Megan Gilbert: Hello everyone and welcome to In His Footsteps: A Journey of Hope to the Holy Land. My name is Megan Gilbert. I am a communications officer at CRS, and I support the Middle East region. Today, we will take you on a virtual journey and you will get a behind the scenes look at all of the work that we do.
I’d like to tell you who we have with us today, some very special guests. We have Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and of course CRS board member; country representative for Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, Michelle Ryan; Executive Vice President for Mission and Mobilization, Bill O’Keefe; head of CRS Gaza office, Bassam Nasser; and West Bank program manager, Ola Nusra.
So first, I would like to head to Bishop Kevin Rhoades.
You actually had the chance to travel with CRS to the Holy Land in 2017. So, I’d love to hear some of your lasting impressions from that visit.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades: The two most lasting impressions were our visits to Hebron. That’s the famous site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. So that was a real highlight for me. And the second highlight, of course, was Gaza. There are no Christians in Hebron, and it truly felt like an occupied city with Israeli soldiers everywhere and Israeli checkpoints throughout the city. I spoke with two friendly Palestinian shopkeepers near the Tomb of the Patriarchs for quite some time, and they shared with me about the severe restrictions on them, as well as the poor business because of lack of tourists.
But it really hit home to me because in my conversing with them, we were on a walk, and I kept walking and they stopped. And I looked back and said, “Why aren’t you continuing to walk with me?” Well, they were prohibited from being on certain streets. So I saw firsthand the challenges they face.
The other visit, we spent two days in Gaza. And that was really, for me, the heart of that trip. Maybe 90% of CRS’s work in the Holy Land, at least at that point took place in Gaza. Electric power was off for many hours in a particular day. It was kind of an eerie feeling. Of course, I learned about how the people of Gaza had lived through three wars and a crippling blockade, economic stagnation, the highest rate of unemployment in the world.
We visited with a group of local women, a savings and internal lending community, organized by CRS to help participants build savings and assist each other through loans. We visited a center where young adults are trained by CRS to work in child-friendly community centers to help children develop greater psychosocial well-being. We visited a supermarket where recipients of USAID, CRS electronic food vouchers, they’re able to purchase the food they need with those vouchers.
Very spiritually moving for me, was to celebrate two Masses in the only Catholic parish that’s there at Gaza, Holy Family parish. It’s called Holy Family because Mary, Joseph and Jesus would most likely have gone through Gaza during their flight into Egypt, and there aren’t many Catholics in Gaza. It’s a very tiny Catholic community.
We visited the two houses of Mother Teresa sisters, the Missionaries of Charity next to Holy Family Church. The sisters care for 37 disabled children and some elderly disabled people as well. Truly the poorest of the poor, and CRS assists the sisters and their many needs.
Megan Gilbert: Bishop Rhoades, thank you so much for sharing your impressions of that visit. We are going to begin our journey to the Holy Land in Jerusalem. That is where we find Michelle Ryan, who is the leader of our staff there. Hi, Michelle, how are you?
Michelle Ryan: Hi, Megan. Good. Thank you. Great to be here.
Megan Gilbert: Michelle, you have been with CRS for 12 years now. Nigeria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Haiti, and now Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza. You’ve been there for about a year. So, what are your first impressions?
Michelle Ryan: Like so many of us, I’ve always had a strong spiritual connection to the Holy Land. In fact, my first son was born very nearby, in Jordan.
Palestinians endure a unique set of daily indignities, restrictions and hardships. For example, even though it only takes an hour to drive from Gaza to Jerusalem, it took us over a year to get approval for a permit for one of our senior staff members in Gaza to come to Jerusalem just to attend some meetings.
But as a result, our staff are incredibly resourceful and resilient. And no matter what the countless challenges and obstacles that we face from airstrikes, COVID, permit delays, the response I receive consistently since the first day that I arrived is, “Don’t worry, we can do it.” And with all the tremendous support with folks like all of you, we can and we do.
Megan Gilbert: Of course, right now, the challenge is COVID. Can you talk about the CRS response?
Michelle Ryan: When the outbreak first hit, we were working closely with the local network for Catholic organizations to identify and respond to some of the immediate needs, particularly in the hospitals across East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza. And it was really thanks to the support of our private donors in the U.S. that we were able to purchase urgent equipment, such as the ventilator for St. Joseph’s Hospital in East Jerusalem where some of the first serious patients were admitted. COVID-19 testing equipment for the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem, which is a designated COVID-19 testing lab for the West Bank.
We also used private funds to support some clinics in Gaza with surge staffing and critical supplies, and it was this immediate response that positioned us to advocate for, and ultimately win the first U.S. government funding for Palestine in over two years, a $5 billion award to support and supply hospitals across the West Bank. And my colleague, Ola, is also here, who’s going to give you some of the inside scoop on the impact of the grant that we have in the West Bank.
