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.”


Voices from Godland, Episode 1: The Báb

Godland brings you to the city of Haifa and the resting place of the Báb — the most revered figure of the most popular religion you’ve never heard of. Augusta Anthony visits the spiritual center of the Baha’i 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.


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.”