Tuesday, May 21, 2013

‘Lest we forget Jerusalem’

A Fond Farewell

It is said that all good things must come to an end but in truth good things continue to happen – just in new places and in different ways.  My time in Jerusalem has now been completed, as I always knew it would.  The time has flown by and it seems that it was only yesterday that I arrived with my eyes agog and new adventures occurring daily.  I feel a little older now and perhaps a little jaded. Living in a different culture, where things are not always as they seem and people are living under extreme circumstances will (hopefully) change you. And hopefully for the better – I guess this will remain to be seen, but I know I am not the same as when I arrived nearly two years ago.

I took a walk about the Old City before I left. I said good bye to the fellow where I buy my fresh almonds and pistachios. I said good bye to the man where I buy my office supplies and the man where I buy my scarves and the man from whom I rent a car now and then. The last time I went to Ramallah I said good bye to the man at my favourite stitchery store.  I went to say good bye to the fellow who makes the best falafel sandwiches EVER but he was not there that day which was probably a good thing because it is hard to eat and cry at the same time.  For me saying farewell has been so deeply sad. And yet I know that the people to whom I bid farewell have been through this many times before. It is part of their life – the flowing in and out of foreigners who have come to work or volunteer or help somehow in this intense and crazy place.  And they know that for many of us, we will return. That it is not really ‘Good Bye’ but more likely just ‘See you later’.  A friend who has lived in Jerusalem a long time and over the years has returned numerous times, said to me ‘Jerusalem will let you know when she is finished with you.’ Those words are heartening as I leave to go into the grey of a misty future.

As the farewell dinners commence and the packing up of my life here begins (my three suitcases is now six – did I really need that Bedouin carpet from Hebron?  And all that pottery? Well, actually, yes I did.) I am asked these questions:
What was the highlight of your time here?
What made you laugh?
What did you learn while you were here?

When I try to answer the question – what was the highlight of my time in Jerusalem? I begin by saying it was participating in the Holy Eucharist service with the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in the Holy Sepulcher. But that jumps me to sleeping in the Holy Sepulcher which was amazing. And that takes me from the dark to the light and to hiking in the West Bank which was beautiful and relaxing and sometimes hard hot work. So that leads me to swimming in the Galilee which was cool and refreshing.  And that reminds me of the many visitors I enjoyed and the adventures we had (especially on the vertical avenues of Nazareth). And then I think of the friends I have made here and the times we have had enjoying a meal or a glass of wine (or two). The trips to Jordan and Lebanon, the walks we have taken in and around the Old City of Jerusalem.  I do not think I have just one highlight – I think I have been living in a highlight where every day brings another memory I will treasure, a story to tell.

What made me laugh?  This time has been very joyous. I recall myself laughing a lot but I don’t really remember one specific thing that made me laugh. Sometimes cultural differences were certainly the basis for a laugh as I stumbled through my poor Arabic. Ask me why I will never attempt to say the word for ‘difficult’ ever again. Seems my pronunciation tends to sound like a male body part. Oops!
There were times when the laughter was bitter sweet – once while waiting in line at a check point, our line was not moving as the people in the other line were being passed through at a fair pace. A young man in his frustration eventually yelled out to the young female IDF soldier, what I can only assume was ‘Why are we not moving? Open our gate!’  After a moment our line began to move, however, just as the young man got to the turnstile, the line stopped. A hush went over everyone, as it was so obvious that it had been stopped on purpose just as he got there, and then everyone burst into laughter. The young man as well.  Such is the way of life.  And it all ended well as our line moved on after another 10 minutes or so. Laughter really is the best medicine and it is crucial when living in a land that is harsh.

