Exiting the rectory in Birzeit, one views down from a high zig zag staircase onto the courtyard of the school-church compound. High white limestone walls are breeched by only one iron gate wide enough to allow two cars to pass simultaneously.
The Bypass Road
Exiting the rectory in Birzeit, one views down from a high zig zag staircase onto the courtyard of the school-church compound. High white limestone walls are breeched by only one iron gate wide enough to allow two cars to pass simultaneously. The school buildings are made of the same limestone blocks as are the church and surrounding homes. In a land where trees are few and precious, the Palestinian people cut their building materials from the limestone mountains that run north and south in this land made holy by the Incarnation. They build with materials and architecture that is meant to last for centuries, giving the aura of magnificence to even the poorest of homes.
Earlier, the courtyard had been filled with children assembling before school opened. They are beautiful children with joy in their eyes and hearts who interact in a spectrum of mannerisms from joy and openness to reserve and shyness. They are not unlike my own grandchildren who I recalled as I related with a small group of them in an impromptu game of “shoot the birds.” I would point my camera at a small group of children on the steps of the church to take a picture, and they would fall over or hide with giggles. I would lower the camera and feign a sigh of a picture lost, and they would quickly reappear in their original formation with bigger smiles than before. I would then quickly re-aim the camera, and they would repeat the same sequence.
The children were gone now and in their classrooms. Instead there sat an impressive, new black van with Israeli yellow license plates that would take our humanitarian delegation along the bypass roads to Aboud. On the dashboard lay a red Jordanian coffeyah, the cloth that Arab men wear on their heads to shield them from the sun. This coffeyah was meant to shield us from Arab stones that might be hurled at Israeli cars, and signify to the locals that we were visiting Arabs. If we had white, Palestinian license plates, Israeli settlers would most likely have fired on us as we used the bypass roads. Being that bullets are more dangerous than rocks, we opted for the Israeli van.
We had been using an old tan van with white Palestinian license plates and an Arab driver to get around this mountainous countryside north of Jerusalem. Now we were going further north to the isolated village of Aboud. The road had been seized by Israeli settlers, who upgraded it and then arbitrarily allow or ban all local Arabs from using it. To access this new “bypass” road requires the approval of settler soldiers who man all access blockades. These soldiers will not allow the vast majority of locals to enter under any conditions, thus the use of an Israeli van with driver who was fluent in Hebrew with appropriate documentation. Our driver discretely removed the coffeyah before we approached the checkpoint and warned us to not take pictures. I obeyed, but was able to snap a picture of the bunker above the checkpoint as we pulled away. The guards are very suspicious and stern, and questioned our driver at length. He calls himself Henry and wears his long black hair gathered at the back of the neck. He explained that we were a group of American pilgrims striving to visit the holy sites in Aboud. The soldiers demanded to see our passports, and walked slowly around our van with M-16s in hand, inspecting inside and scrutinizing each of us. Finally they waved us on.
The road to Aboud follows the millennia old road upon which Joseph carried the pregnant Mary down from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the Roman census. No donkeys or flocks of sheep roamed this way since they would now be shot by Israeli settler military police. But over on the next mountainside, one could get a glimpse now and then of the alternative dirt road that the local Arabs have constructed out of necessity. It is a much longer distance in both time and space, and is called the “axel grinder”. Donkeys, sheep, shepherds and an occasional automobile were to be seen in the distance. Broken and abandoned cars that could not cross the divide occasionally littered the mountainsides. We passed old turn offs that were now closed with cement blocks to prevent locals from access. I wondered at the irony of calling this a bypass road, a theoretical convenient alternative.
Aboud is not unlike mining towns in Appalachia: the main road winds through town with smaller roads going up and down on the mountainside. Instead of wooden homes in various stages of their lifespan, limestone houses stood in a permanence that required careful study to determine their age. Men in coffeyahs are the norm for this village where half are Christian and half are Moslem. Christian women and children dress the same as in America: whereas Moslem women are covered. All the children are the same, free in dress and expression. The relations between the Christians and Moslems are as good neighbors. Yet in the village of Jifna south of here there are those who enter the village from the adjacent refugee camp. There, Moslem fundamentalism is on the rise in a population that has known severity. They had their village on the coastal plane destroyed, and they were driven out by gunpoint. They are afraid of all outsiders and other Arabs that don’t look and act like themselves. The Arab Jews had been the conduit through which the European breed came and conquered. Now they are equally suspicious of the Arab Christians. They come down during the Christian holy days of Christmas and Easter, and cause disruptions during the services.
The van made its way through the main street as it snaked along the mountainside. Children played, old men sat in a circle sipping strong coffee, women walked along, a man led a donkey with a large burden on its back, a few scattered sheep dotted the landscape, and a swayed back horse stood motionless under the hot sun. Across the road from the horse stood the compound for the Latin Catholic Church and school of Our Lady of Sorrows. Everything in this compound was smaller by half than that in Bir Zait. A tall, young but in command, Abouna (Father) Aktham Hijazeen came out to greet us. I recognized this parish priest from his picture hanging in the hallway of his hometown church in Al Smakieh, the Bedouin village of lower Jordan. The entire delegation from the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation was introduced, with my wife, Lorie, and I identified as the representatives from St. Mary’s of Piscataway in Clinton, Maryland.
