Homestay In Bethlehem
Homestay In Bethlehem
If ever you get the chance to stay with a local family while travelling, grasp the opportunity with both hands. On a group tour you can ask the local guide lots of questions on what it feels like to live in the country, and in Israel our guide, Mahir, patiently answered the curly ones we threw at him.
The overnight stay with the Orthodox Christian family in Bethlehem ( the House of Bread) was, for me, the highlight of the tour. At first, I was apprehensive; worried I would experience the overnight alone as a single traveller, but we were three pilgrims. The coach held up the traffic in a narrow street in the area known as the House of the Shepherd (Bet Shelaugh literally translates as ‘the house of the early risers’) as we quickly disembarked and grabbed our suitcases. Our host was there to collect us and we travelled quickly by taxi to his modern three-storey home. You may be interested to learn that Palestinian families in both Jordan and Israel build family homes which traditionally keep the children close. The parents live on the ground floor, the family of the first son on the first floor, and the family of the second son on the second floor. This tradition appears to translate visually as a number of unfinished houses, while the ground floor is habitable and the second floor has reo and wires exposed while the sons are still growing up. Cousins and close relatives very often live along the same street.
K, our host, originally grew up in Jordan and came to the area as a high school teacher. His wife, M, was orphaned at a very young age and was brought up in an orphanage run by the Russian Orthodox church in Jerusalem. Both spoke very good English. Hosting tourists and visiting university students was an opportunity both financially and culturally. University students often stayed for months, so they were rather surprised we would be there for just one night.
Sadly, K’s sister-in-law had just died in the Canary Islands where she lived, so we experienced a family in deep mourning. Relatives phoned and came over to sit with the family. Because K was busy, he organised for a young man, his great nephew, to take us on a short tour of the area. This was excellent. We got to walk around the neighbourhood while T told us about the area and his experiences. In 1967, after the first Arab uprising, many families were displaced and came as internal refugees to Bethlehem.
At first it was hard for these refugees. They lived in shanty towns on public land and lived from hand to mouth.
Now some have prospered and made a good life for themselves and their families and managed to build a house where the tin shed was at first. We tried to imagine what it would be like if families were made to leave their homes in Sydney and travelled to Melbourne with very little and started a new life.
T and his twin brother are well educated. They studied architecture in Berlin and while T made the decision to return home and work, his brother lives and works in Chicago. T said Palestinian Christian families focus on giving their children a good education, and if they have the skills which Western countries value, it is not so hard to emigrate and make a new life .
Bethlehem is about 10 minutes by car from Jerusalem but the contrast in freedom and way of life is enormous. A ten metre concrete wall divides the two cities. Living in Bethlehem, one is constantly reminded of the restrictions. K’s and M’s daughter is a high-school teacher in a school in Jerusalem . Every day she has to leave early to give herself time to get through the checkpoint. I imagine there are long queues every morning, as people commute on foot and then catch the bus.
We had a lovely meal of lamb and vegetables. K offered us home-made wine from his own grapes. He took us out on the balcony, sheltered under a grapevine, as it grew dark and pointed out the twinkling lights on a hill over the way. This hill was once covered in trees he said, but now it is a Jewish settlement. Land that belongs to the Palestinians, has been built on by Jewish families – that is against International law. K and M have 4 adult children, two boys and two girls. The second eldest boy is married to a Greek national and lives in Greece with one daughter. The other daughter lives with her husband in Spain, while the eldest son is the Palestinian ambassador to Bucharest.