From her base in the Holy Land, Sligo-native Sister Bridget Tighe is working to alleviate a destitution most of us will never know, still less experience. General Director of Caritas Jerusalem, Sr Bridget is thoroughly rooted in the Middle East. Her first encounter with the area came through a missionary trip as part of her religious order, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Sr Bridget told of her experience.
“My first mission: I was first missioned as a sister in temporary vows to Jordan. My order had a community in Jordan, so that was my very first introduction to the Middle East. I fell in love with Jordan and learned all about the Middle East’s history. Over an 18 year period, I served in Jordan for about 16 years, in two blocs,” she said.
An extended beginning to a long-lasting relationship, she left to complete two degrees, before taking up a post with the University of Cambridge. Stationed there for just over a decade, she decided she needed a break, which saw her travel to Jerusalem.
Travel and service
This planted a seed in her heart, which remained in spite of weathering from further travel and service. Years later, and “more or less free,” she spoke to her superior about her desire to continue serving the poor. This provided her the opportunity to return to Jerusalem, to work as part of Caritas Jerusalem.
“I lived in Gaza for three years, in charge of Caritas in Gaza, part of Caritas Jerusalem. And then, exactly three years after that, I was asked by the apostolic administrator…who came to Gaza and met me and said we’re looking for a Secretary-General of Caritas. I hadn’t applied for the post – I was very happy in Gaza– but what do you say if the apostolic administrator who’s also Franciscan says, ‘Will you do this?’ So I said, ‘Yes’, and so here I am as Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem since January 2018,” she explains.
Caritas Jerusalem is a humanitarian organisation that represents the Catholic Church’s socio-pastoral services in the Holy Land. Founded in 1967 in the wake of the Six Day War, it is a member of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 165 Caritas organisations operating in more than 200 countries around the world.
At the helm of Caritas Jerusalem’s work, Sr Bridget was well placed to describe their operations.
“It (Caritas Jerusalem) was founded to work with people in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. We have different departments, which are Humanitarian, Social, Health, and Development, so a whole range of things. Most of our healthcare at the moment is in Gaza. We do a lot of healthcare in Gaza – primary healthcare, we don’t have a hospital, but high-quality primary healthcare. So we have primary healthcare in Gaza and a small amount in the West Bank. We also have a clinic in Taybeh, which is a Christian village. That would be health,” she told.
Emphasising the fact that Caritas serves “the needy and the marginalised, regardless of religion or colour or anything else,” is important to Sr Bridget, as the region is called “home” to those of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds. This work sees their aid cutting across many sectors and demographics of society.
“We do work a lot with parishes. Not only with parishes, we work also with the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Palestinian authority and the authorities in Gaza. We have very good relations. So, in the West Bank first, we have quite a bit of humanitarian aid to the poor and a day-care centre for the elderly in Ramallah, and a primary healthcare centre in Taybeh.”
She continued, “Then we have development work which is mostly – we have a sewing and dress design centre for vocational training and we have work with farmers to reclaim their land – help them to maintain ownership of their land and to make it more productive in Area C, which is land that’s in danger of being confiscated from the borders. We have things like agri-tourism and development, too.”
Operations in Gaza
However, Caritas Jerusalem’s operations in Gaza hold a special place in Sr Bridget’s heart, having lived there for three years. Keen to articulate the unique difficulty of the situation across the Strip, she shared:
In Gaza when Covid appeared in March, it did not spread to the community in Gaza until August. Gaza is in blockade; one cannot get into Gaza unless they have permission. You have to have permission first from the Israelis, because the Israelis control the Erez crossing, or the other way is from the Sinai peninsula into Rafah, which is very, very difficult to get to,” she said.
“So, the only positive thing that I can think of for Gaza about the blockade was that for the first five or six months of the outbreak, there was no outbreak of coronavirus in the community, because the authorities in Gaza were able to catch everyone coming in, either from Israel through Erez, or from Egypt through Rafah, and everyone who came in was immediately put into quarantine for 14 days, or maybe 21 days, so there was no outbreak of coronavirus in the community until recently,” she revealed.
Despite their best efforts, the coronavirus is now a lived reality in Gaza. “It was amazing how they controlled it, but eventually, somehow, it got into the community and so now it is running rife through the community in Gaza.”
Sr Bridget’s concern over the situation in Gaza is multiplied by the fact that she can no longer access the people herself. While travel into the Gaza Strip is difficult at the best of times, since the advent of the coronavirus, it is impossible.
“I can’t get into Gaza. I used to go in regularly. Since I came to live in Jerusalem, I used to go back every four to six weeks, or whenever it was needed. I haven’t been back since February,” she said.
Fortunately, she believes the Caritas operations in Gaza have been left in safe hands. “Now luckily, our person there is doing very well,” she said.
“When I left, I handed it over to the young man who was my right-hand man when I was there. He’s doing extremely well, and we have a very good health consultant there, medical consultant,” she confided.
Drawing attention to the fact that a mere handful of people drive the efforts in the most stricken of places would cause some to despair, but Sr Bridget explained the real difference these few make on the ground. She explained one of the major changes Caritas have made in Gaza, to the good of those living there.
“So what we were asked to do by the Ministry of Health was to have medical teams, simple medical teams, prepared to go into action if there was an outbreak in the community, and we would be assigned different areas of the Gaza Strip, whereby the Ministry of Health would co-ordinate, through a free-phone, somebody who needed, if you were in lockdown, a doctor,” she said.
