Our thoughts turned to Bethlehem at Christmas time. We remembered the Christ child and the momentous events that occurred there more than 2000 years ago. Christ in the children remains there for us to plainly see for those who have eyes of faith.
Our thoughts turned to Bethlehem at Christmas time. We remembered the Christ child and the momentous events that occurred there more than 2000 years ago. Christ in the children remains there for us to plainly see for those who have eyes of faith. Yet those eyes must look through the harsh eyes of soldiers turning back most traffic at the myriad checkpoints that seal the Bethlehem district apart from anything else. Those eyes must look onto the crushed roads and bent lampposts torn by marauding armored columns intent on making a lasting impression. Those eyes must look through the bombed out houses that once sheltered the Christian families of this area. Yet we hear a surprising refrain from the children in the schools of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala who have suffered the worst of the onslaught. They speak of hope sparked by the gracious outreach of their American sponsors.1 They freely use words such as “love”, “thank you”, “bless you”, and “Merry Christmas.” They don’t want us to go away and leave them alone. Majd Zalaf writes “You know that it is bad in Palestine. I am in the Latin Patriarchate School of Beit Sahour. Here Christmas is not good because the Israeli are in Palestine. People in Beit Sahour are not hopeless because Jesus’ home is Bethlehem.”
Throughout the schools of the Palestinian Territories, the responses from the children have taken the form of Christmas cards with attached thank you letters. To understand these children, a trip north from Bethlehem through Jerusalem and into Ramallah via the choking checkpoints will once again show the telltale tacks of mechanized columns on torn asphalt. It was in Ramallah that the Palestinian leader was surrounded for weeks on end while the neighborhood was reduced to rubble. Further away from the headquarters compound, the residential areas show signs of being terrorized with the signature destruction being bullet ruptured, housetop water tanks. Yet from the Christian children of Ramallah we hear a similar refrain of hope. From 15 year old Muna Turjman we hear “Special thanks for sponsoring me. It’s really nice to feel that there’s always someone special in my life.” Sixth grader Nasri Lad’ah adds “I love my school and teachers” to let us know that they too have a life that they want to live.
In nearby Ain Arik where a small group of Franciscans are running the parish, they had an awful time this last year. Outsiders had attacked an Israeli check point at Ain Arik, and then slipped away. Some soldiers were killed. The garrison commenced taking their fury out on the villagers. All communications in and out of the village were stopped. Maria Khoury in her article “Going to School with Gunfire” described the situation in Ain Arik. “Most school children will be crossing dangerous checkpoints and putting their life at risk just to go to school every day. In the small village of Ain Arik, in the outskirts of Ramallah where our Ain Arik Latin Patriarchate School educates 160 children from preschool to grade six, it was a terrifying start for the school day. Some children were so frightened they returned home. The daily terror living under occupation does not stop… A group of soldiers that have established a new checkpoint on top of the mountain at the north end of the village, opened fire on unarmed civilians as they were climbing down the mountain to make it to work and school… People today were walking in the mud because it had just rained, some falling and some hurting themselves. It was enough torture and difficulty to try to make it to school by the mountainside. These children did not need the soldiers to open fire without any reason and terrify them. The soldiers were shooting indiscriminately at the people… As Mervat [Shomali, the principle at Ain Arik] who is also a mother of two girls pleaded before she hung up the phone: ‘God help us.'”
What do we hear from these children of Ain Arik? Eight year old Mary Shaheen writes with the help of an older assistant “I would like to thank you very much for everything you present to me. You are so kind and generous… It means so much to have a sponsor like you. This card comes with a thankful heart for your sponsorship and with a prayer that God will bless you. So I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” When you are surrounded by hostile forces, and when someone reaches through in communications to you, you see the gesture as a light shining from above. The children sense love and beauty much like the shepherds did so long ago in that field outside Bethlehem that became Beit Sahour.
From Taybeh, the tidings are the same. From Beir Zeit and nearby Jifna at the center of the West Bank, Christmas cards show a little shepherd boy kneeling beside the manger. The teachers have directed the children to write letters to show the American sponsors how grateful they are for having the support. Little eight year old Saleem Msallam had an adult help him fill out a form that said “I’m so happy to write to you and I’ve heard you are OK… I’m in grade three in the Latin Patriarchal School… I’m so grateful and thankful of all the support and everything you present to me. I ask God to bless you and your family. You are so kind and helpful. I hope that you will spend a wonderful Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I’m looking forward to seeing you soon. Yours faithfully.” One easily recognizes the hope they have in us. The last sentence is a clincher: to seeing us soon. That means to come through the blockade and checkpoints, down into Beir Zeit where the water lines have been dug up by mechanized military tractors, and where the electricity and telephone lines are cut off at periodic intervals. That means to visit them and look them in the eyes and feel their hearts: to know they are still there in Christ.
