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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Bethlehem University Three Years Later

War-weary students get a second chance at learning as Bethlehem University reopens.

Friday, Oct. 5, 1990, 12:15 p.m.: I will not forget it. We gathered in Bethlehem University chapel for Mass. The midday sun filtered through the stained glass windows above the vaulted walls of the nave, its warm rays dancing on our faces. The ethereal atmosphere spread a sense of unreality over the occasion. The autumn light also caught the pale gold, pastel browns and pinks of the children’s faces painted around the walls of the large chapel. Thirty years ago, they say, the artist attempted to depict young Christian martyrs from all the countries and continents of the world.

He had used the faces of Christian Palestinian children of Bethlehem as models. Three years ago, before the closure of Bethlehem University by order of the Israeli military, I used to look at those faces. Now, with closer scrutiny, even those faces painted as Chinese and Ugandans betrayed the open features of Arab Palestinians.

It felt strange for Bethlehem University to be open again. Here we were, students and a small group of Palestinian and expatriate lay teachers, sisters and brothers celebrating a liturgy together on the carpeted sanctuary during the traditional Muslim prayer hour on a Friday. This same sense may well have affected our Muslim staff and students who were praying in their local mosques.

Father Peter, our American Jesuit priest on the staff, celebrated the Mass in Arabic. How often I paced the empty corridors of the university and stood in the silent chapel through three long winters, the place cold, gray, damp and muted. Even in summertime the massive walls seemed cold.

Two of the three years, I mused, we did serve our students in off-campus programs, teaching in hidden places – hotel basements, empty houses, church halls – secretly and in small huddled groups. Nearly 3,000 students graduated during the intifada, as the Arab uprising is known. Yet I could never reconcile myself to empty classrooms, idle doors ajar, bare desks, shrouded shapes in computer rooms, silent anger at the injustice of it all. It was well-captured in the intensity of Professor Maurice Harmon’s verse. Perhaps only an Irishman could feel for Palestinians the way he does:

These muted halls accuse.
These shuttered rooms proclaim a people’s shame.
Learning denied, that right refused.

The soprano tones of the student Palestinian Rosary Sisters singing in front of me drew my attention back to the Mass. Christian Palestinian hymns have a lilt and lovely rhythm all their own. The once empty chambered space now filled with their youthful voices.

Outside the chapel, easy laughter and the murmured conversations of students mingled with the liturgy within. I pictured the young people pacing down the flights of steps to the new Social and Cultural Centre, surprised at its vastness and variety. We fought inflation and obstruction from the military authorities for 12 years before the open air theater, the sports hall, the cafeteria and music and art rooms could be made available to them.

Earlier in this momentous week the university gates were opened. A veritable flood of new earnest faces entered the campus. These were the freshmen who should have entered the university over the last three years, students who graduated from their high schools in 1987, 1988 and 1989. We are expecting to receive another 200 undergraduates from the 1990 classes after Christmas. These young people have experienced the full impact of 23 years of military occupation, including three years of the intifada, on their lives. In most cases, their last two to three years of schooling were at best severely disrupted or in many cases non-existent.

I watched them stride into the courtyard within the high steel gates. Many looked weather beaten, hands hardened by labor on building sites in Israel or from cultivating the terraces near Hebron and the fields around Jenin. They were hardened, matured with suffering, determined to catch up knowing that education was their key to nationhood.

“Brother, how good to see you!”

I turned to a face I had last seen twisted in pain in a hospital bed. Her leg had been shattered and its nerves hopelessly severed by a high velocity bullet from an Israeli M16. There she stood, young, beautiful and smiling. She had been a freshman in 1987. Her long dress concealed the braces which helped her to walk.

“Maysoun!” My memory drew her name from nearly three years ago. She reminded me that I had traveled to see her family in Bani Na’im, a village near Hebron, when her parents were prevented from visiting her.

“Did you see my home?” she asked now. “Isn’t it wonderful? And the flowers, my garden, the beautiful flowers!”

I recognized other faces, nearly forgotten in the turmoil of the 1,000 days of the uprising.

“Remember me, Brother, from the Beach refugee camp in Gaza. Please help. I have to get back before the curfew and the administration will not register me.”

Jehad tells me he was a freshman for the two months we were open before a student was shot dead by the military on campus in October 1987. “I’ve been in prison for two and a half years,” he tells me in a matter-of-fact way.

Jehad’s story, I discover, is not an uncommon one. Male students from a rural village called Beit Ummar, where we have more than 50 students, recounted their experiences. Yousef, a stocky, bearded Muslim, described how over a period of 30 months he was moved from one prison to another in an attempt to destroy him psychologically: Hebron, Dhahrya, Atleet near Haifa, Megiddo, the Negev, Anata, Betunia and hack to Megiddo.

He half smiled: “30 months without charges and a 5,000 shekel fine at the end!” Yousef was a victim of the so-called policy of administrative detention.

I talked in my office with a mother of three. Her name is Huda, a student in her mid 30s. I taught her Victorian literature before the closure. Her husband had been principal of the boys’ high school in the nearby Christian village of Beit Sahour. During the uprising demonstrations quite beyond his control took place in or near the school. The military demanded that he give them the name of student leaders.

He refused. The military obtained his dismissal and had the local authorities send him to nearby Belt Jala as an ordinary teacher in a junior school. To his further humiliation, he was required to attend courses on how to teach the lower grades. Twenty years of teaching and being a principal of both junior schools and high schools was ignored.

Later he was arrested during the tax raids in Beit Sahour. His home was raided and its furniture and electrical goods confiscated. After two months in prison he was dismissed from teaching without compensation and lost all his pension rights. He later managed to obtain 16,000 shekels (at the time, about $8,000) in a legal action, but when he went to the bank to cash the check it was confiscated by the Israeli tax office.

Huda looked at me. “You asked me how we have been. Now you know.”

“Abana lathi fi sa mauat,” we recited in unison in Arabic, introducing the communion of the Mass. “Our Father who is in the heavens, holy is your name, may your kingdom come!” How ironic that the Good News that emanated from this Holy Land fails to flourish where it was first proclaimed.

Mass finished, we left the chapel. Ours was one of the first universities to reopen and in some sense, as viewed by the military authorities, the guinea pig in a precarious and unpredictable situation. Perhaps the chance of our success spelled the future of the other Palestinian universities still closed. As I walked down the aisle from the sanctuary I looked again at those faces painted on the walls. How poignant, I thought. Faces of the children of Bethlehem portraying the youthful martyrs of our troubled world.

Brother White, a British national, is a writer and professor of English at Bethlehem University.

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