The hardship of living in Jesus’ birthplace

BEIT SAHOUR — “We starve sometimes for a drop of water.”

This quote has been replaying in my head over and over ever since Wednesday night when we divided up into small groups to spend the night with different families in Palestine. Our group, Sarah, Augusta, Thea, Isobel and myself, spent the evening at the Khair home in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem. Raed Khair picked us up and brought us to the house. We were immediately greeted by his wife, Therese, their 15-year-old twins, Mais and Majd, and three Christian pilgrims from Texas who were also there for dinner.

The first thing I noticed was that the family was East Orthodox Christian. Therese mentioned this to us early on, but it was clear from the giant rosary that stretched from floor to ceiling on the living room wall. Depictions of the Last Supper featured heavily in house décor, in frames and hanging on key chains.

At first, it was a little awkward. No one quite knew how to begin a conversation as we started eating a grain soup and drank lemonade made with lemons from Raed and Therese’s garden. Conversation began to come a little easier as we ate the main course: chicken with vegetables (seasoned with seven different spices) and stuffed zucchini. The pilgrims couldn’t stay for long, and after they left we had dessert: bananas, grain cake and tea with sage. We started to talk about what life is like for the Khair family.

(Clockwise from left) Sarah Wyman, Therese Khair, Mais Khair, Thea Piltzecker, Augusta Anthony, Majd Khair, Raed Khair and Steph Beckett share a family meal in the Khair home (Godland News / Isobel van Hagen)

She told us that she tries to invite pilgrims and visitors from other countries to their home about every four months so that they can learn more about Palestinian life and culture.

The story is not a simple one. There is bad and there is good. “We are trying to encourage everyone to come,” said Therese. “It’s safe and secure.”

“I like to exchange our stories together,” she said.

On the other hand, she added: “The obstacles that we face every day… the future of our kids. It’s very sad.”

Therese told us about some of the things that Palestinians in Bethlehem struggle to do. Maintaining a steady stream of water is one of them – Palestinians use water tanks on top of their houses for their water supply. The problem is that when the tanks empty, families have to wait up to four weeks for a fresh supply. Therese, with the occasional interjection in Arabic from Raed, told us that when the water runs out, the family will have to run the faucet for a few times per day, hoping they’ll catch the moment when the water returns. During most summers, they don’t get to water the plants in their garden.

We ended the dinner by helping Therese peel khubeizeh leaves off their stems, piling them on a platter for her to cook later in the week. Khubeizeh is a green vegetable that is typically sautéed with onions. It was then in our conversation that I realized how, in some ways, we are strikingly similar. Therese wakes up every morning and makes her kids breakfast and packs them lunch. She takes them to school, then goes to work as a nurse. She picks them up and makes dinner. It’s a normal life.

“We are good people,” she said. “We are humans. We should have our freedom and basic needs.”

But there are parts of her life that are totally alien to me. Like others in the occupied territories, the Khairs can’t move freely. There are Israeli checkpoints on many entrances and exits to the city. To travel internationally, they have to fly out of the airport in Jordan rather than the Israeli airport in Tel Aviv. For a family living such a normal life, they also feel trapped. Raed had Therese translate a sentence that also still replays in my head:

“You are living better than we do.”


Family man, not elves, behind Christmas treasures in Bethlehem

BEIT SAHOUR — Pilgrims and tourists buy souvenirs to remember their visit to the Holy Land, but for Ghassan Qumsieh, the trinkets are his form of survival.

Qumsieh, born in Palestine, got up from the dinner table eager to show his family’s guests – us, two Americans, and our teacher, Professor Haroon Moghul – his creation.

“One minute, one minute,” he said in English slowly. Qumsieh walked across the kitchen and retrieved a miniature nativity scene from a shelf. He placed it near our dinner plates, which were now cleaned after a few helpings of makloubeh, a dish of rice with cauliflower and potatoes, served with chicken and a side of yogurt.

The main dish: makluheh, made with rice, cauliflower and potatoes. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

Qumsieh, an Orthodox Catholic, takes pride in his craft. He proudly presented one of his nativity pieces – complete with baby Jesus and wise men figurines. Using various motions like a game of Charades, and the English he knows, he explained how he carefully cut the pieces and glued them together to create tourist treasures. He twisted the star at the top of the wooden barn site and a slow melody began to play.

Qumsieh’s days begin early and end late. After an 11-hour workday at his shop, he will sometimes come home, take a quick nap, and work on various trinkets until 1 a.m. This time of the year, with Easter approaching, the job is more arduous, as more tourists and pilgrims visit Bethlehem. But more business, more money.

“Life here is very expensive,” he told us.

His earnings support the home he bought about a decade ago – a modest but cozy three-bedroom fifth-floor unit in Beit Sahour, a little town outside of Bethlehem. The living room is adorned with Christian memorabilia, like a larger-than-life rosary tucked behind a family photo, an assortment of plants, and a picture of Jesus. The coffee table is lined with charms from his workshop, packaged and ready for the Easter crowds. On the kitchen counter sits a large box of wooden crosses and accessories yet to be glued together. “I’m very happy here,” he tells us.

