Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Teacher Training

Saturday 28 January. I am on cloud nine right now. Totally joyfulness! I just returned from our first Teacher Training session with the CEP teachers. Naadia Momberg, an educational psychologist who lives with us at RCG, agreed to run a three-part teacher training series on (Discipline, creative teaching, etc.) Every teacher was able to come, and they spent the two hours in total listening-mode. My staff is very determined to learn more about teaching, and I’m so pumped!

Naadia is from South Africa, so she was able to really connect with our refugee staff who also are trying to rebuilt a war-torn country. Naadia spoke of her country’s issues of war and violence, quoting Nelson Mandela regarding the replacement of guys for pencils and paper. He once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I agree, and so does the staff.

The main reason I’m so excited about this is because I have never been involved in something that mattered so much. I mean, these children are the future of Sudan! We need to teach them life skills now, because their parent’s generation doesn’t know it and can’t teach it. They need to have functional math, functional science, functional English. At the same time, we need to think about what we are telling them about the rules of the world; about morality and conflict resolution and teamwork. When I sat in the teacher training session today I could just feel the positive energy in the room! It’s been so gloomy for these refugees for so long, and the demonstration has really put them over the edge. But for those couple of hours at least, we were really getting somewhere. Now I pray that we can build on that and see what good can come from this.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

a lesson for life

This has been a week of growing and learning for me.

The incident
The school week began early Monday morning when Dick and I taxied our way into St. Andrews and found ourselves bombarded with over 40 adult refugees who game looking for money. Apparently word got out that St. Andrew's was giving out $300 is US bills and a blanket to anyone who showed up. Not true. As the hour went on, more and more people were showing up and in the end Dick shooed everyone away and no one got help. For the rest of the day (and most of Tuesday) Dick, John, and a couple others stayed at the closed gate to make sure only students and staff were allowed inside the compound. I went out for lunch at one point and saw a good hundred refugees just hanging around, waiting, even though Atia at the gate told them they must leave.

My Reaction
At first I was really upset. I mean, these people need HELP, and they need help NOW! We have the means to help, so why don't we? But, as the day went on I could understand Dick's wisdom in making everyone leave. Let me back up. See, last Wednesday I held a teacher's meeting, and I told the staff we have some money from AMERA so they should invite people to come in for financial help. The next morning a good 30 people came in, so Dick and Matthew spent the majority of the day interviewing most of them and handing out aid. Also, one of my teachers brought a list of his tribal members who were just let out of jail and have nothing because they lost it all at the park. Dick agreed to help the people on the list. Thing is, news travels fast in Sudanese circles, so when one person comes to get help, 10 more will show up the next day, so on and so forth. Hense the situation Monday morning. It's such a disaster, because we need to help people, but once we help one we need to help literally thousands. (Another example; after the demonstration breakup, one refugee school opened their doors to 200 people, but a couple thousand showed up and eventually they had to shut it all down.) There are problems with mob mentality and security and desperation and everything. We can't just open our doors, because it would be absolute chaos, and we have a school and church to take care of. Also, we have to be careful with the police, because they can shut down the school if they want. So, we have to keep a low profile.

What did I learn?
First of all, I'm a people-pleaser. I've always known this, and I've managed to find a good balance in life where I want to serve others while also not sacrificing myself. But, so often I come up with grandiose ideas and jump right into something with passion and energy. I don’t always look to the future to see what the outcomes might be. In my personal life I have really improved on this, but I need to think about it in this job as well. I think part of me just wants it all to “just work” since we are here to help people and we can do just that. So, we should do it! But, like anything else, it isn’t immediate, even when I want it to be. There is a system to it, and order, and organization. This experience is helping me appreciate so many NGOs, with their red-tape and hoops and all. There is a good reason for such categorizing, ordering, classifying, and regulation.

One thing to think about: good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. It’s unfortunate, but it happens so often in missionary work and humanitarian aid work. Those of us with better educations, more resources, a lot of drive, etc. come into situations wanting to do everything in our capacity to help others, and sometimes we just mess it up. Sometimes we try to change things too fast. Sometimes we change things people don’t want to be changed. Sometimes what we are doing divides peoples more than it keeps them together.

For one thing, sometimes we are getting to a point where we are contributing to other’s dependability on a system. So many of us continue to give, give, give. What should we really be doing for others? Think of the classic story of a man who is one day given a fish, so he continues to visit every day to receive a fish. However, had the man learned how to fish himself he would be self-sufficient and reap loads of fish himself. Regarding the refugee situation, we need to find a way to the balance the immediate needs of people while also providing them with the skills for future self-sufficiency.

Our Role?
My mind whirls thinking about this. For the past couple weeks all I can think about is what we should or should not be doing at St. Andrews. How can we really develop people so they can rebuild their country one day? The more I think about it, the more I feel St. Andrews had a HUGE responsibility. We are training the people who will one day be running the wealthiest countries in Africa. (South Sudan has enough fertile farm land to feed all of Africa, tons of gold and oil, the Nile, etc. Once it’s rebuilt it will be an extremely wealthy place.) Because of the war(s), generations have been skipped. The Sudanese youth are not prepared to be teachers, doctors, engineers, peace-makers, cooks, lawyers, politicians, etc. It is essential to concentrate on what is happening now, because it will be the foundation of the future. Sudan is, for the most part, literally starting from ground zero. One thing we have to realize we’re not dealing with ‘institutions’ that existed in the past and were suddenly/continually destroyed from decades of war and famine. They didn’t exist to begin with. We are truly on the ground level in building a nation, and the only people who can really do it are the Sudanese themselves. Therefore, what they know and believe is of vital importance.

Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m spreading myself too thin. There are so many things I want to work on, develop, change, improve, etc. and I’m running around and hitting dead-ends. I’m coming to a point where I think I need to just sit down, make a list of these ideas, prioritize, and start crossing out a bunch. Frankly, not everything is going to work out ‘just as I see it.’ As Brice said, my position at St. Andrew’s is probably changing me more than I’m changing the organization. Organizations have a certain elasticity and a long memory. I’m going to get burnt out if I expect too much from it. So, we have to start somewhere. It begins this weekend, with the first day of teacher training. Insha ‘allah this will get somewhere….

any given week

On any given day at St. Andrews a number of emotions run through me, from spirited joy to utter frustration. Take this week for instance. Beyond everything I just wrote in the other entry, add to that these couple of issues.
One: One of our teacher’s sisters was killed at the demonstration. She had just married one month ago.
Two: I just found out another teacher’s daughter died on December 23rd. She was sick for only a short time toward the end of December, and we gave money to cover the hospital bills while the girl went home feeling much better on December 18th. Yesterday I asked Peter, "How's your daughter doing?!" and he said, "Oh, Sarah, she died." Yelp. Fortunately he was able to talk it out and I think he'll be okay. He said, "God brings death along with life. We have to learn just to accept it, even though we are really struggling." His daughter was six.
Three: One of my favorite students, Fathi from a teen class, ‘traveled’ today. She came to school last Monday, the first day of class, to tell me she found out she’ll be resettled in New Mexico. She came again today to say goodbye. She is excited but also so very scared. I cried. Four: Yesterday Lynn started counseling the teen students in the aftermath of the protest break-up, who are in the process of learning that it’s okay for them to express how they feel. Some were able to admit their fear, anger, and grief. Others are plastering their wounds with walls so high the puss and infection of their hearts is only going to eat away inside of them until they allow themselves to let it out. They will never forget what happened, and how they learn to deal with now will impact them in the future.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

may hope prevail

The past week at St. Andrews was busy with the sounds of people rushing around, talking, laughing, and resting. It was an odd week in many ways. On the one hand, I was in a great mood after the month break from school. I was so excited to see my friends--the staff and students--and share our jokes and laughs like always. Plus, I love to be busy and I thrive on challenges, so it was a great week in that respect too. However, it was tough week for everyone else. Africans are incredibly resilient people; I suppose they’ve learned to be after living in a civil war for most or all of their life. I think their great humor comes out of this—comedy is a great healer and coping mechanism.

Still, this week was especially gloomy. As I said in the last blog, I walked into Monday morning seeing a student who had been beaten up at the protest break up. Most of our staff is housing people who have almost nothing—sometimes not even more than the clothes on their backs. Hope is giving way to bitterness, anger, and hopelessness. The Sudanese have trouble going back to Sudan (because of visas, there is nothing left for them in Sudan, they are scared, etc.), they are not being resettled to other countries, and they are dealing with intense discrimination in this country that doesn’t want them. Now, they don’t know who to trust, as they are disillusioned about the UNHCR and lack trust in that organization.

We are doing as much as we can at St. Andrew’s to help out. Much of this week was spent interviewing adults who had been at the demonstration and now have nothing. They are seeking any help they can get, and we are able to provide some money for food, clothes, and shelter. But, it’s not much. Their stories are horrible. One woman came in after she had been released from prison (about 180 women and children were finally released from children this past Wednesday night after being held for over two weeks) only to find out her two children had been killed. Other people are still desperately trying to find their children, parents, or other family members…they are not sure if the family members are alive or dead. Right now they are just “missing.” Once all refugees are released from prison a final count can be taken. Right now it looks like about 200-300 people actually died, but this is not being reported. It seems the ‘world’ has already forgotten this incident has even happened.

One of our Adult Education teachers, a northern Sudanese woman named Rania, has been working her butt off to help us find therapists for the students. Today, Rania, two of her students, and I went to AMERA, a Legal Aid for refugees. Rania was concerned about the mental state of these two students. One had been understandably depressed/low before the protest breakdown, but suddenly became joyful afterwards; a certain contradiction of emotions. The other student had said, “This [death, beating, etc.] isn’t new to me. I’ve seen my family killed in front of me; it happened three times in Sudan. I’m okay.” No, not okay. I had decided to come with them to AMERA today to get a sense of the aid and see if I could make some connections for our children in the program. I walked away with a good meeting and some forms under my belt. Insha ‘allah we’ll be able to get some students there. Also, Rania was able to get another woman’s name for me to connect who might be able to come to St. Andrew’s to meet with students individually during the school day. Oh, let it be so!

On a good note, our staff is just incredible. It almost brings me to tears thinking of how great they are—really supportive of each other and working so hard to continue to be strong and a good role model for the students. I told some of them to be careful about how they act around the students—even if they have bitterness in their hearts they must not pass it onto the children and continue the rift with Egypt. I suppose I don’t pick up on everything, but I really believe they are doing an amazing job at keeping things positive despite the intense suffering they are dealing with as well.

I get so frustrated at this point. Thing is, I want to help them in any way I can, but there is a very large boundary. For one, I don’t speak the language, so automatically I cannot connect with most of the people. Secondly, I cannot empathize with them. I can sympathize until the cows come home, but I have no concept of what they are truly going through. Third, cultural barriers; in other words, I can’t read people as well as I can with Westerners. With Americans I can be insightful and perceptive about what’s really going on, but I just can’t read the Sudanese. This frustrates me to no end, because in some cases I, or someone I know, have the resources to help. Really, want I want to do is be there to listen, knowing that’s the best way I can serve. But, why would someone want to talk to someone who would be just like talking to a wall, since I wouldn’t understand? Anyhow, I know this issue is so beyond myself (it’s not ‘about me’ at all), I just have the passion to do more and feeling somewhat stuck.

Over the weekend I went to Minya and had a wonderful time with Stephen, Eric, and Samia (Stephen’s boss, who invited us over for lunch). Yesterday I spent the day traveling with the seminary folk (including the Luther Seminary students) around the villages of Minya, where Medhat (and Egyptian seminary student) is the pastor of a church. The village was your typical Egyptian Upper Egypt village; dirt streets, donkeys and water buffalos roaming the streets, children running around playing in the dirt, little running water and electricity, smiling, joyful people in need of dental work, and incredible hospitality. Medhat’s church is in the process of being rebuilt. Right now it’s just the foundation of mud and bricks, and they are waiting for more donations in order to start the next phase. Medhat’s determination is so inspiring; ½ the week he’s working intensely as a student in Cairo and the other half he’s trying to build a church in a village. Please pray for his ministry! A joy to share about this; most of the village is Muslim, and the Muslims have been some of the greatest help in building the church through donations and manual labor. Once again I get the sense God’s love and blessings shine through those with “little” to show those of us with “much” what life is really all about. Gotta love how Jesus turns the tables. :-)

Right now, please pray for the safety and protection of the Sudanese. Pray that they learn to forgive and keep their hearts filled with love and peace. From Romans 15:13; "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Hate and Love

It’s the first day back to school! I can’t tell you how excited I was to return to St. Andrew’s today. For the past two weeks I’ve felt pretty lazy and useless, and too much time to sit around and think is never a good thing for me. So, back to work it is, and what I joy! I missed seeing the teachers and students and staff so much. One of the teen students came to my office to inform me that she’ll be “traveling” on the 26th of this month, meaning she will resettle, specifically in New Mexico. What?! No warning! I was so sad to think of her leaving I actually cried, right there in front of her. Thing is, in past years this was so common; people were resettled all the time. Since the peace in Sudan, however, resettlement has mostly stopped. Of course, this is a happy moment for the student and her family, so I reminded myself in those tears that they are also tears of joy for her future, even when my selfishness wishes her to leave at the end of the term, not now. :-)

While the day was full of joyous hugs and kisses as we reunited with each other, it was also full of sadness. I spent a good portion of the day talking with students and teachers about the violence that ensued last week when Egyptian authorities raided the camp where thousands of refugees have held a 24/7 demonstration for the past three months. From what I know (which may be incorrect…I’ll keep searching for the truth in this), the ‘leaders’ of this demonstration finally signed an agreement with the UNHCR in which the UNHCR would offer financial assistance for housing and interviews on refugee status (esp. for closed file people) in return for the evacuation of all demonstrators in the camp area. (For the past few months, the UNHCR has been trying to meet the demonstrators’ demands, but has not had the resources or authority to fulfill such demands, such as resettlement to a western country.) Unfortunately, the leaders did not inform the demonstrators about their end of the bargain, and they continued to live in the grassy area in front of a mosque in Mohandeseen. After another week passed, the Egyptian government had no choice but to surround the area and demand the refugees leave the area. The refugees refused. Finally, around 3:30am on December 29th, police started firing water cannons at the protestors.

Women and children tried to hide under blankets, already chilled to the bone in these cold Cairo nights. Violence irrupted, and a stampede followed. Egyptian police were clubbing the refugees, and the refugees fought back. Only 27 deaths have been reported, but all I’ve heard in the past week is that the number is much higher—like 200 to 300 people, mostly children who were trampled.

Every refugee I spoke with today had a friend, family member, or clan member die or sent to jail in this mess. Our teachers have been quick to respond. Many are housing the homeless demonstrators for the time being, and just as many have spent this holiday break helping others look for lost loved ones. Some are in jail, some are dead. On my desk is a list of eleven children (including their name, age, and tribe) who are still looking for their parents. John Peter showed me a photograph from BBC, pointing out his friend who was being forced into a bus.

One of our students, an 8-year old boy who was at the demonstration, was badly beaten. His younger sister, four years old, was sent to jail for 2 weeks until Dick was finally able to get her out. She came to St. Andrew’s yesterday with her mom and brother, explaining that every time she tried to cry in the jail someone would cover her mouth with their hand to silence her. Another student , whose mother had been badly beaten (with broken arms and shoulders), has been traumatized and spent much of the day talking about her feelings to one of the teachers. All of the students are traumatized. Mariam tried to get her students to talk about it, first by asking them what came to mind when she said the name of the park where we took the field trip on Dec. 22nd. They said such things as “good food, reminds me of home, fun bike riding, good games.” Then she asked them what they thought when she said the name of the park, and the class grew silent. Finally some said, “babies dying, water, cold…” As I was discussing this with Mariam, one student brought her a drawing of the park (by this point Mariam’s class was in Art), showing violent police officers, crying children, and many exclaiming questions of “Why?!”

I’m holding a teacher’s meeting on Wednesday to discuss ideas of what we can do to help. What we really need is a professional counselor; someone who speaks Arabic and would be willing to serve us for awhile. Some are concerned the children won’t talk to any Egyptian right now, so we aren’t sure where to find an appropriate professional. Then again, maybe it would be beneficially for them to talk to an Egyptian counselor. Right now what I fear most is the hatred that is breeding within the hearts of Sudanese and Egyptians alike.

It is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in America. This afternoon I downloaded one of his speeches to read and ponder. King spoke so strongly of nonviolence, of peace, of justice, of love. No matter how much people continued to hate him because of the color of his skin, he never let hatred enter his heart. Ironically, last night I watched the three-hour movie Gandhi, and found myself thinking about such issues of hatred and love. I thought, “Gandhi is a great man; I wish I could be filled with that much love even when those around me are beating me down.” I find I’ve often failed at filling my heart with love for the people who have demoralized and harassed me this year in Egypt. Sometimes I really feel like I’m being weak in this way; that I need to have thicker skin and a kinder soul. I went to bed last night feeling encouraged to wake up today with greater love than the day before. Now, I pray that our Sudanese and Egyptian friends can do the same.

Gandhi once said, “People fight for two reasons—for change or for punishment. I say leave the punishment for God.” I hope in the days to come we all fight for change, and fill our hearts with love as we do it.

News articles: (The man in the photos is our teacher’s

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Eid al Adha (Jan. 10th)

Today was the Eid el Adha, or the feast of sacrifice. Apparently it’s the “greater” feast but actually less celebrated than the Eid el Fitr, which is at the end of Ramadan. The Eid el Adha remembers Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice is son to Allah, and it is celebrated on the last days of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. (There are about 2 million Muslims on pilgrimage right now.) Before the feast is the prayer at Mt. Arafat, then the symbolic stoning of Satan by throwing pebbles at a certain monument. The next act is the sacrifice. In a sense, those participating in the sacrifice are participating in the pilgrimage of those in Mecca. “As you are able,” each family is expected to sacrifice a sheep. However, at roughly Le 900 for each sheep, most individual families cannot afford the sheep. With whatever is purchased, 1/3 of the meat should be given to the poor, 1/3 given to friends, and 1/3 is left for one’s family to enjoy. It is common that on such festival days Muslims take great concern that the poor are taken care of, as it is one of the five pillars of Islam. (See end of entry for a quick review of Islam.)

The Eid lasts all week, so all eight of us volunteers are on holiday from work. While some of our group is traveling around Egypt, taking cruises down the Nile, or going to Beirut, a few of us are still here to participate in the once-in-a-lifetime (for me, anyhow) witnessing of the sheep sacrifice. Jennifer, Stephen, John (Stephen’s friend), Andrew, Erin (Jen’s visitor), and I woke up at 4:00am this morning to walk through the dark streets towards the seminary to meet with a group of students and professors from Luther Seminary. Even though Cairo is the city that never sleeps, I was a bit surprised at how many people were awake at 4:30am. I saw a number of convenience-type stores, juices stands, and automobile stores open. A 24-hour internet café was half full of Egyptian men playing video games. For the next three hours we wandered around Abbasayya, watching Muslim families stream out of Mosques before sunrise (the men in front, followed by women and children 10 paces back). A bit later we were invited into a side street where we could sit and drink tea before the slaughtering began.

By 8:00am we had witnessed the sacrifice of three large sheep. It was a family event, especially for the males. The young boys would drag the sheep by their front legs to a back alley where they helped the older brothers slit the sheep’s throat. The sheep would thrash around, squirting blood all over the ground, until their eyes rolled back into their head and they were pronounced dead. The older boys would cut a hole into a leg of each animal and start blowing into the carcass until the animal was poofy like a big balloon. This was to separate the skin from the rest of the animal, making it easier to remove. Meanwhile the young boys and girls place their tiny hands into the pool of blood forming on the street and make hand print marks on the doors and walls of the closest buildings. (Think Passover.) We stayed long enough to see the men starting to cut the animals open and separate the body parts. As Stephen and John stayed behind to watch, we later found out there was a room were useless pieces of carcass were tossed for the time being (such as the head), while the rest of the meat was continually divided out and would later be given to friends and the needy.

A quick review of Islam: The Koran, the Muslim Holy book, contains 114 Suras (chapters). The year 622AD is the Hajira, or the year of the beginning of the Muslim calendar. There are three main parts to the religion. 1. Islam (submission to God). “The things Muslims do.” This includes the 5 pillars of Islam: the profession of faith in Allah [God], praying five times a day, the paying of alms [usually 2.5% of your income to the poor], fasting from eating, drinking, and satisfying sexual needs from dawn until dusk during month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and the pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Zul Hijjah.
2. Iman (faith). “The things Muslims believe” (Gods, angels, decree of good and evil, books, messengers/apostles, last day) 3. Ihsan (best behavior). “Doing what is beautiful to God.”


We spent three full days in Jerusalem. Below I describe some of the things we saw and did during that time. The four mornings all began the same, starting with the Call to Prayer around 5:30 am. About ½ hour later the bells of the Church of the Redeemer would start chiming. I LOVED waking up to these two beautiful sounds, for many reasons. First, it called people to prayer and helped me think about God and begin my day praising Him. Secondly, it was beautiful symbolism of two religions living side by side in the Holiest place on earth. Thirdly, it was just beautiful; music for the soul. The bells especially reminded me of York, Nebraska and memories of good family times.

Being that our hostel was inside the Old City Walls, it was to find most things—everything is within walking distance. For instance, I walked past the Wailing Wall at least 8 times and watched Jews pray along the wall at all hours of the day. The Wall is separated into two sections- a larger section for males to pray and a smaller section for the women. Both sexes approach the wall, praying and swaying back and forth (and often many cry) in front of it, and leave the wall bowing down towards it without turning their back. A very spiritual place.

Ramparts Walk—This is where you get to walk around on Ottoman-empire Walls that are now the walls of the Old City and look both inside Old Jerusalem and out towards the rest of the city and residential areas. A lot of great views from here, and a LOT of walking up and down stairs. We pretended to be like characters from the LOTR with bows and arrows.
Temple Mount (including Dome of the Rock). This is the site of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, where Jesus must have thrown the money-changers’ tables over, and Mt. Moriah. What lies on the mount now is al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, but we weren’t able to inside, being that we are not Muslim. In fact, in order to get to the Temple Mount we had to go through security and they confiscated Jay’s Bible. Funny you can’t bring a Bible to a most holy place.

Mount of Olives-- The mount of olives overlooks Jerusalem and includes the Tombs of the prophets Haggai and Maleachi, Dominus Flevit (the place where the Lord wept—see Luke 19, Matthew 23 and now a church in the shape of a tear drop stands), the graves of thousands of Jews (who want to be buried as close to the Old city as possible), Mother Mary’s Tomb, and Gethsemane (where Jesus prayed the night he was condemned). Gethsemane was especially beautiful, as it contained a garden with olive trees over 2000 years old.

Stations of the Cross—There are 14 stations of the cross in Old Jerusalem. We started at the Lion’s Gate and walked down the Via Dolorosa, which are now a couple street bazaars full of touristy knick-knacks. The first two stations are the spots were Jesus was condemned to death and receives the cross—now the Chapel of the Condemnation and the Chapel of the Flagellation. Following the Via Dolorosa, you come to the place were Jesus fell under the cross for the first time, where Jesus meets His mother Mary, where the cross is taken by Simon of Cyrene, where Veronica wipes the sweat from Jesus’ face, where Jesus falls again, where He consoles the women of Jerusalem, and where He falls for the third time. A few of the stations are marked with just a big Roman numeral sign on the wall of a building. The final 5 stations are all in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, including the place were Jesus is stripped of His clothes, nailed to the cross, died on the cross, and laid into the Sepulchre.

The Garden Tomb—According to Protestants, this is the place were Jesus was actually buried in the tomb, and it’s certainly much more historically convincing in comparison to the Holy Sepulchre spot. As me about this if you are interested.
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer—Yeah for a Lutheran Church! A well-known church with the highest bell tower in the city. Pay three shekels and you can see a birds-eye view of the Holy Land.

Dormition Abbey—This was by far my favorite church in the holy city, and the place were some people believed that the Virgin Mary fell into a deep sleep instead of dying. The church was gorgeous. In the basement you find a tomb for Mary and on the ceiling above it you find mosaics of six of the most important women of the bible surrounded a mosaic of Jesus. Around the sides of the circular room you find altars sponsored by different countries around the world, each with a distinct style of artwork. (See the pictures.) Another fun thing—we went to the “Upper Room”—but it was a complete joke of course. Funny, though, to see.

