BEIT SAHOUR — On Wednesday evening, Raja Khair ran up the steps in Bethlehem’s old city to greet the men of our group. Raja is sturdy and has strong hands, thickened by decades of working as a builder. Colin, Matt and Fergus crouched in Raja’s little sedan. Professor Goldman, Dan, Kanishk and Patrick hopped in a cab Raja whistled over for them. Then it was a 10-minute drive to his home in the town of Beit Sahour, just east of Bethlehem. The house was made of thick bricks of the white local limestone ubiquitous in this part of the country. We walked up steps of polished limestone, a stately bannister along one side. Raja built the house for his family over the last 20 years. A second and third floor were completed just last year and provide six extra beds, two bathrooms and a small kitchen for the guests they house year-round.

His wife, Rima, came out and asked if we wanted to eat first or go to our rooms. “Eat first!” we said in unison. She smiled and took us inside where we met two of her three daughters, Amira and Amani, and her son, Joseph. They warmly ushered us over to the dining room table where, much to our surprise, we found a family of four visiting from Dallas. (The Khairs supplement their income by serving meals in their home and, in our case, renting out rooms for the night.) The Dallas family quickly departed and then we were left to enjoy a delicious meal of chicken, rice, eggplant, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and yogurt. Rima sat with us, a large rosary hanging on the wall behind her, and told us about her life.

Her parents and grandparents fled to Bethlehem from Jaffa during the 1948 War. Raja’s family is from Beit Sahour, which is 80 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim. Palestinians of these two faiths get along well in Beit Sahour, she explained. They attend each other’s major religious celebrations and lifecycle events. But they almost never intermarry. On the rare occasion it happens, it brings great shame on the families. “To be a Christian in Bethlehem, it’s ok,” she said. “In Nablus and Jenin, it’s more difficult.”

Amani studied public health and nutrition at Al-Quds University, but she couldn’t find a job in her field, so she now works as a teacher. Amira is studying pharmacy but is not sanguine about finding employment in that field. “There are no options for a job,” Rima said. “Eighty percent [of graduates] work somewhere other than their studies.” The job market in Israel is much stronger, but Palestinians need permits and additional exams to qualify.

Rima commutes 40 minutes each day to Hebron, where she teaches Arabic, math and science to second and third graders. There are no official checkpoints on her route to work now, but there were in 2002 when violence erupted and she was forced to stay in Hebron a week at a time. Her mother-in-law cared for the children while she was away and Raja was at work.

Raja goes up to Jerusalem six days a week to his job doing construction work at the White Sisters Convent guesthouse. He has to secure a permit, which is good for six months. But he also has to cross a checkpoint each way, so what would otherwise be a 15-minute commute takes about two hours. He leaves around 5:00 a.m. each morning to make sure he is in time for work at 7:30 a.m. When he had trouble with his permit, he was out of work for a month.

“Each year it’s worse,” Rima said of the Palestinian situation. When she was a child, her father used to drive the family from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, or to the beach. But once Israel built the separation wall more than a decade ago, travel has become too difficult. Palestinians are not allowed to take their own cars into Jerusalem and must either take a bus or walk. “I feel like [when] I’m going, something will kill me,” she said. “I prefer not to go.”

Water paucity was another issue Rima raised. Most homes keep tanks on their roofs because availability is intermittent. “Palestine is surrounded by water, but we are short of water!” she exclaimed.

But this is the only life her children have known. Her two oldest daughters went abroad to be exchange student at a Lutheran school in Germany. Amani called home and expressed amazement that she didn’t need to carry her ID with her. She felt free and happy there, Rima said. “She [didn’t] want to come back.”

Like many Palestinians with resources, some in her family have made the choice to leave. Rima has two brothers who left Palestine because the local university was shut down. They went to England to study and now live in Dublin. Each year they tell her they will return, but they still have not.

But Rima cannot imagine living anywhere else. “I never feel lonely here,” she said. It’s because she is surrounded by family. The Khairs have around 500 family members in Beit Sahour, including 16 nieces and nephews on their street. Her family and the family of her husband are especially intertwined. Rima and her sister married two brothers.

The value of family has been proven to her many times. In 2000, Raja contracted meningitis and nearly died. The family had just taken a mortgage to build their home, and Rima was scared they’d be ruined. But an uncle came in and helped them financially until Raja recovered. “When he was sick, I found everyone beside me,” she said.

For two weeks, Raja was in a coma and was not expected to live. Every day Rima went to pray at the nearby holy site, Virgin Mary’s Well, which is believed to be where the Holy Family stopped on its way to Egypt. On Aug. 28, an auspicious day for that holy site, Rima said, Raja woke up from his coma. Every year since, the extended family gathers to celebrate his recovery. A special dish called drisha, made of beef, wheat and tomatoes, is cooked over an open fire, and the party usually lasts two or three days, Amani told us.

After our supper, the family invited us to join a few dozen neighbors for one of their regular evening walks around Beit Sahour. The hilly eight-kilometer trek took us past Virgin Mary’s Well and the Shepherds’ Field holy sites.

When we returned, we were quite exhausted. Rima made us refreshing tea with lemon, and we listened to Raja play his tabla drum. Soon after, Goldman was ready to return to the Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem, which sits near the border wall. Because of that proximity, Raja asked Rima to join them; he was nervous being a solitary man driving near the wall, and felt it safer to be in the car with a woman. Dan also went along so Raja could practice his English. After dropping off Goldman, on the way back to Beit Sahour, Rima showed Dan her childhood home. It sits just next to a side entrance to the Church of the Nativity, the second-oldest church in the world, built on what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth.