Week two – The Holy Land: “Sight to the Blind”

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One of the projects that we are sponsoring this year for our Lent Call is the Al Sharooq school for the Blind.  This beautiful, peaceful, purpose built school is a haven of positivity and creative endeavour.  Here Ruba Mukarke, the Principal, of the school gives us some information about the history of the school and the work that they are doing.

Half of the group on the Diocesan Pilgrimage were able to visit Al Sharooq and hear about how things were progressing.  It was a wonderful and very moving experience to see the children and to hear about the hopes that the staff have for them.  We were able to see some of them working in occupational therapy learning how to negotiate objects with limited or no sight and see how some of those children with very complex needs are helped to learn how to do things through feel.

It is extraordinary to see the progress that they make with patient one to one attention.  It is very moving but it is very expensive not only in terms of staff time and cost but in terms of the emotional demands made on the staff.

When the Dean and I visited Al Sharooq we had meet Jabar – his meeting with the Dean is one of the images on the Lent Call Week 2 project sheet here. It was lovely to see him again and to know that he had made so much progress that he was now in year 1 and not in the special education unit anymore.

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His story is so sad.  He was sitting next to his twin brother in class.  We hadn’t known that he had a twin last time we visited. His twin was so much smaller than Jabar.  Both have now turned 10 and this was the first real education that they had had. Jabar’s twin does not have the same complex needs as Jabar as he is not deaf as well as visually impaired.  Ruba tells us that he wants to be a lawyer and there is no reason why he could not be.  Jabar’s lack of communication skills will hold him back, however – even though he is bright and making good progress  – for he has only three senses to work with instead of five.   Even so I was amazed by the difference in him because 18 months on it is clear that he can now communicate more.  He instantly knew that Ruba had come into the room and could count out lolly sticks for her – just over a year ago he couldn’t really communicate at all and had few social skills but now he was clearly growing in confidence and ability.  Ruba says that they will try to keep the boys together in class as they help and support each other.

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But it was very sad to hear that they have further difficulties to cope with as their mother, who was well known to all the teachers, had died as a result of cancer.  The staff have managed to find another family member to have them at weekends but their situation is precarious as the family member needs help to care for them as she has few resources.  Ruba said these boys had become, more than any of the others, the staff’s children and that they knew that they would need to care for them and look out for them for many years to come.

Such stories multiplied as there were other brothers and sisters and indeed another set of twins in the school.  The other set of twins – a boy and a girl – both have sight problems but the little girl has really complex needs and, whilst she lives at Al Sharooq, attends a school that can do more for her during the day.  Before they had been in the school, although they had lived in the same house they had not known each other.

The toll that the emotional, physical and educational needs of the children takes on the staff is huge, especially on the Principal.  Please pray for them and give generously that they may continue to provide for the needs of these very special and previously neglected children.

Week one – the Holy Land: “Bringing good news to the poor”

Over the next two weeks we will be featuring the places that the Lent Call is supporting in the Holy Land. Travellers on the Diocesan Pilgrimage will be visiting two of the projects whist they are in the Holy Land. These are Jeel Al Amal, a school and home for boys from the Palestinian territories who are orphaned or unable to live with their families full time, and the Al Shurooq School for the Blind – and we will hear about them in a future blog.

Sadly the pilgrims will not be able to visit the other project we are supporting, the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, as it is situated in Gaza City and there are severe restrictions on the movement of materials and people in and out of the area.

Gaza has experienced chronic energy shortages since Israel’s imposition of a blockade and closure in 2007. This crisis was exacerbated in June 2017 with the cutting of electricity supplied by Israel at the request of the Palestinian Authority. Though supplies of this electricity via Israel have restarted, severe fuel shortages for Gaza’s sole power plant remain. Gaza is now receiving four hours of mains electricity every 12 to 16 hours, leaving hospitals and healthcare centres entirely reliant on backup generators for long periods of time, fuel for which is rapidly running out.

A few days ago the head of the UNRWA – the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza warned that it cannot guarantee food distribution beyond the end of June and they cite major funding cuts by the United States as the cause. There are growing concerns about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza and its potential to prompt conflict with Israel.

Gaza’s health system is beset by severe shortages and increasing restrictions to the movement of patients. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in January, 40% of all essential drugs were entirely depleted, including medications used in emergency departments. There is also less than one month’s supply available of 26% of medical disposables such as syringes and wound dressings. Last year also saw the lowest rate of permit approvals by Israeli authorities for Palestinian patients needing to exit for medical care outside Gaza since records began in 2006.

In a land where hardship is commonplace, the conditions in Gaza stand out, but the Al Ahli Arab Hospital generates a beacon of peace and hope for the people it serves and continues to provide some of the finest medical care available in the region.

The Al Ahli Arab Hospital is supported by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and a number of charities including the Friends of the Holy Land and Embrace the Middle East – both of which have Bishop Christopher as a Patron.

It offers a wide range of services, many of those, in fact, that we would expect to see in a modern hospital here in England, but the challenges are so much more as getting all the necessary medicines and supplies and ensuring that there is power can be very hard work.

The hospital provides outpatient services which include general medicine clinics, surgery, paediatric, obstetric/gynaecology and urology clinics. It also has emergency and ambulance services 24 hours a day and over 18,000 outpatients are treated a year. Around 6,000 in-patients are treated each year in the general medicine clinics, surgery, maternity ward and Intensive Care Unit.

The Hospital’s rehabilitation department provides the best rehabilitation services in the Gaza Strip. Patients include victims from both the first and the second Intifadas. There are only three physiotherapists at the Hospital, but they treat more than 10,000 people a year.

In addition to its hospital facility, Al Ahli provides free mobile clinics to villages across Gaza and offers specialised support for different community groups such as free clinics for elderly women, free care for burn injuries and underweight or malnourished children, screening programs for early detection of breast cancer among women and essential psycho-social support.

David Longe, Chaplain to Archbishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, writes to say that the situation in Gaza is sadly continuing to be tense since the beginning of the year, with conflict breaking out in the south of the strip last week.  This places enormous strain on its inhabitants – many of whom are unemployed and are registered refugees. UNRWA, the UN body responsible for caring for Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, provides some startling statistics:

  • the unemployment rate [in Gaza] is well over 41 per cent – one of the highest in the world, according to the World Bank
  • 3 million registered refugees out of 1.9 million total population (approximately 70 per cent)
  • 8 refugee camps with almost 12,500 staff
  • 267 schools for over 262,000 students
  • 21 health centres
  • 16 relief and social services offices
  • 3 micro-finance offices
  • 12 food distribution centres for almost one million beneficiaries.

The Al Ahli Arab Hospital as a principal care provider in Gaza City and through its satellite clinics, provides a vital life-line for many Gazans who feel forgotten and scared as to what the future may hold.

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David Longe and his brother William will be running the Palestine Marathon on Friday 23 March to raise funds for cancer treatment in Gaza at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital.

As we enter Lent and think about the wonderful work that we have heard of that the Al Ahli Arab Hospital does, we are very aware that recently their situation has become more complex because of the political situation which has been causing difficulties in recent months.

Israel conducted air strikes in Gaza, following reports of rocket fire from Gaza and news that four Israeli soldiers were injured by an improvised explosive device close to the border. This bombing has taken place very near to the hospital and, although we do not believe that they have suffered damage, we know that their situation – which is always tense and with many concerns – has become more difficult as a result.

Please pray for the peace of Jerusalem and of the Holy Land and for a will to find a solution from all sides, that more casualties will not be caused and that those who need medical attention will be able to receive it.

Your support for the Bishop’s Lent Call will help ensure that that the Al Ahli Arab Hospital can continue its wonderful work, providing vital medical care for the beleaguered people of Gaza.

Give thanks for God’s generosity

As we approach the first Sunday of Lent many of us will be thinking about what we are ‘doing for Lent’.  It might be that we are giving something up or that we are taking something on.   Whatever you are doing please think about how you might be able to help to raise money for those projects and places that the Bishop’s Lent Call is supporting this year.   Over the years the monies raised by the Bishop’s Lent Call has supported projects from right across the world and especially in places such as our Link dioceses in Zimbabwe and when the Bishop and the Dean have taken Pilgrims to the Holy Land (as they are this Lent) projects there too.

Here in this Diocese as well as in places around the world in Lent there are people in great need.   As part of our Lenten discipline we are seeking to help to show God’s love and compassion to those who have less than we do.

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This Sunday in our churches we will be hearing that most evocative of readings from Mark 1: 9-15: the story of Jesus being baptised by John.  As the Bishop and the Dean lead the pilgrims on their journey through the religious sites of the Holy Land they will renew their baptismal vows in Banias, one of the sources of the River Jordan.  As they do this they will be reminded of their call as Christians to ‘turn from their sin and follow Christ’.  These words from the Ash Wednesday service remind us of all that Jesus, who was baptised by John in the River Jordan, has done for us.  It should remind us too that we are all called to share the Good News with those around us.   We read at the end of Sunday’s Gospel reading that: ‘after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’.’ (NRSV)

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Through our generous acts we can help those who are in most need to experience God’s love in tangible ways.   That is so very important for those who live in places were there is unrest and struggles both politically and economically.   The peoples of the Holy Land and surrounding areas do not find it easy to live together and there are times when it looks as if the situation might overflow again and become ever more difficult.   Then in Zimbabwe it is not always easy to see what lies in the months ahead as they face a General Election.  When he visited London in December Bishop Chad said that one of the questions that the peoples of Zimbabwe ask is ‘will these elections be free and fair?’.  Will people be able to vote for whomsoever they wish and know that their vote will be respected?   It is very difficult to answer this question in advance but we can pray about the situation in Zimbabwe as the country prepares for an election and we can pray for the peoples of the Holy Land as they seek to work out a way to live and work together.

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We can pray too for our own Diocese and for the work that many of our churches do with the homeless and we are sponsoring one example this year.  In addition, we are raising funds for a piece of work with people with mental health difficulties and also for the different groups which Bede House focuses on.   The breadth of the projects here and abroad reminds us that we are all God’s children, that we must all seek to recognise our responsibility for each other and to be generous in response to God’s generosity to us.

So as we progress in Lent, and in these next posts think about the work in the Holy Land, please consider carefully and prayerfully what you might be able to give to support the Bishop’s Lent Call this year.

Perhaps you could save money in a Smarties tube or in a small tin which you can collect your donations. Maybe you have given up your daily coffee or favourite food (like me) and the money that you might have spent on that could be donated.  Alternatively you might look out on the green open spaces of leafy Surrey and be able to give thanks for another year of pleasure from looking at that.

Whatever you do please pray and act carefully and prayerfully that those who are so much in need may know that God cares for them through the good things that we can do this Lent.

Ash Wednesday – the Lenten journey begins

Welcome to the Bishop of Southwark’s Lent Call blog.  During the weeks of Lent we will be bringing you more information about and from the people and places whom we are raising money for this year.

The journey through Lent is different for each of us but it is helpful if it can be a time in which we make extra space for being with God and reflecting upon all that God has done for us.

As part of our Lenten preparations Bishop Christopher’s Lent Call offers a way of responding with generosity to examples of God’s work throughout the world.  This year the Lent Call focuses on work in the Holy Land as the Bishop and the Dean are leading a pilgrimage there in the first full week of Lent.  Then there are three examples of work in our Episcopal Areas and then there are two weeks focusing on work in our Link Dioceses in Zimbabwe.  Look out for entries on this blog throughout Lent.

As we begin here is a message from Bishop Christopher.