St. Mary’s and Our Lady of Sorrows have agreed to the first full Beacons of Hope partnership between schools based on the Child Sponsorship Program for Christian Education Support in the Holy Land. As a show of good faith and Christian solidarity, the students of the religious school of St. Mary’s have promised to raise monies for enough scholarship grants to cover a child in every class of Our Lady of Sorrows, from kindergarten to 8th grade. The students of corresponding classes will write in mass to each other at least three times a year. The 8th grade English teacher will complement these letters with a summary of what has happened in the village since the last communication. This will give the general context of what is happening in the children’s lives. “Beacons of Hope” is based on the premise that the children make the best ambassadors to represent our two peoples in America and Palestine.
After introductions, Abouna Aktham lead us directly to the parish school where the 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Boutrous Fawadleh, introduced us to his class. These children had written compelling messages in English hoping that someone might hear them. They had been submitted to the head of the English language program for the Latin Patriarchate, Dr. Maria Khoury, for evaluation. She realized the quality of the messages, and incorporated them in an article “Anxiety and Faith in the Village” which was published in various papers and sent out on the internet. I picked up the messages and relayed them to Mr. Greg Ellis, the 8th grade teacher at St. Mary’s in America. He then had his class reply in kind. The record of this initial contact is found in the article “First Contact: the Beginnings of a Special Relationship.” This relationship and the communications with the American students has become a very big thing to students of Aboud.
The students were in the process of taking final exams, and they were pleasantly surprised to have a small but important break in their task. A letter from the Director of Religious Education at St. Mary’s (Bill Keimig, the organizer of the Beacon’s of Hope) was given to Abouna Aktham. A letter from Mr. Greg Ellis (the 8th grade religious teacher of St. Mary’s) was given to Mr. Boutrous Fawadlah. Letters from the American students were given to Boutrous for distribution and reading after the exams were completed. Ten instamatic cameras were presented to Boutrous for distribution to all the classes. The children of Aboud were to take whatever pictures they wished to represent their town, school, parish, families and friends to St. Mary’s of Piscataway in America. Boutrous would then gather them up, and ship them via the Latin Patriarchate back to America. The Aboud students listened with great attention. One fair girl in the back row, Samar Massad, asked permission to stand and give a welcome speech to the Americans. She spoke from the heart, and was greatly moved by our effort to break through the difficult road from Bir Zait, just to meet them and give the greetings from their American counterparts. She was absolutely delighted that someone had heard them and had reached out so strongly to them during their Via Delorosa. She spoke for the entire class to extend their heartfelt thanks and friendship to their newfound friends in America.
The Coffee Meeting and Departure
As is the Arab custom to welcome visitors with coffee, tea, water or juice with some snacks, the American delegation was invited to the meeting room in the parish office for a relaxed discussion of the conditions around Aboud. Arab coffee is very strong and very tasty, and serves to facilitate speech. Abouna Aktham asked the Americans about their trip to Aboud. Finding out that we had been able to use the bypass road, he commented on our good fortune. It takes 2.5 hours on the “axel grinder” to travel from Aboud to Bir Zait, and an additional 2.5 hours to go further to the big town of Ramallah for central shopping. Since they must go at least once a month, many opt to stay a week in Ramallah before returning.
After the Americans expanded on the objectives of their effort, Abouna Aktham, the principle and Mr. Fawadlah described the conditions the children must live through. Travel to school from the outlying homes has become increasingly difficult due to disruptions caused by the settlers. Sixty children no longer come in because their parents fear for the lives of their children. One boy from Genev now lives in the school because his parents could no longer come across the back roads to pick him up. It happened without warning and is now permanent. When the settlers came and confiscated the mountain tops, they extended a perimeter another kilometer through the umbrella of gunshot. The shepherds no longer graze their flocks on those slopes, and trees have been systematically torn down destroying centuries old groves. The settler soldiers move further outward, limiting movement even on the dirt roads from the outlying fields. They are always quick on the trigger, and readily threaten and humiliate.
The townspeople are indirectly ruled by the Israeli, who no longer permit improvements or new buildings. Farm lands are successively being seized, driving farming families into despair. Water sources are now under Israeli control, along with electricity. The Israeli disrupt both at random intervals that have grown to be more off than on. All across this region of the West Bank, people report that their water is limited to two days a week.
Leaving Aboud brought bittersweet feelings for these country people. They had opened their hearts to us, and had given us gifts which they had handmade: embroidered Palestinian shawls for the women, and embroidered wall hangings for the men. The beautiful faces of the children drifted through my mind: I saw them protected by the church compound for only a short time after which they must risk the settler patrols that haunt the countryside. Traveling up on the bypass road, our driver slowed the van and came to a stop. Off to our right was a field of destroyed olive trees, fresh cut the night before. This grove was nowhere near a settler community, but was just outside Aboud. They had come during the day to inflict economic hardship and ecologic destruction.
—————————————-A Beacons of Hope program pairs American Christian schools with their counterparts in the Holy Land. The objective is to develop a sense of Christian solidarity between the children. In the Beacons of Hope, each of the American school classes support one or more children of the same age group in the Child Sponsorship Program. Letters are exchanged between whole classes where the children come to know each other in a unity in Christ. School leaders and teachers communicate with each other to guide the direction of contacts. American teachers use these contacts as a moral lesson of Christian action where the American children become Beacons of Hope to those afflicted and suffering for Christ. Teachers in the Holy Land use the contacts as a mechanism to lift the hopes of the children and see that they are not alone in their tragedy.