 January 2014

A fresh, moving tale which tells the story of the difficulties, as well as the joy, experienced over three weeks spent in the care home for the elderly in Bethlehem. This is what Nicoletta, a volunteer for ATS pro Terra Sancta, had to say at the end of her time there:

“I’m not going to be here at Christmas; guess where I’m going!” “Where?” my nephew asked. “I’m going to where Jesus was born, in Bethlehem, to volunteer in a care home (referred to as “home” for short) for women who are suffering, elderly woman – like grandma – or women who have physical or psychological problems.” “Where’s Bethlehem?” “In Palestine,” I replied. “Is it near to Jerusalem where you got me my t-shirt with camels on?” my nephew asked inquisitively. “Yes; it’s near, although there is a long wall between them which, in some ways, makes them very far apart…” The questions kept on coming, incessantly, but it’s hard to satisfy a child’s curiosity when it comes to adult affairs, which even we don’t always fully understand.

When I arrived at the home, having passed the check-point, it was already dark. The lights from a large comet, positioned above the church façade, caught my attention. Never before had a star-shaped light seemed as fitting as that one: Jesus was born and reborn in Bethlehem, on 25 December, to bring messages of Love, Peace, Hope and Salvation. In Bethlehem, like everywhere in the world, Jesus is the face of the suffering, of those who are alone, poor, abandoned, much like many of the women residing in the home.

When I entered the corridor, I saw some more or less elderly women sitting in armchairs, snoozing or watching the television; many had their own woolly blanket wrapped round their shoulders or legs. As I entered, all eyes turned to look at me; I couldn’t do anything but smile and wave hello… I thought, not speaking Arabic is going to be a disaster! From the following day on, I did everything I could to try to be helpful, all with the necessary prudence, as I believe that the staff should not be in any way “stripped” of their duties upon the arrival of volunteers. I tried to get close, to find out more, to understand. There didn’t seem to be much dialogue between them; they didn’t chat like most women, almost as though there was nothing left to tell. There were, however, numerous gestures of solidarity and reciprocal support, whether it be those in a wheelchair being pushed from one place to another by those who are more able, or the blind lady always being guided by the helping hand of a friend. She knows it too because, when at the table, after having finished eating, she doesn’t always wait for someone to help her up and go to the sitting room, but rather she stands up and someone is always there close by to help her.

Day after day, each of the women proves to be an inexhaustible source of surprise. The simplicity and affection of the most elderly was what struck me: small favours, perhaps being held by the arm to move from the dining hall to the armchair in the corridor, were repaid with infinite gratitude. Some had a motherly attitude towards me, dare I say protective, which tugged straight at the heart. For the little that I am able to offer, I am rewarded with sweet smiles, loving looks and affectionate embraces. With the younger women, with whom I am able to exchange a few words of English or French maybe, I felt more like a sister or a friend. It is true however that sometimes there does seem to be something about their behaviour that’s “disconnected” from reality, and communication is problematic. There is one I met at breakfast and lunch, who truly lives in her own world: she is tied to a chair safety reasons, otherwise she would wander all over the place, seizing anything and everything from her friends’ rooms.

There was another who lived in her own world, always tempted and ready to eat: Lydia, who I would like to remember for the suffering she endured before her death. Death isn’t experienced here as it is at home; it’s part of daily life because, in Palestine, not everyone has access to healthcare and authorisation is required even to go to a hospital in Jerusalem, precisely because it’s beyond the wall. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t hear of the wall, inside and outside the home. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t see it at the end of the road that I took every day to go to the Nativity Church. I never could have imagined what it meant to live in Bethlehem enclosed not within walls that were nice, like those in the Old City of Jerusalem, but by a reinforced concrete wall, 8m tall, with barbed wire, watchtowers, video cameras and the like. I mention the wall so that it stands as a warning in my life against any division; having “experienced” it, in some way, has allowed me to give my nephew (and perhaps not only him) a few more answers, against all forms of separation.

After such a powerful experience as a volunteer, I can only thank ATS pro Terra Santa for the opportunity it gave me, and which it gives to all the volunteers in the Holy Land. I will always keep in my heart the memory of the women in the home, of those who dedicate their body and soul to them, of all the Palestinians I met, whose patience and mildness serve as an example to me.