Five Palestinian teenagers charm a small Ohio town and leave behind a legacy of understanding.
In many ways, 13-year-old Palestinians Issa Victor Hafiri, Mary Attalah Abu Ghattas, Tamer Hanna Al Zomot, Raneem Joseph Hanania and Tamara Nabel Abdulnur are no different from other teenagers. They enjoy sports, junk food, listening to music and cracking jokes. They break into song and dance without warning, and they do it all with gusto.
And, like many teenagers, there is a glimmer of innocence in their eyes, as if living in any other moment than the here and now would be simply unthinkable.
But the similarities end there.
These five are Palestinian children of Beit Jala, a city of roughly 10,000 just outside Bethlehem. In this war-torn area, their eyes have seen things that most teenagers have not-endless violence and turmoil. In their 13 years, they have endured bouts of Israeli military occupation so intense that their city, known for its history and spirit, feels more like a maximum-security prison cell.
Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara are young people forced to juggle dichotomies-moments of calm shattered by gunfire; laughter between family and friends, silenced by the fear of losing them; joy in their hometown and sadness over the brutality that afflicts it.
To many, such living conditions defy belief. To the Beit Jala kids, these are the threads of their daily tapestry. But they have vowed to remedy the problems troubling their country.
They long for peace in their land because they have lived with the wreckage. They want a deeper level of understanding and tolerance between Palestine and the United States because years of distrust and a lack of cultural understanding have been the main ingredients of the two countries’ relationship.
As such, these Christian Palestinians, students at the Latin Patriarchate (Roman Catholic) School in Beit Jala, have built a bridge of peace. It began in their hometown. Stone by stone, it was constructed until it touched ground last October in an unlikely place-St. Andrew-St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School (SASEAS)-Milford, Ohio.
The Palestinians’ five-week visit was sponsored through the “Parish Partnerships Program” of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF)-a nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based organization designed to improve the lives of Christians in the Holy Land.
What began as a simple hosting project in a quiet little town quickly turned into a movement of insight and cultural understanding. Guided by five teenagers from a war-ravaged country, Palestine and the United States were joined together, for a moment, in a gesture of solidarity.
St. Anthony Messenger traveled to St. Andrew Parish in Milford-a town about 30 miles outside of Cincinnati-last November to interview the five students and their Palestinian teacher, Rana Qustandi Qaaber.
Father Rob Waller, pastor of St. Andrew, Nancy Hemminger, coordinator of the Beit Jala Project, and teacher Julie Poux also speak of the visiting Palestinians and their lasting impact on this close-knit community.
There is a calm within the parish offices of St. Andrew. Employees move about the rooms, quietly tending to their work. When Issa and Tamara enter the building, all hope of continued quiet is lost. The employees smile widely and laughter bounces off the walls.
Issa and Tamara move about the offices with the ease and familiarity of their homes, greeting the staff like members of their own family. The noise generated from the two students seems like a welcomed reprieve-a new energy fills the room.
That energy doesn’t waver. Sitting across a table from me in the basement of the parish offices, Tamara and Issa immediately dive into matters close to their minds and hearts…and stomachs.
“The food! We love the food here,” Issa declares with a smile.
Tamara is quick to harmonize. “I love fast food, especially McDonalds,” she says. “I eat a lot of McDonalds.”
Their fondness for the United States, however, exceeds our drive-thru cuisine. When asked their thoughts on the country as a whole, Issa and Tamara are in unison.
“We love it here,” Tamara declares. Issa nods in agreement. “It’s been very, very good,” he adds. “It gives us experience and teaches us a lot of things. It’s been fantastic, amazing.”
Tamara chimes in enthusiastically. “I’ve been enjoying myself very much with my host family, my friends and with the school. I like America.”
Issa has also grown fond of his American family. “It’s like our families in Palestine,” he says. “I see my host family as my family; they see me as their son. We are like a family.”
Tamara and Issa are soon joined by Mary, Tamer and Raneem, who take their seats to join our discussion on the United States and Palestine, life in Milford, the simple pleasures of fried chicken and pop music, as well as the cultural differences between our two countries.
Thirteen Going on 30
Those who teach come in varying shapes and sizes. Issa, Tamara, Mary, Tamer and Raneem are teachers in sneakers. There is passion within their voices and grave sincerity behind their words.
“We’ve come here for a job,” Tamara says frankly. “Our job is to talk about Palestinian people. Our job when we go back to Palestine is to tell the Palestinian people about Americans.”
They have much to share with their American friends, specifically that Beit Jala is composed largely of Christians-70 percent. They also want people of this country to appreciate and value their freedom-a luxury these five know little about. In Beit Jala, the Israeli military often enforces curfews so strict that placing one foot outside of the house could be fatal.
These curfews are not enforced for the length of an afternoon, either. Some last three days, others have stretched over a month. When they are lifted, it’s for a few hours at a time.
Palestinian families then scramble to the market for food and supplies, or to the hospital for medical care. Some spend that time in church, while young Palestinians often rush to school for a few hours of study.
And then there are the Scouts-boys and girls, moderated by adults, who meet each week to discuss current events, plan holiday parties and participate in character-building activities. Issa, Tamara, Mary, Tamer and Raneem are involved in the program, which differs entirely from the Scouts in the United States. Palestinian Scouts have been known to shift from holiday party planning to dangerous humanitarian efforts.
Scouts often violate curfews, dodge the ever-watchful Israeli military and move from house to house, providing food, money or supplies to people too sick or too old to obtain them on their own. This kind of charity work is terribly dangerous: Should a Scout be caught, he or she could be arrested or even killed.
Tamer says that he is both guided by his faith and protected by it. “I believe that it is only our Christian faith that helped us survive the hard times we went through,” he says.
The Caged Birds Sing
Since coming to America, the Palestinian students are even more aware of their anemic liberties back home.
“Americans have rights-human rights,” Mary says. “We don’t have that in Palestine.”
A chorus soon follows.
“Americans have busy lives. We don’t have a busy life because we don’t have a free life,” Raneem says, her cheerful voice belying the sad reality of her words.
Issa jumps in. “American teenagers have many ways to entertain themselves. But for Palestinian teenagers, we have few chances to enjoy ourselves because we can’t leave the Bethlehem area.”
“Things that Americans do in a day, we do in a week,” Mary adds.
For Tamara, returning home to a life often compromised by hostility and danger is a bitter pill to swallow. “I’d like to stay longer,” she says. “Life is free for the American teenager.”
Issa is a bit more conflicted, feeling an emotional tug-of-war between his desire to stay here and the lure of returning to his family in Beit Jala. “It’s like you have two things pulling you. One is ‘Go back to Palestine’ and the other is ‘Stay in America’-it’s a big thing to decide.”
Their love of freedom, however, is a no-brainer. They would each like to bring a touch of that back home with them-to travel openly throughout Palestine without enduring Israeli military checkpoints; to study, pray, spend time with friends and family in the open air, without the fear of being ensnared in the crossfire of bullets.
Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara want simply to enjoy their lives, to be teenagers.
As Raneem puts it, they look for a day when they can “listen to music, not the sounds of shooting and explosions. We want to be able to talk about things people our age talk about around the world-new albums, fashion and movies-not politics, curfews, sieges, shootings and death, which seem to have become the everyday feature of life in our country.”
Even so, Beit Jala holds a firm grip on their hearts. Despite the dangers and restrictions, the five students speak warmly of their home. Mary is honored to live next door to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity-the birthplace of Christ.
“Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world come to visit this holy church, and we are so proud the Lord himself chose our town to be his hometown.”
The others are also quick with praise. Tamara loves her school and the teachers. Issa is proud of the strong bonds between Palestinian families, and Tamer finds escape in Arabic music and his involvement with the Scouts. Life for these teenagers is often beautiful back home, but it can be a wearisome, dangerous exercise as well.
It’s no surprise that they came to the United States to feast on a free life. To the delight of those involved with this project, the five hungry students gorged on it.
For those living in free societies, a neighborhood stroll or running errands on a lazy Saturday are rights easily taken for granted. For those living in a beautiful but unpredictable environment like Beit Jala, such rights are the stuff of dreams. The people of St. Andrew and the community of Milford sought to make those dreams a reality.
The Learning Curve
Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara were not picked at random. Fifteen students from the Latin Patriarchate School were initially selected as candidates for the program. Each was assigned verbal and written tests to determine their proficiency in English.