Walking around quarters of Old Jerusalem—There are four quarters to Old Jerusalem: Christian, Moslem, Armenian, and Jewish. I’ve never seen anything like it. In only one square kilometer of land you have four distinct neighborhoods living together. The distinction is obvious too. For instance, the Muslim quarter feels like you are in Cairo—crowded, loud, lots of color, lots of fresh produce markets, and women wearing veils. Going south you reach the Jewish quarter where you find men and women much more reserved and quiet. The men are all wearing black suits and hats, with their ringlets of long hair on either side of their face.

Holocaust Museum: Very touching, very emotional, and quite different than the one in Washington, D.C. The museum tour ends with an outdoor incredible view of the city. (Political, perhaps?)

Orthodox Jew neighborhood—When we got a bit lost looking for the Garden Tomb (which ended up being just outside Damascus Gate), we ended up in a Orthodox Jew neighborhood where we quickly realized we needed to turn around and leave. There was a big sign that read “Women and girls: We the neighborhood residents beg you with all our hearts—PLEASE DO NOT PASS THROUGH OUR NEIGHBORHOOD IN INMODEST CLOTHES. Modest clothes include closed blouse with long sleeves, long skirt, no trousers, no tight-fitting clothes. Please do not disturb our children’s education and our way of life as Jews committed to God and the Torah.” Looking around, we suddenly noticed that not one woman was wearing jeans or pants like we were—all of them, including the children, were wearing long skirts. Oops!

Sunset at Mt of Olives—Other than the two mornings I woke up extra early to run around the city, this was the most spiritual time for me. I had my walkman with me and listened to some Bebo Norman as I saw the sun set past Jerusalem and tried to picture Jesus sitting near this very place, blessing Jerusalem from afar. A most incredible sight!

Praise music guitar on rooftop—During our last night in town I went to the roof of our hostel where you can overlook the whole city, and another man with a guitar played Christian Praise music. One of the best moments of the vacation by far.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sea of Galilee--December 26th

On the 26th of December I woke up at 5:00 am because I just couldn’t sleep. After lying in bed for a while I finally decided to get up and go outside. The Church of the Nativity opens at 6:00am so I decided to spend some time in prayer inside. Walking into the church, I found that I was the only person there who wasn’t a monk, priest, or nun. Down in the manger area a few monks were holding a service (in Hebrew?) as well. At first this made me feel a bit uncomfortable, but I decided I had a right to pray in there as well. It was quite dark inside, candles as the only light source, and this gave it a surreal but beautiful atmosphere. Without the crowd of tourists, I felt the presence of God so much more. In the stillness, I was able to visualize Jesus born into this manger and the wise men following the star to this very place. It’s hard to place the emotion of such an experience.

When I left the church the sun had still not risen, but there was a soft glow over the city of Bethlehem. The combination of quiet cobblestone streets, low light, and mist made the city very romantic and peaceful. I took off up the hill to wander for the next hour and watch the city come to life.

A few blocks up the hill from Manger Square I started using my nose to lead me in the direction of a small room where men were baking bread in a large fire oven. I watched them for a while, and then tried to be discreet about taking a picture (it didn’t work). One man called me over to him and gave me a piece of fresh warm flatbread to eat. Once again I was impressed with Palestinian generosity and spent the next half an hour wandering the streets alone in prayer and gratitude for the blessing of a beautiful, peaceful morning.

I returned around 7:00am in time for a quick breakfast and check-out of the hotel. Then we were off again—this time for a 3 hour drive to the Sea of Galilee to see the Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha (Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes), the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter (see John 21), and the town of Jesus, Capernaum.

On our way out of Bethlehem however, we had to get through the checkpoint. First we went to the Wall to get a closer look at it so we could take some photos. Our tour guide and driver, by the way, are both Palestinian Isrealis (because they were both born and live in Jerusalem) but they have Jordanian passports and no citizenship in any country with no right to vote in Israel’s upcoming elections, at least for now. Being that we approached the wall from the Bethlehem side, it was full of graffiti—paintings, questions, slogans, etc. Some slogans we saw said, “Give them justice and they will reward you with peace!”, “Where is the green line?”, “Jesus wept for Jerusalem, we weep for Palestine,” and “Build bridges, not walls.” One of the most powerful murals depicted a living room window with a beautiful view of mountains, lakes, and forests. The window is surrounded by two colorless armchairs. It shows the “window to the outside world”—something many Palestinians will never see. Instead, they see a 20-foot-high gray concrete wall stretching for miles. As we finished taking pictures and loaded back into the minivan, we approached the checkpoint going into Jerusalem. Here, on the right hand-side of the entrance, on the wall, right next to a sign that said “Welcome to Jerusalem” was a painting of an angry lion eating “the bird of terror.” Another powerful moment, just as we were leaving Bethlehem for good. (I have incredible pictures of all of this. Let me know if you want to see them, I can send you a link to my photos.)

We made our way through the security checkpoint without much trouble (probably because we are American), and we were on our way to Galilee and all the “Jesus sites” in the West Bank. During our three hour trip north, we went past a number of checkpoints. I didn’t realize it at first, because we were able to fly right through. Why? We had a yellow (Israeli) license plate. All vehicles with white and green plates (Palestinian) were stopped and searched.
When we first arrived at Galilee the first thing I noticed about all these places was that my preconceived notions about the land were false. I always pictured Jesus living and serving in the dry, brown desert. In truth, the land surrounding the Sea of Galilee is very lush and green, full of olive trees, flowers, and grass (at least in December). I can see why God would want to put His Son in a place like this, and why Jesus would speak at a place like the Mt. of Beatitudes. The only disappointment was going to Tabgha and the Church of the Multiplications of Loaves and Fishes, because we were not able to approach the altar to see the famous mosaic due to a small noon service.

At the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, we were able to actually touch the Sea of Galilee. Tradition holds that the events of John 21 (where the disciples were fishing and Jesus appeared to them with advice on where to fish…and where Jesus asks Peter if he loves him...) took place here. While we were there the sun was shining in beams through the clouds onto the Sea. As we were the only people there, it was a great chance for me too be alone with God and praise His creation.

Our next stop was Capernaum, known as “The Town of Jesus.” The place is full of excavations showing what a 1st century home would look like, and the area where Jesus would have attended a synagogue. Also, St. Peter’s home is there. In fact, there is a church built on top of the excavations of his home, and when walking into the church you can look through the glass floor and see Peter’s home. I thought this church was gorgeous in so many ways. From the outside it was pretty hideous, as it looked like a saucer spaceship floating above 2000 year old homes—very out of place. But, inside it was gorgeous. It was full of windows looking over the town and out toward the Sea, and there were wooden carvings of Jesus’ life in-between each window.

After stopping for some falafels and ice cream, we went back to Jerusalem to find our Citadel Hostel and crash. The hostel was in a prime location—in Old Jerusalem near the Jaffa Gate. Now, the hostel proved to be an interesting experience. It was built in the 1600s in a cave, then added on levels so that it’s now a few stories high. Within the first hours my throat, nose, and eyes were itching. I saw a lot of mold, and there was condensation on the walls and ceilings. Also, we found out that there’s basically no heat in our girls’ room (on the top floor) because using the heater overloads the circuit breakers and the entire hostel’s electricity goes out. At night we can see our breath as we slept, and we woke up to freezing cold showers. Once I finally got smart enough to heat up some water on the stove and bring the pot in the shower with me to wash down. Brrrr…

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Christmas Eve Part Deux (Eastern Style)

In Egypt, Christmas Day is on January 7th. Therefore, last night was Christmas Eve for all our Coptic Christian friends. Other than seeing a small choir of people at RCG wearing Santa Claus hats, practicing their lines for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” you wouldn’t have guessed it was an important day here in Cairo. Of course, only 10% of the population in Christian anyhow, many of which live in Upper Egypt, so you don’t find many Christmas slogans, snowmen, or Santa Clauses around the stores. Beyond that, Christians spend Christmas Eve at church and with their families. In fact, most churches have a Christmas Eve service that lasts a number of hours, ending with communion. The Coptic Cathedral down the road, for instance, held a service that lasted until 4:00am. Then, Christians gather with their families at the parent’s home and break their fast with a meal of lamb. (They have been fasting from meat and milk products for 55? days.)

