Holy Land – Day Nine
Wondering what this day would look like, knowing our guide and driver were gone, we stepped out of the hotel after breakfast to find someone dear to us waiting to divide us into three groups, put us on three little buses, and send us to three different schools in the Bethlehem area. We were going to get to do some work.
I had the blessing of being on a team of six who went to the Hope School, which is a charitable school that offers an education, and some boarding, for the neediest of kids.
We loved the administrator who gave us a great tour of the facilities and filled us in on the school’s history.
For years the school had been run as a secondary school for boys in seventh to twelfth grades. Eventually, the board decided that it could expand and start reaching boys and girls, then last year it made the decision to start reaching the younger children of the area, as well.
So…they started a kindergarten class. This school year they now have a kindergarten and a first grade class, and they’ll add a grade every year.
I can’t begin to tell you how impressed we were with this school that does everything they do through donations and their own fund-raising – like with their chickens who lay eggs that can be sold and their soccer field that can be rented out to other groups.
I was encouraged to learn that Palestine, which was always more of a tribal nation without a central government, is getting more organized. In fact, they now have a Minister of Education who helps set standards and offer curriculum.
Just as we saw at Mar Elias, Hope School teaches their students English, which is much harder for the older students to learn – but the young ones will be much more fluent by the time they graduate.
Even more impressive were their statistics that show 100% of their grads pass the state test to earn their secondary certificate. A few go off to college and some find other means to further their education, and all are finding jobs. A little bit at a time, Hope School is helping a poverty-stricken community look forward to the future with…hope!
We visited some classrooms then headed to the roof where we cleaned 170+ solar panels.
Here’s another bit of encouraging news. The Palestinians now have their own energy division, and they are partnering with places like Hope School to tap into a perpetual energy source, the sun.
It was explained that Hope School got into a significant debt with the electric company, so the company approached them with a proposal. Hope School puts all these high tech solar panels that the company provides on their school’s rooftop, and with the energy they sell from them, their debt is repaid. In a few years, their debt will be cancelled, and they will actually earn some money from the energy they sell!
We were so proud to clean these dusty panels for this school. Our pastor kept checking the digital monitor that showed how much more energy was being produced as we cleaned the panels. We really felt as if we were contributing significantly to this great school!
And, of course, we’d love to do more.
One thing they’ll need soon is more classroom space as they continue to add elementary classes. Their solution is to renovate an old home that is on their property so that their boarders can move in there, freeing up rooms in the main building.
It didn’t take much imagination to think of who we could get from our church to build a team and come back to do the house “flip.”
Since we’ve been back from our trip, I read that Hope School has moved forward with the home renovations and moving their boarders into it. Now they’ll have some rooms in the school freed-up to create much-needed classrooms!
We enjoyed a break with our administrator, now friend – with tea and pita with jam. We were able to ask more questions as we partook of this Middle Eastern tradition. I like teatime!
After our morning at Hope School, the little bus picked each of our groups up, and we to a place a bit outside of Bethlehem called Tent of Nations, where we’d eat lunch and learn about who and what they are.
On the bus ride, we all compared stories. The group that’d gone to Bethlehem Bible College organized a closet and did some weeding, among other little projects.
The group that went to a school called The Academy either helped in classrooms or in the library. It was so fun hearing everyone’s experiences!
Tent of Nations
Again, I don’t know what I expected…maybe tents? But this dry, dusty place on the upper side of one of the hills of Bethlehem had a simple focus and big ambitions.
We sat around a long table on a porch overlooking the hills and enjoyed a typical lunch for these parts – rice with some hidden treats and a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Oh, and don’t forget the tart yogurt “dressing.” We were grateful for the meal, and afterwards, headed into a small cave room (really, it was a painted cave) as the leader launched into an explanation of what Tent of Nations is and what they do.
Tent of Nations is the Nassar family’s farm, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire days. It is the Nassar family’s witness as Christians to invite people to come and see and share in their struggle.
They desire to build bridges between people of all nations, as well as, people to the land. The land they’re on is an organic farm, and in addition to their farming, Tent of Nations runs educational projects with people from all over the world, bringing them together “to learn, to share, and to build bridges of understanding and hope.”
Here is yet another group who stands against the injustices they face in a peaceful, practical, and productive way.
A major obstacle this organization faces is destruction. Even though where they meet is their land and they have documentation that proves they’ve owned this land through every occupied era, Israel has not lifted their “destruction orders.” Like every other Palestinian family, without permits to build or improve the buildings on their land, the soldiers can come in at any time with bulldozers and destroy it all. Even tents are “illegal.”
And this family has not given up. They’ve been fighting through the court system for years. The courts acknowledge their documentation of ownership as valid but the Israeli government won’t accept it…so the court battles wage on.
I love their motto: “We refuse to be enemies!” It could be found all over their little camp (that’s what it felt more like…a camp) – in all kinds of languages.
After our tour of their meager facilities and being in the presence of their big hearts and undefeated spirits, we loaded back in our mini-bus (by the way, our big bus would never have made up these narrow, winding hills!) and headed to our next stop.