What did I learn while I have been here?  I will be honest. I have learned that it is hard work NOT to hate ‘the other’. There have been times when I have wanted to hate the soldiers or the settlers or the ultra-orthodox or just something, so very much. But I also know that it is futile. I answered this question while having breakfast one morning with friends from St. George’s Cathedral.  Sitting beside me was a young Palestinian man, a Deacon in the church, who just quietly nodded while I spoke.  He knew, far more deeply than I, what it means to work at NOT hating your neighbour – to love your enemy, in fact.  I know that this is a land with a long history and a complicated one at that. And I know that the politics are layered upon layers of culture and pain. But sometimes when I have seen how the people I know, and have come to care for, are treated on a daily basis, I just want to be very angry and hateful.  And really, who am I to feel this way?  My home does not have demolition orders pending, my water is not cut off 3 or 4 times a week or my electricity turned off regularly. I am obviously a stranger in a strange land. And the truth is I am leaving.  What I have learned more than anything is that the people I have encountered here are full of grace. I think they inherently know that hate will kill them far quicker than anything else.  And so it is hard work to take a deep breath and suck it up but it is better than to be filled with an ugliness that spills out in very harmful ways.  Unfortunately, not everyone understands that and we see the result on the news regularly.   Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

I knew when I began this adventure that at the end of this chapter there would be another jump. And that is true as here I go (again).  I am heading back to Los Angeles to visit my daughter and see friends. Then I will get my car on the road and head up to Montreal to be with my parents who need me at this time.  I will drive across America with a friend and I am sure we will have some amazing road trip stories to tell when we arrive home. 

I am not sure what the future holds although there are whispers of exciting things ahead. I give great thanks for all who have supported me, loved me, and prayed for me whilst I have been far away. There is no possible way that I can begin to convey my appreciation and gratitude, or repay what has been given to me in so many different ways. As a dear friend said to me – it’s really about paying it forward not paying it back.  Very wise words. So please know that I will be taking your kindnesses with me and passing them out as I travel along the new path that is opening up before me.

And so the Adventure continues…

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I have been waiting for over a month to receive a permit to go into Gaza. It has finally been approved and I am going with the Bishop’s Chaplain to visit Al Ahli Arab Hospital, the only Christian Hospital in Gaza City. We will also hold a service at St. Philip’s Anglican Church there. It is the only Anglican Church in Gaza and the Bishop tries to send someone once a month to celebrate communion with the people.

We leave early in the morning. It is almost a two hour drive to get to the Erez Border or Gaza Checkpoint. As we approach, a large facility and the ever present walls, emerge in the distance like a maximum security prison. Which, of course, it is. Gaza is a prison for the 1.5 million people who live there and cannot leave.

We walk through security, so many turnstiles, stop on red, go on green, never a person to be seen.  I feel like I am in some sort of sci-fi movie far in the future, where Big Brother is watching all the time and I feel guilty just for standing and doing nothing. But this is not the future this is now.  And I keep reminding myself, that this is easy going for me, a white foreigner from North America.

We make our way through this large, empty, clean, facility – I saw, perhaps, five people in all, young security personnel- women and men, or rather boys and girls. The towers outside are heavily armed and there are cameras at every turn. Once through the last turnstile on this side, we walk through no man’s land on a covered path (about 2 kilometers) to the Gaza side. Hamas security has been given our information from the hospital so they check us through. Canon John is given a little trouble over the service booklets he has brought for the church. And it is not the Christian theme that is the worry so much as the map on the back, of the Diocese of Jerusalem (which depicts the five countries of the diocese which include – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel). But after much consternation, we are allowed to continue.

I feel like I have gone from Oz to Kansas. Behind me is green pasture, farmers in huge modern machinery cultivating the lush land.  Now I have stepped into dust and donkeys, Bedouins crowded into slums with filthy sheep and goats grazing in the garbage. We drive toward the city, where it is a busy day. An interesting mixture of past and present, as cars make way for donkeys pulling wagons, driven by old men and shoeless boys. Women are shopping and, really, since I arrived in the Middle East, I have not seen so many women in black burkas, as I do today. We pass the sites of bombed out homes and recognize them from the news. We drive over a lovely new bridge, bombed by the Israelis and rebuilt by USAID.