Last night I celebrated Christmas Eve by going out for a night on the town with one of my best friends, Katherine Olson. Katherine is studying in Egypt for 23 days on an interim with students from eight Midwest colleges. Much of their time is spent in Luxor, Aswan, or Alexandria, but for the 10 or so days they are in Cairo I’m trying to see as much of her as I possibly can! As it has been quite lonely for me here, it has been such a joy to spend a couple hours with Katherine—it’s so good for my soul and joy!

Katherine and other student, Melba, decided to join me for a night at After Eight—an upscale restaurant/bar/night club in downtown Cairo. It was the first time I had been to a club in Egypt, but after hearing about the place from an AUC friend, I thought it would be good to check out—at least once. I knew it would be expensive with my budget, but my favorite music performer (Jai from Australia) was opening for Wust el Balad band, the most popular underground band in Cairo right now.

When we first arrived at the club, we were asked for our reservation name and number. Oh, no; we had no reservations. He let us in anyhow. The next man we approached also asked for our reservation name. Oh, no. Well, he let us in too. We soon found out why we were let in—at 9:30pm there was only one other person in the room. Of course, it didn’t take too long for that to change, as the nightlife in Cairo usually doesn’t begin until 11 pm and often lasts until early morning. Besides, it was nice to have the place to ourselves to listen to Jai’s smooth music and chat.

After Jai’s performance and before the Wust el Balad band started to play, I went looking for the restroom. As I was waiting in line, Katherine and I ended up talking with a couple Egyptian guys, and we found out one of them (Ahmed) is the sound technician for the club, and the other (Hany) was the percussion musician for Wust el Balad. They knew little English, and we knew little Arabic, but I was able to figure out the percussion guy thought I was beautiful. He said “Inti” (meaning “you”) and then pointed to a lamp and tried to explain something about lighting up a room with my beauty. It was nice, and being that he was in the most popular band in Egypt, I thought it was extra fun (or funny). I told him he should sing me a song, and he said he would. Ha. Later on, we realized Hany was NOT in the band. He was the back-stage manager. However, the name of the percussion player is indeed Hany. Little punk, he lied to us. Bummer.

Wust el Balad was a big hit, that’s for sure. There’s no good way to describe their music. Some have described them as “Egyptian Gypsy Kings.” Basically, it’s world music, blues, rock, a mix in one. Through song they express a huge range of topics, from love to politics to social commentary. One song, called “Magnoun” (Crazy), describes the frustration many Egyptians feel when they want to travel abroad but are unable to obtain a visa. One hit song of the night was about a man who wanted to get married but doesn’t have faloose (money). [You need money to buy a flat, and you need a flat to get married. No joke.]

One of the greatest aspects of the night was the DANCING! We danced the night away. In between Wust el Balad sets the club blasted American club music, and we were going crazy with our dance moves. I even stripped down to my tank top, showing the most shoulder skin in public since I left the states. (Don’t worry, it was okay in there—most people were foreigners and others were wearing less fabric than that.) Even though the place was expensive, I’d be willing to go back one more time just for the sake of getting to dance in a comfortable place.

We finally left around 2:00am—now Christmas Day—and grabbed a taxi. There was a taxi waiting just outside the door, so it didn’t take long. However, there was one issue. Another taxi driver who had wanted to get some business became upset. When our driver got out of the car to come around and open the door for us, the other taxi driver drove up next to the left side of our cab so that our driver wouldn’t be able to get into the taxi. Within a minute this started a big yelling argument. Finally a police man got involved and demanded for the other driver to back off. (At this point I understood what was going on—our taxi driver is hired by After Eight to drive anyone anywhere they want to go while the other guy was just waiting for someone to walk out the door.) The driver backed up and our taxi driver walked to his door to get in. Just then the other driver slammed on the gas and came within a foot of hitting our driver. It was ridiculously dangerous and stupid, and it got me fired up. As the driver back up again I jumped out of our taxi and ran over to his car, stuck my face in the passenger side window, and gave him a piece of my mind. He screamed, “You are stupid!” back at me. What a silly mess.

A man on the street

A man on the street

From the title of this, you probably think I’m going to write about another bad experience with a man on the street. Well, not exactly. I did meet a man on the street, but this time it was different.
As I was walking home after playing ultimate Frisbee and getting some mango juice with the guys, I passed by a man who was hunched over three bags on the edge of the sidewalk. I noticed that he was digging through the trash that had collected in a pile against the bridge, picking up chosen items, brushing the grime and dirt off of it, and putting it into one of his three bags. Being that I witness something like this almost daily, I continued on past him on my merry way.

Thing is, there are many beggars on the streets of Cairo, and although many of them legitimately need help, for some begging is a profession. As in India, some people send their children out in the streets, especially into the rich, foreign-infested neighborhoods, to beg. I’m not an expert, but I can often sense which kids have been dirtied up and taught how to make the most adorably sad-looking puppy-dog eyes with faces saying, “Can’t you help this poor little boy?” On occasion I’ll even stop and watch these children for a while, witnessing how they go from looking all sad and desperate to running around laughing until they notice another likely giver to follow.

However, there are many people who are so poor that they make their living by going through the trash to collect things to sell for money, such as metal scraps. Because Cairo is so incredibly dirty and polluted, this type of life can actually sustain someone for quite some time, because EVERYONE throws their trash on the ground all over the place. Honestly, I’m walking on, over, and around trash everywhere I go. There’s a joke here that there’s no need for recycling, because everything ends up being recycled thanks to people who go through the trash every day.

Something stopped me today, however. I’m not sure what it was, but after I passed the man, I took another five steps and turned around. I had a few pounds left in my bag, so I approached the man, held out my hand, and said, “Faloose?” (Money?) He looked up at me, smiled, and said, “Shokran!” (Thank you!) When he took the money he put both hands around mine without actually touching my hand and gestured a hand shake. It became clear to me that he was showing me his gratitude through a handshake, but out of respect for me he did not touch my hand since his was so dirty.

I smiled, said “You’re Welcome,” and continued home. But, I wasn’t satisfied. There was something about this man that really struck me. I find that I often can sense someone’s character from the small things—the gestures, facial expressions, and attitudes. This man, I believed, was a good man. He seemed humble, polite, kind-hearted, and caring—all from the look in his eyes and face. By the time I reached my room I had decided to grab more money, turn around, and find him again.

And I did. He was still working through the trash pile, and as he saw me approach he stopped working for a moment. I started to ask him questions in broken Arabic and broken English. He didn’t know English, but we were still able to communicate a bit. I discovered that he lived in another area of Cairo, but he was searching around for plastic so that he could bring it to a certain place and receive money so he could eat. I asked him if I could look into his three bags, and he kindly offered them to me. One bag was already full of trash, mostly consisting of crunched-up plastic water bottles. In other bag he was continuing his collection of plastic, including a destroyed plastic toy car that he had neatly cleaned. The third bag was his “food” bag—other people’s leftovers that became his meal. All I could see in it was pieces of dirty dried-out or moldy bread. I looked back at him and he smiled and gave me a nod saying, “See, I have a lot tonight!” I almost wanted to cry. I told him I wanted to help, and then gave him the le 50 I had brought with me. His eyes lit up and he kept thanking me. This time I held out my hand and nodded for him to feel comfortable shaking it. He took it into his hands and kissed the top of my hand, ever so slightly. After that I turned to leave again.

But, I came back. I just couldn’t walk away. He seemed a bit confused this time, but welcomed me back anyhow. I asked him about his family—does he have one? At this he beamed and said, “Yes, seven children! From 20 years old to 4 years old.” As he said this he used his hands to show a tall height for the 20-year old and a small height for a 4-year old child, just to make sure I understood. He asked me where I was from, but for some reason I couldn’t figure out what he was asking. Finally, he asked, “Amrica?” “Ah! Iowah, min Amrica.” (Ah, yes, I’m from America.) He then said something I didn’t understand, but believed it to mean something about good people come from America. Soon after that I parted from him again, for good this time. Still, I hope I see this man again. Past the pain and dirtiness of his face, I saw so much peace and determination in his eyes. Whoever he is, I know I will be praying for him for quite some time.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

can you say biased media?

