On a recent visit, I thumbed a ride from the town's main intersection to Beit Afram, a senior citizens' home operated by Taybeh's Latin Parish. As I approached, I saw Amy, an 85-year-old resident at the home, sitting in its main entrance. Beit Afram's door, windows, and bright cerulean blue shutters were flung open to the view, to the sunny midday heat, to the fig and olive trees encircling the two-story building.
I had met Amy a few weeks earlier, during my first trip to the village. She grew up during the British Mandate period in Birzeit, a town just outside of Ramallah. Amy spends her days and nights at Beit Afram because she has macular degeneration and cannot live alone without a full-time maid.
Amy is a Palestinian Christian. She has lived through 85 years of turbulent history, and like many Palestinians, longs to return to her own land. She is holding on to her property in Birzeit in the hope that she will find a maid and live out her life in the house that she and her late husband built on her mother's land after they fled Jaffa, now considered part of Tel Aviv, as a result of the 1948 War.
Amy's family has been forced apart as a result of Israeli restrictions on Palestinians' travel rights, a story that is all too familiar to residents of the West Bank. Her five children are scattered: Three reside in the United States, one in London, and one in Jerusalem. When her adult children come to visit her, they are not allowed to stay longer than the three months stipulated on their Israeli tourist visas, despite having appealed to authorities to remain longer to take care of their aging mother.
Her daughter in Jerusalem possesses an Israeli ID, having married a man from Nazareth, and she can enter and leave the West Bank as she pleases. But Amy possesses only the haweeyah, or Palestinian ID, and is not allowed entry to Jerusalem to live with her daughter.
Amy has spent long periods in the United States with her children, but says that unless she lives in the West Bank, her children, grandchildren and future great-grandchildren will lose ties to their Palestinian culture, language and heritage. Amy acknowledges that she is no longer strong enough to make the trip to Amman, Jordan, the closest airport that all Palestinians possessing the haweeyah are permitted by Israel to use.
Amy's situation is illustrative of a few of the challenges that life presents for Palestinians. Beit Afram opened recently in part to address the issue of what to do with elderly who no longer have family in Palestine to take care of them. Several million Palestinians live in the diaspora, having fled war, two Intifadas and an occupation, creating a situation in which some elderly Palestinians are growing old alone.
Palestinian culture is not one which leaves family members behind. Several generations of a family often live under one roof, and so nursing homes are rare.
Palestinian Christians are particularly prone to emigrate abroad. In 1948 Palestinian Christians numbered about 20 percent of the population, and by 1966, 13 percent. They currently make up less than 2 percent of the population (Sunni Muslims comprise the other 98 percent).
In Bethlehem, where I lived, Christians numbered 90 percent of the city's residents at the start of the 20th century. Today they comprise less than a third.
The exodus of Palestinian Christians affects Palestine as a whole. Christian schools in the West Bank and Gaza are prized for the education they provide to Christian and Muslim students alike, and indeed most have student bodies with high percentages of Muslims. In some areas, Christian student bodies are as much as 90 percent Muslim.
The young boys who live in the small apartment complex next door to mine are Muslim, but they attend Terra Sancta School, run by Bethlehem's Latin Parish. The school is about 75 percent Christian and 25 percent Muslim. The boys are quick to point out that religion makes no difference to them. My 10 year-old neighbor Ahmed says, "We are all friends!"
I look at them and wonder what their lives will be like in a few years, when they prepare to enter university or the Palestinian job market. At least one-third of the potential work force is unable to find employment in the West Bank's restricted economy. Will they stay in Bethlehem, living on sporadic, low-paying work? Will they relocate to Ramallah, hoping to secure some type of job in the big city? Will they attend Bethlehem or Birzeit Universities, only to graduate and realize that with their qualifications, the hope of finding suitable employment in Palestine is even further out of reach?
Or will they decide that living in the West Bank, in walled communities whose access and infrastructure is at the mercy of an occupying force, is just too difficult?
This is where the presence of Palestinian Christians plays a positive role. It's a critical time for them, as churches in the West Bank, Gaza and Northern Israel are struggling to support their parishioners in the face of economic hardship and a general feeling of despair among parishioners.
I'm currently working for the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, which runs a number of programs designed to provide Palestinian Christians with the financial and emotional support they need to be able to remain in Palestine.
The foundation helps local craftsmen find audiences in the United States to purchase their goods, and it provides funds and technical skills needed to renovate the homes of Palestinians who cannot afford to do so themselves. This generates jobs for months at a time for local carpenters, suppliers, painters, plumbers and electricians, many of whom would otherwise be at a loss to provide for their families.
The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation connects sponsors in the United States with schools, children, and teachers in Palestine, generating much-needed funds for Christian schools and allowing kids like Ahmed to receive a good education regardless of his religious background. It facilitates the creation and operation of care centers for seniors such as Amy, who decades ago could not have imagined they would grow old without their children around to support them.
The goal is to make life in Palestine livable enough to allow people such as Amy and other Palestinians I've met to stay rather than emigrate. When Christians stay, younger generations of Muslim students benefit from the quality education provided by church-run schools.
Merchants, restaurant owners and hoteliers benefit from the revenue generated by Westerners touring West Bank churches and Christian sites.
And destitute Muslims, who appeal to churches for help in getting medical care and schooling for their children, benefit from churches' generosity and financial means. One priest told me he is loathe to turn anyone away, regardless of religion.
Perhaps more important, as Gaza falls under tighter control of radical Hamas, and Fatah and Hamas clash for control of Palestine, the hope is that Palestinian Christians will provide a moderating bridge between their Muslim brethren, Israel and the West.
George, 16, a Christian from Bethlehem, told me that he will attend university in the Netherlands, for which his family has residency, but he plans to return to Bethlehem after graduation. "I want to stay and help fix Palestine," he said. "Who will do this if we keep leaving?"
Published on September 21, 2008