Life in Palestine is often transmitted to the West by people who don’t live there, merely passing through. Father Peter Bray, the Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University, has regularly written missives about reality under occupation. This is his Christmas message:
22nd December 2011
Greetings again from this holy place! I still find it amazing to be here in this place where the whole Christian world focuses it attention in just a few days, the place where it all began – the place where Jesus was born.
I have written a Christmas message for Bethlehem University to go to our supporters here and around the world. However, this letter is directed to people I know from the past or with whom I have made some special connections since coming here to Bethlehem University. I mentioned in my Christmas message on our website (www.bethlehem.edu) that the whole Christmas event is about bringing new life to people. This is something we are doing here at Bethlehem University.
What I want to do in this letter is take some small examples which I believe illustrates that. Rather than going over many things that are happening on campus, I want to focus on what Bethlehem University is doing in small isolated villages. In August 2007 the Bethlehem University nursing programme began to be offered in the village of Qubeibeh. This was the outcome of some long discussions Brother Dan Casey, the then Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University, had had with Sister Hildegard Enzenhofer SDS. Sister Hildegard is responsible for a home for elderly women in Qubeibeh and in her work with the women in the village was constantly asked if it was possible to arrange some educational programme for the young people in this very isolated village. After thinking about it for some time and consulting with others, she approached Brother Dan to ask that Bethlehem University offer the Nursing programme there.
What Brother Dan and Sister Hildegard began then has had amazing results. During the graduation ceremony at Bethlehem University on 10 June 2011 the first group of ten students from the programme in Qubeibeh graduated. It was an amazing experience for them and something their parents and family were so proud to experience.
Qubeibeh is a small very traditional Muslim village isolated by the Israeli Separation Wall. Having the nursing programme offered in this village has had a significant impact on the lives of the students and their families, but also on the village. Apart from the sound education the students at Qubeibeh are receiving, students there are being empowered. This is particularly noticeable among the young women in the programme. When the first group of students began they were rather unsure of themselves and the young women rather timid and reticent to be too involved. However, by the end of the programme that had changed remarkably.
Qubeibeh is a very conservative, traditional Muslim village where the father of a family is the dominant figure. The custom in the village has been that the father generally marries off a daughter when the best opportunity comes along. One young woman had discussed her future with her father and had built up the courage to indicate to her father that she did not want to get married until she had a master’s degree. He eventually accepted this and so she intends to follow that goal now she has graduated. This young woman mentioned that before this programme was available graduating from a university was a dream beyond the grasp of anyone in her village. As well, nursing was something girls were not encouraged to think about. Now looking back she says that the opportunity to study in the programme has changed her life and her future. It has also changed her family. With the opportunity to explore different ideas with others in the programme, she brought home new ideas to talk about. The impact on the family has led to a more open attitude towards different ways of seeing things and ways of thinking which has brought a new sense of life to the family.
The father of another young woman had decided to withdrawn her from the programme towards the end of the second year to marry her off to the son of a friend. She also had developed the courage to talk to her father about her desire to complete the four-year programme. She then enlisted the help of Sister Hildegard with the result that her father cancelled the engagement and allowed her to complete her study. It was wonderful for me to see her here at Bethlehem University for the graduation and to be introduced to her parents who were obviously so proud that their daughter had graduated from Bethlehem University. This young woman mentioned that being part of the programme not only changed her perception of nursing and learning, but also changed her personality. She is deeply grateful for the way she has grown.
At one stage last year there were some false rumours going around the village about what was happening during classes and about nursing not being a suitable occupation for girls to be involved in. Two sisters in the programme who heard about these rumours decided on their own initiative to do something about what was being said. They organize a group of the nursing students to visit the local schools and also to meet with parents to make sure these people understood what the truth of the situation was and to outline what a very worthwhile occupation nursing is. They began to challenge the mentality that existed among so many about nursing. Being prepared to take such a stand and do something about the rumours showed how the experience of being in the programme had inspired them and given them the courage to speak out! The awareness they have of the value of nursing and their willingness to confront the misconceptions about it, particularly in going into boys’ schools, took courage and determination, which they showed very clearly.
These examples of students being empowered are but scratching the surface of the impact Bethlehem University is having on individuals and this small village. Apart from individuals who are being empowered and educated, there have been changes in the attitudes of people in the village to the programme. Initially, among other things, there was concern about young men and women being in the same classroom and about the young women touching naked flesh. By the end of the second year of the programme these were no longer concerns and the arrangements in the programme had been accepted and supported by the vast majority of people in the village. One of the impressive things is that in a village where there is so much unemployment, every one of the students who graduated in June now has a job, in neighbouring health centres, in hospitals, in clinics and so on.
When I reflect on the impact Bethlehem University is having in that village I am reminded of Jesus’ mission that he came that we “may have life and have it to the full.” It seems to me that one of the fruits of Bethlehem University’s presence in Qubeibeh is that it is bringing life to people there in a way that had not been expected. The experience there has also reminded me of the quote attributed to St. Francis that we should “preach the Good News at all times and, if necessary, use words.” It seems to me that what is happening at Qubeibeh is that Bethlehem University is indeed preaching the Good News without using words!
So this past year has been the source of great encouragement for me when I visit villages like Qubeibeh and see the outcome of that work. I was also down south of Hebron for the graduation ceremony for a course the Bethlehem University Institute for Community Partnership ran. It was for women in three isolated villages and was designed to help them understand the very basic aspects of democracy: what it means to vote, how to identify candidates, how to decide what these candidates stand for, how to decide which candidate best represented what they valued, how to go about voting and so on. I found it very moving to listen to these women talk about how this course had given them, for the first time, some understanding of what democracy was about. They were excited about being so aware and empowered to be involved. This again is bringing life to these people and an example of living the Good News.
There are many other aspects of Bethlehem University I could talk about which highlight the value we are bringing to the lives of people here. However, all this takes place in the midst of occupation and increasing restrictions. Unfortunately, the Wall continues to be extended at an even faster rate.
People near Bethlehem are feeling the impact of that now. In the Cremisan valley in the next town to Bethlehem of Beit Jala, the extension of the Wall will cut some fifty eight families from their land and make it impossible for them to access land that has been in their families for generations. The continuation of this taking of Palestinian land has meant that the Bethlehem area is now only 13% of what it used to be. The Wall keeps rolling on and absorbing land. This extension of the Wall, the confiscation of Palestinian land, the destruction of homes, expansion of settlements and other restrictions is making it very difficult for the Palestinians to really believe that the Israeli government is serious about the peace process. Yet in the midst of all this the people remain resilient and positive. I find this amazing and inspiring.
I am very fortunate to have my sister and brother in law with me for three weeks to see something of this land and to celebrate Christmas with us. It is indeed a great blessing to have them here. As we move to celebrate Christmas in this holy place where it all began, I wish you God’s peace and a deepening awareness of what this extraordinary celebration is about. Peace and justice is at the heart of the incarnation and something we can all be involved in promoting. We can also stand in solidarity with people like the Palestinians who are suffering such injustice. Thank you for your support. Please keep us in your prayers as we here at Bethlehem University seek to be a source of new life for the Palestinian people.
Special Christmas blessing to you from this holy place.