From Stephen's December newletter, which can be found at

"Bethlehem also has been surrounded by a massive retaining wall. Nothing can quite prepare you for seeing this barrier, even though we had heard about it in the news. Most American media tend to be biased in Israel’s favor, as I found out firsthand in two interviews on Christmas Eve with the Associated Press and CBS. I was quoted very briefly in some stories, yet they omitted my comments about feeling safe and blessed to be there. Some of their questions were quite leading, including one that basically boiled down to, “What’s your opinion of Palestinian terrorism?” Well, I oppose it just as much as the next guy, and most people recognize that wrongs have been committed on both sides. However, Palestinians have been stripped of their homes and most means of sustaining economic growth. Terrorism occurs because people see no other way out. Is a wall the solution? It seems that it is not actually preventing conflict but simply dividing families."

Christmas Day

Even though I went to bed feeling sick with a cold, all I wanted to do Christmas morning was go for a run through Bethlehem, and I was determined to not have anything stop me! Stephen and I got up at 7am while the city was completely silent and still. The weather was misty and then rainy, and it was one of the most gorgeous moments I’ve had since I left Montana last summer. We ran through the wet streets of Bethlehem, up and down the hills and enjoying the fresh winter air. After running for about 15 minutes, while I was looking down at the road, we suddenly approached The Wall. Seeing the wall shot me back into reality, and I was saddened to think that already we had reached a checkpoint. I realized that if I was a Palestinian living in Bethlehem, this would be the end for me, and I would have to turn around and go back. That’s it. 15 minutes of running in one direction and it’s time to go back. I had a sense of the entrapment people there must feel, and it made me both sad and angry. Stephen and I did notice, however, that no one seemed to be guarding the wall. In fact, there were a group of Japanese tourists near the area and one man just walked on through the check point, took some pictures, and came back.

After a filling breakfast, our group went back to Christmas Lutheran church for the Christmas morning service. Once again we found ourselves sitting with an international group and heard Arabic, German, English, and Swedish sung or spoken throughout the service. It’s fun to sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and hear so many other tongues speaking foreign sounds with the same tune. Niveen was there doing her youth ministry duty with the children, who performed the first children’s Christmas story play the church has witnessed. Oh, what cute kids! This time I knew what was going on and even though I couldn’t follow along with words, I could follow along just by being a fellow Christian. We even had communion, which was served to us in Arabic. Sweet.

In the afternoon Niveen took us to a refugee camp in a village outside Bethlehem called Dheisheh (pronounced HAY-shah). A man who works with Niveen’s mom, Mohamed, was there to greet us and show us around. As it stands today, the camp looks much like the rest of the area surrounding it—old cement buildings. As we walked around, however, you could see the difference between the camp area and the rest of the town. First of all, there is graffiti everyone, mostly of faces. (I have a many pictures of graffiti from here and on the wall. Send me a message if you would like me to send you a link to the photos.) Mohamed explained most of the faces are “the martyrs”—those who have been killed in the camp by Israelis. There were slogans all over the cement walls as well, mostly in Arabic. On one road, however, we came to a huge sign that said “FREE PALESTINE” in bubble letters with martyr’s faces, skulls, flowers, and the words “no fear” and “keep cool” in the lettering. On another street was a huge graffiti sign stating “Justice is what we need!”

As it happens to be, Mohamed’s family members are refugees, and we had the honor of visiting their home in the refugee camp. Through a small doorway we were led inside to a large living room with a small bedroom and small kitchen attached to one side. As with most Middle Eastern homes, the building is made of all cement and it is cold. As we sat down in a circle Mohamed’s sister brought us a space heater and tea. One of Mohamed’s brothers waved to us from the bed—he stayed under the covers to keep warm. Another brother came out to greet us. Soon Mohamed’s father arrived in the living room wearing the red-checked kefiyya with black cords keeping it in place. He greeted each of us personally, then took a seat in our circle, asking that Niveen translates for him. In the next hour we heard his story. [The rest of this entry is from Teri’s blog: I decided, why reinvent the wheel when Teri already made it perfectly round? Thanks darling.]

In 1948 he and his family were forced to flee their village of Zakariyya. Zakariyya is the traditional burial place of the prophet Zechariah and is also, traditionally, the hometown of some of the Virgin Mary’s family. It’s also a wonderful agriculture-based village, where his family has "always" lived and worked. It sounds as if his ancestors have been living and dying in the village for generations. One winter night, in the middle of the night, they all had to flee their homes. They took nothing. They stayed in fields for a little while, before hearing about the group of refugees gathering in Bethlehem. The family went to Bethlehem, on foot and with no belongings, wet and cold, and found thousands of other refugees living on a hillside. Eventually the UN brought tents, but water ran through the bottom and covered the floor. After a year or so of this, the refugees dug trenches through the camp to channel the water away from the tents, but it was only partially successful. After many years of living in tents, the UN gave permission and materials to build a one-room concrete house for each family. This way at least the rainwater wouldn’t run in.

The rooms were not big—in fact I suspect that the living room we were sitting in was the original one room. Soon the family was parents and 12 children—a typical size for a Palestinian family during this period. Sometime in the late 80’s, the refugees began to add on to their one room homes (without permits or permission, and without any help from the UN). Now they have several rooms, which is better at least, but still no heat and I would venture a guess that some of the homes lack indoor running water. Now new generations are growing up here. The population is booming—there are currently 11,000 residents of the camp, and 6,000 of those are children.

Meanwhile, the village of Zakariyya has been destroyed and rebuilt as an Israeli settlement. Mohammed’s father’s house is no longer there—he was allowed to travel there once over 5 years ago. Mohammed himself has never been to the village. As a young Palestinian man, he can’t even get permission to go to Jerusalem, let alone a village he claims as his homeland. Mohammed’s father wants to return to his village. He says that even if it was Israeli controlled, all he wants is to go back to his homeland. He tells us that he believes Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Palestinians and Israelis, are all the same. We’re all people, we’re all children of God, so it doesn’t matter who controls the land. All he wants is to live in it. It’s been 55 ½ years since he and his family fled. He was probably a teenager then. But it is alive for him, it is his homeland, the land of his ancestors, the land of his livelihood, the land of his identity. He will probably never go back there. His son will probably never get permission to visit. The Israeli settlers are firmly entrenched. And we in the West wonder why Palestinians refer to the founding of the State of Israel as "the tragedy."

After a group photo, we left the house and went into the dark damp night. We headed toward the entrance to the camp, and on the way we ran across a mural of a child. It turns out that during one of the Israeli-imposed and army-enforced "curfew" periods when people in the camp were not allowed to leave their houses, a 12 year old child had gone outside to play and was shot dead in the street by an Israeli soldier. He is now among the "martyrs" and this mural is on the outer wall of his family’s home.

We walked down the hill and came to the Ibdaa center, which is a refugee-run center for education and social activities. "Ibdaa" means "to create something out of nothing." It began with a need to stop overlooking the new generation, which was growing up in the refugee camp. Since for a while there had been a fence (complete with barbed wire and one revolving-"door" entrance/exit) around the camp, there was a serious need for the children to have somewhere to go, something to do, other than sit in their homes or be cooped up by barbed wire fences. Something to counter the psychological effect of growing up in the "zoo", children of people who looked mainly at the past and hoped for a future that seemed impossible.

Some people decided that a "cross cultural experience" co-ed dance troupe was just the thing. 15 girls and 15 boys trained for a year to share the Palestinian refugee story through music and dance. The founders encountered resistance in the camp for being co-ed, but went ahead. They taught the children French, dance, and music, and performed in Paris. Then they began to travel elsewhere in the world, dancing. Soon the children were growing up and the founders decided to expand to other children and other programs. Now they are on their fourth of fifth generation dance troupe, they have a women’s basketball team, they have a library, they have programs for women, they have after school activities and tutoring, they have co-ed nursery and kindergarten, they have workshops on health and leadership, they have a computer lab, they have art classes. It’s quite a community center! We talked with one of the founders, and he was an amazing man. I am incredibly impressed with what they have created out of nothing: a place for community, for growth, for hope in the midst of sorrow, oppression, and fear. "and God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light, and it was good."

