She never wavered, nor did she relent the time and effort she gave. She left us a legacy far richer than money or gold. She cared and dared, so that her dear ones who daily walked or crawled through pain and strife found a refuge at last. It is she and we know her: stalwart Katherine George Siksek who succeeded in bringing light and love to her country folk.
Through her deep faith, the Homes of Mercy which she has envisioned have become a reality. It is Madam Siksek, a Palestinian Arab Christian born in the Old City of Jerusalem on 7/4/1894, who founded the Four Homes of Mercy on 3/6/1940, first with two beds and alone, then women in the area came to her assistance, and together they served. By 1948 the Homes, then in Beit Jala, had 180 beds with tents on the terraces and a building which could hardly cope.
In 1967 the move was made into a partially finished building in Bethany (Eizariyeh). A new start took place, and section after section came into view. The Homes today are well established institutions in a scenic area; with hills that slope down towards the valley of Jordan, dry climate, fresh air, a location that is easy to reach and weather warmer than that of Jerusalem which is only several minutes away from the Homes.
Katherine Siksek was born in the Old City of Jerusalem on 7th April 1894. A Palestinian Christian Arab whose father was George Habeeb Hanania, owner of a daily paper called “Jerusalem.” The paper was the first of its kind published in Palestine in Arabic at the time of the Ottoman Empire. Her mother was Aneiseh Farradj, sister of Yacoub Farradj, the co-vice-mayor of Jerusalem during Mandate time. And Mitri Farradj the Governor of Ramallah District.
Katherine grew in a house which knew the value of the written word. She grew with her two brothers, Issa and Damian, and her only sister, Futinee. George Habeeb Hanania, Katherine’s father, took special pride in sending his daughter to school. Passing by Damascus Gate, people saw a young damsel walking with an escort behind her, carrying her books as becomes a girl of standing. That was Katherine. Why an escort? The road was lonely, and it was deemed fit that a beautiful damsel and the daughter of a man of good standing should be escorted.
In 1910 Katherine married George Siksek. She was 16 years old and he was 23. They got married in the ancient church of St. Elias, a monumental church on the road to Bethlehem, right on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The marriage took place in the early morning hours of 7th November, 1910. Because of some sort of disturbances, George and Katherine wanted a quiet wedding and they got it. The “carrosas” or carriages passed Jaffa Gate, the horses tossed their heads and jingled their bells and trotted into the colorful dawn, and as the procession came close to Saint Elias the bells of the church chimed, announcing the birth of a new day, a day of blessings to them who were soon to get married.
Katherine spoke of all this later on to her children as they drove to Beit Jala where the Old Age Home started. The marriage of Katherine and George was certainly blessed since later on in life the couple celebrated their diamond Jubilee on 20th November 1970. Later, two more years were added, a gift from the Lord to help them mark 62 years of married life together.
George worked first as a teacher in the Patriarchal schools, then as an inspector of schools in Transjordan and Palestine. He was orphaned at the age of two, and all his 84 years were years of dedication to learning. He loved the Arabic Language and wrote vastly in it. His most outstanding successes were his Arabic readers. He was a Greek scholar and translated into Arabic the Byzantine family law, also a book of prayers which came in 700 pages. He spoke English, French, and Turkish beside his mother tongue Arabic.
Katherine found in her husband a reliable friend, cultured and well educated, able to advise and convince, with knowledge of community needs and aspirations. He was sharp enough to understand that his wife owned rare qualities, and that it will be to the benefit of the community to help her achieve what she set herself to do in service to others.
Three children were born to George and Katherine. John became a lawyer, Henrietta a teacher and writer for children and a person who wrote and produced children’s radio programs, under the name of “Suad,” Meaning happiness. Simon, the younger son, studied law in Cambridge, economics in USA and established an office for Middle East Industrial Relation, MEIRC, which, like his mother’s and father’s endeavors, left its mark on yet another field, that of the oil business of the area.
It is now high time for us to go back in our thinking to where in 1918 Jerusalem and all Palestine were suffering from the after effects of World War I, when Red Cross Units moved in to alleviate the distress. It is here that Katherine Siksek’s personality took shape, where she joined other women in the area to assist the Red Cross workers. She knew English and thus she could communicate with those selfless “Croix Rouge” people.
The good that was embodied in the heart of Katherine Siksek came up to the surface. Young as she was, she grasped the situation and lost no effort in helping others. Seeing the extent of poverty around her spurred her on. Those dainty legs of hers walked and walked through the city on errands of good will. She had faith in God’s ability to help those in need, facing thus the grimmest of days. Further still in her moved the desire to sacrifice pleasure for better life for others, all with a daring spirit of adventure molded into the need to love the deprived, bed-ridden, and the sick and suffering.
Someone called her The Palestinian “That el Himmeh” meaning the Palestinian of an indomitable “unconquerable” spirit – that el Himmeh being a fictitious Arab woman known by her deeds written in a saga in the fourteenth century.
Others called her Madam Siksek, Madam being a name given in reverence to a person.
When the Red Cross Units left the country, people in need found their way to Katherine Siksek’s house. The green door with the circular knob was heard announcing people in distress. The little Old City house with the open patio and the flower beds adorning it, which often had violets, Katherine’s favorite flower, have become the Mecca of the needy of the area, be it a request for a doctor, medicine, food or schooling.
People loved Katherine Siksek and appreciated her. She was among them as one of them. She was not rich; how could she be married as she was to a man who prized books than luxury? An educator in those days earned a modest income. Katherine, however, knew how to reach the rich. She had friends among the rich women folks in the area, they saw what she was doing. They helped. She begged at a reception, even Mr. Keithroach, the Governor of Jerusalem, called her “the best beggar in the land.” Her friends gasped. She smiled: “I don’t mind that if my poor ones are attended to.” In the eyes of Katherine Siksek, all were sons and daughters of an impoverished nation, sons of a war which ate up the green and the fertile, and made everyone suffer. Katherine, at this early stage in life, made up her mind concerning whom to help – she was to help all, young or old, with no limitations to race or religion. In this she set the path ready for all the women who later on joined her.
It so happened that an old woman lived close to Katherine’s house. The old woman sent after Katherine Siksek. “Please,” she told Katherine, “I leave my son and daughter into your care.” “Not mine,” said Katherine. “Leave them to God’s care. He cares for all.”
The old woman passed away and Katherine Siksek took her son who was in his thirties and his sister who was in her twenties, she took them for care to the German Hospital in Jerusalem. It was not long after this that the hospital asked for their removal. “Hospitals are not for long term cases,” they said. Katherine Siksek realized that it was high time a solution is found where bedridden patients are attended to.
Right after this the Old City of Jerusalem heard of the suicide of a woman. This woman had been suffering from a stomach ulcer and called often at Katherine’s house asking for money with which to buy medicine. This last time Katherine promised to get money for her from one of the rich ladies in town, but she had none to spare at the moment. Hardly had the dawn of the second day come than pain drove the woman into throwing herself from a high window. It was a shocking incident, something enough to force Katherine into organizing medical care for those who needed it.
One other case came along too. A young Ramallah bride-to-be was scrubbing the floor of her house. Soap and water would make those native tiles sparkle, but Azeezeh slipped and hurt her back, never could she stand up again. Azeezeh’s fiancé left back to America. Katherine’s mind was working hard, something must be done to such cases. Something, yes, but what – and how?
People still flocked to the same house beyond the archway which had the green door and circular knob. “Please,” they begged, “please come and see.” She went. A man and his wife were in an Old City basement room – both beyond their eighties. Their beds were seeping with dampness and their room was dark and unhealthy.
For the fourth time Katherine realized the need of the city for medical care and care of the handicapped. She realized too that it was all more than what she can cope with. Now in 1924 Katherine founded, along with friends of hers, the Orthodox Society of the Destitute Sick, known as the Myrrh Bearers. Each family around donated for each month five piasters (a shilling); others donated more. Katherine walked from house to house and collected the money, her friends helped too. One shilling was added to the other and people were cared for.
It was then when matters came to a crises, as now the hospital could wait no longer. Alice and her brother must leave. Where will they go? The matter was put in front of the society members for discussion. “We need a care home, a home for the bedridden handicapped,” said Katherine. The members nodded their heads. “Not until our society is strong enough to cope with such a venture,” they said. Katherine took the young couple from the German Hospital and gave them for care into the house of a newly widowed woman who had four orphaned boys. Not having enough money to buy new bedsteads, second hand beds were used, one of which was tied with a cord.
The Society of the Destitute Sick became richer and a new beautiful house was bought by them. Again Katherine begged that the new house becomes the awaited for home for the elderly handicapped. “No, of course not” came the answer, “not until we become richer; we must have many houses and from their income open a home for the aged.”
Katherine gulped. “The need is now. We have people who need to be attended to,” she said, only to find out that it was useless to argue further.
Days passed and Katherine, having had an accident, lay on her couch in the living room of her Old City house. News reached her that the society will have nothing to do with the elderly or the handicapped! Some members of the society took sides with her – but then!
Katherine’s fighting spirit, the “That -el-Himmeh” spirit, would not take defeat. George and Katherine invited the notables of Jerusalem to their little house. They came. “Never mind,” they said. “Forget the past and start anew”. “How?” said Katherine. “Take our wives, daughters and sisters,” they said, and then they wrote a petition to the Government to help Katherine Siksek start a home for the aged. Once signed that document was like a document of trust, something historical, something of great worth. The photo of this document is published in one of our annual reports. More accurately, on the inside cover of our annual report of 1981. Only by then did someone realize that it was of a historical significance.
So it came to be that in that small living room – the same that we see these days, yes the room with the low ceiling and small door, there the Homes of Mercy were first proclaimed. Dr. Foteh Freij and George Siksek, as well as Katherine, sat down evening after evening writing the bylaws, and in 1940, with the bylaws approved by the Government and members assembled, the task unfathomed was started. It was Mandate time, the community was poor, the Patriarchate seemed to be distant and busy in its own problems. No municipality was ready to back up the issue though they gave free water! One would think that what was started in 1940 could easily crumple a few years later. That, however, was not the case.
The Society was registered under the name of the Orthodox Invalid’s Home Charitable Society – for short, people called it “The Malja” or “Malja Madam Siksek” a name much in use now by people in the area. The question that comes to one’s mind is: Why Orthodox? Well Katherine was an Arab Orthodox woman, and the first members were all Arab Orthodox women, and in the eyes of these ladies the name did not matter, every lady of good will and love to the less fortunate handicapped was invited to join.
In this way the Four Homes of Mercy, as the Society came to be called for short in the English language, started to grow. To the first two patients we added many others. The number rose from two to 180 and even more.
Such Homes are usually planned for in advance. Money is allotted. A community survey is made, staff found and then trained and then the Homes are started. Not so with the Homes of Mercy. These Homes opened themselves. Dire need created them. Out of nearly nothing they came to exist from the sweat of the brows of those sturdy women who rallied to the side of Katherine, the Homes went on. Seeing the sacrifices of the dear few, the whole nation tried to help though they themselves could hardly donate much. Besides, those were days in which women kept to their homes. The early part of the twentieth century was not as free as in its latter days. Men were even wary and many of them counted the hours in which their wives were out collecting money or visiting the elderly.
Katherine Siksek passed away on 3rd May 1973, nearly two years after her husband had passed away. She lived to see the Homes she founded gain in stature, experience and ability to handle patients effectively. Katherine’s faith in God was a big factor in her life. She often mentioned this. Her faith was so strong, that even in the darkest of days she did not flinch. Wars, destruction and nearly a nation of refugees did not shake her faith, even when tents sprang up around the Homes for the aged and when an overwhelming number of patients poured in, her Faith was as strong as ever. The terraces around housed the maimed, the crippled and the aged.
Nurses worked as never recorded in history. The winter of 1948 was cruelly cold, with rain, mud and storms menacing and hovering above the heads of those of the handicapped as well as the homes of the aged. Katherine’s purse filled but then it emptied far more quickly than desired while people gave carefully of the little they had. Such miseries around that could shake the faith of anyone but not Katherine Siksek’s. Those dainty swift legs of a person running on paths of service to others, have become heavy and slow, yet the faith of that steadfast person kept encouraging those around her. ”Trust in the Lord,” she used to say. “He is sure to help.” And as people around failed to secure the basic needs of life, her beautiful smile lit up her face and overpowering the very disasters which she met. “Look,” she used to repeat. “Have faith – God is sure to help.”
It now became necessary for the Homes to appeal to the outer world, and so it was, that our voices as members sped across the oceans. In my appeal in 1953 to US citizens I said, “I see you well dressed, you are many, we are few. Can’t you help, can’t the many help the few?” And they did.
Members later went as deputies to South America, to England and to North America and to the Arab world. Their ventures were not in vain. Real sturdy countrywomen representing various areas in the country helped a lot. Touched by the appeal of Katherine Siksek and her associates, King Hussein and his Government gave a lovely piece of Land on which the Homes were to be built. Katherine and her associates were in a car heading back from visiting key people in the Government of Jordan, when Ibrahim’s radio announced the gift. All clapped, including Ibrahim the driver himself. Luckily he was alert to the twisting road of Wadi Showeib – Katherine felt this to be the crowning moment of all her efforts.
The building was started. Deaconess Morris of England lost no time in gathering money for this. The site of the building was called “Dhar el Barroukeh” meaning the crest overlooking the water pool. Bethany gained ground over Beit Jala and the Homes were finally moved over to Bethany.