We arrive at Al Ahli Arab Hospital. We are welcomed with coffee and sweets. We discuss the life here in Gaza and I see the exhaustion on the face of our doctor and in the eyes of the administration. The mission of the hospital, for over a hundred years, has always been to serve the poor. But money has not come in as readily these days, and the worry is that some of the staff will have to be released. Most of the staff is Muslim, and everyone has worked well together for a long time but there is an undercurrent of fear that there may be violent reprisals should that happen. And what if the Hamas government should sweep in and easily pay for everything. That would be the end of our Christian Hospital, of a small but valiant Christian Presence in Gaza. 

At the moment USAID is building a Diagnostic Center beside the Hospital. This will be a great boon to us, as all the diagnostic tools, treatment and follow-up will be at hand on the hospital campus. But the running costs are difficult to come by and treatment is dear. The people of Gaza do not have the money to pay for their health needs and Al Ahli Hospital has always served them at minimal cost.  I will tell you, I have never met such faithful people. I am put to shame by their hope. Especially their hope in us, their fellow Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ, that somehow we will bring good news. And our news is not good. Our news is always one of waiting. Just wait, we are working on it. I ask myself - are we bringing them false hope? I will leave tomorrow and this small band of people, caught in a situation, not of their making, will struggle on. When asked if they would leave, the answer is always, ‘No, this is our home.  This is our hospital. It is for the hospital, to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, not for me, that I continue to work, to serve the people.’  I am in the room with true disciples of Christ. I am profoundly humbled by their kindness, generousity and deep commitment.

Our talk turns to politics – how can it not? And in the course of conversation, we are asked if we would like to see the tunnels that come in from Egypt. Everything comes from Egypt. The apples and bananas that sit on the table for lunch come from Egypt.

We get into a van and drive to Rafah. It is about an hour away. As we drive south, I see a lot of new buildings and beautiful homes going up. Rich colours and fancy balconies. I am told there are millionaires in the making here, money is coming in from Qatar but the people don’t see it. The pretty buildings are a fa├žade. The majority of the population is very poor.

We arrive at the border of Palestine and Egypt. I have put my scarf over my head, as I can feel eyes on me and I do not want to make anyone uncomfortable. I see the Egyptian security towers from where I am standing. I see rows of white plastic tents, like kiosks at a country fair, and from them are being hauled building supplies, pipes, and gravel, and from others, fruits, vegetables, and fish. Some tunnels are so large that new cars are being driven in to Gaza. They have not had new cars in Gaza for 6 years. Massive trucks laden with construction materials are heading out. We go over to look more closely at the tunnel nearest us. The opening is about 1.5 meters (5ft) across and anywhere from 26 to 45 meters (approx. 85-148 ft.) deep. It is like looking down a black bottomless pit. All I see is the rope going down into nothingness. But there is someone down there.  The young men working this tunnel wear flip flops and sandals. No hard hats or safety wires. No thought of face masks to protect from the constant dust. I do not think that health regulations or the thought of health care exist.  These men work for next to nothing, but it is work and it is better than nothing at all.

Everyone has been very kind to us, more than willing to show us around the tunnel site. I see large plastic containers (tubs on ropes) of stones come up from the tunnel and I think that we must be at a new tunnel that they are still digging out. But, no, this gravel is building material, and two young men grab the ropes and dump the tubs into a pit, where it is scooped up by a large shovel-truck, and dumped into the back of another huge truck that will haul it away to a building site. The air is thick with flying dust and I am coated in it. I have only been here ten minutes.  We thank the workers for kindly letting us come to take a look at this place, and drive off in stunned silence. 

On the way home, Muhammad, who works at the hospital, asks us back to his home for coffee. We pass a neighbourhood of new homes. Cement boxes with windows. These are being built and funded by the UN and the USA. Building houses for the poor and for those who have lost their homes in the war.  We arrive at the apartment building of our new friend, and climb three or four flights of stairs to enter into a lovely space. Canon John is seated in the living room and I am taken to meet Mohamed’s wife and daughter in the kitchen. They have taken themselves to their bedroom until they are told that John is in the other room. When they come out, they are dressed like me, pants and blouses. I can only assume that to meet John they would need to be covered. As I stand with them in the kitchen, the smallest daughter comes to me with hands up, in the universal child speak of ‘Please pick me up.’  I am happy to oblige. She is beautiful, with rich brown eyes and curly black hair. She sits in my arms in total trust. I use my very few Arabic words and the young girls clap and laugh in delight. Our conversation goes very well, discussing children, school, and shoes. 

When our time comes to leave, my new friend, (I am sorry I can’t pronounce her name, let alone spell it) goes to her room and returns to give me a parting gift. Two blue candles and a lovely necklace that must have come from her own jewelry box. I am so touched. Kindness and thoughtfulness have no religious or political boundary. They just are.

Back in Gaza, we check into our hotel. What was once a busy holiday spot is now desolate. There are only five people staying at our hotel, including us.  I have a lovely room, with a sitting area and writing desk. I also have roosters and chickens outside my window and the roosters are fighting. I am hoping they settle down when night falls. We rest and then get picked up for dinner. We eat at a restaurant called the Lighthouse. Which has an old one (hence the name) and we climb the 99 steps to the top to see the view. It is absolutely beautiful. I can see the fishing boats heading out. Technically they can fish at the five mile mark but in reality they can only go out three, the sea along the Gaza Strip is heavily militarized and severely guarded. As darkness falls I can see a necklace of lights across the horizon as the fishermen await their catch. It is sardine season but we are told the catch is poor and most boats may only come in with a box full of fish each.  All the fresh fish comes from Egypt.

There is a jewelry sale at the restaurant and I head in to take a look. I choose a lovely pair of earrings (approved with a thumbs up, by a young girl standing beside me). I make my purchase and head back to our table. I realize, as I am putting away my bag, that I have an extra necklace in it.  Our host goes to return it and comes back saying, ‘No, this was a gift for you.’  I am not sure how to respond to this overwhelming kindness that I meet at every turn. I have to wonder - am I as kind to strangers as these people? I honestly don’t think so.

The next morning, I am awakened at 5am by my roosters’ morning crow. We leave our hotel after breakfast and visit the Palestinian Arts and Crafts Shop (funded by UNRWA) that supports women in the villages who make lovely stitchery items.  We are given a tour of an amazing Byzantine Church that has sat in Gaza since 345CE.  It is still in use today. The stone is worn and warm. The rich spiritual essence of the prayers of centuries lingers. I take a moment to add my own. A tomb in the graveyard dates to 986CE.   Another beautiful Byzantine Church once sat on the seaside. When the Israelis left, they took the ancient mosaic floor with them. I feel a great sadness here. There are only a handful of Christians left in Gaza. The Christian history is disappearing. The people that can leave are leaving.  Those who cannot leave work diligently to get their children educated and out. I have spent one night here with my ears on alert and I am tired. I cannot imagine living here every day. We have driven past the remains of many buildings. We have heard the stories of near misses. And the stories of those who have been hit. The tension is palatable. 

We say our goodbyes to the Al Ahli Hospital team. We have been made most welcome and the offers to return and ‘please have coffee with me’ and ‘next time, please come to dinner at my home’, still ring in my ears. We are now family. 

The return through the checkpoint is the same. Very few people, lots of cameras. We go through the scanner this time (much to my chagrin as I always avoid the scanner).  Our luggage is scanned too and once picked up we make our way to a large, clean, waiting hall.  Of the four or five security booths, only one is in operation. The sign repeats: Israelis and Foreigners. We sit among a number of Palestinians. One man is in a wheel chair and does not look well. No one is moving so I go to ask the woman in the booth where we should go. ‘Oh, come through here.’ she says, ‘It is a good thing you asked, you could have been sitting for a while.’ We are the foreigners. I do not know how long the other people have been waiting but as I pass I whisper ‘I am sorry’. This just doesn’t feel right, that I have some sort of privilege to breeze to the front of the line. The checkpoint closes at 3pm. It is now 1:30pm. 

We make our way out into the sunshine. We see hawks flying over the tilled fields across from the checkpoint. I am back in green.  We wait for the car that is coming to pick us up but it is caught in traffic. Eventually, we see the man in the wheel chair, being pushed by his father, come out to the parking lot. It has just gone 2:30pm.

I have been asked - how did you feel about going to Gaza?  If I say I am sad, anxious, or so angry at how people can be imprisoned in their own cities and towns, then I have to ask how much more the people who live in those towns must feel. I was only there for two days.  I really don’t have the words. I take a deep breath and my eyes well with tears.

It’s probably just better not to ask.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Qalandiya Checkpoint

As is the case with most lives, the daily routine is such that to write about it would bore you to tears. And so I am posting an experience that I had early in my stay here - one that brings me to tears for reasons other than boredom.  For me, the day to day work and living do not change too much, however, for other people; their every day experiences need to change radically. And if they do not, I believe that one day, we will all be held accountable.

Qalandiya Checkpoint

I have a friend who is volunteering in the organization EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Program for Palestine and Israel). She goes regularly to the Qalandiya checkpoint to monitor the length of time it takes for people to pass from one side to the other. This Sunday morning she has offered to let me come and observe the process.

Qalandiya is one of the largest checkpoints in the Separation/Discrimination Wall.  It runs through a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.  So although it is still considered a part of East Jerusalem, it is behind the Wall. 

It is 4:10am and we have taken a taxi to Qalandiya. We have gone to the West Bank side of the checkpoint to observe this morning’s lineups as people cross to Jerusalem. The people waiting here are going to school and/or work. School starts at 8am, as do most jobs. Although there are not many here at this time more people are arriving little by little. The turnstiles are open and there is steady movement through them into the next part of the checkpoint where IDs are checked and two more turnstiles wait. The humanitarian line (for women, children, the elderly and the ill) will open at 6:00am, so for now everyone is moving through the general line. 

My friend asks a young man if he will take a card, with the present time on it, through the checkpoint, to give to her cohort on the other side, who will make note of his arrival time. Later we hear it took him an hour to walk the 150meters (500 ft) through the checkpoint.

It is freezing cold. I am wearing three layers and my coat and scarf and two pairs of mittens.  Some men have lit a fire in the back of the corrugated sheet metal shed, to keep themselves warm. More and more people are arriving. Some men have taken themselves off to the side for morning prayers while others are lining up in haphazard lines at the entrances of three lanes. These barred  lanes are  hard to imagine, like cattle runs about 25 meters in length,  with the opening above one’s head also having bars and added barbed wire. The people walk down these lanes to a turnstile that is activated, to rotate, by the guard in a bulletproof booth on the other side. I understand that crowd control varies.  This morning, it is moving along at a good pace, letting people through a few at a time. At other times it can differ in that large numbers are let through after a longer waiting period. There is no consistency. 

Today seems like a quiet morning yet there is an uneasy feeling as men are gathering behind us in the waiting area.  Unfortunately someone has fueled the fire in the back with garbage and the smoke has begun to fill the shed. Our eyes are burning and the smell is awful.

 At about 5:30am, whether by silent signal or on the spur of the moment, all the men arise and rush the lanes. There is yelling and shouting and I see men climbing up and over the top of the cages, and squishing down through the bars into the turnstiles (imagine three or four men in a quarter turn of a turnstile). Some men are slipping through the bars at the head of the line. It is a mad push and people are in an uproar and I can see older people caught up in this crush in the lanes. It makes no sense. There seems no reason for the why of it and definitely no way of making the line move along any quicker.