The camp was our last organized activity in Bethlehem, and it was a great way to really get in and see what things are like. People are living lives here. It doesn’t look like a refugee camp “should” look. There are permanent-looking structures, schools, a small hospital, the Ibdaa center, shops, and some of the people even have jobs. But the fence didn’t come down all that long ago, and the Israeli army still has leave to come in and take people away, shoot on sight, or impose “curfew” (which isn’t just a time when you have to be in, but a 24-hour stay-in-your-house-or-get-shot extravaganza).

After our visit to the camp some of us headed to the olive wood shop owned by Adnan, the brother of Nidal, our tour guide from Christmas Eve. It’s a great shop, with hundreds of nativities and other scenes in olive wood, plus some really beautiful jewelry where I bought a Jerusalem cross and a few olive wood pieces. Teri and I also bought two candlesticks a piece, marked at $14 US each. However, Adnan told us everything in the store was 50% off for a Christmas special, probably because Bethlehem is so tourist starved. When Teri tried to pay for her two candlesticks, Adnan took them from her, wrapped them up, and said, “Merry Christmas,” refusing to let her pay. We were all blow away by his generosity, especially since he’s trying to run a tourist-oriented business in a town were tourism is down 85% from a couple years ago. Although he probably heard about Teri’s money getting stolen by our bus driver a couple days before, it was still so incredibly generous and wonderful, I almost started crying. If fact, I did cry that day. While we were at Mohamed’s house I took a break to walk outside for awhile and process. I ended up just bawling. I was so hurt at what’s happened to these people, and at the same time so touched by their generosity, their hope, their love for others. To witness such strength and integrity was such an inspiration to me.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve morning began with tours around Bethlehem with our tour guide Nidal. Nidal proved to be an incredible guide and friend. As he is friend of a PC(USA) missionary in Jerusalem, Doug Dicks, he was been working with our missionary groups for a couple years now. After the tours we ended up spending a lot of time in his brother’s shop where we drank wine, bought many olive wood gifts, and asked questions about Israel-Palestine. It’s really horrible what has happened to Palestinians in the past couple years. Because they do not have freedom of movement (along with other lacking of freedom issues) many people are going broke because they cannot get to their jobs due to the wall. For instance, I have a picture showing two walls—one in the foreground and one in the background, with olive tree fields in-between. These fields have been used by Palestinian families for hundreds of years but now they cannot even get into their land. As another example, Niveen’s sister has been stopped so many times at the check point without being let through that she’s has to attend an extra year and a half of school to finish her degree—not to mention the cost of doing that! Many Palestinians are now dependant on tourism, but unfortunately tourism is down 85% from what it was 5 years ago. People, please visit Bethlehem!

Anyhow, back to the tour. We started in Manger Square and walked through the Church of the Nativity, the oldest standing and functioning church in the Middle East (and therefore, according to Teri, probably in the world). The Church of the Nativity is built on top of the place where Jesus was born, i.e. it’s built on a cave that was once used as a stable. As Teri explained in, during Roman times (and before) caves were often used as homes and as shelters for animals, with just a little thatched shed built out over the entrance, or sometimes just a cloth or animal skin covering the door. Troughs were carved out of the rock to hold food and water and keep it relatively fresh for animals, which works especially well for hot summers and cold winters as the stone keeps a relatively stable temperature. The grotto of the nativity, the part of the cave where tradition says Jesus was born (and the part that, archeologically speaking, is most likely because there is a carved trough/manger there) is under the altar of the Greek Orthodox section of the Church.

You enter the church through the “door of humility” (a post-Crusader addition that has to do both with not being big enough for horses and forcing people to bow while entering) and find yourself in the nave of a Basilica that hasn’t changed much since Justinian. There have been re-buildings, renovations, etc, but the original floor is visible through some trapdoors, the columns are there, and you can even see some original frescoes on the columns. There are large sections of 800 year old mosaic on the walls. The windows are near the ceiling and light shines in in geometric shapes. You can still see bullet holes in the windows and damage to the mosaics from “the siege” in 2003 when people barricaded themselves inside the church for weeks. [See for details.] This has been a holy site for at least 1900 years…between 100 and 135 the emperor made it a pagan temple in an attempt to discourage Christianity. Queen Helena visited and ordered a church built there in the 4th century. The church was saved from destruction during the Persian invasions because of a mosaic depicting the three wise men (in Persian dress). It was reconstructed and preserved by the Crusaders and used as the place for crowning the crusader kings of Jerusalem. It is still a functioning church used by multiple denominations, and is a pilgrimage site for thousands of people each year. There are three masses held every morning in the grotto—Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic.

The Roman Catholic Church—Saint Catherine—is connected to/a part of the Church of the Nativity but build in the past couple hundred years. Under this church is the rest of the cave, including the tombs of the Innocents, the place where the angel is said to have visited Joseph and told him to flee to Egypt, and some unidentified tombs. We came to the cave were Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, and also where he is buried. We were literally in the spot of the first bible translations! Awesome.

After our visit to the Church, we moved a block away where we watched the annual Christmas Eve parade of Scouts. This lasted at least an hour, and I was so impressed with the number of Boy and Girl Scouts in Palestine. They come from all over the country and march through the streets of Bethlehem from two opposite directions, meet up a block away from Manger Square, and march into the Square. They came complete with bands of drum and bugle corps, bagpipes, your average marching bands and flag bearers. Sweet. Once reaching the Square they wait for a couple hours for The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem who comes to Bethlehem and parades through the streets, the square, and into the Church. During this waiting time we took a bus to Shepherd’s field, where the angel proclaimed the Good News to the shepherds. All that’s left are archeological excavations, a couple cave chapels and two churches.

After returning to Bethlehem for lunch it was time to watch the Patriarch come into town. After waiting a long time, two lines of priests and altar boys wearing white started marching from Manger Square into the Church of the Nativity, followed by the Patriarch. Even though we were at the front line of the police barrier, it was hard to see much because, as Teri said, “it felt like the entire Palestinian police force formed a human chain that went between us and the line of priests/altar boys, and the altar boys were between the police and the patriarch, who was surrounded by two other bishops. In other words, we didn’t see much besides the hot pink hat. :-)”

Through the day we, or I should say Stephen, was greeted by at least three newscasters from around the world, asking us about our time in Bethlehem, how it feels to be here on Christmas Eve, and whether or not we feel safe. I had one woman from Finland approach me, and I became quickly irritated. It was clear she was asking leading questions, trying to get me to say that we feel unsafe in Palestine and yada yada yada. When I said, “No, actually, I feel more unsafe in my home country of America than I do here right now,” she frowned at me and walked away. Ugh. Reporters, can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

We had some free time to explore, so we stopped by the Milk Grotto, where, according to tradition, the holy family came to this cave “on their way to Egypt.” The story goes that Mary nursed Jesus here and a drop of her milk felt to the floor causing the stone to be chalky white. Now, people having trouble getting pregnant come from around the world to break off a piece of the stone cave, grind it up, put it into milk or water, and drink it. In one section of the grotto you find letters and pictures of people who became pregnant after doing just that, and they give many thanks to the Milk Grotto for their good fortune.

That evening we attended the 5:00pm Christmas Eve Service at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church. It was absolutely packed, and all but a few of us stood for the entire service in the back of the church with Niveen, who happens to be the youth director at the church. The service was conducted in German, Arabic, and English. We sang such songs as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” in the three languages simultaneously. The sermon, by Pastor Martin Reyer of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, was in German, but we had an English translation to follow. He spoke of peace and justice, love and hope, but also of the need to recognize the reality gap between the Christmas hopes and Christmas reality in the holy land today. He encouraged people to see that in Jesus’ short life He was sufficient to set fire into the world and changed the world. It was not fire of war, not the sword of the prophet but the fire of love. He said, “There is deep gravity in this joy of Christmas. There is no other future for the world except this: This unarmed love. Who does not wish to follow this kind of Peace, who is not prepared to go the same way as He, will have to continue to secure his security, he will have to defend himself, he will have to account for, set borders, rely on himself, security and always again security. For how long? He will have to continue on the path of violence—the only thing that remains, however, is love. That is what it says in the First letter for the Corinthians.” The service ended by singing Silent Night as we lit the sanctuary by igniting each other’s candles—all having started from one light source. It was a beautiful service, and so touching to be sharing it with so many believers from around the world who trust in the love that we can share and pass on in the name of Jesus.

