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Stories from the Holy Land

I’ve lived in the Holy Land for the last seven months. This is my last week in Bethlehem before I head to India for a month, so I’ve been taking care of business. My apartment is nearly packed up: a pile of donations, a pile to leave with friends and a pile to take with me.

Just a few days ago, I went to the Jordanian Consular office in Ramallah to get a visa for my upcoming trip. After traveling two hours to get there, it was closed.
I made a new friend, a guy who also needed a visa and was equally disappointed to find the office locked.

The policeman guarding the embassy immediately sauntered over to chat with us, gun slung over his torso like a shield.

Click here to read the rest of “Stories from the Holy Land” by Cat Rabenstine for Mondoweiss.

One foot in, one foot out – a tour of a Palestinian village

Today I took a walk through a friend’s village near Bethlehem. The sky was blue and spotted with clouds. It was chilly but the sun peaked through with surprising radiance.

First, he (let’s call him Ahmed) showed me a 4×4 inch cement track that follows one entire length of the village, coming within yards of the school. This tiny bit of cement will, maybe within the year, become part of The Wall built by Israel in this case to separate their settlement from the Palestinian village nearby.

We walked up a dirt road to two demolished houses, the foundation of one home holding the remains of its former walls. The army demolished the houses, saying they posed a security threat. One family lived in a tent for a few months before building a new house.

Standing on top of the rubble, I saw the huge Israeli settlement homes looming above on the highest, closest hill. The houses looked huge and stable, capped with the ubiquitous red roof, a characteristic of Israeli settlement buildings.

We retraced our steps and walked the other way towards the paved settler-road to take pictures of the village from above.

The entire time we walked, the cement track followed us. Ahmed stood with each foot on either side of it, “One day, my left foot won’t be allowed in this spot,” he said.

He hesitated for just a second before we had walked up this hill. He wasn’t supposed to walk on it. He said, “If soldiers come, they all know me by name. We will just run to the Palestinian side.”

Once we reached the top of the hill, Ahmed pointed to three Israeli security cameras. All were pointed at us.

Each time I hear a story like Ahmed’s: homes demolished, livelihood wrecked, school children at risk, land taken, I consider my own family.

If it were my mother’s home being demolished or my brother being harassed daily by soldiers younger than him who haphazardly tote machine guns at their side, I’m not sure how I would react.

Would I try to defend them with violence?

Would I become depressed and feel hopeless?

Would I write about my situation, try to tell the world my story?

I don’t know what I would do, and I believe no one should have to answer this question. But I do know hundreds of Palestinians who have to respond to this question daily.

To read how “Ahmed” and his village have responded, click here.

The beginnings of Christmas in Bethlehem

This week, Christmas stores have popped up throughout Bethlehem.

My favorite Christmas goodies

1.  Para-gliding, blow-up Santa

2.  Mix-CD of Arabic and international Christmas tunes, homemade by the shopkeeper himself and on sale for $3.

3.  A tree that showers itself with fake snow.

Christmas cheer!
The city is covered in Christmas lights, from lamp posts to restaurants.  Below is a photo of the Christmas lighting as it ends in front of The Wall near Aida Camp and Rachel’s Tomb.

Christmas cheer + The Wall = Christmas in the occupied territories

Olive oil soap: how it’s made and why it’s great

Ever wonder how olives are turned into olive oil soap, or olive oil for that matter?  Watch this video for a quick tour of an olive oil press and an olive oil soap factory in a small town in northern West Bank.

If you live in Chicago, visit the Fair Trade Bazaar at Lake View Presbyterian Church on Saturday, November 20 to purchase some of both!

An architectural tour of the Old City in Nablus


Amjad is a mechanical engineering student at An Najah University.  This is the first solo video project for Amjad, who is hoping to combine his engineering work with his interests in the media and the environment.  He plans to continue his education after a few years of work.

Kids play violent video games in Nablus, West Bank


Haya is studying journalism at An Najah University in Nablus, West Bank. In January 2011, she will begin her M.A. in Filmmaking at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Here is her latest video from Nablus.

