Q & A with Sr. Bridget Tighe, bringing health care to people in the Gaza Strip

Sr. Bridget Tighe, a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood (FMDM), is executive director of Caritas Jerusalem in Gaza.

She began her postulancy at the FMDM motherhouse in the United Kingdom on June 25, 1965, and in the five decades since has served Palestinian refugees in Jordan as a nurse and midwife, studied theology at Cambridge University, specialized in health management at the London School of Economics, successfully launched the prestigious Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology in Cambridge, and served as vice rector of Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.

She "absolutely loved theology" and would gladly have done further studies at Cambridge University, but her management skills were much sought after. Her role at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology combined both theology and management: Faced with the challenges of having no money, no building and no students, she was undaunted and stayed in the role for 11 years (1994-2005) and even managed to get the mortgage on the institute's building paid off before embarking on her next project.

GSR: You are a volunteer with Caritas in Gaza and yet your title is executive director. Please explain.

Tighe: I came to Caritas two years ago, when I finished my term of office as regional leader in England/Scotland. While still blessed with good health and energy, I wanted to return to serving the poorest of the poor. Due to the blockade, it was difficult for Caritas personnel in Jerusalem to come to Gaza to support the staff and coordinate the projects, and there was a leadership vacuum. I'm a volunteer, meaning I don't get a salary, I get a living allowance, but I work full-time.

What does your role entail?

We have a primary health care center with gynecologist, pediatrician, dentist, nursing and paramedical staff. The building, though small, is the hub for our outreach projects throughout the Gaza Strip. One such project was screening 4,000 children for anemia and providing medication, fortified milk and biscuits over a 12-month period for 1,000 of those found to be anemic. We also provide psychosocial care for thousands of children traumatized by war. My role is to coordinate, support and enable Caritas local staff to do their work. They are all Gazans and have also lived through frequent wars.

What is life like in Gaza?

I am here nearly two years now, and I've got used to it — one gets accustomed to almost anything. This is worrying: The abnormal becomes the norm.

Some rebuilding has happened, but the blockade is still in place. What people find hardest is the inability to travel. Gaza is an open prison with a population of almost 2 million. People cannot leave this small, densely populated area by land, sea or air to get work, medical care, or for any other reason without permission from Egypt or Israel. The people are well educated with a high proportion of university graduates. Unemployment among 16- to 25-year-olds is 60 to 70 percent, and one sometimes sees young men with master's degrees sweeping streets on cash-for-work programs. It is soul-destroying.

Another thing that people find very hard is the curtailment of electricity to four or six hours a day. Water in the taps is undrinkable, so everyone buys desalinated water. A recent U.N. report said that if things didn't change radically, Gaza would be unliveable by 2020. It is pretty grim.

You are originally from Ireland. How did you end up joining a religious order in Britain?

I grew up on a small farm in the west of Ireland, which in the '50s and '60s was poor. I was and am blessed with a wonderful family. My parents were simple religious people, not overly pious. They had a healthy psychology.

I went to England at 17 and began nursing at Whipp's Cross Hospital in East London the week I turned 18. There was a Franciscan church close by, and I joined the Third Order of St. Francis.

Growing up, I had a feeling that I wanted to be a sister, but I wasn't sure, so I did nursing and had a boyfriend in Ireland, but I always felt this call there. It is hard to explain. When I met the FMDM congregation, I knew that was where I wanted to be. I just felt at home there.

Are you accepted as a Catholic sister in Gaza?

Gaza is a fundamentalist Muslim enclave, but Christians are not harassed. In fact, they are protected to some extent. Tragically, the Christian community has reduced in number over a short time. People say that before 1967, there were 40,000 Christians in Gaza. Now, there are about 1,200 in total, mostly Greek Orthodox with about 120 Roman Catholics and a few Anglicans and Baptists. The number keeps going down.

Christians get permission from Israel to go to Jerusalem and Bethlehem for Christmas and Easter, and some who go do not return. They stay so-called 'illegally' in the West Bank. When whole families go, that is the future gone.

You worked as a midwife with Palestinian refugees. When was that and where?

Jordan was my first mission assignment while I was still in temporary vows, and I stayed four and a half years. I was then back to England and Ireland for three years, after which I was reassigned to Jordan, where I stayed for another 11 years.

During those two blocks of time, I worked with the very poor, most of whom were Palestinian refugees. We were a community of six sisters, all nurses and midwives, supported by the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. In the early years, we ran mobile clinics and rehydration centers. We later established and ran busy mother-and-child health centers and other programs in the camps.

Would you recommend religious life to young women?

FMDM is a wonderful congregation, a wonderful charism, a wonderful life. But I would tell young women to be realistic. We don't have many young sisters, and they would have few peers. But if they wanted a Franciscan congregation, a challenge, a supportive community with a sense of humor and a great sense of adventure, I would encourage them. I've done things and been to places that some people can only dream of, and my love for St. Francis and his example of Gospel living grows ever deeper, especially as I share the life of the poor in Gaza.

[Sarah Mac Donald is a freelance journalist based in Dublin.]