Fifteen were whittled to eight, and then eight down to five. Sholine F. Botto, a representative of HCEF, and teacher Rana Qaaber accompanied the teenagers to Milford. Together, they would be ambassadors of Palestine, students of American culture and teachers of their customs.
It isn’t easy being teenage envoys, but the five Palestinian students have taken on the task, navigating the language and cultural barriers like seasoned diplomats. They carried with them seeds of wisdom and understanding. In Milford, Ohio, they found fertile soil.
The Beit Jala project was funded entirely by members of the parish. Donations from $1 to $2,000 flooded the offices, all of which went to cover visas, transportation to and from the Holy Land, and additional expenses.
Nancy Hemminger, parishioner of St. Andrew and coordinator of the Beit Jala project, believes this initiative was created by the hand of God.
“I am convinced that inviting our Beit Jala guests was God’s idea,” Nancy says. “This is a project that has reached out to our parish family and embraced almost everyone in our parish community.”
Thousands of miles divide Palestine and the United States, but Nancy believes it is our Christian faith that links us. “The Beit Jala students and St. Andrew parishioners have helped bridge the gap for peace. As Christians, we share the same body of Christ. When one of our members is suffering, we all suffer.”
Faculty member Julie Poux, liaison for the project, believes their presence in the classroom is an invaluable learning tool. For her students, Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara are Palestine-not just representatives but living, breathing pieces of a country they’re eager to understand.
“The kids have gotten to know each other and love each other,” Julie says. “Our eighth-graders have learned more about the situation in Palestine than probably 90 percent of the eighth-graders in the country know. They’ve been given a personal perspective on it which is something many kids don’t have.”
Julie credits the five Palestinians for lending a human face to the turmoil that afflicts their country.
“I think the Beit Jala students have given a new perspective. No longer is it going to be another random bombing in Palestine. Now it’s, ‘I hope my friends are O.K.’ It makes our students more aware. They’re going to pay more attention to the conflicts.”
Rana Qustandi Qaaber, or “Miss Rana,” as she’s called by the five students, teaches math, science and technology at the Latin Patriarchate School, and accompanied the students from Beit Jala. She now sees a world of change within them.
“They have become stronger. They have a deeper level of thinking and their personalities have evolved,” Rana says. “When they were preparing for this trip, they were young teenagers. Now, in their minds, they feel much older. They want to know everything about people all over the world, especially children.
“My students want all teenagers to work together, hand in hand, to make the future better. They look forward to achieving peace in Palestine and throughout the world.”
Rana hopes that this experience yields continuous lessons for them. “I hope they have learned self-dependence, responsibility and honesty. But the main thing I hope they learn is that they should always listen, see, understand and then believe.”
Big Dreams, Big Hearts
Father Rob Waller, pastor of St. Andrew, is a calming presence-he moves as composedly as he speaks. When the subject of the Beit Jala students arises, however, his eyes light up like a marquee. Clearly, the Palestinians have impacted Father Rob, the parish and the school.
“There’s been a real connection,” he says. “This experience has been better than we could have dreamed or imagined.”
Father Rob has worked with HCEF for several years and has made numerous visits to the Holy Land, witnessing firsthand the anguish of the Palestinian people. He sees the five students as prophets of hope for a beleaguered country and credits their youth for lessening the sting of their testimony.
“Since they are children, their presence lowers the defenses. When people’s defenses are down, the message gets right to the heart. I think it’s part of the beauty of being kids,” the priest says.
He praises the five students for not only establishing a bridge between America and Palestine, but also strengthening bonds among the people of Milford as well.
“The Beit Jala kids have visited other schools in Milford-the public middle school and the local high school,” Father Rob says. “At a CCD event, Methodists from next door came to meet them. So not only were they building a bridge between Milford and Beit Jala, but they were building bridges within our town as well. It’s what their mission was-to be living bridges of peace.”
It’s not an easy gig, but it’s one they have tackled wholeheartedly. But look past their words of war, peace and international relations, and you have five engaging, bright teenagers with dreams of their own.
Issa wants to be a doctor, a pilot or a computer engineer. Tamara would like to attend the University of Cincinnati to study medicine. Mary has her heart set on fashion design and Tamer would like to play soccer professionally. Raneem dreams of becoming a doctor and helping children, but realizes that studying for such a career in Palestine isn’t easy.