After the service we attended social hour with the congregation where I introduced myself to Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb and participated in the traditional drinking of wine and eating of chocolate. We ran into some friends there as well—Aubrey, Luke, and Mark, who live in Cairo. Then, it was back out into the rain (so refreshing!) before the next service—a midnight service at the Church of the Nativity.

Hours before the midnight service, the area outside our hotel was swarming with Palestinian policemen and snipers on the top of every building, including a man on the building across from my window. Jen and I waved to him, and after stalling for a second he waved back. Hmm… Anyhow, Manger Square was loaded with people and a huge line to get into the cathedral was forming. As most people couldn’t get into the church, there were thousands of people standing and worshiping in Manger Square all night. We were lucky, however, to be guests at the Casanova Hotel, because there was a special private back door that we were able to go through to get into the mass. It took awhile, however, for us to get through even the secret door, due to the extensive security. It didn’t take long to find out why—the new President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, arrived at mass about 1/3 of the way through the program.

The mass lasted about 3 hours, however I ended up leaving after about an hour. I had literally been on my feet since 8am other than ½ hour for lunch and ½ hour for dinner and I was tired. Also, I was ill with a cold so I really wasn’t up for standing much longer. The place was PACKED and it was hard to see or know what was going on. Being that I’m not Catholic and I don’t know Latin, I didn’t realize at the time that the first hour we were making our way through a bunch of psalms. I found out the next morning that the Patriarch gave a sermon in Arabic and French, followed with a ringing of the bell to alert everyone that the bread was being broken and elevated and the wine was being poured and elevated. When they did serve communion, only the bread was given, not the wine.

What I did experience of the mass was a great. Because I didn’t understand what was going on, I concentrated on other things. For instance, I recognized that many languages were being spoken throughout the mass. The collaboration of so many people from so many backgrounds worshiping here as a witness to each other because of something greater than all of us was beautiful. There I was, a young adult Lutheran missionary living in Egypt but from America worshiping in a Roman Catholic Church in Palestine standing next to an Orthodox priest from France on my left and a group of Europeans to my right. Looking around it was obvious that a great number of nations from around the world were being represented by clergymen, lay men and women, and your average saint and sinner. The air was thick with incense and heat, but also with a common love for Christ and a desire to serve Him with joy, peace, hope, and love. I started thinking about the fact that millions upon millions of people have stood in this very spot throughout the centuries since Christ was born, all of us connected as the community of believers---the body of Christ. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see or understand the mass; all that mattered was that the church being filled with people serving as lights in a dark world, and that perfect to me.

To Taba--then Bethlehem

My Christmas vacation began in the late evening of December 22nd when the 8 of us YAGMs, along with Lynn and Dick, boarded a community bus at 11:15pm for a night of traveling to Taba—the only open entrance into Israel from Egypt. The bus was, well, FREEZING. First of all, we were driving through the desert in the middle of the night. Cold spell #1. Secondly, there was no heat on the bus. Cold spell #2. Thirdly, the door wouldn’t shut all the way so there was a constant cold draft coming through the crack. Cold Spell #3. Oh, and let me add that we had assigned seats on the crowded bus and I happened to be next to the window (COLD!) on the right side of the bus, three rows back; prime spot to receive the draft from the door. I was wearing four layers of shirts/sweatshirts along with my rain jacket, mittens, and a hat. I was still cold. Between the crazy desert driving, the cold, and sitting straight up, I couldn’t sleep a wink all night. (This is now my third all-nighter since living in Egypt…not so cool.) Around 3am the bus driver started blasting a movie called “Shark Zone.” I don’t know how in the world people were able to stay sleeping through the loud noise of sharks thrashing in the water eating people. As silly as the movie was, it was at least entertaining to make fun of it with Jay. Jay and I also entertained ourselves by watching the road ahead and counting the number of vegetation or road signs we saw…needless to say there weren’t many, but it was strangely fun anyhow.

In the early AM we arrived at Taba and spent the next four hour in the border crossing. We spent a lot of time on the Egyptian side of the passport control, mostly because no one was working. Then, on the Israeli side, we waited another couple hours because we had a suspicious member of our party—Teri. Why? Because she has been to Syria and Lebanon. After taking her passport away she was drilled with tons of questions such as to her address, the dates of her previous trip to Israel, whether she knew anyone in Israel or Palestine, what she is doing here this time, what she did in Syria and Lebanon, her dad’s name, her mom’s name, the place her dad was born, her dad’s phone number, etc. Yeah, intense. Ironically, Jay was at the desk at the same time asking that the passport control people not stamp his passport because he’s going to Lebanon in two weeks. Sure, okay, no questions asked. Odd. In the meantime we hung out with other young people who were also sitting at passport control. Two were suspicious because they are Egyptians and other group because one guy’s family is from East Jerusalem. (His name is Khalil, and by fate Jay and I had met him the week before at Frisbee and we continued to run into him and his friend Prescott for the rest of our vacation.)

Even though I was pretty exhausted by this point, I kept eating cheese bread and juice boxes for energy and went outside to view the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba. I can’t tell you how refreshing this was. The air was clean and cool, and there were no nasty men and no pollution filling my nostrils with soot. I actually breathed in deeply and didn’t cough. It was wonderful! Eventually we were able to rent a minibus to take us to Bethlehem, where we had time to sleep and get ready before going out again.

That evening we went to Niveen’s home. Niveen is a Palestinian from Beit Jala (a village outside Bethlehem) who graduated with Carole from the Evangelical Seminary in Cairo. We’ve heard so much about her all fall and it was a delight to be greeted into her home. Her mother cooked us Palestinian food, which included a lot of chicken and red meat, so I was really excited. For dessert it was chocolate and wine—a Christmas tradition in Bethlehem. You can’t beat that! Niveen lives in a beautiful modest home, decorated with a Christmas tree and nativity set (using a doll as Jesus) and large photos of individual family members in every corner of the main room.

thannawiya amma

If you check out my archive, you'll find blogs about the (terrible) education system in Egypt. Rather than repeating what I already said, I want to add something I just read yesterday in the Cairo Magazine from Juy 14-20, Issue 17.

"The thannawiya amma (secondary school examination) system has been heavily criticized for its rigidity as well as the pressure it puts on families. Difficult examinations and disappointing results have been known to cause waves of depression every year in July, as well as many suicides..." [FYI, this exam is the end-all be-all for kids. It literally determines what your future career and social status will be.]
..."major complaints this year were from algebra, physics and fine arts exams. One irate father submitted a complaint against the minister of education to the police, accusing him of including questions that were outside the curriculum and posed incorrectly, thereby harming his son's psychological state during the test..."
And here's the kicker:
"...The fine arts exam drew criticism when it was revealed that one of the questions asked students to draw a picture in praise of President Hosni Mubarak."

Ha! Can you IMAGINE? On the most important educational day of one's life, he is evaluated on his ability to draw a picture of praise for the President! Can you imagine what would happen in America if we were required to draw a picture of praise for President Bush in order to get into college? Goodness...

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Sudanese Death Toll in Cairo

If you've been keeping up on this blog, you'll know about the Sudanese sit-in that has been going on for the past three months. (If you don't know about it, search through past blog entries.) This past Friday, December 30th, over 20 Sudanese died when the Egyptian police came into the sit-in and demanded that all the Sudanese leave. Below is a link to an article about it (you can find MANY more--it's all over international news) and I encourage you to read it. As you do, please share your thoughts about this. Although the Egyptian government has been more than patient with the sit-in refugees, this brutality is uncalled for-completely disgusting and horrifying. At the same time, most articles I've read on the issue are your typical playing-at-the-heart strings and making the UNHCR and other organizations look bad. As we all know, there are many sides to every story. Just keep that in mind.

I'll update about Bethlehem and Jerusalem soon.
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