Completed olive wood necklaces – often the result of a late night's work – line the coffee table at the Qumsieh home. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

It wasn’t an easy journey. Qumsieh was forced to leave the country for Jordan after the Six-Day War in 1967. He worked day and night at a minimart to start a new life only to repeat the process after his father died and he returned to the West Bank.

But his tenacity has paid off, a fact that’s apparent by interacting with his daughters – two confident and ambitious teens, who served both as hosts and, after Professor Moghul departed, our translators for the rest of evening when their parents’ English failed. Siwar is a boisterous and confident 14-year-old, who enjoys cooking – a skill she learned from watching “Top Chef” on television. “I want to be a chef,” she says, briefly glancing up from her cell phone. Her older sister, Nadine, 18, graduates this year from high school. Thanks to the hard work by Qumsieh and his wife, Rula, a history teacher, Nadine will go on to college, where she plans to study hotel management.

Qumsieh holds his hand-crafted nativity scene. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

His fatherly instincts transferred over to his houseguests, too. “You’re my daughters, too,” he told us. When we left the next morning, he gifted us each with two of his Christian ornaments. As he plucked them in our hands, he smiled and said, “So you will remember me.”


Voices from Godland, Episode 2: The Beatitudes

GALILEE — Godland brings you to the Church of the Beatitudes, where Christian pilgrims reflect on the meaning of Christ’s teachings and the roots of their faith.


Voices from Godland introduces listeners to the Holy Land through the eyes of the people who worship there — pilgrims and religious gatekeepers. Episodes highlight the human voices of holy sites, explore the relationship between place and faith, and commemorate the religious experience. Listen on Soundcloud or in the iTunes podcast app.


Faith, food and checkpoints

BETHLEHEM — The dining table featured a display of golden-spiced rice with toasted almonds, tomatoes and cucumbers marinated in vinegar, fresh olives grown by our host Nataly, and glasses of freshly-squeezed lemonade – from her home-grown lemons. On this evening, Nataly and her husband, George, welcomed Vildana, Galie and me into their home in Bethlehem. The walls of the apartment were adorned with framed Catholic paintings and family portraits with the couple and their two sons, Muha and Maher, and two daughters, Michline and Majd.

The evening, arranged by Holy Land Trust, was a chance to spend a night with a Palestinian family living under Israeli occupation. There was delicious food, comfortable beds and much conversation on everything from faith and school to the hardships of checkpoints and travel permits.

Majd, the youngest of the children, greeted us enthusiastically in the living room. She is a senior in high school and had just finished a chemistry exam that day. Majd told us that her sister Michline is busy studying for a test; Michline is in her first year at dentistry school. Her work done for the day, Majd shared her love for Turkish and Brazilian TV series.

Nataly politely waved us into the dining room when the food was prepared, and she and George joined the table. A few bites into the meal, Nataly started to share her perspective on life in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is a city located in the West Bank, a territory for the most part either under Israeli control or joint Israeli-Palestinian Authority control. “The situation is not what we want,” Nataly said. “Here, it’s a beautiful place, but the fauda is the problem.” We learned that “fauda” is the word for “chaos” in Arabic.

She explained the difficulty of moving within the West Bank for Palestinians. “We want to go to Ramallah, it’s near,” Nataly said of the city in central West Bank. “But sometimes they put a checkpoint and say, ‘Give me identity.’ Especially for young boys.”

The checkpoints Nataly speaks of are barriers set up by the Israeli Defense Forces throughout the West Bank. Palestinians crossing the checkpoints regularly have their identity cards inspected by Israeli soldiers. “If I’m in the line, if I see a soldier, I’m scared and I walk like a robot, not like a normal person,” Nataly said. “You can’t put your hands in pockets.”

Nataly added that visiting Jerusalem, located around six miles north of Bethlehem, is difficult because a permit is required.

She said that some of her family members have left the country. A few of her siblings, for instance, moved to El Salvador and Honduras. Nataly also has a brother who now lives in Spain. “He went to study there, he liked it and stayed,” she explained.

Nataly shared that for the most part, people who have money are no longer in Bethlehem. “If they’re normal people, they can’t leave,” she said of families with average income.

Our conversation turned to Catholic life in Bethlehem. Nataly, George and their family attend weekly services at the Church of the Nativity, the basilica that is built on what is considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. Nataly had recently returned from a trip to the desert around Jericho.

“It’s our fasting period, so people go,” Nataly explained. The desert around Jericho is significant to Christian tradition because it’s believed to be where Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted by the Devil. Nataly proudly showed us photos of her recent trip. She and her sister-in-law smiled up at us from her phone screen.

The evening ended with us swiping through the photos and enjoying warm cups of chamomile tea and slices of homemade chocolate cake. We were met with the same hospitality the next morning – with a table full of breakfast foods – before leaving the home.


Stories and a stroll with the Khair family

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.