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.