Hikmat Dandan’s desk overflows with Christmas cards he receives each year from the Greek Catholic Patriarchate School in Beit Sahour. Photo courtesy of Hikmat Dandan

Knights help Christian tradition stay alive at Bethlehem school

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  • December 14, 2016

Every December, a package from the Holy Land arrives on Hikmat Dandan’s doorstep. Inside are 65 hand-drawn Christmas cards in different shapes, sizes and colours.

Dandan looks forward to this time of year because in a way, he gets to play Santa Claus. It takes him four days to sort through the pile of envelopes and resend them to households across Canada and the United States in time for Christmas.

Some of the cards have yellow stars and green Christmas trees sketched in crayon. Some have photos decorated with construction paper and glue. One of the cards exploded in a puff of gold glitter when he opened it.

“Some of them cost me extra money in the post,” said Dandan. “They use sticks and they use foam and they make a small manger.”

These Christmas cards are one of a few opportunities students at the Greek Catholic Patriarchate School in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, get to express their gratitude to the donors who sponsor them through Dandan’s Jerusalem Students project. So, many of them like to be as creative as they can with their small gift.

The Jerusalem Students project is a website-based program (jerusalemstudents.org) created in 2010 by the Knights of Columbus council, headed by Grand Knight Dandan, at Jesus the King Melkite Catholic Parish in Markham, Ont. Through the project, sponsors in Canada and the United States can help fund scholarships for students and families in need.

The Greek Catholic Patriarchate School is the largest Christian school in the Bethlehem area. It is owned and supported by the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the Holy Land and has more than 650 students from kindergarten to Grade 12.

More than 150 students are in need of sponsorship. Only 65 students are matched with sponsors, but principal Sawsan Istephan said even these few sponsorships make a difference.

“Even $1 will help our school,” she said. “Because it will help our families send their children to our school.”

Like all other Christian schools in the area, it is a private school. If Christians want to raise their children in Christian tradition, they have little option but to pay the 3,200 Israeli shekels (or $1,100 Cdn) a year for the Christian education of each child.

Government-funded schools are free, but because the population is predominantly Muslim (Christians comprise about 18 per cent of Bethlehem’s 22,000 residents), the curriculum is centred around Islam and the Qur’an.

“Governmental schools are not like our Christian schools,” said Istephan. “They don’t have to pay for their children, maybe $20 or $30 per year, but their class sizes are more than ours. In our schools, we also give extra languages (courses) such as English and German. As well, we have a Christian prayerful atmosphere.”

In the Greek Catholic Patriarchate School, students pray together every morning, read from the Bible and are taught catechesis. Classes also attend Mass on important days of solemnity.

Although the school runs a growing budget deficit every year, Istephan said it is important to keep tuition costs as low as possible for the Christian families.

“Beit Sahour is facing many challenges and the parents are facing many difficulties in paying the school fees,” she said. “We have to help them in that. This will support their staying here in this land.”

The rising conflict in the Israeli settlements surrounding Bethlehem has greatly affected the town’s economy, which is largely based on tourism and related industries. As a result, Christians are emigrating in herds.

Istephan said it is distressing to see these families move away. Beit Sahour, also known as “Shepherd’s Field,” is believed to be the place where Archangel Gabriel appeared to a group of shepherds to announce the Saviour’s birth. If these families continue to leave for the promise of a better life somewhere else, Istephan fears that the Christian traditions of the town will be lost.

“If we give them a good atmosphere at our school, they stay and it’s very important to keep Christian families in the Holy Land,” said Istephan.

Although the school is struggling for extra funds, Istephan, the teachers and staff make every effort to make Christmas time special.

Each class decorates their classrooms with their own Christmas tree, lights and paper decorations along the wall. Teachers and students rehearse for the annual carolling recital. A teacher dresses up as Santa Claus and visits each classroom to give each child a small Christmas gift, perhaps the only gift they receive.

“This is a very nice program in our school. I would like to express our sincere gratitude for all the donors who support us in the program, in the past and in this year,” said Istephan.

“I hope for it to continue. It helps us maintain the quality services in our school.”

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