“We don’t have medicine at Bethlehem University so I must go off to study, but I won’t get permission to go out of the area. It’s too difficult. I don’t know what I will do,” she says.
Nancy Hemminger is unfazed about the weighty limitations placed on them, compared to the sheer weight of their dreams.
“Their poise and intelligence,” she says, “are indications that they can achieve their dreams if given the opportunity.”
Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara made fast work of their time in Milford. In five weeks, they gave numerous presentations to local schools, civic organizations and churches.
They gave interviews, attended receptions and, for three days in late October, traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak at HCEF’s fifth annual conference and take part in the Youth Symposium: “Holy Land Christians: A Living Bridge to Peace.”
And those are just professional constraints. Each morning they spent more than an hour with Rana studying Arabic, math and science, before joining regular classes. Add to that homework, extracurricular activities, school functions and family responsibilities, and it’s an exhausting schedule, especially for five teenagers. Clearly, this was no holiday, but it was fleeting-and life-changing for those involved.
The Beit Jala students and their chaperones returned to Palestine, yet their imprints on Milford have endured. The people of this small town, particularly the students at the school, are changed by this project. Now, they see as many similarities as they do differences. Somewhere in the middle, however, the students found a common ground to cultivate respect and understanding.
“They’ve learned that, even though they live so far apart, they are the same,” Julie Poux says. “It’s sad that there are some places in the world where people their age are living in a state of war, dealing with bombs and guns. I think it gave our eighth-graders a chance to say, ‘We’re pretty lucky.'”
Similarities abound, but the five Beit Jala students are, in many ways, teen-agers of a different sort-citizens of a different state. They were born into a heavy climate of war, a land rich in beauty and sanctity, but one intimately affiliated with conflict and violence. Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara chose to start a new chapter of history in their lives and in their country. Thus, their bridge was built.
And so the bridge remains. Father Rob and Nancy are confident that St. Andrew will host more students from the Holy Land in the future. There’s even talk of sending a handful of Milford students to Beit Jala within the next couple of years. That bridge of peace, it seems, will be traveled time and again.
And well it should be. According to those involved with the project, there is more work to be done. Palestine and its people cry for peace evermore.
As Raneem has said, “We pray that the future is a little brighter. We pray that the candle at the end of the tunnel will not be blown out, but rather shine brighter and brighter until the tunnel is lit up and the darkness disappears.”
To learn more about the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, please go t https://www.hcef.org. To contact them, write the foundation at 6935 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 214, Bethesda, MD 20815, or phone 301-951-9400.
Needing Bridges, Facing Walls
In June of 2002, hopes of peace and understanding between Palestine and Israel hit a wall-literally. In that month, the Israeli government began construction on a wall starting in the northern districts of the West Bank and running to the north of Jerusalem.
The first phase of its construction was completed in July of 2003. Its length is approximately 400 miles inside the West Bank. And it’s growing-the Wall will eventually reach eastern Jerusalem, as well as Bethlehem, Beit Sahur and Beit Jala. The Israeli government predicts it will be completed by 2005.
Measuring 25 feet high in some parts and equipped with armed watchtowers, it has been labeled “The Apartheid Wall” by Palestinians. Israelis look at the Wall as a measure of safety. It is, without debate, another snag in the quest for peace in the Holy Land.
Palestinians charge that the Wall robs them of land needed for farming and restricts access to resources necessary for survival-travel for work, medical attention or school. Even something as basic as retrieving water has become hazardous.
Pope John Paul II condemned the Wall, proclaiming a need for unity in the Holy Land, not separation.
“The construction of the Wall between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people is seen by many as a new obstacle on the road leading to peaceful cohabitation,” the pope said last November.
He continued, “Unfortunately, the momentum for peace seems to have stopped….Without reconciliation, there can be no peace.”
Palestinian schoolteacher Rana Qustandi Qaaber feels the same. “We do not need a Wall to stop the war between Israel and Palestine. We need something deeper to achieve peace in the Holy Land.”
Christopher Heffron is an assistant editor of this publication. In 1997, he graduated with dual majors in English and communication arts from the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio.