Today, Tuesday 29th of November, is the UN international day of solidarity with the Palestinian People. I send my warmest wishes for peace with justice to all my Palestinian friends.
The last full day of my tour of YMCAs in the Middle East starts in Beit Sahour, nearby Bethlehem. In the big YMCA centre there are a multitude of traditional YMCA programmes serving the local communities.
And there are less traditional programmes, like the Women’s Empowerment Programme, Rehabilitation Programmes for traumatized children and youth, for children with different disabilities and physical and mental challenges.
Some of the staff at the Rehabilitation Programme at Beit Sahour YMCA.
Out of 7000 children having been imprisoned for shorter or longer time, 900 children have been treated at this centre, and the centre has been given an award for the best performance in this field in the whole Arabic world.
The Joint Advocacy Initiative, YMCA together with the YWCA, among other projects organizes the Olive Tree Campaign, planting new olive trees where old ones are being uprooted and destroyed.
We go to the desert. On the way I visit one olive tree field after the other, with plaques with names of donors from around the globe, people who attach their name to a specific olive tree.
We take off from the primitive road and depart on one of the most adventurous trips I have ever experienced. The four-wheel drive car is bumping up and down, balancing along steep hills and crossing muddy waters, advancing further into the desert.
Everywhere the Bedouins are waving and shouting to us, everybody in the desert knows Nadi Farraj. He is an agricultural engineer, a former professor who decided to leave the university behind to start working for the YMCA, 20 years ago.
-I love working for the YMCA, because I believe development should be for the poorest! Nadi says with conviction.
Together with his team he is digging wells and building dams and distributing water in trucks and tractors. In this way the YMCA enables the Bedouin population to survive in the desert.
We stop at one of the dams, far away from any road or civilization. When it rains, the water is coming down from all the mountains and is being collected by the dams, in stead of running all the way down to the Dead Sea.
Nadi wants to show me something, and he is running ahead of me, and I follow. All of a sudden we are both trapped in deep mud and I walk out of both my shoes. I try to clean them, but I realize that they are gone with the mud, destroyed, so I try to put them on and walk with them as they are, with some difficulties. And I look really dirty.
Nadi takes me eagerly up to the top of the hill, we walk along a narrow edge, and there we see an old byzantine mosaic, or what is left of it, we brush the sand aside and see more of it, we see parts of an old church, the hole for the church bells, more mosaics.
It is incredible, an old historical shrine, and not protected, not excavated, maybe not officially known at all. In the middle of all this dust and sand a deep green cactus is growing, because of the water brought by the YMCA.
I let my eyes follow the edge of the valley below the church ruin, and see caves where probably people had lived and maybe used the valley below as a place for feasts and celebrations and worship.
The church from inside and outside.
And the bell tower, or what is left of it…
As we are making our way back through the desert, the sun on its way to disappear, we see Bedouins and their families preparing for evening, collecting their sheep and their camels, and we see small lights in some of the tents.
The programme also includes handing out solar cell panels and lamps for the young girls studying at the university so that they can study in the evenings, and also includes organizing transport of children to schools.
I am proud to belong to the same organization as Nadi and all the other team members under the leadership of Andre Batarseh. As an extra bonus to this dream day in the desert we are invited for lunch in a Bedouin tent and hear fascinating stories from the deserts.
Even the camels try to share stories from the wilderness with us.
East Jerusalem YMCA is another YMCA in solidarity with the poorest and smallest and in deeply relevant action to improve the lives of the people it serves.
Sunset over Bethlehem
On the land of Beit Sahour YMCA, where we return after a visit to Bethlehem to buy a pair of new shoes to me, is the Shepherds’ Field. That is the field where the shepherds saw the angels over Bethlehem the night when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. One of my dreams is to celebrate Christmas in Shepherds’ Field!
When the small family with Jesus and Mary on a donkey and Josef walking at the side, fled to avoid King Herod’s madness on their way to Egypt, they passed through the desert where I had been that day. I had no problems meditating my way back to that little family in the desert. I had seen them earlier the same day….