Get your hands dirty in Zababdeh

“You drive the car. I know you miss driving,” said Fr. Firas while driving me home from a visit to the Jenin refugee camp, a few miles from his church in Zababdeh, West Bank.

“But I don’t know how to drive stick!”  I cried, knowing that in a few minutes I would be behind the wheel.

“You’ll learn in Palestine!”  He laughed, and I soon found myself on a nearly empty road, short legs struggling to reach the clutch in his old, white station wagon.

Fr. Firas wants me to “get my hands dirty” in his town.  Each Sunday, he tells stories about his life, introduces me to congregation members, includes me in Sunday lunch with his family and takes me on trips to important local sites, like the refugee camp in Jenin, still torn with bullet holes from the second intifada.

Fr. Firas has “many hopes” for the connection between his congregation, St. George Melkite Church, and congregations in other countries.    Fr. Firas recalled an Aramaic word in the Beatitudes, “tubayhoun,” which he translates into: to work, or to make a change.  He says it’s an active phrase, telling you to do something for the poor, the prisoners and the ignored.  “We need you to tubayhoun, or to change the daily situation of Palestine in the occupation,” he said.

Fr. Firas faced an enormous hurdle when he began as the priest at St. George eight years ago.  The church hadn’t had a priest in 18 years, the parsonage and church were in physical ruins and the community felt abandoned.  Fr. Firas rubbed his hands together and got to work.

He started rebuilding the church with cement and paint, and soon the doors were opened.  Four people attended his very first church service in Zababdeh, all of whom were his family.  He persevered and started programs that included the entire community of Zababdeh.

One of his programs currently sponsors 50 students to attend a local school that provides a strong education.  $500 pays for the student’s books, clothing, school fees and sports for one year.  Fr. Firas hopes the sponsorship program will build the kids’ future, open their minds and teach them about acceptance.

Fr. Firas started an olive oil soap program to support local olive farmers who do not receive a fair price from Israelis for their product and to provide work for locals.  He pays a fair price for the olive oil and provides it to local women to make into soap, which he sells for $3 per bar.  Due to the cost of buying the olive oil and the packaging, paying the workers and shipping the soap, he only makes $1 per bar.  The profit from the olive oil soap program typically supports the student sponsorship program.

He also has a sewing project for women in Zababdeh, Jenin and Raba.  The sewing project provides work for 13 women, both Christians and Muslims.  “Inshallah we can bring in Jewish people as well,” Fr. Firas said.  The women work from 7am-3pm, but they can leave whenever they need to if they have children or prefer to work part-time.

St. George Kindergarten students

His newest program is a kindergarten, opened on September 24, 2010.  He hired two teachers and there are 10 students currently enrolled.  Fr. Firas hopes more students will sign-up and dreams of opening an elementary school next.  This program provides day care as well as the opportunity for young graduates to work if they haven’t yet found a job.

Fr. Firas said that he’s checking items off his list of dreams: becoming a priest, rebuilding the church in Zababdeh, starting a kindergarten, etc.  His congregation now has 200 members.  He encourages people to come to Zababdeh to see the relics and stones, but more importantly, to meet the living stones in his community.

To watch short video clips and read more about the residents of Zababdeh go to: Salt Films.

Visit the St. George Church website.

Watch a short video introducing Fr. Firas and his programs at St. George.

Local farmer discusses life in Iraq Burin

Abu Moammar is a farmer in Iraq Burin who has faced much loss. He told us about life as a farmer in the village.

Watch a video of Abu Moammar discussing life in Iraq Burin (English with Arabic subtitles).

Farming family relies on new sources of income

Photo by Cat Rabenstine

Abu Nasser is a farmer, but his children must seek other forms of employment. He spoke to us at his beautiful home, describing interactions with Israeli soldiers.

Photo by Cat Rabenstine

Abu Nasser at home

In the below video, Abu Nasser describes being asked by Israeli soldiers to leave his land.