Stone by stone the building grew in shape. White stones glittered in midday sun. Bethany boasts having dry air. Very healthy indeed. The Homes were only 7 kilometers to the south east of that lovely city of cities, Jerusalem. Soon the building started to give pleasure to the eyes. Katherine, walking through the main corridor, felt the magnanimity of what God built for His own. She called with an audible voice – “Thank you God Thank YOU.”
Thirty two years ago we planted small trees. These trees are by now tall and handsome, some olive trees are yielding their olives, tangerines and pomegranates are giving fruits, the sycamore tree at the entrance gives shade. It seems as though it was only yesterday when Mr. Daoud Abu Ghazaleh, the then Governor of Jerusalem, holding the arm of Katherine Siksek, walked up to the speaker’s desk, took up some cement and the sealed cylindrical box which had the history and date of the big event and walked with Katherine to where he laid the corner stone.
It was all as if it were a pleasant dream. Katherine Siksek beaming as never before. The Homes are now firmly lodged with stone and mortar, now they’ll become part of Jerusalem’s history – the Homes that are to house the aged, the crippled, the maimed, and the homeless children who suffer of long term non-contagious diseases yet can go to school.
We have seen buildings take shape in less than a year. In 1964 our greeting cards had the sketch of the plan of our present building, now in 1999 only the basement and the ground floors and Nurse Training School are finished. Katherine Siksek wished it that what came in donations for patient use should be used for patients, what money came for the building was put into the building and we honored her wish. Two sections on the top floor remain to be built. One is the Teenage section or Home and the second is Aman Home for the aged who get paralyzed and the handicapped as well to receive physio and occupational therapy in a Rehabilitation Center amidst both sections. The cost of each is half million dollars and can be built in parts.
Several times, way after Katherine’s death, we had our monthly meeting in that historical room in the Old City of Jerusalem. The feel of unity, of tender care for the afflicted, and just being close to Katherine and George Siksek’s house, where they lived and prayed, and used their talents and efforts for the service of their country folk in Jerusalem. The members seated in that little room felt strengthened as if by magic beyond their ability to comprehend, the little house drew them in, sort of ordained them into a ministry of love and service to others.
Things are no more what they were nearly 60 years ago, forms of care developed so were needs. I for one feel honored to live through those 60 years of the life of the Homes. I feel honored to have had the privilege of witnessing closely the life and endeavors of Katherine Siksek, the mother who had me for her daughter and yet did not forget those around her who too wanted to be part of her life and of the selfless work she was doing.
Suddenly we members of our Society looked around at an unfolding world of good service to the handicapped. Katherine was a person who read much. Deep into the night she used to read. Thrillers as well as short stories. Women’s magazines of the outside world as well as educational materials. Deep into the night she would read until the book came close to her face where it said its good night to her. It was George’s hand which usually put off the light and removed the book. This reading ability made Katherine look at the world around her and apply what was useful to her own. We members traveled far and all of us agreed that if we are to do a good job in our service we must perfect our work. To perfect services we had to have money, “the eyes see the need yet the hands cannot reach it.” That was a good proverb. Even with that proverb in mind and with scarcity of income, we were able to do much.
The Home for the Aged was the first of its kind in the land of Palestine. By 1953 St. Mary’s Maternity Hospital was founded. Around the Home for the Aged sprang up huge camps. Dheisheh, Azzeh, Arroub and Aida. St. Mary’s Maternity delivered 22,737 babies from 1/1/1953 to 31/12/1999. In 1961 the Crippled Children’s Home was started all in Beit Jala. Later in 1969 the Nurse Training School came into being in Bethany and Katherine Siksek herself graduated the first two classes of Practical Nurses. “Mother,” Katherine whispered to her daughter from her hospital bed in St. Joseph’s French hospital in Jerusalem. Then she continued. “Guess who was my night nurse? It was Subhieh. She reminded me of the day I handed her the certificate – mama train more and more like her.” Sister Richards told me that they badly need nurses. By December 1995 eleven courses were given with a number of 201 graduates. All were an asset to the Homes of Mercy, raising the standard of medical care in our Homes as well as adjoining hospitals.
We must admit at this point that we have had friends who rallied at our side. I could name Maja Tjellstrom of Sweden, Deaconess Morris and Barbara Hook of England, Liz Mulford of USA, Agnita Magnusson from Sweden, Mr. Jorge Izert from Germany, Marlyn Schults from France, Diet Koster from Holland. From ever so many countries came volunteers; Swedish, British, German, Dutch, Swiss, American, French and others. All rallied around the old lady of the Old City – all felt proud to be part of this great adventure in faith.
Only seven kilometers separate Jerusalem from the Homes of Mercy in Bethany. The building, though not yet finished, speaks of those who donated to have it built. It speaks of children who missed meals and paid the price of those meals to build masonry. It speaks of those anonymous women who sold jars of marmalade or honey so that we add a few rows of stones to the building.
