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Women’s Day: a window in the Wall – nuns on the frontlines of conflict

(Vatican Radio) On International Women’s Day, Vatican Radio’s female journalists give voice to the world’s voiceless women. Tracey McClure tells us about some of the Church’s courageous women working on the frontlines of conflict and sorrow.
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Hi, I’m Tracey McClure, with Vatican Radio’s English Service for more than twenty years and a passion for the Middle East. I’m also fond of telling stories - so today, I’d like to tell you about the window in the wall. My story takes us to Jerusalem, where a mixed blessing became a fond memory.

Alicia Vacas: “One day, the sisters woke up in the morning to find the trees in the garden were all cut down because they had decided the wall would (follow) such a line…the wall has really changed our lives there.”

Spanish born Comboni Sister Alicia Vacas recalls the day in 2004 when the convent she shares with 11 other sisters on the Mount of Olives became yet another casualty of the ongoing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

The sisters found Israel’s 26 foot security wall cutting right through convent property. It takes up two sides of the tiny playground they have for the nursery school they run for some fifty Palestinian children. The sisters have done their best to make it a happy place, brightening up the dead grey monolith with painted lions, tigers and bears.

When the wall went up, hundreds of Palestinian families found themselves on the “wrong” side, with no access to their jobs, schools, places of worship, hospitals and services. The sisters, now on the “right” side, couldn’t visit the families they once ministered to, couldn’t go to the churches they used to go to.

Fulgida “We had a sister who became sick when we had the checkpoint here. She could not go to the hospital – we asked them just to remove a barrier to get the car in. They refused. They said no. She had to go around – by the time that she was at the hospital she was in coma. Surely, they don’t help, you know when you have these experiences, no?”

These experiences certainly don’t help Italian sister Fulgida Gasparrini.

When I first visited the convent back in 2010, Sisters Alicia and Fulgida proudly showed me their “window” in the wall. More than 6 feet off the ground, the window was opened by Israeli authorities to allow the children to continue going to their school which was now found on the other side of the wall.

Alicia Vacas “So the first days we were literally lifting the kids and passing them through the window… we were using bricks for instance or anything just to make it a bit higher… what do the kids think about the soldiers with machine guns? At the beginning, it was traumatic also because most of the kids they have a very difficult background and ideas (about) soldiers. So the first day we had the terrible experience of one child for instance, crying and shouting.. he wanted his dad. And of course, families cannot pass through this small window; they cannot come to visit us; they cannot come to take the children if they are sick. They cannot come for the feast of Mother’s Day. So this child was crying; he wanted the father: “daddy, daddy.” So, the sister told him, “you know, I called your father – he’s coming” just to calm him down. And he started screaming more and more – he said, “no! Soldiers are here! They will shoot at him!”

Sister Alicia assured me that not all Israeli soldiers are bad – some were quite nice to the kids.

Those who opened the window that day at the end of school seemed a bit apologetic to me. I remember the nuns in their white veils taking the toddlers’ tiny hands, leading them two at a time up the steep flight of stairs to the open window to meet their parents on the other side. They were so careful – not one must trip or fall. Too far to drop.

Watching this surreal scene, I remember being suddenly overwhelmed with grief – the kind you feel when someone very dear to you dies. But for Sr. Alicia, that window was a blessing.

But one day, no one really knows why, the window was closed and a huge gate and turn-style took its place. The gate has only opened for Israeli military. For a time, the children were bussed to school – a fifteen kilometer journey with checkpoints manned by soldiers with machine guns. A journey that could sometimes take hours. In the end, the children stopped coming – the trip was too costly, too lengthy, too scary.

I called Sr. Fulgida to ask how things are going today. Much worse, she tells me. Young people with no jobs and no hope come Thursdays and Fridays to burn tires and protest on the other side of the gate. A second wall has gone up to create a buffer zone.

Fulgida: “You know, the school was open to everybody. Therefore, the majority of children, I would say, were coming from Muslim families, but together with them, there were also children coming from Christian families. I think it was also a means of dialogue between Palestinians of different beliefs.”

Though the window is forever closed and the gate remains shut, Sr. Fulgida says her sisters continue their efforts to bridge the divide.

Fulgida: “The directress of the nursery, she continues to go on Friday to visit the families on the other side. Then, we have two sisters who are working and live on the other side….they keep on with a certain relationship with the villagers on the other side. To think that there is a solution, a valid solution in a short time, I don’t see any solution. The only solution is to give the chance to the people to pass through this checkpoint that is kept closed, and to go to the hospital, to have access to education, to whatever they need. But to reinforce the wall the way we saw, all the signs that are there now, they are negative signs. Even though we keep on the hope what to do. We have to hope because there is need of a solution. There is need of peace, there is a need to live a better quality of life.”

Am I crazy to believe that if a window in a wall can be a blessing in disguise, the opening of a door could mean so much more?