Sr. Alicia. The place “where we need to be”

Comboni Sr. Alicia Vacas Moro, a Spanish missionary was one of 14 women receiving this year’s International ‘Women of Courage award’, an annual honour by the U.S. Department of State.

Sr. Vacas, 49, a registered nurse and regional coordinator for the Comboni Missionary Sisters in the Middle East, was honoured last march for work that includes establishing a medical clinic in Egypt for low-income patients and a ministry working with an impoverished Bedouin community on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The public citation for Vacas noted that she established a training program for Bedouin women that opened up new economic opportunities for them and also established kindergarten programs in Bedouin camps that provided “an educational foundation for children.”

“In an environment shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sister Alicia also assisted traumatized refugees and asylum seekers, a job she continues to perform on a larger scale in her current role as the regional coordinator for the Comboni Sisters in the Middle East.”

Sr. Vacas worked in Egypt between 1999 and 2007, and has worked in Israel/Palestine since 2008, except for a two-year stint from 2015 to 2017 in Verona, Italy, when she coordinated an infirmary for older sisters. Sr. Vacas was elected regional Mideast coordinator in 2017.

The Comboni community is based in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, but is surrounded on three sides by an Israeli-built separation wall, a barrier constructed in 2004 in the wake of Palestinian uprisings. “It’s an uncomfortable place to be, but it’s a place we’ve come to believe where we need to be,” said Vacas.

Working with people “on both sides of the wall” – from Palestinians to rabbis committed to peace and dialogue – the Comboni community seeks to bridge building and encounter “that makes a difference. This is our place, on the border,” she said.
Asked if she thought the barrier would someday disappear, Sr. Vacas said, “in history, there have been so many walls, and sooner than later they fall.” But “History is wiser than us. History has patience,” she said.

Talking about the pandemic coronavirus, Sr. Vacas said: “The pandemic is under control in Israel but is out of control on the West Bank,” she pointed out, part of a larger pattern in which Palestinians have struggled during the pandemic. “People are fighting for survival,” she said, noting spotty health care access in the Palestinian territories.

“Palestinians families just don’t have any kind of social support right now,” Sr. Vacas said, though she is encouraged by some movement on vaccinating Palestinians. International and Israeli human rights organizations had called for widespread vaccinations in the Palestinian areas controlled by Israel, and last month Israel agreed to vaccinate Palestinians who cross the border into Israel for work.

Sr. Vacas said she and her community will continue their work in ongoing difficult circumstances, though they are not expecting peace any time soon between Israelis and Palestinians.
She takes a long view, saying it is better to have hope than be optimistic. “It would be unbearable if I didn’t have hope,” Sr. Vacas said, adding, “hope means life is stronger than death, and we are convinced of that.”

About the award Vacas said “is somewhat of a surprise because there are so many women out there doing wonderful things.” She said, for example, Comboni sisters in South Sudan might be more deserving of the honour because of their challenging work in assisting displaced persons in that country’s ongoing civil war.

Sr. Vacas views the award as a collective honour for her and the five other Comboni sisters working in the West Bank, as they try to honour Gospel values in an environment she described as uncommonly difficult. “Sometimes an award is really about a larger community, so I share this with others,” she said.

In the ceremony, Secretary of State Biden, Blinken and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.Thomas-Greenfield, all spoke of the need for U.S. foreign policy to affirm women. “They deserve our support and recognition,” Blinken said. “The United States is in your corner.”

Many of the 14 women honoured are human rights activists, and those representing Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America were named Women of Courage honourees. In addition, seven Afghan women assassinated in 2020 for their human rights activism were also honored.

This was the 15th year of the award, which the State Department said “recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment — often at great personal risk and sacrifice.” (Chris Herlinger)