Thank you so much, Michelle. We are leaving Jerusalem, and we are going to head south to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, and it is of course, the birthplace of Jesus. It is also the hometown of Ola Nusra, CRS program manager. She joins us to talk about the COVID response. Hi, Ola.
Ola, that first wave of coronavirus happened in March. Things started to get better and then that second wave hit. Can you walk us through what happened?
Ola Nusra: The virus came back stronger in late June. But in the meantime, CRS had become recognized as a leader in the national COVID-19 response. With a strong relationship with the Ministry of Health, we have been able to play a much bigger role in the response to the second wave. The second outbreak began in the south part of the West Bank, which is in Bethlehem, my hometown, and also in Hebron.
Soon after, the outbreak began I received a call from the Ministry of Health saying, “Can your team pick us up? We’re ready to conduct assessments.” We picked them up and we went out to the hardest hit areas to figure out what we needed to purchase for these hospitals.
Megan Gilbert: So Ola, as that assessment team was moving about their day, talking to health care workers, what were they seeing and hearing?
Ola Nursa: No other organizations had visited before and that is partly due to the widespread lockdowns in the West Bank. The majority of these hospitals were running out of essential supplies, including personal protective equipment like gowns, masks, gloves, which some were trying to supply themselves with local donations. We also went to the Jordan border crossing in Jericho, where Palestinians were lining up to get home. We found out that the doctors and the lab were overwhelmed, without supplies to run tests.
Fortunately, and proudly, we were then able to procure and deliver PPE [personal protective equipment] directly to hospitals, in addition to equipment and testing supplies to around 14 hospitals across the West Bank, contributing to the ability to fight against the virus.
What gives me hope is the front-line healthcare workers. The health workers are giving us hope to keep going, and it gives me a great satisfaction to know that CRS is helping these heroes of today to ease the negative impact of this pandemic. I really can’t imagine the situation without the support of CRS.
Megan Gilbert: Ola, thank you so much for the work that you do. While that work is going on in the West Bank, the advocacy team here in the United States is making sure that we have the support we need to keep all of that work going. So we are going to continue our journey. We’re going to head across the Atlantic go back to the East Coast of the United States. That is where we find Bill O’Keefe, Vice President of Mission and Mobilization. He joins us from Baltimore. Hi, Bill.
Bill O’Keefe: Hey, Megan.
Megan Gilbert: So Bill, the U.S. government put funding to Palestine on hold in 2018. And we have been working it to get it back for the last two plus years. Now the success in getting that COVID response funding in the West Bank is really due to the effort of several people working together, advocating for this funding. How did you do it?
Bill O’Keefe: Well, first of all, I didn’t do it. We all did it. And the most important thing is our advocacy always starts on the ground. Also, the fact that we started with private revenues and have been able to build up our own programming that we can then demonstrate success on is really critical.
But since the U.S. cut off assistance over two years ago, we’ve been working to restore that funding. The increase in needs there and the growing concern let us renew our efforts and develop a coordinated strategy. Michelle and the team worked very hard with USAID on the ground. I was also in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in April 2019, and I had the opportunity to meet with them there to help lay groundwork. Our team in D.C. reached out to USAID, to the staff who work on the West Bank and Gaza issues, and at the State Department, and also allies in Congress.
Then Sean Callahan, the President & CEO of CRS, reached out to USAID leadership and had a series of really important conversations where he helped lay out our strategy and make the case for their continued engagement and support. I reached out myself to a number of American Jewish organizations that did not want to see continued suffering of the Palestinian people, and other NGOs. And then finally Bishop Rhoades played a critical role in reaching out to Vice President Pence. Bishop Rhoades, for those of you who don’t know, is the Bishop of Fort Wayne in Indiana, and so he has a relationship from Vice President Pence’s time as governor of Indiana. And that was really critical in getting in the White House to pay closer attention to the needs. And we started to see things move upon his outreach.
We heard back through the grapevine of the U.S. government that there was a last glitch, which was the U.S. was concerned that if they granted funds to the Palestinian people, that the Palestinian leadership would not accept it because of the status of the relationship. And so we worked very hard with Michelle and the team on a strategy to make sure that if this money was offered, we would be permitted by the Palestinian Authority to implement it. And the Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister basically said, “If CRS is involved, we will accept these funds.”
And so, it was a real validation of the role of CRS, the relationships that we’ve built over years.
Megan Gilbert: It’s amazing to hear about all those pieces that just all come together because people are so dedicated to what they do. That funding is still unfortunately on hold in Gaza and we are, of course, still working to get that funding back.
I want to go back to Michelle for a moment. You spoke earlier about how COVID has affected the region. How are people the people in Gaza coping?
Michelle Ryan: There were few places in the world less prepared for the additional shock of the pandemic. Gaza has an extraordinarily inadequate health care system. Bishop Rhoades mentioned the highest unemployment rate in the world. We’ve got more than half the population living below the poverty line. But there are a whole range of things that we are doing to help Gazans cope.
We’re using CRS private donations to staff three major hospitals in Gaza with additional nurses. And we’re drawing from a CRS livelihoods database of more than 3,000 unemployed nurses. And I remember when we first started calling nurses to confirm their interest in participating in the program, one of the young nurses actually thought it was a prank call. She had graduated from nursing school nine years ago and has never been able to find a job. She’d be able to contribute to support her family’s income and ultimately be part of something that would help her community in the face of the pandemic.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much for sharing that. So, we have talked about Gaza, and I think it’s about time that we continued our journey and actually went to Gaza because that is where we have Bassam Nasser. Hi Bassam, how are you?
Bassam Nasser: Hello Megan, how are you?
Megan Gilbert: I’m great. So first, can you just start off describing what the living conditions are like for people in Gaza and what CRS is doing to improve them?
Bassam Nasser: Thanks, Megan. For those who are not familiar with our work in Gaza, CRS works in education, psychosocial support for children. We also work in livelihoods and emergency response.
Today I want to tell you about CRS shelter rehabilitation. Many poor families in Gaza live in crowded and polluted conditions. Their access to clean water, electricity and other basic services are very limited. The dream of most Palestinian mothers is to have a home where she and her family live peacefully with dignity.
We in CRS for the last several years, have been helping the very poorest family to improve their homes. Our self-help approach empowers the family to decide on the improvements they want to make to their homes. We start with pairing a family with a social worker. The social worker role is to make sure that every voice in the family is heard. Then the plans are reviewed by an engineer, just to make sure that all the renovations are technically sound.
The excitement of the families, the change in their lives are the most amazing parts of the project. Personally, I live in Gaza, but I can never, ever forget visiting Mrs. Sawsan Kawarea, who was sitting next to her husband, smiling, speaking with pride and confidence, and told me one story of her family before and after the renovation.
Before, all of her six children, both boys and girls, had to sleep in one room. It is not appropriate for a teenage girl to sleep in the same room with teenage boys. As a result, the oldest daughter got married at a young age just to take her out of that situation. After the family was selected to the CRS renovation project, the mother insisted to have a separate room for the girls. When I met with her, she concluded to me saying, “Now, I will not accept, and I will not allow marrying any of my younger daughters before they finish their education.” This is the type of change we are bringing to the lives of these families.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you, Bassam. One last question, and this is for anyone who wants to answer: Can you talk a little more about the voucher food assistance program?
Michelle Ryan: As part of our emergency response in Gaza, extremely vulnerable families receive an electronic voucher card. It’s much like food stamps in the U.S. Unfortunately, because of the worsening economic crisis, there are increasingly more families now who need this urgent support. The program is ongoing, we’ve made some adaptations to limit exposure to COVID-19, including training local shopkeepers on how to keep employees and customers safe while they do their shopping.
One of the girls from one of the families that we’re supporting with the e-voucher program, she has four brothers and sisters and they live in one room, in a house shared with 30 extended family members.
Our team was meeting with the family and the little girl told our staff that she was so excited to go back to school. She said that this will be the first time that she’ll be able to bring a sandwich and eat lunch like all of the other kids. It was one of those moments that we find in Gaza that touches your heart and breaks your heart at the same time.
Megan Gilbert: Oh, Michelle, that story really got me. Those school lunches. Thank you for sharing that. So, before we head out, as all of you of course know, there was a massive explosion in Beirut that caused just widespread devastation. I want to bring in now Kevin Hartigan, who is the Regional Director for the Middle East, to just update on what we’ve been doing. Hi, Kevin.
Kevin Hartigan: Hello, Megan. You can imagine, our offices and our partners’ offices and much of the Church infrastructure was near this explosion, badly damaged. Fortunately, everyone, all of our colleagues are physically fine.
In Lebanon, we work through Caritas Lebanon, the Catholic Charities of Lebanon, which is a very significant organization.
Caritas was on the ground within an hour of the explosion. Mobile clinics, ambulance services, blood drives. And then they’ve moved all of them, again with CRS support and all of it coming from private donations, have moved into debris removal, home repair, sheltering the most vulnerable, homeless people and food. Particularly food deliveries for elderly.
I’m extremely proud of the way the Church there, the staff, the volunteers, many of whom are themselves victims, essentially, the way they’re responding is just wonderfully heartening. And it’s just another example of the privilege that we have in CRS of connecting these extremely generous people in the United States, to very heroic Church partners around the world. So thank you very much.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you, Kevin. It really is just heartening to see the way people respond in a disaster, especially when they’re under so much stress themselves. So, again, thank you for giving us that update. I want to thank all of our guests today. But I especially want to thank all of you for joining us. It is your prayers, it is your support that keeps all of this going. And we feel it all the time. We hope you and your family stay safe and healthy. Take care.