Photo by Mark Bowen
In many ways, 13-year-old Palestinians Issa Victor
Hafiri, Mary Attalah Abu Ghattas, Tamer Hanna Al Zomot, Raneem Joseph
Hanania and Tamara Nabel Abdulnur are no different from other teenagers.
They enjoy sports, junk food, listening to music and cracking jokes.
They break into song and dance without warning, and they do it all
And, like many teenagers, there is a glimmer of innocence in their
eyes, as if living in any other moment than the here and now would be simply
But the similarities end there.
These five are Palestinian children of Beit Jala, a city of roughly
10,000 just outside Bethlehem. In this war-torn area, their eyes have seen things
that most teenagers have not—endless violence and turmoil. In their 13 years,
they have endured bouts of Israeli military occupation so intense that their
city, known for its history and spirit, feels more like a maximum-security prison
Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara are young people forced to
juggle dichotomies—moments of calm shattered by gunfire; laughter between family
and friends, silenced by the fear of losing them; joy in their hometown and
sadness over the brutality that afflicts it.
To many, such living conditions defy belief. To the Beit Jala kids,
these are the threads of their daily tapestry. But they have vowed to remedy
the problems troubling their country.
They long for peace in their land because they have lived with the
wreckage. They want a deeper level of understanding and tolerance between Palestine
and the United States because years of distrust and a lack of cultural understanding
have been the main ingredients of the two countries’ relationship.
As such, these Christian Palestinians, students at the Latin Patriarchate
(Roman Catholic) School in Beit Jala, have built a bridge of peace. It began
in their hometown. Stone by stone, it was constructed until it touched ground
last October in an unlikely place—St. Andrew-St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School
The Palestinians’ five-week visit was sponsored through the “Parish
Partnerships Program” of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF)—a
nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based organization designed to improve the lives
of Christians in the Holy Land.
What began as a simple hosting project in a quiet little town quickly
turned into a movement of insight and cultural understanding. Guided by five
teenagers from a war-ravaged country, Palestine and the United States were joined
together, for a moment, in a gesture of solidarity.
St. Anthony Messenger traveled to St. Andrew Parish in Milford—a
town about 30 miles outside of Cincinnati—last November to interview the five
students and their Palestinian teacher, Rana Qustandi Qaaber.
Father Rob Waller, pastor of St. Andrew, Nancy Hemminger, coordinator
of the Beit Jala Project, and teacher Julie Poux also speak of the visiting
Palestinians and their lasting impact on this close-knit community.
There is a calm within the parish offices of St.
Andrew. Employees move about the rooms, quietly tending to their
work. When Issa and Tamara enter the building, all hope of continued
quiet is lost. The employees smile widely and laughter bounces off
Issa and Tamara move about the offices with the ease
and familiarity of their homes, greeting the staff like members
of their own family. The noise generated from the two students seems
like a welcomed reprieve—a new energy fills the room.
That energy doesn’t waver. Sitting across a table from
me in the basement of the parish offices, Tamara and Issa immediately
dive into matters close to their minds and hearts...and stomachs.
“The food! We love the food here,” Issa declares with
Tamara is quick to harmonize. “I love fast food, especially
McDonalds,” she says. “I eat a lot of McDonalds.”
Their fondness for the United States, however, exceeds
our drive-thru cuisine. When asked their thoughts on the country
as a whole, Issa and Tamara are in unison.
“We love it here,” Tamara declares. Issa nods in agreement.
“It’s been very, very good,” he adds. “It gives us experience and
teaches us a lot of things. It’s been fantastic, amazing.”
Tamara chimes in enthusiastically. “I’ve been enjoying
myself very much with my host family, my friends and with the school.
I like America.”
Issa has also grown fond of his American family. “It’s
like our families in Palestine,” he says. “I see my host family
as my family; they see me as their son. We are like a family.”
Tamara and Issa are soon joined by Mary, Tamer and Raneem,
who take their seats to join our discussion on the United States
and Palestine, life in Milford, the simple pleasures of fried chicken
and pop music, as well as the cultural differences between our two
Those who teach come in varying shapes and sizes.
Issa, Tamara, Mary, Tamer and Raneem are teachers in sneakers. There
is passion within their voices and grave sincerity behind their
“We’ve come here for a job,” Tamara says frankly. “Our
job is to talk about Palestinian people. Our job when we go back
to Palestine is to tell the Palestinian people about Americans.”
They have much to share with their American friends,
specifically that Beit Jala is composed largely of Christians—70
percent. They also want people of this country to appreciate and
value their freedom—a luxury these five know little about. In Beit
Jala, the Israeli military often enforces curfews so strict that
placing one foot outside of the house could be fatal.
These curfews are not enforced for the length of an
afternoon, either. Some last three days, others have stretched over
a month. When they are lifted, it’s for a few hours at a
Palestinian families then scramble to the market for
food and supplies, or to the hospital for medical care. Some spend
that time in church, while young Palestinians often rush to school
for a few hours of study.
And then there are the Scouts—boys and girls, moderated
by adults, who meet each week to discuss current events, plan holiday
parties and participate in character-building activities. Issa,
Tamara, Mary, Tamer and Raneem are involved in the program, which
differs entirely from the Scouts in the United States. Palestinian
Scouts have been known to shift from holiday party planning to dangerous
Scouts often violate curfews, dodge the ever-watchful
Israeli military and move from house to house, providing food, money
or supplies to people too sick or too old to obtain them on their
own. This kind of charity work is terribly dangerous: Should a Scout
be caught, he or she could be arrested or even killed.
Tamer says that he is both guided by his faith and protected by
it. “I believe that it is only our Christian faith that helped us
survive the hard times we went through,” he says.
Since coming to America, the Palestinian students
are even more aware of their anemic liberties back home.
“Americans have rights—human rights,” Mary says. “We
don’t have that in Palestine.”
A chorus soon follows.
“Americans have busy lives. We don’t have a busy life
because we don’t have a free life,” Raneem says, her cheerful voice
belying the sad reality of her words.
Issa jumps in. “American teenagers have many ways to
entertain themselves. But for Palestinian teenagers, we have few
chances to enjoy ourselves because we can’t leave the Bethlehem
“Things that Americans do in a day, we do in a week,”
For Tamara, returning home to a life often compromised
by hostility and danger is a bitter pill to swallow. “I’d like to
stay longer,” she says. “Life is free for the American teenager.”
Issa is a bit more conflicted, feeling an emotional
tug-of-war between his desire to stay here and the lure of returning
to his family in Beit Jala. “It’s like you have two things pulling
you. One is ‘Go back to Palestine’ and the other is ‘Stay in America’—it’s
a big thing to decide.”
Their love of freedom, however, is a no-brainer. They
would each like to bring a touch of that back home with them—to
travel openly throughout Palestine without enduring Israeli military
checkpoints; to study, pray, spend time with friends and family
in the open air, without the fear of being ensnared in the crossfire
Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara want simply to
enjoy their lives, to be teenagers.
As Raneem puts it, they look for a day when they can
“listen to music, not the sounds of shooting and explosions. We
want to be able to talk about things people our age talk about around
the world—new albums, fashion and movies—not politics, curfews,
sieges, shootings and death, which seem to have become the everyday
feature of life in our country.”
Even so, Beit Jala holds a firm grip on their hearts.
Despite the dangers and restrictions, the five students speak warmly
of their home. Mary is honored to live next door to Bethlehem and
the Church of the Nativity—the birthplace of Christ.
“Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists from
all over the world come to visit this holy church, and we are so
proud the Lord himself chose our town to be his hometown.”
The others are also quick with praise. Tamara loves
her school and the teachers. Issa is proud of the strong bonds between
Palestinian families, and Tamer finds escape in Arabic music and
his involvement with the Scouts. Life for these teenagers is often
beautiful back home, but it can be a wearisome, dangerous exercise
It’s no surprise that they came to the United States
to feast on a free life. To the delight of those involved with this
project, the five hungry students gorged on it.
For those living in free societies, a neighborhood stroll
or running errands on a lazy Saturday are rights easily taken for
granted. For those living in a beautiful but unpredictable environment
like Beit Jala, such rights are the stuff of dreams. The people
of St. Andrew and the community of Milford sought to make those
dreams a reality.
Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara were not picked
at random. Fifteen students from the Latin Patriarchate School were
initially selected as candidates for the program. Each was assigned
verbal and written tests to determine their proficiency in English.
Fifteen were whittled to eight, and then eight down
to five. Sholine F. Botto, a representative of HCEF, and teacher
Rana Qaaber accompanied the teenagers to Milford. Together, they
would be ambassadors of Palestine, students of American culture
and teachers of their customs.
It isn’t easy being teenage envoys, but the five Palestinian
students have taken on the task, navigating the language and cultural
barriers like seasoned diplomats. They carried with them seeds of
wisdom and understanding. In Milford, Ohio, they found fertile soil.
The Beit Jala project was funded entirely by members
of the parish. Donations from $1 to $2,000 flooded the offices,
all of which went to cover visas, transportation to and from the
Holy Land, and additional expenses.
Nancy Hemminger, parishioner of St. Andrew and coordinator
of the Beit Jala project, believes this initiative was created by
the hand of God.
“I am convinced that inviting our Beit Jala guests was
God’s idea,” Nancy says. “This is a project that has reached out
to our parish family and embraced almost everyone in our parish
Thousands of miles divide Palestine and the United States,
but Nancy believes it is our Christian faith that links us. “The
Beit Jala students and St. Andrew parishioners have helped bridge
the gap for peace. As Christians, we share the same body of Christ.
When one of our members is suffering, we all suffer.”
Faculty member Julie Poux, liaison for the project,
believes their presence in the classroom is an invaluable learning
tool. For her students, Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara are
Palestine—not just representatives but living, breathing pieces
of a country they’re eager to understand.
“The kids have gotten to know each other and love each
other,” Julie says. “Our eighth-graders have learned more about
the situation in Palestine than probably 90 percent of the eighth-graders
in the country know. They’ve been given a personal perspective on
it which is something many kids don’t have.”
Julie credits the five Palestinians for lending a human
face to the turmoil that afflicts their country.
“I think the Beit Jala students have given a new perspective.
No longer is it going to be another random bombing in Palestine.
Now it’s, ‘I hope my friends are O.K.’ It makes our students more
aware. They’re going to pay more attention to the conflicts.”
Rana Qustandi Qaaber, or “Miss Rana,” as she’s called
by the five students, teaches math, science and technology at the
Latin Patriarchate School, and accompanied the students from Beit
Jala. She now sees a world of change within them.
“They have become stronger. They have a deeper level
of thinking and their personalities have evolved,” Rana says. “When
they were preparing for this trip, they were young teenagers. Now,
in their minds, they feel much older. They want to know everything
about people all over the world, especially children.
“My students want all teenagers to work together, hand
in hand, to make the future better. They look forward to achieving
peace in Palestine and throughout the world.”
Rana hopes that this experience yields continuous lessons
for them. “I hope they have learned self-dependence, responsibility
and honesty. But the main thing I hope they learn is that they should
always listen, see, understand and then believe.”
Father Rob Waller, pastor of St. Andrew, is a calming
presence—he moves as composedly as he speaks. When the subject of
the Beit Jala students arises, however, his eyes light up like a
marquee. Clearly, the Palestinians have impacted Father Rob, the
parish and the school.
“There’s been a real connection,” he says. “This experience
has been better than we could have dreamed or imagined.”
Father Rob has worked with HCEF for several years and
has made numerous visits to the Holy Land, witnessing firsthand
the anguish of the Palestinian people. He sees the five students
as prophets of hope for a beleaguered country and credits their
youth for lessening the sting of their testimony.
“Since they are children, their presence lowers the
defenses. When people’s defenses are down, the message gets right
to the heart. I think it’s part of the beauty of being kids,” the
He praises the five students for not only establishing a bridge
between America and Palestine, but also strengthening bonds among
the people of Milford as well.
“The Beit Jala kids have visited other schools in Milford—the
public middle school and the local high school,” Father Rob says.
“At a CCD event, Methodists from next door came to meet them. So
not only were they building a bridge between Milford and Beit Jala,
but they were building bridges within our town as well. It’s what
their mission was—to be living bridges of peace.”
It’s not an easy gig, but it’s one they have tackled
wholeheartedly. But look past their words of war, peace and international
relations, and you have five engaging, bright teenagers with dreams
of their own.
Issa wants to be a doctor, a pilot or a computer engineer.
Tamara would like to attend the University of Cincinnati to study
medicine. Mary has her heart set on fashion design and Tamer would
like to play soccer professionally. Raneem dreams of becoming a
doctor and helping children, but realizes that studying for such
a career in Palestine isn’t easy.
“We don’t have medicine at Bethlehem University so I
must go off to study, but I won’t get permission to go out of the
area. It’s too difficult. I don’t know what I will do,” she says.
Nancy Hemminger is unfazed about the weighty limitations
placed on them, compared to the sheer weight of their dreams.
“Their poise and intelligence,” she says, “are indications
that they can achieve their dreams if given the opportunity.”
Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara made fast
work of their time in Milford. In five weeks, they gave numerous
presentations to local schools, civic organizations and churches.
They gave interviews, attended receptions and, for three days in
late October, traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak at HCEF’s fifth
annual conference and take part in the Youth Symposium: “Holy Land
Christians: A Living Bridge to Peace.”
And those are just professional constraints. Each morning
they spent more than an hour with Rana studying Arabic, math and
science, before joining regular classes. Add to that homework, extracurricular
activities, school functions and family responsibilities, and it’s
an exhausting schedule, especially for five teenagers. Clearly,
this was no holiday, but it was fleeting—and life-changing for those
The Beit Jala students and their chaperones returned
to Palestine, yet their imprints on Milford have endured. The people
of this small town, particularly the students at the school, are
changed by this project. Now, they see as many similarities as they
do differences. Somewhere in the middle, however, the students found
a common ground to cultivate respect and understanding.
“They’ve learned that, even though they live so far
apart, they are the same,” Julie Poux says. “It’s sad that there
are some places in the world where people their age are living in
a state of war, dealing with bombs and guns. I think it gave our
eighth-graders a chance to say, ‘We’re pretty lucky.’”
Similarities abound, but the five Beit Jala students
are, in many ways, teen-agers of a different sort—citizens of a
different state. They were born into a heavy climate of war, a land
rich in beauty and sanctity, but one intimately affiliated with
conflict and violence. Issa, Mary, Tamer, Raneem and Tamara chose
to start a new chapter of history in their lives and in their country.
Thus, their bridge was built.
And so the bridge remains. Father Rob and Nancy are
confident that St. Andrew will host more students from the Holy
Land in the future. There’s even talk of sending a handful of Milford
students to Beit Jala within the next couple of years. That bridge
of peace, it seems, will be traveled time and again.
And well it should be. According to those involved with
the project, there is more work to be done. Palestine and its people
cry for peace evermore.
As Raneem has said, “We pray that the future is a little
brighter. We pray that the candle at the end of the tunnel will
not be blown out, but rather shine brighter and brighter until the
tunnel is lit up and the darkness disappears.”
To learn more about the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation,
please go to: http://www.hcef.org.
To contact them, write the foundation at 6935 Wisconsin Avenue,
Suite 214, Bethesda, MD 20815, or phone 301-951-9400.