PNN exclusive – Victoria Delacroix- Sister Helena Wlodarczyk, also known as Sister Rafaela is said to be the lion of the Mount of Olives. At 79, this Polish nun has survived the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Soviet occupation of Poland, and since 1961 she has been in Israel and Palestine under yet another occupation. However, this time instead of trying to survive herself, she is helping others.
"I came here with one purpose only, to be a missionary," she said.
Since arriving in 1961 with the Sisters of St. Elizabeth, Sister Rafaela says she has seen a steady decrease of not only Palestinian Christians as a demographic, but also in their standard of living as well as the opportunity to be able to make a livelihood both in Palestine and Israel. In the end it is the children who are the real victims of this hopelessness.
"People are running away. You can't really be surprised that they're running away and emigrating. There is no work," Sister Rafaela said.
Sister Rafaela explained that because many families are large and there is also just as much unemployment, there are times when a mother cannot feed her children- simply because there is no way how.
In order to help the Christian families in the Holy Land, in 2008, the Sisters of St. Elizabeth decided to build another Home of Peace, similar to the one they had already built in 1970 on the Mount of Olives. Only this Home of Peace is in Bethlehem.
Sister Rafaela explained that with the building of the Separation Wall, children and families who live in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas, which may need help from the Home of Peace or the sisters cannot travel to Jerusalem.
The first Home of Peace which was built in Jerusalem served not just as an orphanage, but because it was built only three years after the first intifada-a time that would see many children orphaned by the conflict, it did indeed become a home for the children affected by the war. At one time the home had up 40 children living in it.
"There were children living in cemeteries and hiding there," Sister Rafeala said.
However, the sisters decided that the best way to be able to heal the wounds left by the war, as well as give these children a better and brighter future, education would come at the forefront of their program.
Today that has not changed. While there is still on-going construction on the new Home of Peace in Bethlehem, the sisters are determined to keep supporting the Christian community in the West Bank every which way they can.
"We are determined to keep up with the education," she said.
The Sisters through donations try as best they can to provide families with the resources needed to give their children the key to success, even under occupation- education.
"We want all Christian families to have money to send their children to private schools- to Christian schools so that they can continue their education and their religion," she said.
Because the public schools do not cater to Christian families or the Christian faith, many times Christian children are not able to reach their full potential in these public schools, especially when it comes to their culture and religion.
"If a child is taught the Quran their life and not the bible- and then they come into a Church not knowing anything, what can we expect of them?" Sister Rafeala said.
Sister Rafeala believes the way to grow back the Christian community in the West Bank and throughout the Holy Land means giving children the chance to learn that very faith, grow in it, and learn in it and from it.
"We want to somehow get all the Christian children out of the public schools – depending on their skill level- be able to send them to private Christian schools," she said.
At the moment, the sisters have three students who have be brought up through the Home of Peace and are now at university. Only one of three young women has her university studies paid off through the sisters.
"We keep telling the parents, under no circumstances, under absolutely no circumstances should they take their children out of the school," Sister Rafeala said. "We will pay it. Whether it's tomorrow, next week or in a year and half- we will pay it."
Eleven more elementary students who either are still going to public schools or are in the process of being transferred to a private Christian school are also being funded by the sisters.
The new Home of Peace in Bethlehem, when finished and fully operable will be a place where children will be able to come after school, have a nourishing meal, do their school work and then go home. The unique strategy of the Home of Peace is that the sisters do not want it to become an institutionalized orphanage.
"We do not want to take away the beauty of the family. The child must be brought up in the family," she said.
However, children who truly do not have a family that can support that or are orphans will find an open home with open hearts in the Home of Peace. The sisters also understand that the home cannot be overflowing with children, left and right. This would undermine the nurturing of the children. The children will also be expected to do chores- like in a real home, they need to be responsible.
A testament to the success of the Home of Peace is that the children who came up through the Home of Peace have a deep bond with the sisters and that they have truly found a place to call home.
"One of the sisters who built the Home of Peace in Jerusalem with me, had passed away in Poland," Sister Rafeala said. "One of the girls we had helped, we sent to Germany for further studies. She had heard about the sister and she travelled to Poland to be at her funeral. She wrote a letter that the priest read. Everyone was crying when he read it."
The Home of Peace in Bethlehem is scheduled to be finished in January 2012. It already has a fully operational kitchen and cafeteria, a school room for more than 20 children, bedrooms that are fully furnished, bathrooms and a computer room as well as a recreational room. A playground must still be finished as well as construction outside the home.
The funding for the Home of Peace was in part made possible by the Polish government. The Home of Peace received 35 000 euros in funding from Poland. Basia Nino- Urban who is a development aid expert and works in the Polish Representative Office said that,
"Our office (through the small grants) supports local NGOs or Polish NGOs working on the grassroots level in the West Bank. Our office collects project proposals and selects the best ones which comply with the areas of focus and which present the best operational plans," she said.
Urban said that funds come from the MSZ- the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from the Development Cooperation Department. It is the Development Cooperation Department who picks the priority countries to receive Polish development assistance.
"For the past 2-3 years, there was 1.5 million PLN earmarked for Palestine, out of which one million is distributed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs via an open call for proposals (to Polish NGOs such as the Polish Humanitarian Action or the Polish Center for International Aid," Urban said.
For Sister Rafeala every penny has been a blessing, because every penny means she can help more Christian families that are suffering. It is also a testament of what it means being a real Christian.
"Yes I am a real Christian, but what does that mean? I think one has to think about what it real means," she said.
Sister Rafeala says that having survived two occupations in Poland has prepared her for living in yet another occupation. Living and helping those who have not yet freed themselves from it.