In the meantime the humanitarian line has not opened and there are obviously school children waiting, and women, and some who are not feeling well. There is a middle-aged man, and his wife, with their elderly father who can barely stand up. He looks so very frail and old. They were waiting in the back area and I saw them leave when the younger men rushed the checkpoint lines. But now they are back and making their way to the humanitarian line which has still not opened. 

My friend calls the number on the guard’s booth, to tell them that one line is getting dangerous (a buzz word) and the other has not opened although it is now 6:30am. She is told that it will open soon, in five or ten minutes. People have now started coming up to us and asking us to help them. They need to get to work, get to school, and go to the hospital. We tell them we have called twice and there is nothing we can do. But we are the international presence and why can’t we do something!? That is a good question – why can’t we? Where is the International presence actually?  The little power we have is in the watching. EAPPI observe and report. Their presence is important and they do make calls to the soldiers in the booth and that will often help in getting the stalled lines moving, but watching is not easy. There is a sad irony that a snap shot of these faces, pressed against the bars and barbed wire, is too reminiscent of other barred cages with other distraught faces. 

The crush is still on and it is now nearing 7:00am.The humanitarian gate has been opened for a short time and people have moved quickly forward in a hurry. Although they are not allowed, some of the younger men have tried to push their way forward in this line too. A number have gotten through, so more give it a try. The other turnstiles have not moved in ages and those in the midst of the crush are frustrated. Many just hang about at the back of the shed waiting for it to ease up. I still see some trying to bypass the whole apparatus by climbing on and over the bars at the front. One fellow has caught his jacket and gets hung up. Another rips his pocket shimming over the pointed bars. People have put their bags and lunches through the bars and onto the floor at the front and then once through the line and turnstile, pick them up on the other side before going on through the second stage of entrance into Jerusalem. I couldn’t figure out why they did this until I realized that the lunches wouldn’t survive the crush in any sort of edible state.

In many ways the young men are their own worst enemy.  The jumping lines, rushing, crushing, pushing, shoving, yelling behavior just feeds into the worst of the imagined stereotypes that the Israelis are lead to believe of their neighbours.   I can see why the young soldiers (many of them female), even in their private booths, would begin to feel anxiety, as the hordes of angry men continue their machinations.  On the other hand, I cannot possibly understand the frustration that these Palestinian men, and women, must feel every morning, afternoon, evening and night, being forced through this daily routine just  to get to work, or to school, or to the other side of their neighbourhood. 

There is no sense in any of this. If this is the way of it, at least make this checkpoint a workable functioning operation.  As one man, in line, said to us, ‘We are the same people every day. They know us now, our faces. This is not fair. There are easier ways to do this, if it must be done.’

 At 7:30am our shift is over, it is our turn to get in line. Because we are women, we get in the humanitarian line; we stand with other women and some young boys going to school. Beside us, the man and his elderly father have returned. This man can barely stand up and his son is close to tears. We are trying to help, holding an arm, catching the eye of a soldier. Please help! I am led to understand that this soldier is a ‘good guy’. When he sees this man and his father, come through the turnstile, he goes over and takes an arm, speaking orders into his walkie-talkie, for what we hope is preparation for a wheel chair or ambulance or something on the other side. He helps to carry this man onward through two more turnstiles and a passport check. We see that the woman who has been carrying, what I assume is the elderly man’s luggage, is being let through ahead of the line to catch-up with her family. The Israeli soldier has come back to carry her bag.

[Later that Sunday morning, I am reminded to always look for God in our midst. I weep silently in church as I realize that this moment was a God inspired moment. ]

Once we have reached the other side (only a brief half hour for us) we wait for a bus home. A young boy, on his way to school, comes up to me and says, ‘You are good luck for us, not too bad this morning, we are through quickly’. With a huge smile he walks off, and with a wave says - ‘Have a nice day’.