For a year-and-a-half, the students at Bethlehem University, the only Catholic University in the Holy Land, studied remotely as COVID-19 raged in the West Bank.
While all of the university’s students are excited to finally be back on the serene, leafy campus, those enrolled in the departments of nursing and health sciences have a special reason to be happy: the university’s new state-of-the-art nursing facility has just been inaugurated and will open in the coming weeks.
Dedicated on Sept. 6, the facility was named in honor of Cardinal John Foley. Cardinal Foley, who died in 2011, served as the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem from 2007 to 2011.
During the dedication ceremony, Cardinal Foley was recognized as “a tireless advocate for peace and justice” in the Holy Land and “a great supporter of Bethlehem University.”
When the nursing and health science departments move from their current building — one of the oldest on Bethlehem University’s campus — to the new, ultramodern Foley Hall, it will enable the university to train more health professionals at a time when they are desperately needed.
“Here in Palestine, the health system is fragmented due to lack of support, lack of resources and lack of health specialties. This affects services in the hospitals,” Mariam Award, dean of the nursing and health sciences, told the Register, explaining why the university prioritized the building’s construction.
Awad said the COVID crisis has underscored the many deficits in the Palestinian health care system, especially the chronic shortage of nurses and other medical professionals.
“There is a huge demand for nurses,” Awad said, noting that at a time of skyrocketing unemployment in the Bethlehem area due to the absence of foreign pilgrims, nurses who graduate from Bethlehem University have their choice of jobs.
The new, larger building will enable the nursing and health science departments to expand their enrollment and the services they provide to the public, Awad said.
Today, 817 students — about 90 of them nursing students — study nursing, midwifery, occupational therapy or physical therapy. Once Foley Hall is up and running, it will accommodate an additional 200-or-so students.
The ground floor of Foley Hall will house community health clinics. At the nursing clinic, student nurses will provide health education, health screenings and counseling.
Nursing students will also have the opportunity to receive a master’s degree in oncology and palliative care nursing, the first of its kind in Palestine, Awad said.
At the midwifery clinic, midwifery students will work with women throughout their pregnancy and provide post-natal care for mothers and their babies. Clinics, staffed by students studying for degrees in occupational therapy and physical therapy will also be held.
The aim of the clinics is to provide the students with vital hands-on experience, and provide the public with affordable care, Awad said.
The nursing school’s administrators and students are particularly enthusiastic that the currently cramped simulation training center, accredited by the American Heart Association, will be expanded to an entire floor once it moves to the new building.
Awad said, student nurses at the center will hone their skills, including giving injections and performing CPR, on mannequins, before working with patients.
“Learning on mannequins increases our student’s competency, but we’re not just focusing on knowledge,” Awad said. “We’re also focusing on attitude — on how to communicate, how to behave correctly with patients, how to develop leadership skills.”
Leena Najajra, a 19-year-old nursing student from Bethlehem, told the Register she can’t wait to enter the new simulation center.
“Imagine, it will be an entire floor!” Najajra said, the smile under her face mask radiating to her eyes. “The simulator is where we can practice our skills and make mistakes on the mannequins and not the patients.”
While learning how to stick a patient with a needle is a crucial skill, she said, “we also learn how to behave. Before we start working on a mannequin we smile, say good morning. Introduce ourselves.”
Najajra said she decided to study nursing because “nursing means humanity. Nursing is a method to make change and save lives.”
LaSalle Brother Peter Bray noted that more than 400 people applied for the university’s 90 nursing slots.
“Prospective nursing students see the program as an avenue of employment and a way to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people,” he told the Register.
Brother Peter, the university’s vice chancellor, said that the nursing program is so well regarded that one of the area’s hospitals puts off hiring nurses each year until the university’s latest cohort of nursing students graduate.
A representative of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the Foley Center’s largest funders, said the nursing facility’s mission to improve Palestinian health care “furthers the aims of the Order to support Christian communities and institutions in The Holy Land.”
The nursing faculty provides a much-needed professional education for students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, said Bart McGettrick, chairman of the Holy Land Commission, which is responsible for an overview of the work of the Order, founded in 1099, in the Holy Land.
Striving to improve the health of the Palestinian people “is fundamental to the social teaching of the Church - helping people to live life to the full,” McGettrick told the Register, noting that the university’s nursing faculty has several outreach programs in Palestine.
“This service to the communities is part of the strategic work of the university” and coincides with the objectives of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre to support education, humanitarian aid and pastoral care in The Holy Land, McGettrick said.
“The order recognizes the central importance of the Bethlehem University in providing opportunities for the flourishing of the Palestinian people, and developing a country where peace will one day rest," he said.
Najajra, the nursing student, calls Bethlehem University an oasis of peace in a volatile region.
Chartered by the Holy See 50 years ago and run by the Christian Brothers, the university actually has many more Muslim students than Christian students — not surprising, given that fewer than 2 per cent of the Palestinian population is Christian.
“There are no distances, no borders” between the Muslim and Christian students,” said Najajra, a Muslim. “We build relationships, we understand each other. We are a small family.”