YOU LIKE IT? Well, you bought it.” We are standing on an overlook at Bethlehem University. I am admiring a sweeping highway bridge across an expansive valley. My Palestinian guide, Sami El-Yousef, explains that the distant highway, essentially a road to allow Israelis to bypass the checkpoints of the Palestinian territory, where Bethlehem is, was paid for by U.S. dollars.
For the first time, on my first-ever trip to Israel, I understand that, as a U.S. taxpayer, I really influence what happens here, the place where “Middle East peace” isn’t happening. The lives of real people, many of whom are Christian, are in the balance. Sami is one of them.
Meeting Sami El-Yousef might challenge most Americans’ notions of Palestinians. We hear of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, dressed in garb foreign to us, throwing rocks, speaking the language of another place. Sami is a 50-year-old educator, graduated from UMass-Amherst and University of Pittsburgh as an industrial engineer. He later spent some years in California.
He is Orthodox Christian, from the “other lung of the Church,” as Pope John Paul II called it. As we walk together through the streets of Old City Jerusalem, his home, he is dressed in “business casual” (short-sleeved shirt and tie). He speaks English.
At this point in life, Sami, whose family goes back generations in Jerusalem, has moved from academia to the front lines in developing his country. He left his 24-year career as teacher, dean, then vice president for finances and planning at Bethlehem University to work for the Pontifical Mission Society. Known here as Catholic Near East Welfare Association, the society provides financial support for Catholic projects in the Middle East, northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.
Sami serves as regional director for Palestine and Israel. The Jerusalem office is basically next door to his childhood home.
Late last year, in preparation for Pope Benedict’s Special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, he served as a guide for a group of journalists from American Catholic publications, including St. Anthony Messenger.