Occupation stories from deep inside normal Palestinian lives

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 the reality under occupation.

Here’s his latest:

Easter Sunday 24th April 2011

Again I send special greetings on Easter Sunday from here in Jerusalem. I hope it is a time of great blessing for you as we celebrate the new life God has given us in Jesus.

Each year I have been here I have had the good fortune to celebrate the Easter ceremonies in Jerusalem where the events we remember happened. I have stayed in the brothers’ community in the Old City near New Gate and been able to wander the city and reflect on the fact that this was where Jesus spoke to people, listened to them, challenged them, received their applause, suffered their rejection, where he was handed over, abused, crucified and killed. It was, also, the place where God raised him from the dead to bring new life to people. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I have this opportunity to be here and share in these ceremonies!

Again I feel sorry for some of the Palestinian Christians in the West Bank who applied to the Israeli authorites for permission to come into Jerusalem to celebrate the ceremonies here. Many did not receive permission. It was unfortunate that in many cases only some members of a family received permission so that it was impossible for a family to come in and be involved in the ceremonies. There is no obvious logic to the decisions. I met one young man in Jerusalem who is in his third year at Bethlehem University. He was the only member in his family who received permission to come into Jerusalem. In another family the father, a son who is a student at Bethlehem University and a daughter received permission, but the mother and the other daughter did not. Knowing the pain this is to these people certainly makes the reflection on Jesus suffering something that is real for people living here today.

This is now my third year in Palestine and I have become aware of how the oppression and restrictions have increased in that time. Aliled to this is the unpredictability of what will happen. Recently over the course of two weeks I came through the checkpoint into Jerusalem about four times. The soldiers barely looked at my passport and simply waved me through. However, last week I spent almost twenty minutes at the checkpoint as they examined my passport very carefully and questioned me about the visa and what I did. They then searched through the things I had in the car.…  Because I don’t know what is going to happen at the checkpoint I have to allow at least an hour to travel the seven kilometers into Jerusalem. While I have been carefully questioned at the checkpoint, I have not experienced abuse and humiliation as is often the case for the Palestinians.

It is in this context that Bethlehem University exists and thrives! About a third of our students come from East Jerusalem and so come through the wall twice a day to get to Bethlehem University. What I find inspiring is their resilience in not letting the way they are treated in coming through the Wall prevent them from being positive about being at Bethlehem University.

The current academic year concludes towards the end of May and we are planning for graduation on 9 and 10 June. So far it has been a very smooth year and I am hoping that continues through to the end! During this year there have been a number of really important things happen which will be beneficial to the Palestinian people whom Bethlehem University serves. The new Faculty of Education building is moving along smoothly and will be ready before the end of this calendar year. It is going to make such a difference to the campus and the way it will be used. It will also provide facilities for the €3.5 million project funded by the Spanish Government to work with teachers in primary and secondary schools in a large area of this part of Palestine. This is something I am excited about because it is improving what happens in primary and secondary school that significant change can be brought about here. From a selfish point of view, if we can work with those teachers to improve the quality of what they are doing in the primary and secondary schools then the quality of the students coming on to Bethlehem University is going to improve which means we will be able to do more with those students. It is an exciting venture and I am very pleased with the progress we have been making in working with these teachers. With the new facilities completed it will mean further possibilities will become available.

One other thing that has been going on quietly over the past few years has been the opportunity Bethlehem University has provided for our nursing programme to be available to students in a small village near Ramallah. I visited the teachers and students there again some three weeks ago and was inspired by what is happening there. In the village of Qubeibeh there is a nursing home organised by the Salvadorian Sisters. Sister Hildegard, from Austria, is in charge of this nursing home and was the inspiration behind getting the nursing programme available there. Qubeibeh is a Muslim village which is very isolated because of the way the Wall cuts it off from access to Jerusalem and other villages. As a result it is very difficult for the people to move around and for us to visit there. However, Sister Hildegard was able to persuade the Israeli Military that we should be allowed to come through the Wall at a special checkpoint and so instead of having to make a very circuitous route, we were able to get to Qubeibeh in a little over an hour.

What I found when we arrived were enthusiastic students who wanted to share their experience. There are 68 students following the nursing programme and I was very impressed with the first group of students who will graduate from there in June. Sister Hildegard told me when this group of students first began they were very reserved and quiet, almost timid. What I found were confident, empowered and very hopeful young people who were coming to the end of their four year involvement with Bethlehem University. In a very conservative Muslim village where the fathers have such dominance over their daughters, it was inspiring to see young women who were educating their parents into a different way of thinking about the role women could have. One young women had convinced her father that she was not going to get married until after she has a Masters degree. The father of another one had engaged her to be married at the end of her second year in the programme and was going to withdraw her. The young woman talked to her father, enlisted Sister Hildegard’s help, and eventually the father cancelled the engagement and the young woman will graduate this year. In addition to helping such young people to be empowered, the presence of Bethlehem University in Qubeibeh is gradually bringing about a change in the village and particularly in the way women are being treated there. I find this a wonderful expression of Bethlehem University preaching the Good News through action rather than words. I am reminded of Jesus’ words: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full!” What Bethlehem University is doing in Qubeibeh is bringing a fuller life to these people and a freedom they had never imagined before. The other amazing thing is that all the students who will graduate in June already have jobs to go to. In the midst of restrictions, oppression and difficulties it is inspiring to see students blossoming in spite of it all!

Earlier in the year Bethlehem University was able to obtain a grant from USAID for over US$600,000 to establish an Excellence in Teaching Centre. This centre will work with the people employed by Bethlehem University to improve the quality of what we are doing in the teaching we do. It is crucial to continually work to improve the opportunities for students to learn. I keep asking the question “Is there a better way?” which I apply to anything that is happening at Bethlehem University. The Centre is answering that question with regard to teaching but I am also working towards a Quality Assurance system which will apply across all the things that happen at Bethlehem University. I have had two people visit Bethlehem University to help us with this, one from Ireland and one from England. I hope in the course of the next semester to move this along and get a system in place.

We have had many visitors come to campus. Some five weeks ago we had the President of East Timor spend some time with us and gave a lecture to a representative group from Bethlehem University. I am also delighted to have had a number of people from New Zealand and Australia visit. We had a delegation of Trade Union people from Australia spend some time with our students over a meal and then just last week a group of Australian federal politicians spent several hours on campus engaging with students and getting some idea of what life is like for them. As well, there have been many individuals from New Zealand who have called and had the opportunity to engage with our students and faculty to come away with a better idea of what life is like for students here. These people are most welcome because it confirms for the students that they are not forgotten, but there are people outside of the West Bank who are concerned about them.

I have been fortunate to engage with Tom Kennedy at the New Zealand Embassy in Turkey and he has been able to facilitate the funding the digitization of some of our resources in the Bethlehem University library. This has been warmly welcomed and acknowledged. One other New Zealand feature is a new set of Icons about the Trinity, Bethlehem and De La Salle. This took more than two years to complete but is now installed in the top corridor of the main building and is becoming recognised as a masterpiece. It was funded by the combined efforts of the three New Zealand groups: the De La Salle Brothers, the Brigidine Sisters and the Assumptions Fathers. We are certainly grateful for their support.

I am very grateful for the ongoing support for the work of Bethlehem University coming from people from around the world, including New Zealand and Australia.

I mentioned in my last e-mail that we had launched a capital campaign to raise US$25 million over four years. We are well on the way to that target at this stage of the campaign. I have attached an announcement some of you may not have received of the largest gift from an individual for Bethlehem University. I had been engaging Mr Dabdoub over the course of some time before he came forward with this gift which will make a significant difference to the Faculty of Business.

So life at Bethlehem University continues to be full and busy, but very inspiring in spite of the challenges we face. It is so obvious that what we are doing is worthwhile and so knowing that enables us to keep going. One of the real challenges in Palestine is to keep hope alive. The people have been promised and promised and promised and they are still occupied and oppressed! The presence of Bethlehem University as a beacon of hope to our students is a vital element in supporting the Palestinian people.

From this holy place I send you best wishes and pray the blessings of the Risen Lord will be yours. I would ask that you keep Bethlehem University in your prayers as we work to provide the best education we can for the students entrusted to us. May God’s peace and joy be part of your experience as you celebrate this Easter.

Best wishes

Brother Peter Bray

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