Friday, April 22, 2016

walking each other home

Well, the daily blogging thing didn’t quite work out like I planned. I found that the days were so emotionally and physically exhausting that I just couldn’t bring myself to write at the end of each day.

I must look like a friendly, helpful person, because I was sitting at a charging station in the Madrid airport responding to some work emails when a Nigerian man approached me. He introduced himself as Timi and wanted to know where I was going. “Chicago,” I told him. A look of relief spread over his face. He would be flying to North Carolina, but his elderly, wheelchair-bound mother was going to Chicago. Timi wanted to know if I would accompany her, ensuring that she was able to make her connecting flight to Minnesota.

I agreed, and next thing I knew there were two other Nigerian women who were part of this deal. They had all come from Nigeria, strangers (except for Timi and his mom) sticking together to navigate the Spanish landscape of the Madrid airport.

I am reminded of the day that the Pal Craftaid ladies and I were waiting to board a bus in Jerusalem. We had spent a long day meeting with our artisan partners and were heading back to our apartment in Bethlehem for the evening. I saw a young Muslim woman approaching with a baby in a stroller. She picked up the baby – who was dead asleep – and was struggling to fold the stroller and load it into the storage compartment under the bus. In a moment of frustration, she looked up, saw me, and asked, “would you mind holding her?” “Of course not,” I said. And I held that sweet, sleeping baby while her mother got the stroller situated.

In a world where violence, mistrust, and division are widespread, it is a comfort to remember these human moments. We all have mothers. We all have babies. In the words of Ram Dass, we’re all just walking each other home.

Israel/Palestine can be a depressing place where peace and justice feel like a faraway dream. The situation is incredibly simple in some ways, and in others, overwhelmingly complex. I think this is partially the reason for my sense of paralysis when it came to writing during this visit. Always the same question: Where to begin?

Because it’s the human moments that matter most, that’s where I’ll leave you. A few of my favorites from the second half of the trip:
  • Sitting on the bus on one of our many trips to Jerusalem, eyeing with dismay a blister on the back of my heel in light of the long day of walking ahead, a voice came from behind me: “excuse me?” I turned around to find a young Muslim woman holding out a bandaid to me. “Put this on your foot,” she said.
  • Spending an afternoon with the Giacaman family: 3 brothers who own an olivewood shop at Manger Square in Bethlehem. They are part of a huge, extended family of Palestinian Christians (Catholic) who have lived in Bethlehem…well…forever. Prior to meeting the Giacaman brothers, I would have cynically assumed that most of the olivewood products sold in Israel/Palestine were made in China. Touring their ‘factory’ in the lower level of their ginormous family home/compound, however, showed me an entirely different reality – woodshavings everywhere and various fascinating and impressive stages of production, from olive branch to finished product. The really meaningful part of the whole experience was having dinner at their family home – the 3 brothers, their wives, and children (and one grandbaby). One of the brothers, Robert, shared with pride about his daughter, Natalia’s first communion just a few days prior. Laughter and good food abounded.
  • Being covered in kisses by Usama and Lorette, our hosts, and by the three elderly women whose homes we visited. These three (Naemeh, Helen, and one whose name I can’t remember at the moment) would live in poverty and isolation if not for the care of ATTA (Aid to the Aged). They welcomed us into their homes and gave us glimpses into the joys and wounds of their lives.
Now in Chicago and approaching 24 hours of travel, I am nearly home. Two of the three Nigerian women have made it to their connections – Timi and I have spoken, so he knows his mother is well and in the right place – and one final woman is still with me; her destination is also Indianapolis. We’re walking each other home.

With prayers and hope for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, and until next time,
Robert and his daughter, Natalia
Visiting Helen, pictured with her late
husband on their wedding day
Dinner with the Giacaman family

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Day 3

Diyar graduates + Pal Craftaid representatives
This post was written on April 15.

Today was the best day we have had yet. It feels impossible to come up with a good place to start, but I’ll just stick with telling you about Alia (AHL-ya), an artisan with whom we hope to work in the future. 

Alia is a Palestinian Muslim whose livelihood is embroidering stoles (and she is GOOD at it. Hers is some of the best needlework we've seen yet.) We met her and five other female artisans today at The Diyar Consortium, formerly known as the International Center of Bethlehem, whose institutional vision is “that we might have life and have it abundantly.” This vision is coming to life for Alia ever since she participated in Diyar's free, three-year art training program for women. We loved talking with her so much that we were delighted when she invited us to come to her home after the meeting. She served us tea and tabbouleh and was proud to show off some of the art she produced while in the Diyar program. 

With Alia, modeling one of her stoles :) 
Alia gets asked a lot about being a Muslim and yet making stoles for Christian clergy. “So what?” she says. “I am a Muslim because of a Christian.”

Alia was raised as a nominal Muslim. For most of her upbringing, prayer, reading the Koran, and other practices of faith were not a part of her life. Around the age of 14, she started to learn embroidery from a Belgian nun. In the course of many years of working with this nun, Alia would see her and the other nuns doing good things, helping and teaching other women like her. "I wondered, ‘why are they so good?’” 

Around the age of 25, Alia finally asked the nun her question. In response, the nun shared about her Christian faith, and even made connections about what the Koran says. “It is one God, Alia,” the nun told her. And so Alia decided she wanted to learn about her own faith. She, too, wanted to live a life of purpose – a life of prayer, service, and devotion. “Only then,” she says, “did I really become a Muslim.”

Before Alia was born, her family lived for generations south of Hebron. Her father was the head of the village, and their family was one of the wealthiest in the area. In 1948, they, like countless other families, were driven from their home and fled to a safe place – what would become Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. They had nothing, just a tent.

The road to Aida Refugee Camp, where Alia was born and lives
Almost 70 years later, this is where Alia lives. The youngest of nine siblings, Alia was born in the camp. Her father died when she was just two years old, and her older sister dropped out of school at the age of 9 to help her mother take care of the family.

At the age of 17, Alia’s mother told her that it was time to get married. Alia refused. “I decided I didn’t want a husband or a family. I wanted myself.” She wanted an education, and while she initially attempted to pursue a degree in English, it got too expensive and she dropped out. 

Alia with her nephew (center) and a neighbor kid
One of Alia's brothers is divorced and works in Jerusalem. At the end of every week, he comes home to Bethlehem to spend the weekend with his two sons, who live with their Aunt Alia. 

“I didn’t want to be a mother,” Alia says with a smile, “but now I am.”

But at 40 years old, she is happy. She loves the boys and the life she has built for herself. Her work is fulfilling, and she takes an incredible amount of pride and joy in constantly innovating and imagining new designs for her stoles.

“I don’t want to be rich,” she said. “I just want to live.”  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Day 2

The Old City of Jerusalem
According to Carol’s Fitbit, we got 20,000+ steps in today. We walked ALL OVER the Old City of Jerusalem. Just after 9am, we took the bus there from Bethlehem. Twelve hours later we are back at our apartment, and sitting has never felt so good.

Talking business with the Karakashian family
Today was a mixture of business and fun. We had the entire day to explore Jerusalem, seeing a few of the sites (Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall) while hunting for new items for Pal Craftaid’s inventory. Presently, most of what we sell (at church sales, conferences, and online) is Palestinian olive wood and needlework. The most exciting connection we made today was with an Amenian-Palestinian family that produces some of Jerusalem’s best pottery, as well as handmade silver jewelry. We had a great time getting to know the husband, wife, and their teenaged daughter. Kirsten, in our group, actually knows one of their cousins, who lives in the US. Small world!

Dinner tonight was a delicious traditional Palestinian meal with Nathan Stock, who works for The Carter Center as the Jerusalem Field Office Director. Nathan’s wife, Kate Taber, is the PC(USA) Mission Co-Worker in Israel/Palestine. Kate couldn’t join us for dinner as she is currently accompanying another group of visiting Presbyterians in the Galilee area.

Nathan’s work requires that he is constantly up-to-date on the situation in Israel/Palestine from all angles and perspectives. He travels to Gaza every few weeks and is in regular contact with a number of individuals – Israeli and Palestinian – at various levels of government. In the course of our conversation, Nathan shared that there have been no conflict-related fatalities on either side in the past two weeks – the longest ‘streak’ of this nature in six months.

After a wonderful dinner, we started the journey home, having to switch taxis at the Bethlehem checkpoint due to the fact that the mobility of Palestinians is restricted according to where your ID card says you live. If you live in Jerusalem, you cannot cross into Bethlehem, and vice versa (unless you apply and are approved for a special work-related permit).

On deck for tomorrow: meeting with some of our established artisan partners in Bethlehem. 


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Hello Bethlehem!

Day 1 breakfast. Yum!
In October 2012, I came to Israel/Palestine for the first time. I was with a group of (mostly) Presbyterians from California; our small group joined up with a much larger group of internationals and participated in the fall olive harvest.  This was a wonderful, eye-opening experience, and this blog, “Harvesting Hope Amongst Olives,” was my personal record of that time.

Almost four years later, here I am again. Not to harvest olives – which I would happily do again! – but with three fellow board members of Pal Craftaid – Carol, Sarah, and Ervin (who will arrive Friday) – and Carol’s daughter, Kirsten, who handles Pal Craftaid’s distribution. We are here to meet with our artisan partners and the organizations Pal Craftaid supports. I have decided to revive this blog in order to share experiences from the upcoming week. 

green almond (tastes about as green as it looks)
Getting here was a piece of cake up until my connection in Madrid. I initially wrote a much longer description of this, but suffice it to say that the El Al security staff must have thought I was suspicious, as all my belongings got thoroughly searched and my passport and boarding documents were held while I was questioned in a special room on and off for an hour and a half by five different individuals (at different times). At one point, two gentlemen were questioning me; they'd ask me questions in English, consult one another in Hebrew, and so on. While I had some serious reservations about whether or not they were going to let me on the plane, here I am (in Bethlehem) and I guess we are friends now because they sure do know a lot about me - my dog's name and everything. 

A view of Wi'am Center playground
We spent our first morning here having breakfast with our hosts, Usama and Lorette. Lorette was kind enough to make us fresh falafel and an assortment of other dishes, and this gave us just the energy we needed to walk to the market near Manger Square - only two blocks away but up a big, STEEP hill - and get some breakfast supplies for the upcoming week. We tried something new - green almonds - and made a quick stop at the Church of the Nativity on the way home.

Much of the remainder of the day was spent at the Wi'am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. In addition to providing conflict mediation within the community, Wi'am runs all kinds of programming for women, children, unemployed young adults, and more, all with the goal of helping Palestinians cope with and even thrive (as much as possible) in the context of the Occupation. From summer camps with drama and art for kids, to teaching women new skills or about inheritance laws, Wi'am strives to generate and sustain hope. It was sobering to see Wi'am's playground in the shadow of the Wall.

Zoughbi Zoughbi
Over tea and conversation, Wi'am's Founder and Director, Zoughbi Zoughbi, shared with us his gratitude for our presence and for Pal Craftaid's work. "When you come," he said, "you are telling us we aren't alone. You uplift our spirits. You walk our walk. Thank you."

Our final stop for the day was Aida Refugee Camp, located right behind the Wi'am Center. Aida was started in 1950 when just over 1,000 Palestinians from around Jerusalem and Hebron were forced to flee their homes. They lived in tents at Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, waiting to be able to return to their homes. That never happened, and eventually the tents were replaced with cement block structures. As families grew, there was no room to expand out, so they had to build up. There are currently around 5,000 refugees living at Aida Camp, just one of 19 camps throughout the West Bank. The UN's conservative estimate for the total number of Palestinian refugees in these camps and displaced throughout the world is 4.7 million people.
Our group (minus Ervin) outside Aida Refugee Camp