Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem is a ray of hope in the war-torn Holy Land

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Sister Aleya Kattakayam, a member of the Sisters of Charity, greets Ayah Issa, 32, and her 18-month-old son Ahmad, outside Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem, West Bank, April 27, 2024. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

(OSV News) — Holding her 18-month-old son Ahmad in her arms, Ayah Issa, 32, broke into a smile when she saw Sister of Charity Aleya Kattakayam at the entrance of the Caritas Baby Hospital Bethlehem. “My darling Sister!” Issa, who wears a hijab, exclaimed, hugging the nun and handing Ahmad to Kattakayam, originally from India, to hold.

Though far physically from the war, many people in the West Bank have been left without work as Israel closed its borders to Palestinian laborers and the tourism industry came to a halt. The only pediatric hospital in the West Bank gives them a sense of hope and security.

“It was a very difficult experience with Ahmad, my first child. When I used to cry, Sister wiped my tears. She stood by my side,” Issa said.

Hope and healing at Caritas Baby Hospital

Issa, from the nearby village of Artas, spent 14 months at the hospital with Ahmad in the intensive care unit after he was born with a congenital disease, while she was able to stay at the hospital thanks to the mothers’ unit where mothers can remain overnight. The boy still had a tracheostomy tube in his throat, but he was holding himself up on his own and reaching his arm out to his mother.

“I feel so happy to see this child and mother,” said Sister Aleya, who is in charge of the mothers’ unit. Three other Sisters of Charity are nurses at the hospital. “I feel we have spoken not with words. This is what Christ asks from us. That we leave some message in their life. People long for such expressions in life. They don’t want anything but a little bit of understanding. We are all here to love.”

A history of care

Founded in 1953 in Bethlehem as an outpatient clinic by Caritas Switzerland employee Hedwig Vetter, Swiss Father Ernst Schnydrig and Palestinian pediatrician Antoine Dabdoub, Caritas Baby Hospital is now the only exclusively pediatric hospital in the West Bank serving about 50,000 children a year. Caritas in Switzerland and Germany were the first donors to the hospital, but since 1963 the hospital has been affiliated with the Swiss NGO Children’s Relief Bethlehem.

Director of the hospital social work department Lina Raheel said while initially following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israeli communities patients were unable to reach the hospital because of Israeli imposed closures, many roadblocks have since been lifted, and CBH has felt an increased need for its services.

A Palestinian woman talks on the phone while carrying her child outside Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem, West Bank, April 27, 2024. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

As the only medical center specifically for children, the Caritas hospital brings hope not only to parents cut off from work and impoverished by the Israel-Hamas war that will enter its eighth month on May 7, but also to children directly affected by war.

In March, the pediatric hospital provided a medical team to examine a group of 68 children from the SOS Children’s Village Rafah in Gaza who arrived in Bethlehem. SOS Children’s Villages Palestine is a nongovernmental, humanitarian and nonprofit organization created in 1966 that helps children who have lost parents.

Extending a helping hand

The hospital is also caring for seven children from the Gaza Strip who were being treated in Israeli hospitals when the war broke out and were no longer able to return home.

The Hamas assault left 1,200 mostly civilians murdered and 254 people taken captive into Gaza, according to Israel, while the subsequent Israeli military campaign into Gaza has killed almost 34,000 Palestinians, mostly children and women according to the Hamas Gaza Ministry of Health, which does not differentiate between Hamas members and civilians.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Gaza’s health authorities have now said they can no longer count the number of dead as hospitals, emergency services and communications are barely functioning.

Facing unprecedented challenges

The latest tragedy struck the Catholic Gaza community amid news that, during a 100-degree heat wave at the end of April, 18-year-old Lara al-Sayegh died of heat and sun stroke. She and her mother were making an almost 20-mile trek, mostly on foot, from Gaza City — where they had been sheltering at the Holy Family Parish — to the Rafah crossing in the south after receiving permission to leave Gaza. Lara’s father had died in December due to lack of medical care. Her mother remains in a coma, also having suffered from heat and sun stroke, as well as shock from losing her daughter.

After the release by Hamas of two videos of Israeli hostages in the last week of April — including of Israeli-Americans Hersh Goldberg-Polin and Keith Siegel — pressure from hostage families and their supporters has mounted on the Israeli government to approve a ceasefire and a hostage release agreement. Meanwhile Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to insist it will persist with plans for an offensive on Rafah “with or without a deal.”

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who was in Riyad, the capital and largest city of Saudi Arabia, at the World Economic Forum, said he was “hopeful” about a new proposal for a Gaza truce brokered by Egypt as a Hamas delegation was due in Cairo for talks on April 29.

Meanwhile in the West Bank, poverty has hit residents hard, with the economic situation beyond dramatic due to the ongoing war. With public insurance only covering treatment in the overcrowded public hospitals, parents with children requiring more specified treatment have found themselves with no way of paying for treatments, the director of the hospital social work department said.

Many were also afraid to travel the distance from their villages to Bethlehem because of the uncertainty on the roads during the first months of the war — with soldiers and checkpoints and also increased settler violence and arrests by soldiers, Raheel said.

Her team of four social workers have also limited their home visits to only those in vital need because of the uncertainty on the West Bank roads, she said.

A beacon of hope in troubled times

“The hospital doors are open for … whoever comes to the hospital; we don’t turn our back to them,” said Raheel. The hospital is part of a Christian social network that works together to provide social services to the needy in the community, she added.

Dr. Hiyam Awad, medical director of the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem, West Bank, uses a stethoscope while examining 13-year-old Siwar Qabaja at the hospital April 27, 2024. Siwar has cystic fibrosis. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

Having experienced previous military and political difficulties, the hospital management team went into emergency mode on Oct. 7, and began stocking up on medical supplies and food, said medical director Hiyam Awad. They also opened a hotline to allow parents to receive medical advice over the phone, she said.

“At the beginning it was very strict, we thought it would be a matter of a month, like it always is in Gaza. We never estimated that it would be this long or this hard,” she said. “The (medically) difficult patients need us more. The situation is depressive. We are afraid of the unknown. There are a lot of rumors. At the hospital we try to connect to the good and to work on our strategic plan.”

Judith Sudilovsky

Judith Sudilovsky writes for OSV News from Jerusalem.