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Interview: Jocelyne Saadehassi, Bethlehem teacher

23 December 2022

‘I try to teach my children and students to accept difference and respect all people, no matter what’

Being an English teacher in one of the best schools in Bethlehem is a great privilege. “Since God does so much for me, what could I not do for him?” is a simple quote by St Emily de Vialar that holds a great message precious to my school and me.

Since 1853, our school, Terra Sancta Girls’ School of the Sisters of St Joseph, has celebrated the joy of educating the girls of Bethlehem.

It was the first Christian institution to educate girls. The school at that time had trouble convincing parents of the necessity of teaching their young girls. The impact of our school’s dedication to St Emily is evident in its students, who master the French language in addition to English. Proper education in agreement with moral upbringing is given to our students, who come from different religious backgrounds and various cultures.

My vocation to teaching started 19 years ago, but although the English language was my passion, teaching wasn’t my ambition at the start. My love and devotion for teaching began to blossom during my early years in the field of education, and being a member of a well-established school whose goal is sublime made me perceive that I want to be a teacher.

I would say that mastering the language and loving it was inherited from my grandfather, George Saadeh, who, in his youth, was a British staff sergeant. He was awarded two stars and a crown and was the highest commissioned officer in carpentry workshops during World War Two in Cairo. He was fluent in English, and I could spend hours listening to him.

My two sons attend a private Christian school which teaches the Aramaic language and English. My daughter goes to the school I work in, where she learns English and French.

Managing to find leisure time is sometimes impossible, but, if I do have any, a good companion can be a book. A good book holds a house of gold, and through reading I retain my mental abilities, communication, and work skills. My favourite novels are Danielle Steel’s and Jane Austen’s. I love classics. I could read a book many times and love it even more.

I start my day early, and spend the first hours preparing for my day. God’s support and simple prayers can do wonders, particularly if you are a working mother. I am responsible for two teenage boys, Fouad and Rami, and my little sweet angel Sophia. Running a home and preparing for my students requires a lot. You have to be well prepared, confident, and in control the whole time.

My husband, Sami, who’s a chef, and I try to provide guidance to our children, who may face different struggles living in this community. Living in Bethlehem, and being part of that very small Christian community, is a privilege as well as a challenge. As a mother, I have to keep our culture and beliefs alive in my children and in my students. I try to teach my children and students to accept difference and respect all people, no matter what.

Honestly, it can be a hard task, especially in a community that’s almost struggling to survive. Hard economic times can be stifling and disturbing for the different segments of society, including the education sector, but with the appreciated and generous help of various friends, especially the Friends of Holy Land, some of our students are able to pursue and develop their educational path.

Bethlehem is facing a handful of profound challenges, starting with the Covid pandemic and followed by the Ukrainian war. These two events have influenced tourism significantly, and Bethlehem is a city that basically depends on tourism. Most of the local people work in hotels and souvenir shops.

Because of the poverty, the cost of living, the low average income, and unemployment, migration by local people has increased dramatically, and many Christian families have left the country, abandoning their homes and land. Unfortunately today, only a small minority of Christians remain in the city.

The old city of Bethlehem is spectacular, and walking along the cobbled streets and hearing the church bells in the distance is intensely moving. The only thing that you can think of is how different life was 2000 years ago, when Jesus Christ was born.

The Church of the Nativity was commissioned by Constantine and his mother Helena in 332-336. It’s the oldest church in the world, and the most worthwhile. What distinguishes the church is the main entrance, which is less than five feet high. It’s called the “Door of Humility”, because visitors and pilgrims have to bow down when they enter the church. Inside the basilica, in the Greek Orthodox section, underneath the altar is the grotto. A silver star with fourteen points, representing three sets of 14 generations, is placed on the spot where Jesus was born. On the star is written in Latin: “Here from the Virgin Mary Jesus was born.”

The sound of wind whistling through trees soothes me and relieves my distress, especially when I go for a walk in Cremisan, a convent and a beautiful area located five kilometres away from Bethlehem. Its oak trees, pine woods, and vineyards make the area a good place for short walks and family picnics. Another place that I love is associated with Jesus’s birth: the Shepherds’ Field in Beit Sahour. It’s where the angel announced the birth of Jesus. There we can see a small cave decorated with ancient Byzantine mosaic and paintings demonstrating the joy of shepherds when they met Jesus.

My family and I are truly blessed to celebrate Christmas in Jesus’s birth city, where preparations for this holy season are established in the beginning of December with a tree-lighting festival. On 24 December, there is an exquisite Scout annual celebration welcoming His Beatitude the Patriarch.

It is also that time of the year when all gather to celebrate the warmth and love of family. At home, we start decorating the house and Christmas tree while listening to Christmas carols, or watching a classical Christmas movie. We are usually hosted by my parents to celebrate Christmas Eve with the rest of family. We spend the night chatting, playing games and exchanging presents. The best thing is that kids get to spend time with their elders and the rest of the family. Celebrating Christmas means gratitude and selflessness.

When I count God’s blessings, I remember that they’re more than can be numbered. His infinite love, my husband, dear sons and precious daughter, family and friends all are worthy of praise, and they are the things that make me happy.

I think to have hope means you’re alive. I’d like to empower my children through education and life skills to enable them to be independent and determined. I also want them to realise that family matters. Through dark times, prayers can do wonders, and families provide that safe shelter a scared soul may need.

Feeling powerless and incapable are what makes me angry. They are what I detest, and it can be challenging to eliminate such feelings. So, in times of desperation, I take a walk in nature, and some peaceful quietness gives me such a boost of positive energy and facilitates my ability to endure hardships.

On a wider scale, I strongly believe that we must preserve our Christian presence and holy heritage. Local Christians, along with some external open-handed help, are trying to guarantee such presence and maintain a subsistence lifestyle here.

If I were locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose two people who have intrigued me and who have influenced the life of thousands: Oprah Winfrey, the American talk-show host, and the famous Egyptian surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub. Being a human requires a lot of sacrifice and devotion. Through her show, Oprah motivated millions. Dr Yacoub is best known for his work in heart and transplant surgery, and changed the lives of not just his patients, but their families, too.

Jocelyne Saadehassi was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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