Friday, May 8, 2015

Bethlehem University

The vibrant spirit of Bethlehem's student body was apparent as soon as we walked on campus. Small groups of students everywhere in animated conversations accompanied by regular eruptions of laughter – just the kind of place you'd want your son or daughter to attend ... or yourself.

We were met by one of the De La Salle Brothers plus Shahinda Nassar, a graduate of the University and now its Development Officer and two student "ambassadors", in our case, lovely young women, both Christian, who were informative, open, obviously very bright and motivated.

Bethlehem University was launched in 1973 as a joint venture between the Vatican and the De La Salle Christian Brothers to serve the needs of the Palestinian people. They appear to be excelling both educationally and with a student body that is a model of inclusiveness. If I recall right, the student body is 30% Christian, 70% Muslim. "With over 14,000 graduates the story of Bethlehem University is one of people dedicated to higher education, working together in hope with an ever widening international circle of colleagues and friends committed to building a better and brighter future for the people of Bethlehem."

Our student ambassadors were candid about their experience of the Occupation. Each described humiliating experiences at the check point into Jerusalem and told of their resolve not to tolerate such treatment again ... by simply refusing to return to Jerusalem, unless absolutely necessary.

Unlike other church institutions, Bethlehem University reports openly on the impact of Occupation and its resolve to continue in spite of it. "Bethlehem University continues to prosper despite twelve Israeli military imposed orders for closure, in addition to incursions, travel restrictions, military check points, and the segregation wall around Bethlehem."

An independent witness to the importance of this University: A Palestinian man who drove me and several friends from the Old City to the Bethlehem check point described his commitment to making a living to support his family - and to educate them. He drives illegally (not as a licensed cab) because, like so many Palestinians, he has been in an Israeli prison. He has three children, lives in two rooms with a kitchen, and gives his oldest daughter 30 shekels each day to travel to Bethlehem University in addition to 20 shekels to buy food and a soft drink. He drives 12 - 14 hours a day; his car will be impounded for three months if he is caught taking a fare for his service.

A final treat: Bethlehem University has a program in hotel and restaurant management which benefitted us with one of the very best meals in our three weeks in Is/Pal.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Seraj at Burham and Aida

The Aida Refugee Camp (in partnership with the Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Society) and the village of Burham (in partnership with the Burham Charitable Society) are the sites for the sixth and seventh Seraj Libraries. Alrowwad's opened in 2014; Burham, just this past month. As Seraj libraries grow in the space made available by our partners, they are all different. What is common among them is an organization and leaders with vision and a readiness to enhance their world on behalf of their children.  Pictured below are images from each of these libraries.

The newly created Burham Seraj Library

Ghadeer Abulmiriam

Supporting members

Ghadeer Abulmiriam is the President of the Burham Charitable Society. Her cohorts told us they volunteer time and energy at the library for many reasons – to improve their own reading skills, to teach, "just to be there". What has thrilled all of them is the collaboration already developing between this little library, the local school and the village council.  She told us, “Your support reminds us that we have the power to make change.” 

Burham and the Library are hopeful of transforming the small area across the street into a village park.

Seraj at Alrowwad has a very modern feel to it. It's bright, colorful, beautifully designed and, to everyone's delight, getting used heavily. Alrowwad's director, Abdelfatah Abusrour, has described its program as Beautiful Resistance. Instead of giving in to violence to express their opposition to oppression, Alrowwad teaches its young people to develop their talents, to shape their future, to become the beautiful human beings they are.

Abdulfattah Abusrour 

Seraj at Aida
Seraj at Aida

Israeli Military "Justice"

Many of you already know of the Military Court Watch and Defense of Children International Palestine. If you don't, by all means learn from their web sites. Both have given generously of their time this week to let me see first hand the relentless injustice and punishment routinely handed out to Palestinians and, particularly, to Palestinian children. DCI took me to tour the former secret Israeli military prison at Al-Fara, notorious for the torture administered to thousands of Palestinians between 1982 and the Oslo Accords in 1993. Gerard Horton and Salwa Duaibis with MCW took me and two friends to the the military courts at the Ofer prison where Palestinian children and young people are tried and sentenced for a variety of offenses. With advance permission we were allowed to observe several cases. Let me tell you about two.

Throwing Stones   Whether he did or did not throw stones (he said he did not), this 14 year old boy's case was heard with an Israeli prosecutor and Druze defense lawyer. The military judge had a pleasant and kindly-appearing face. The family had assented to our presence as observers, and we were each asked by the judge to give our name. Cotton and Fite were something of a novelty for them. As "civil" as it all appeared, this 14 year old received a one year suspended sentence which will continue for five years plus a fine of 400 shekels. What this sentence means is that if this lad is ever "detained" in the next five years he will be imprisoned for one year plus whatever punishment is meted out for the next "offense". This means that if he goes to the store for bread, and if some IDF soldiers are about, and if someone throws a stone, all the kids will run. If he collared, it will be his word against the soldiers. He will begin serving his sentence. Israeli military mission accomplished – 14 year old and family will live in fear for five years.

Searching for a Job   Nothing illegal about searching for a job – unless it involves entering Jerusalem without a permit. This young man was 19 years old. He sought work in Jerusalem to help support himself and his father who is unemployed and diabetic. Much the same as the first case. Only this time the Israeli assigned as translator was having a hard time staying awake. The young man was convicted and could be released on bail for 4,000 shekels ($1,000) AND two Israeli guarantors who would each put up 5,000 shekels. This for a young man and his family who are poor and haven't a chance in hell of coming up with 4000 shekels.

What stood out for me with just this short exposure was how "normal", how routine it all is. Initially, it has the look of justice – the accused has a lawyer to defend him; there is standard court room procedure. But it is no such thing. It is the means by which Israel keeps the West Bank Palestinian population in submission and under total control.

A final word   At a meta level, this massive injustice, gross violation of the Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention by Israel is one thing. It is infuriating and shameful that the US/we do nothing substantial to address it. At another level, looking in the faces of Palestinian mothers and fathers who have spent hours getting here is inescapably sad. Some appear desperate; some, fearful; some, impassive. All want their children released; and all but a very few will be disappointed.