It also speaks of young girls and boys who found in the Homes of Mercy the only home they ever knew in life. It speaks of the aged who sought shelter in our homes while their sons and daughters were in far off countries unable to be of any help. It speaks of its being the foster home which nurtured, fed, clothed and educated, and even witnessed marriage ceremonies. The aged and handicapped sections have over these nearly sixty years handled no less than seven thousand and four hundred and six persons since (1940 – No.14/1999).
A walk into the Four Homes these days shows you what improvements are noted there. The Homes used to be a shelter, a refuge and an abode, now they are more like a health care center. Walking in, one remembers Katherine Siksek whose service went beyond establishment and collecting funds into the care of the patients. Daily she visited by the bedside of the patients asking about their problems and telling stories. What a good storyteller she was – and what eager listeners she had!
How often do we forget that care of the patients has to go beyond the actual care of the body into the care of the soul, the care of persons as human beings with hearts and feelings and likes and dislikes. It is important that troubled human beings should enjoy the feel of relaxation, the feel of comfort and trust. It is only meant to study the psychology of him who leaves his house and becomes part of a room, a bed, and a cupboard. All this Katherine Siksek perceived. A woman was brought into the old age home one day, she cried and cried. “What is it dear?” asked Katherine. “My people took away from me the bracelets that my husband gave me when we got engaged.” Katherine then asked details. On the second day the woman got a gift of bracelets gold – like in color and cheap but then much like the “sleetats,” the thin round bracelets the woman described. Ever since the woman was happy. Was it because Katherine gave her a gift or because she now owns similar bracelets? God knows.
These were not the only stories. One day George Siksek told his wife Katherine, “Takla’s birthday is in a few day’s time, on that day she steps into her hundredth birthday.” Katherine caught the hint. “She will soon teeth again,” she said, “let me make her sneanieh,” the cakes which we make for our children when they start teething. And so it was that Takla ate her teething cookies. Such a memorable day, it was late autumn and the rains came early. Poor George and Katherine, they got wet walking through the Old City streets, over to Damascus gate where a taxi awaited them, but dear Takla had her fun!
The beauty and glamour of it all was caught up by the workers, they too were learning the ways of Katherine Siksek.
It was on the early hours of the 3rd of May 1973 that the Old City people of Jerusalem woke up to the sad news of the departure of a loved one. The heart that felt with ever so many people got tired and it stopped, carrying Katherine from the world of pain and strife to a world in which she faced the creator saying: “Here I come my Lord, I have tried to serve You as much as I could through serving Your own.”
Always Henrietta, the daughter of Katherine and George, refused to accept her mother’s request to carry on the work she had started. Henrietta had her reasons. She was a writer and could not see misery. It affected her to the heart. Her children’s radio programs were much admired, so were her written articles.
A few days before Katherine passed away, Katherine asked the same question “Mama will you carry on?” Henrietta, seeing the earnest eyes of her mother and listening to the plaintive tone of her voice answered, “yes Mama for sure Mama – I will.”
It was then when Henrietta asked her mother about the title of a book she might write about the life of Katherine Siksek. Shall I give it the title of “The Life of Light and Sacrifice?” Katherine answered, “I never felt I was sacrificing anything for others, instead I felt I was living in light and love, the light that showed me the way, and the love that is above understanding.” Also, continued Katherine “I felt moved by those who were deprived of loved ones.” “Shall I tell you something?” she added. “If ever you will be able to write such a book, call it the Life of Light and love.”
And in my mind came the deep words of a man of learning. “Truly those who pass sunshine into the lives of others cannot help but live in sunshine themselves.” Among those who watched the funeral pass by on the second day with a multitude of mourners and nurses in white uniforms was a Swedish nurse. “Tell me,” she asked. “Is this the funeral of a princess?” “No,” answered one of the mourners. “She is just one of us – she loved us and we loved her. In truth she is more than a princess.”
Ever since, that nurse, whose name is Maja Tjellstrom, has volunteered her services at the Four Homes of Mercy. “Truly the great can only understand the services of someone great.”
As for us members, never for a minute did we feel that Katherine Siksek was no more with us. Taxicabs call Henrietta, her daughter, Mrs. Siksek though the truth is that she is Mrs. Farradj; the Grocer, the butcher, the baker, nearly everyone calls her Mrs. Siksek!
Since Mrs. Siksek still lives in people’s thoughts. So let it be.
Henreitta Siksek Farradj Exec. Honorary Secretary Revised 4 March 1995 Revised again 27 April 1998 Revised again 14 November 1999