Aida Refugee Camp
I must say I had very little in me to prepare me for this next stop. We’d already heard so many stories and even met a few people who were struggling, fighting to survive every day. Today had felt more hopeful…then the refugee camp.
First, I had to get my mind around the fast that this camp has existed since the Palestinians were first forced from their lands in 1947. That is over 70 years ago. We’re talking a couple of generations have lived in this “temporary” place for that long.
It turns out the man we met who taught us about Aida and his ministry was actually the first baby born at this refugee camp and had spent all his childhood and most of his adult life here. He advocates for his people and works to give them hope for their future.
The building we met in was called Alrowwad for Culture and Arts. It was the dream and success of this one man to bring education and fine arts to the children of Aida. The building and resources were modern and inviting. And this man’s passion was contagious. Just as I felt while with those at Tent of Nations, I was and am amazed by his spirit and dauntless drive to help these homeless people.
I think it’s safe to say these folks stay at Aida Refugee Camp because they still have hope that they’ll be allowed to go back to their homes and land. If I understood correctly, the UN has hosted this camp and will do so for 99 years. There’s still hope!
A symbol of that very hope is the icon of a simple key.
We’d seen key symbols throughout Nazareth and Bethlehem, especially throughout Aida. You see, the iconic key represents the actual keys to the homes many Palestinian families still hold onto in the hope they’ll need their keys again one day…when they get to go home.
After seeing the Culture and Arts building, we went on our tour of the actual refugee camp. I totally expected tents, but over the decades buildings have replaced the original tents…but the poverty couldn’t be hidden. There was a heaviness I couldn’t quite explain as we walked the “alleys” of Aida. Row after row of multi-floored concrete buildings, squished together.
Despite the poverty, the children were all smiles and were very welcoming.
Teens, however, seemed more subdued…like maybe the reality of their situation had hit them hard. I know I felt their reality, and I was only there for a little while.
There was quite a bit of art painted onto the sides of these concrete buildings.
One in particular was the face of a boy who’d been killed by Israeli soldiers. We walked on with that sobering image and story rolling around in our minds, only to look up to see that we were at THE wall.
These families had a constant, visual reminder every day of their forced refugee-status and the literal blockade to their ancestral homes. Once again, I was quite overtaken by emotion.
I’d say today was an educational kind of day. One that I’ll ponder and look back on for the rest of my life. I think back to what those ministers in Mar Elias challenged us with – to be open to experience what God has for us and to be faithful to share those experiences with others.
I’m trying to be faithful to that challenge.
Manger Square Hotel and Another Surprise
We went back to the hotel for showers, then headed out to see one more place before dinner. Allow me to set the stage a bit.
One of the nights out on Manger Square a friend of mine commented on a magnet I picked up, “Banksy! I’ve seen his work. I’d so love to go see his gallery while we’re here in Bethlehem.” I looked at her, completely puzzled. Through our conversation and a quick internet search later, I learned that Banksy is an artist who is completely anonymous – no one knows who he or she is – and focuses on human rights issues in his/her artwork.
As I flipped through the magnets and other touristy-type products, I started to see some pictures I recognized. They’re on the walls of Bethlehem. Remember the dove with an olive branch in its mouth with a flack jacket on, a gun’s scope sighted on it? (Lots of irony and sarcasm in Banksy’s work). There’s also a picture of Dorothy and Toto handing over their basket to an Israeli soldier, as well as one with the three wisemen standing outside Bethlehem’s wall, trying to figure out how they’re going to get in to see Jesus. And so on…
Well, our stop for this hour before dinner was at a place Banksy managed to outfit and open without anyone knowing what he/she was doing. It’s a hotel and a museum.
In a play on words, his hotel is called the Walled Off Hotel, and is literally across the street from one of the walls. In fact, our bus stopped at the front door, and we had to dart off as quickly as possible because there was nowhere for the bus to go. Because…wall.
We were greeted at the door by a man in a fancy suit and top hat, which ended up matching the time period of the themed hotel lobby. Our new guide wasted no time, ushering us into the museum section where we walked thru, jaws dropped, in awe of what we found.
It’s a top-notch, well-done, state-of-the-art museum that documents all of the Palestinian Occupied history. It had direct quotes, pictures, maps, what I’d call artifacts that came from the Palestinians themselves, as well as, some Israeli contraband, such as tear gas containers, rubber bullets, and machine gun shells.
We watched a brief history narrated by a Monty Python’ish narrator, segmented into chapters. It did a brilliant job of summarizing everything I’ve been stumbling through in this blog. It really helped us connect dots and SEE things that we’d been told.
We were snapping pictures because that’s the point. This museum is all about getting word out to the rest of the world.
We didn’t get to stay nearly long enough as we had to rush through the last few sections…and yet, it was long enough. So many things we’d been told were confirmed by documentation and first hand sources. I think I’m a Banksy fan like my friend!
And while we never truly escape the plight of these Palestinians, after dinner at a lovely pizza place with an incredible view of Bethlehem at night, we lifted our chins and made our way out to Manger Square for some shopping — we saw it as our honor to help their economy in this small way. Really.