Attempting to go further north is an odyssey of a dangerous kind. There lies a shadow of death along the roads and byways of the territories. Roads are blocked all along the way to prevent the native population from using them. Crude dirt roads spring up that are best called axel breakers for obvious reasons. Flocks of sheep by the thousands have been killed. Olive trees have been destroyed by the hundreds of thousands. The agricultural lifeblood of the native peoples is systematically being destroyed. Uncounted unwary local travelers have been slaughtered. Along the way lies the Village of Flowers, Aboud. This past year armored vehicles drove directly through the village of Aboud straight to the cave church where the remains of St. Barbara were buried. St. Barbara had been killed by Romans during the third century as an example for those who held out, faithful to Christ. St. Barbara was a beautiful maid of Aboud who had been engaged to be married at that time. The Romans had singled her out for her beauty to make her an example, and had tortured her until her death. She never renounced Our Lord, and is today revered the world over for her love of God. On a fearsome day in June, 2002, a great explosion shook the entire village of Aboud. The local paster, Fr. Aziz Halaweh, was one of the first on the scene after the armored column left. The church of St. Barbara had been reduced to rubble. The twisted logic goes: if a native people can’t be induced to leave, then like the olive trees, uprooting them from their heritage might motivate them.
The children of Aboud turn to God and their American sponsors at times such as these. They don’t want us to leave them, so they tell us of their gratitude. Twelve year old Niveen Fawadleh writes “I’m so happy to write to you and I’m very hopeful I’ll have the chance to know you better and if possible to meet you this year.” Thirteen year old Sireen Bisharijeh writes “God bless you and your family.” Eight year old Waleed Fawadleh colored in a Christmas card that had a baby sheep looking up to a cross superimposed on a star. This is the perfect analog to what is happening to the children: the little sheep represents themselves: the star represents the hope and light of Christmas: the cross represents the reality that they must bear.
Traveling further north to reach the Christian communities in Zababdeh and Nablus is next to impossible. Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders are missionaries working in the north helping Fr. Aktham Hijasin at Zababdeh, and give us a graphic accounting of what is happening there. The children who attend the Patriarchal schools come from the surrounding population of Christians and Moslems. The children are fearful of what takes place outside the seemingly safe walls of the school. The resistance has been strong up there and armored movements are ongoing and fierce. In Nablus, families tell of being cut off by bulldozers piling mounds of debris at the end of city blocks. Snipers enforce curfews. Hundreds of homes and buildings have been demolished by planted dynamite and direct cannon fire. One of our sponsored children died.
The climax occurred last summer in the nearby camps of Jenin. Camps is a misnomer: the two story buildings are permanent, constructed of limestone or concrete. The center of this city-camp experienced something out of the Apocalypse when it was reduced to sand with an overwhelming concentration of firepower. In the end, military bulldozers shoveled debris over any signs of life. After the armored columns retreated, the local populace entered the sand ruins to search for any life at all. They found un-estimated loss of life, the most cruel being those buried alive. What goes through the mind of a child in those last moments such as those of this little girl shown as she was just found? Some of the children here go to the school in Zababdeh, and their more fortunate friends waited in fear and apprehension for them as the thunder echoed from the distance both days and nights on end. During the destruction, Fr. Hijazin attempted to enter Jenin to get the school children back, but he was turned away by the military. Finally, after the gunfire halted, two buses came out carrying many of the children back to the school in Zababdeh. Some did not return.
The children of the north write to their American sponsors in a deceptively cheerful manner. They are reaching out to us. They want us to know they have families and hopes. Nadeem Daibes, 16 years old from Zababdeh, writes of her family “My father’s name is Mutie Diabes. My mother’s name is Elham. I have one brother, his name is Basel. I have two sisters: Hana and Nada.” Fourteen year old Suleiman says “Thank you!” With echoes of thunder in his ears, thirteen year old Nidal sends glad tidings “I hope for you a happy Christmas.” Elia in 8th grade in Nablus writes “Me and all students in our school thank you for the help that you give to us in the past and the present, especially in days that all Palestinians live in siege curfew and bad conditions.” In spite of their conditions, their spirits have not been crushed. What fortifies these children to wish us a happy Christmas is based on love, part of which is our outreach to let them know that they are not alone.
1 American sponsors with the Child Sponsorship Program for Christian Education Support in the Holy Land: a program of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation