Teaching in Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993

by Sr Carmen Farrugia

I had been teaching for almost five years in a parish school in North London when I was asked to join Sion’s Mediterranean Province at Ecce Homo in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Ecce Homo is built on the Lithostrotos, where tradition holds that Pilate judged Jesus. Every day, thousands of pilgrims speaking a variety of languages came to visit this Holy place, and many stayed in our pilgrim house.

The sisters also ran a school for girls from kindergarten to high school. The languages taught in the school were French, English and Arabic. The students were mainly local Arabs but quite a number also came from surrounding Arab countries: Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait. Those who came from outside Jerusalem lived as boarders.

Here I arrived during Holy Week of 1965, and was immediately assigned to teaching English language in several classes, as well as guiding pilgrims in English on the Lithostrotos. I also started learning Arabic.

I was really happy to be in Jerusalem

I was really happy to be in Jerusalem living with sisters mostly of French origin. Our students were Christians (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) and Muslims. They took all classes together, but when it came to religious studies the Muslim girls spent time in the library.

As I settled down and became more familiar with living and teaching in this Sion school in Jerusalem, I became aware of the political situation and the antagonism of some of the girls towards what they called their enemy:

I was filled with gratitude because the girls listened attentively

My upbringing in Malta during the Second World War and the formation I received in Sion prompted me to live out the Sion charism as best as I could. So I shared this story from my childhood with some of the girls who spoke about their enemies.

I was sitting in my father’s workshop, when a German prisoner of war from a nearby camp paid my father compliments about a machine made in Germany that my father was using. After the prisoner left, I asked my father: “Why do you speak to our enemy?” My father said: “My daughter, that soldier did not choose to come and bomb us, his government sent him. He has a wife and children, as I do.”

I concluded the story by saying that my father had given me one of the most important lessons of my life. Inside me, I was filled with gratitude because the girls listened attentively and made no further remarks.

I continued teaching in the school and discovering Jerusalem for the next two and a half years, untilthe Six-Day War broke out in June 1967. Some of the girls’ parents arrived very suddenly from Jordan to take their daughters home. In a few hours, we were left with 35 girls who were not able to get back to their country. Sisters and students took shelter on the Lithostrotos undergound, day and night.

Teaching in both schools taught me a lot

The school continued to operate for another year afterwards, just for the girls of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, since the country’s borders had changed. It was customary in the school for each class to have a teacher responsible for personal formation. So before lessons started, I used to read my class some literature or inspiring text. One morning, two of the girls arrived running, calling out: “Sister, Sister!” “What’s the news?” I asked. They said: “On our way to school, two Jewish people asked us whether we were Muslims and we said ‘no’. Then they asked if we were Christians. We responded ‘Neither, one is Christian and the other is Muslim.’” Thus the Arabs of East Jerusalem started to discover the Jews, and vice versa. In Ecce Homo too, after the Six-Day War, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem established an ulpan – a language evening school teaching Hebrew to the Arabs and Arabic to the Israelis. I was both a student and a facilitator for Israelis learning Arabic there.

In 1971, after following a more intensive ulpan to learn Hebrew and further my studies, I found a teaching job in an Israeli Municipal High School in East Jerusalem, again as an English language teacher. This school housed 1,600 Palestinian girls from East Jerusalem and the nearby villages. All the girls were Muslims. We had a staff of around 90 teachers. The school prepared the students for the Tawjihi, the Jordanian graduation certificate required to enter an Arab university. There were scientific, literary, secretarial and domestic streams. Though the English language syllabus was identical, one had to be quite creative in handling the subject with the different streams.

Teaching in both schools taught me a lot about getting to know both the Arabs and the Israelis, but also especially about how to live out the Sion charism in a situation of conflict.