A story of commitment and solidarity: interview with Shahd Souri, director of the Spafford Children’s Center in Jerusalem

Lucia Borgato26 April 2024

“In this country, you can’t think of separating the child from political events, because they are constantly exposed to them, especially at home on TV. They need help and immediate help.”

With these words, Shahd Souri, director of the Spafford Children’s Center in Jerusalem, recounts the consequences that the war, which began on October 7, has had on children. Shahd’s energy is engaging, and as she talks about the reality of the center, a lot of grit and passion for her work shines through.

Spafford Children’s Center: the mission

In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City is the Spafford Center, an institution that has deep roots in the city’s community and history. It was founded in 1881 by the American Spafford family, who came as pilgrims to Jerusalem, in response to the urgent need for health care for the local population. The centre, initially born as an orphanage, was later transformed into a hospital. After 1967 the center was maintained by the Spafford family as a humanitarian work dedicated to serving the Jerusalem community.

“The mission of the center is to offer help to needy peopleand provide them with a service regardless of their religion, culture, ethnicity or any kind of social background they have,” Shahd said.

Activities in Spafford Children’s Center

Various activities take place inside the center.

“Spafford Children’s Centre offers a multidisciplinary approach that consists of a remedial teaching program, special education for children who have learning difficulties , and sessions in speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy, and drama therapy. In addition, we also promote programs for women empowermand for young people, we have different types of cultural and recreational activities for children and adults, and we offer a summer camp for children and parents during holidays.”

Jerusalem: daily dhallenges

However, the center is not immune to the difficulties faced by the community in which it operates. Political tensions and the closure of checkpoints that control access to Jerusalem prevent children and their families from accessing the center’s services.

“You know the situation of tension and instability that often escalates in Jerusalem – reflects Shahd – in moments of tension, checkpoints are closed for security reasons, preventing children from reaching the center in time for their therapy sessions. Mothers themselves are sometimes hesitant to send their children to attend the sessions, because of the unrest. The closure of the city is a big problem because in our center we receive many children from Area C of the West Bank, who are denied of their right to therapy.”

In addition to the hardships caused by the situation of instability in Jerusalem, there are also the difficulties caused by poverty.

“Many people in the old city live below the poverty line and they can’t afford to pay even a small fee when they sign up. Therefore, as a center we try to offer our services free of charge to all those families who are in need.”

Despite the challenges posed by the daily difficulties that people of Jerusalem experience, the Spafford Center tries in every way to continue to provide its assistance services to its beneficiaries.

“We have decided to make some changes in the therapy sessions and in some cases we have decided to postpone the semester in order to allow everyone to participate. In order not to leave our beneficiaries alone , we sometimes conduct online counseling sessions with parents, as it was during the Covid pandemic. We also activated a hotline after the events of October 7.”

A commitment that produces results

The work that the center does is crucial for supporting the local community. There are many positive stories of families who have asked for help and benefited from it.

“We have millions of success stories that I could mention,” Shahd continues, “in particular, the story of a family that we received comes to my mind. Consisting of ten children, they live below the poverty line, sharing a two-room house, with no space for children to play. The mother herself is exposed to domestic violence by her husband and cannot offer her children the security she would like. So she turned to us for help. Three of her children can’t concentrate in school, they have fallen behind their peers. When they are at home they are often isolated in their rooms, unable to speak and struggle to sleep during the night. We immediately noticed that they suffered severe trauma due to violence within the family context. Thus, after receiving two semesters of drama therapy and psychological counseling sessions with the social worker, the children can finally express what they feel, integrate with their schoolmates and smile. It’s always nice to see the smile of the children that tells of their improvement. We want to point out that we do not work with children only, but also with parents, trying to educate them on how domestic violence affects not only themselves, but also their children.”

Pro Terra Sancta for Spafford Children’s Center

Shahd is very grateful for the support that Pro Terra Sancta has given to this reality.

“Your commitment has made a difference for many children and families we have supported,” she says gratefully, “ we are proud to work with you and hope to continue this collaboration in the long term, by God’s will!”