Palestine – Salesian bakery in Bethlehem: bread, love and development

04 April 2023
Photo: Avvenire

(ANS - Bethlehem) - "During Ramadan, the bakery opens at 1:30 a.m.," Ibrahim Matta explains in fairly good Italian. Before dawn, during this period of fasting, Muslims arrive and then, from six o'clock onward, the Christians trickle into this Salesian bakery at the intersection of Madbasseh Square and Paul VI Street, a bakery that has been open for a remarkable 120 years.

"This loaf of bread is called 'hamam,' which means pigeon, because of its shape: here in Bethlehem, we're the only ones who have always made it," Ibrahim says as he serves customers arriving shortly before his eight o'clock shift change. His own shift started at ten o'clock in the evening and he kneaded throughout the night, with the first batch brought forward by more than an hour. Fourteen different sizes, white and whole wheat bread and all with "flour, salt, yeast and water. And we never add sugar, so it's good for people with blood disorders," Ibrahim points out, proud of his work, which he learned from bakers who came specially from Italy to Bethlehem, whose name means "City of Bread."

It is the "miracle" of bread that for over 120 years has been repeated in the city of the Nativity: flour and solidarity as the cement of a community that around the bakery and workshops of the Salesian vocational school has been seeking possible development ever since. And, as they say now, sustainable.

In 1863, Fr. Antonio Belloni, a Propaganda Fide missionary who later became a Salesian, founded the first orphanage in the Holy Land. "The bakery was initially used to feed the boys, who soon numbered almost a hundred. Some donors donated flour: education, but also the provision of basic needs, as per Salesian tradition," explains Fr. Gianni Caputa, SDB. A few years later, they decided to sell the bread to the public: pragmatism and solidarity that spanned the last century. The little green cards that someone props up on the counter are for those who receive bread without paying for it. A bread "multiplied", thanks to international solidarity and local enterprise: with peaks of need, as during the pandemic, with a list of names of more than 100 heads of families  ticked off by evening.

The 'poetry' of Bethlehem bread is also symbolic of a development that the Platform of 18 Italian NGOs working in Palestine - including some Focsiv members - continue to seek, despite the dramatic economic crisis throughout the region. It is called 'Start your business', the three-year project launched by the Italian NGOs - with the support of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation - to create new micro-enterprises. "A hundred businesses have already been incubated and eventually there will be 120 start-ups," explains Gigi Bisceglia, Platform Coordinator: small businesses - individuals, or made up of two or three components - active in the fields of tourism, handicrafts (soap and cosmetics production) and service providers, such as a call center for finding doctors and booking blood tests in a context where there is no public health care, or vocational courses for women and young people.

"What we are trying to do is an attempt to translate the Economy of Francis model on the ground: there is nothing wrong with doing private enterprise, but it has to develop in a sustainable way, asking yourself what impact you want to have on the community," explains Luigi Bisceglia, who also teaches at Bethlehem University's School of Business and Economics. Small businesses that could employ about 300 young people and women following a model that has been working for more than center years, "After all, the Salesian bakery, with its ability to redistribute bread to the neediest, has been a form of social enterprise since its inception," Bisceglia concludes. It is also an endeavor to make ends meet and repair equipment, but it is also an endeavor that has lasted for more than a century. And in the "City of Bread" they want to continue to break development and solidarity around the ancient Salesian bakery.



ANS - “Agenzia iNfo Salesiana” is a on-line almost daily publication, the communication agency of the Salesian Congregation enrolled in the Press Register of the Tibunal of Rome as n 153/2007.

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