“Sowing what children lack”: Sister Luisa’s kindergarten in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem

Veronica Brocca19 December 2022

“Our kindergarten gives joy to those who knock on our door.”

Thus begins the story of Sister Luisa, for three years director of St. Catherine’s kindergarten in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. Sister Luisa was born in al-Zarqa in Jordan, studied many years in Rome and speaks fluent Italian and English.

Like many charitable works here in Bethlehem, the large kindergarten is so welcoming and cared for that it almost clashes with the surrounding dirty and abandoned territory.

In this Christmas period we have told you some stories of realities that we support and the importance of growing and working in a healthy and hospitable environment, both for children and for the elderly. Even here at Aida, it is evident to us how beauty and Christianity go hand in hand.

Aida - Courtyard
The courtyard of the kindergarten. In the background the separation wall
Aida - a class
A class from St. Catherine’s Kindergarten

It is a warm December morning in Bethlehem and Sister Luisa invites us to take a tour of her kindergarten. The spacious classrooms five days a week are animated by 41 Christian and Muslim children. Around the large tables the little students play, draw and sing us a welcome song in Arabic. We stay with them for a while and continue in the other classes furnished with tables, chairs and multicolored cabinets; Letters of the alphabet, animal names and days of the week in Arabic and English hang on the walls.

We go down to the lower floor of the building, where the children carry out recreational activities with two local teachers who every day invent new games that combine education and being together.

Sister Luisa
Aida - separation wall
The separation wall that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem, 2022

Our spirituality

During the visit, Sister Luisa tells us that Muslim families are very happy. Parents of children do not care that kindergarten is a Catholic institution, because they see their children happy. “There’s a child’s uncle who calls us on the phone just to say thank you,” she says smiling, and continues: “The children can’t wait to come to kindergarten; Even if they are sick they want to come here. This is our spirituality: to sow what they lack.” And in Bethlehem, as in general in the Palestinian Territories, many things are missing for the little ones. They can’t go out to play, because there’s no place to play. Although there are many children, in Bethlehem there is no soccer field or slide. Every inch of land is used to build apartments, shops, restaurants and parking lots. Playgrounds and sports halls are located in Israel, but many Palestinians are not allowed to go there. For this reason, schools are often the only place where children can play, learn to relate, move and develop their creativity.

On the slide of the kindergarten
A teacher with her class

Finally, Sister Luisa accompanies us to the large roof of the kindergarten from which we can see all the gray and imposing concrete wall that separates the Palestinian territories from Israel.

He shows us with sorrow the spot where Israeli soldiers burst in, leaving behind tear gas, bullets and gas bombs. She tells us that when she was a young nun she went down to hang out the laundry for the older sisters with an onion in her hand, so as not to run the risk of choking.

“But thank God it is very rare that clashes happen in the morning, while the children are at school” and adds that the moment of greatest tension is that of the Friday after the prayer of the Muslims.

When the rumor of possible clashes along the wall reaches her, Sister Luisa writes on the WhatsApp group with the children’s relatives not to send them to school that day because it was too risky.

View from the roof of the kindergarten, December 2022

The testimony and the Christmas party at the Aida kindergarten

We go down to the ground floor and in the office of Sister Luisa little Mariana is waiting for us, who cannot stay too long away from the nun. Instead of sending her back to class, Sister Luisa makes her sit in a chair near us, opens the sweets drawer under her desk, offers us a coffee and resumes her story. “I have been a nun for 35 years. I have lived in many cities in the Middle East and have lived in Bethlehem for three years. We also have a kindergarten in Cana in Galilee, one in Nazareth and one in Jericho, where most of the students are Muslims.” The kindergarten welcomes everyone, does not have a fund to help only Christians, and proudly affirms that its children when they go to elementary school are the best and most prepared. “It is important to us that our children come out well educated. When they see me, they always celebrate. I see that our work, our testimony leaves something. Even if we have few Christians.” The kindergarten is closed on Fridays (holidays for Muslims) and Sundays (feast days for Christians) and for holidays follow the calendar of Catholic schools.

We ask her if she has ever been afraid for herself and her children given the proximity to the “hottest” area of Bethlehem. She replies that now it is very quiet because at Christmas time usually nothing ever happens. The groups of pilgrims have returned en masse, the locals work a lot and cannot afford to go on strike.

On December 22nd at the Aida kindergarten there will be a big party! Santa Claus will come to bring gifts to the children and stop to play and sing with them. On that day, connect on the Pro Terra Sancta social channels of Facebook and Instagram to see the Christmas party in the Bethlehem refugee camp.

Aida - Santa Claus
Christmas Party, 2021