HUSAN, West Bank — The Sabateen clan recognized the dewy-eyed boy in the World Vision sponsorship card from his birth date and the striped collar of his cardigan. His mother used to make him wear that sweater on special occasions.
It was their Othman, who turned 18 on Monday but at the time was 5. None of his relatives recalled signing him up for the World Vision program — nor receiving any money.
“We want to know: Who took the photo? What was their aim?” asked Othman’s uncle Abdul-Hamid Sabateen, a chicken farmer in Husan, a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
I had come to Husan to find Othman after a chance meeting with an Australian police officer months before. I was lost in Sydney’s airport, and he helped me find the departure gate. On the way, I mentioned my work as a journalist in the Middle East, and the officer — who is 44 and spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, Brendan, because of his work — said he had been interested in the Palestinian cause since he was a teenager.
Brendan told me that in 2003 he had signed up to “sponsor” Othman through World Vision, a Christian charity whose website highlights faces and biographies of children from impoverished places around the world, saying that $39 a month can “change a child’s world for good.”
Over the next five years, Brendan said, he sent at least $1,100, along with Christmas and Easter cards, photographs and letters for Othman. He never got any response from the boy, and always wondered what had become of him. He did not know Othman’s last name, but remembered that he was from Husan, a village of about 7,000.
“My curiosity has got the better of me,” Brendan wrote in an email later. “If you could ask around in your travels, I’d love to know that he is O.K.”
World Vision has used the Sponsor a Child fund-raising model for five decades, playing on the power of personalization. Its website showcases photographs, first names and ages of children from 55 countries, calling out to viewers, “Make me part of your family, and help me reach my God-given potential.”
Joan Mussa, the director of public engagement at the organization, said donors sponsored 4.1 million children last year, to the tune of about $1.2 billion. The current roster includes about 40,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Ibrahim Baraghit, who used to work for World Vision in the West Bank, said the organization spent about $1.5 million in Husan from 1996 to 2006, helping to dig wells, build greenhouses, fix roads, prepare land for planting and repair fences. The group built a community center and outfitted the four-story building that houses the village council.
It was not difficult to find Othman in the village, whose residents mostly come from four extended families. I called a council member to ask if there was an Othman born in 1998, and quickly got the phone number of Naser Sabateen, whose nephew by that name was about the right age.
But Mr. Sabateen, a 53-year-old butcher, was suspicious. Who had sent me? What did I really want? The notion of a police officer’s being behind the inquiry hardly helped. Eventually, we met at his shop, where a lump of meat was drying on a board as he and his nephew peered at the sponsorship card.
The names did not quite match — Othman’s first middle name is Mohammad, while the card said Naser. But they had the same birthday, Aug. 1, and Othman recognized the cardigan. He rushed home to fetch a photo showing his childhood self in the same sweater.
What had become of the boy Brendan sponsored?
He liked playing Call of Duty, a popular video game. He flunked math on his final school exam, but was determined to retake it this summer so he could go to a university. He wanted a job involving cars.
And his relatives were rattled by the idea that some stranger in Australia knew his name and said he had sent money that they insisted they had never received.
“We are simple people, who live at the door of God,” said Abdul-Hamid Sabateen, the other uncle, using an Arabic phrase implying poverty and humility — and, therefore, vulnerability to being tricked.
The family struggled to remember any connection to World Vision. Othman’s father, Mohammad, said he had barely been around at the time because he worked illegally in Israel and slept at construction sites for weeks on end. An aunt named Myasar recalled, finally, strangers coming to Husan with cameras.
“They were foreigners-foreigners,” she said, meaning white people. “They would line up the children and take photos of them.”
The Sabateens liked people fawning over their children, and so did not mind the strangers and their cameras. Myasar said her daughter Saja, now 24, and Othman had occasionally received cards in the years afterward. They were delivered to the local grocery and written in English, which the family did not understand.
So had I uncovered a scandal in which a well-meaning foreigner, lured by an adorable child’s needy face, sent money to an organization that failed to deliver it to its promised recipient? Not exactly.
Ms. Mussa said World Vision never promised sponsors that their money would directly support a specific child. Rather, the group pools the money for projects in the child’s community. She said World Vision had conducted an online survey of 4,000 sponsors in which most said they understood the money was for the place, not the person in the picture.
Brendan was not one of them. He thought his monthly sum was going to the boy in the cardigan. A letter he received from World Vision when it raised the sponsorship rate in 2004 said he was “helping to provide Othman Naser H with essentials like enough food to eat.” Farther down, it said the money was to help “continue the important developments in Othman Naser H’s community.”
The group’s website presents a similar duality, suggesting that writing to the sponsored children helps donors “get to know, love and encourage a specific child, while helping fund resources and improvements that benefit them and their community.” It also promises sponsors that “your child will send you a letter!” though the Sabateen clan did not recall ever being told that Othman was supposed to do this.
Mr. Baraghit, who managed the local World Vision program for about a decade, said 3,000 children in Husan had been enrolled. “At one point, every newborn was put up for sponsorship,” he said.
Although parents are meant to give permission for their children to participate, World Vision did not require signed consent forms until 2007 or 2008 — after the Husan initiative was over.
“It was organized,” said Nader Rahil, who now manages the program in the area. “But it is more organized now.”
Rami Hamamra, a member of Husan’s village council, said World Vision “did a lot” in the village, adding, “We all benefited.”
Later, Naser Sabateen, one of the uncles, called me and said he wanted to be clear that he appreciated World Vision’s work in the village, once poorer and needier, even if it had come from putting their children up for sponsorship.
Brendan, though, felt misled.
“People make donations based on the sense of personal connection they have with the image they are provided, and that they are changing that child’s life,” he said.
When I told him that the Sabateens had been confused by the Christmas cards in English, he realized that they must have seemed “like a postcard from another planet.”
“What level of knowledge do they have of us?” he asked. “It’s a bit surreal to be honest,” he added. “A bit sad, in a way.”
(via NY Times)