“If it was not thought to be coronavirus, the nearest team would go to the home of that person. We had done our emergency contingency plan, we had got PPE, we were all trained and ready, and months went on and we were not called upon but then in August when we were called upon, they were immediately ready to go into action and we currently have five mobile medical teams. They’re simple teams: a doctor, a nurse, and a driver, with basic medicine, and they’re assigned areas of the Gaza Strip. They go and they wait, and then when there is a call through the Ministry of Health, they go to the home of the sick person. So that’s what we’re doing in Gaza in response to the spread of coronavirus in the Strip.”
Painting the picture of Gaza as it is, Sr Bridget said, “This is a simple thing to say, ‘We have mobile teams,’ but actually, the situation in Gaza… it’s important for you to know this; the pandemic is all over the world, so what’s different about Gaza? We have the virus in Israel, ok. In Palestine, ok. You’ve got the virus in Ireland, you’ve got it everywhere, so you know, we’re all in the same boat. But we’re not all in the same boat, because the situation in Gaza is desperate. They are locked into a small area, hugely overcrowded, bad housing, run-down health provision and authority, very weak healthcare, lack of good medicine, maximum 100 ICU beds for a population of two million people, more than two million. I think 50 ventilators, and some of them not working very well, so imagine that as the situation where there’s an outbreak of coronavirus.”
While someone without first-hand experience of the area may be able to imagine these issues, there are other troubles that would escape consideration unless you knew the situation.
“As well as that, the people are undernourished, the majority. There’s electricity at the moment, at this present time, for anything between three and four hours a day, and the people don’t know whether that will come on day or night in their area. This means there’s no refrigeration available. The schools and everything are closed. If there’s online provision of teaching from the schools, most of the children can’t access it because they have no electricity. They might not have Wi-Fi, they might not have computers, so the place is not like any place else on earth. There’s other poverty on earth, but not people locked in -they cannot move. Nobody can leave Gaza.”
Speaking to the tendency to downplay the difference a small number of people can make, Sr Bridget told this paper, “Why I’m telling you this is: when I say we have these simple, little mobile teams ready to go wherever they’re called, it means a huge amount to a person locked in, locked down, in these kind of situations…If they know that if someone is sick, just a phone call and a doctor and nurse will come to them in the house.”
She concluded simply, “So that’s what we’re doing in Gaza.”
In terms of funding, Caritas, along with the other charities of the world, are stretched to their limits at the moment, a sentiment Sr Bridget echoed.
“Caritas Internationalis has sent out a major appeal to all Caritas organisations, asking for help for Lebanon. So, desperate as Gaza is, the situation in Lebanon would take precedence. If donors’ funds are limited, I think they would go to Lebanon, and rightly so,” she said.
The grim reality of limited resources accepted without flinching, Sr Bridget and the entirety of Caritas Jerusalem are doing all they can to aid not only the people of Gaza, but those of the West Bank and Jerusalem city itself.
“In the West Bank, when the virus hit, of course it hit them very, very badly because immediately, everything was closed down. The first outbreak was in Bethlehem, and within a few days, people who were in the hotels were bussed to the airport. Everything closed down, and so since March, there are no tourists, no pilgrims. Bethlehem, and everyone who depended on the tourist and pilgrim industry in Bethlehem, is very, very badly hit. Very badly,” she related.
Describing the state of the historic Old City of Jerusalem, she said, “The Old City is so sad…the Old City is dead. The shops are closed, the streets are empty, and we’re not doing much in the Old City. Lots of other people are helping, like the Latin patriarch and things, but the people, the shop owners have to pay their rents. They have to pay a very high tax, even though they have no income. Many of them will probably go out of business. It’s so sad to walk through the Old City, same in Bethlehem. It’s empty, whereas before it would be buzzing.”
“It’s not just the tourist-pilgrim industry, hotels, restaurants, it’s also guides, bus drivers, it’s the people who work in the hotels, it’s the souvenir shops. It’s the people in the factories who make the olive wood, it’s the truck drivers who carry the olive wood from up the north down to Bethlehem. It goes right through society. Everyone is touched by it. It’s the woman who sells sandwiches near the workshop where people come out and buy their sandwich when they’re making the olive wood. It’s devastating, absolutely devastating,” she said.
While the situation seems more desperate than ever, Sr Bridget and her team continue with their efforts, which as she pointed out earlier, are greatly appreciated by the recipients. Through parishes and with help from government authorities, Caritas are providing educational toys to children, food coupons and hygienic items such as hand sanitiser to families, PPE to those working with the vulnerable, day-care to the elderly, and meals and company to those living alone and ‘cocooning’. God’s love is tenderly communicated to those in need.
Identifying with the Palestinian people through her Irish roots, Sr Bridget enjoys a warm reception among the people she helps. She shared a story about an unexpected welcome upon her arrival in Gaza.
“I was new to Gaza and I had to get residence to reside in Gaza, so I eventually got it, which I don’t think there are too many that have the residence from Hamas in Gaza, but anyway, so I went and I was there with somebody, and the person was very official, and you know, straight-laced, and he was asking me things. Then he said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘Ireland,’ and he smiled. He said, ‘Welcome.’”
Despite the obvious difficulties, Sr Bridget and her team at Caritas Jerusalem are committed to carrying out the task inherent in their organisation’s name: Loving those in need.