A special visitor from Bethlehem recently stayed at Our Lady Help of Christians in Kentish Town, north London. Fr Mamdouh Abusada is the founder of the first special school for children with learning difficulties in the West Bank.
It all began in 1998 when Fr Abusada was working at a family centre in Bethlehem. Parents there started asking him for help. Their children were being excluded from schools who couldn't cope with them. They were saying they must go to a special needs school - but there wasn't one.
With no education there was little hope for the future for these children. Many Palestinian youngsters with disabilities end up on the streets, roaming around while their parents' work. In some cases, having a child with a disability carries a stigma and some have been abandoned or shut away at home alone.
When Fr Abusada learnt about these children, he began to research what it would take to start a specialist school for them. He wanted love and joy to be at its heart - things these children had too often been missing.
God opened a way through many challenges and School of Joy, at Beit Sahour just outside Bethlehem was born 25 years ago. In the first year, they had 13 students. This year there are 76 pupils, aged 7 -14, with ten teachers.
The school welcomes children from all religious backgrounds without discrimination. Some pupils are simply behind in their education due to trauma or undiagnosed problems with their vision or hearing. Others have cerebral palsy, Downes Syndrome, autism, severe dyslexia or ADHD. Some travel 25 miles from Hebron to attend - because there's still no other provision like this anywhere in the West Bank.
Teachers encourage the children to discover their talents and develop skills that will help them support themselves. Many now have fulfilling careers - from olive wood carving to construction, floristry and hairdressing. The Palestinian Authority has a rule that all businesses must take five percent of staff with special needs. Others can work serving in shops or as janitors or doormen - all futures that nobody imagined was possible before School of Joy welcomed them in.
This vital school receives no state funding, and the majority of the students' families are too poor to pay any fees.
Friends of the Holy Land has helped fund the School of Joy since 2013. Their support has enabled the school to double the number of classes, introduce better facilities, supply school lunches, trips and activities, and invest in well-qualified teaching staff. During the Covid pandemic, Friends of the Holy Land was the only source of funding, as there were no visitors for many months. "It was a terrible time" Fr Abusada said, recalling the sad number of funerals he had to conduct. Now that crisis has passed and the school is thriving - but Fr Abusada said if they could afford to employ more teachers, they would be able to take more students.
Brendan Metcalf from Friends of the Holy Land told ICN: "For the academic year just begun the school has much increased demand for places. In financial terms the cost to support one child at the school is roughly £1,200 pa. so we will face a challenge in our existing budget projected for the year.
"Given the terrible events that are unfolding now universities and some schools have moved to remote learning, however Fr Mamdouh is keeping the school open as long as he can as these children cannot get the same love and therapy remotely bearing in mind their families' circumstances need the meal the school provides. I understand 59 are attending at the moment, with 19 unable to make it due to travel restrictions."
Fr Abusada said: "The situation is very critical these days, because of the war, so we ask you to pray for safety, and peace."
His final words to the group in Kentish Town were: "Pray, Act and Visit. "
If you would like to support the School of Joy please visit Friends of the Holy Land, either through their webpage - www.friendsoftheholyland.org.uk/school-of-joy - by post to our office Farmer Ward Road,Kenilworth,CV8 2DH - or over the phone by calling their office on 01926 512980.
Donors can make single gifts or set up a regular gift, indicating that it is restricted to support the School of Joy. If donors who are taxpayers indicate this on the form - making a gift aid declaration - there is the added benefit that the charity can claim gift aid on their donation which will generate an additional 25p for every £1 they donate.