Sr. Sophie's Bethlehem orphanage makes sure there is room at the inn

  • May 22, 2009
{mosimage}Prior to the recent pilgrimage to the Middle East by Pope Benedict XVI, Catholic Register editor Jim O’Leary travelled to the Holy Land and encountered many people who were hopeful that the Pope’s visit would be a prelude to peace. One such person was a remarkable nun whose Bethlehem orphanage has been caught in the middle of the ongoing conflict.

Sr. Sophie Boueri is small, frail and, more than simply tired from a difficult day, her face mirrors  lifetime fatigue. She is 74.

Those who have known her for many years are concerned. She looks so tired, they say. Much more so than even months ago. They worry about how much longer she can go on.

She is the face of Bethlehem.

Sr. Sophie operates the Holy Family Children’s Home, an orphanage for Palestine’s abandoned children and a refuge for its unwed mothers. In a land divided by racial and religious conflict, her doors are open to all because “they all are a gift from God, and who can reject such a gift? Their religion is not important.”

It is a typical day. The nursery is full of babies, and toddlers are scampering about the foyer. Visitors are encouraged to hug a baby. Sr. Sophie can feed and clothe them, give them shelter, but the babies need more affection than she and her small staff are able to provide.

Sr. Sophie, whose Daughters of Charity order founded a Bethlehem hospital in 1884, has been taking in pregnant unwed women and abandoned babies for 18 years. She explains that an Arab unmarried women who becomes pregnant is typically expelled by her family or often murdered. Their babies are killed or abandoned, and she cites cases of police delivering babies to her that were found in alleys.

“We have a baby now that was brought to us wrapped in newspaper,” she said. “We tried to find the mother but were told ‘don’t bother, she’s been killed.’ The child is very ill.”

Sr. Sophie secretly shelters these women, who are instructed to tell their families that they have found a job. To lend credence to the deception, Sr. Sophie gives the women money to send to their families. At 34 weeks, the baby is delivered by Caesarian section and entrusted to the care of Sr. Sophie.

She is currently caring for 54 children under the age of six. There is room for more but Bethlehem has become virtually closed to the outside world by the towering concrete barrier constructed since 2002 by Israel in response to the last Intifada. Sr. Sophie’s compassionate hand used to extend to women from Gaza and Hebron but, today, those women are denied entry to Bethlehem without somehow first navigating a bureaucratic maze to obtain entry and exit papers from Israel.

Sr. Sophie’s heart aches when she thinks about the fate of those women and their babies.

Occasionally she will receive a call to come to the rescue of an abandoned newborn. Before The Wall, she could hop in her car and retrieve the child in an hour or two. Now, however, because of security checks and searches, the same trip takes more than six hours.

“I could take in more children but it is so difficult to get through The Wall,” she said.

The Wall is a dehumanizing barrier, 10-metres high, made of grey concrete slabs pressed together to form a cement vault that entraps Bethlehem. Entry and exit is through a single checkpoint. There is no passage for anyone without credentials and credentials are unavailable to most residents of the West Bank. Even with proper papers, there are searches and long delays.

Israel constructed the barrier to choke off terrorist attacks and suicide bombers. During the Intifada that began in September 2000, Bethlehem was a hotbed of violence and, in 2002, Israeli forces rolled into the city to rout militants who sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity.

The symbolism of operating a shelter in Bethlehem for pregnant women and their babies who have nowhere else to turn is not lost on Sr. Sophie. A leaflet describing the shelter’s mission points out that, before the manger birth, Mary and Joseph were turned away at every door. Two-thousand years later, Sr. Sophie’s door is never closed.

She tells the story of an impoverished mother who recently abandoned four children at the shelter. The father, a Palestinian in Gaza, wants them back but he is out of work and living in a garage. “I asked him what would the children eat,” said Sr. Sophie, “and he told me that he has a bag of flour. How can they live like that?”

For now, the children remain in the care of Sr. Sophie. But for every child she shelters, there are untold more who face hunger and abandonment in Bethlehem and throughout the West Bank. That is unlikely to change while Middle East peace remains elusive and the wall is intact.

Still, Sr. Sophie believes peace will come.

“You can only survive in Bethlehem if you have faith and can look beyond the current situation,” she says. “It is good to pray at the Basilica but I look at the children and think that Jesus is here with us now.”

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