Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Cyprus and Argentina are the countries where the Custody of the Holy Land takes care of no less than 11,000 students, in 15 schools. For centuries education has been at the centre of the activity of the Franciscans of the Holy Land and it has never stopped being so, not even in this difficult year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Many schools have had to close and hold lessons online only, with all the problems that this entails. In this period, when the school graduation ceremonies are taking place or are about to take place, it is time for the Holy Land schools to take stock.
“It has been the most difficult year for all the schools, but we have tried to solve the problems with technology, through online lessons and, thanks to God, we have reached the end of the year,” explains Fr. Ibrahim Faltas, director of the central office of the Holy Land schools. “It was a challenge, especially for the youngsters and I think we have won this challenge.” During these difficult months, despite the economic difficulties, due to the non-payment of the school fees, all the teachers (over 1,000 employees) continued to receive a salary.
“We know the situation and we know that there are people who have not worked for 17 months and so we continued nevertheless to carry on the school. We have made sacrifices, but the Custody has tried to cover the whole deficit caused by the pandemic. There was only one objective; to let the students continue the school year and to protect the teachers,” continues Fr. Ibrahim, who is also the head teacher of the Holy Land schools in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
All the schools have suffered in the past months, but in particular the two schools in Bethlehem. “Many people in Bethlehem work in tourism and they have not been able to work,” the friar continues, “In Jordan it was possible to attend school only 15 days in the whole year.This is why we also had to help all those who did not have an adequate way of following the lessons. We provided many students with the tools necessary and, when it was allowed, we tried to bring the youngsters to school in safety.”The classes were divided into two groups that alternated following the lessons online or connected from home.
“It has been a difficult year because of the pandemic,” explains Fr. Abdel MasihFahim, head teacher of the Holy Land schools in Jaffa and Ramle. “The purpose of school is not only teaching, but also education in a broader sense and education is not possible without the dimension of the encounter. I am happy that a solution has been found to teach even in this period, using zoom or other methods, but the absence of encounter between students, teachers and classmates was felt”. According to the friar, education has to be practised and not only “heard” on zoom and this created a new situation. “When they came back to school, some students showed some distress,” Fr. Abdel Masih continues. “Some had problems with their families, others had got into different habits in the way of studying and in their relations with others. It is only now that we are facing the problems of the pandemic.” Despite the difficulties, the Franciscans can say that they have always stayed at the side of their students and having completed this school year, always trying to educate on fraternity and mutual respect.
The explosion of tension and violence in the cities inhabited by Palestinians and Israelis has, however, marked another painful chapter in this school year.
“In our schools we have a good relationship with everyone, Christians, Muslims and Jews,” says Fr. Simon Pietro Herro, head teacher of the Holy Land schools in Haifa, Nazareth and Acre. “This is why we have recently had a meeting with the religious and civil authorities, to talk about the violence that unsettled Acre. We were not expecting it, after all these years of living peacefully. I explained that, from the educational point of view, we work here to build bridges of peace, not only with Christians and Muslims, but with the Jews as well. We have already planned initiatives, to organize some courses outside school hours that can be attended by the students of our school and by those from a Jewish school.”In Haifa, Nazareth and Acre, this school year is about to end but the Franciscan friars are ready to continue their work of education on fraternity in the years to come as well. Fr. Simon Pietro Herro says, “We do not want any more war and blood, we want to keep on building bridges of peace.”