Exactly three years ago this week, I stumbled off of an El-Al flight in Tel Aviv to begin a fortnight’s tour of Palestine and Israel. It was something I had planned to do for ages but had always put off; citing family and/or work commitments. A group of friends go every two or three years, and in 2008 one seasoned veteran was most insistent that he would be making his final tour and if I wanted to experience the trip with him; it was now-or-never-time.
The itinerary was simple but would keep us busy for the entire two weeks. We planned to pay our respects at the obligatory religious sites: the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan, Calvary, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Judean desert, Lazarus’ Tomb, Masada and more. Tales of those visits are for another day, another blog.
The focal point for the trip, and today’s entry, stems from the tail-end of our trip. As the group had done on all their previous visits, we would also spend a few days at the Jeel Al Amal Home for Boys and neighbouring Lazarus Home for Girls. Both are orphanages in Bethany on the hotly contested West Bank in Palestine, a short drive north-east of Jerusalem.
Our group of friends was diverse, from a range of backgrounds and skill-bases. It needed be. The orphanages are run on a shoe-string and rely heavily on supporters such as ourselves passing through and helping with the full spectrum of challenges that arise from trying to house, clothe, feed, educate and nurture 330 children from as far as the Gaza Strip. We had people with backgrounds in business, plumbing, art, construction, accountancy and of course education.
I tend to travel lightly when going abroad but I had been forewarned by my fellow travellers to take the maximum baggage allowance. My suitcases were filled with children’s medicines, children’s clothes and the most basic of educational resources such as pens and pencils. One bulky bag contained solely footballs, of course.
To understand the physical setting for the orphanages, one must be aware of the political landscape of this part of the world. Palestine exists in pockets, rather than long swathes of land. The Israelis have for the most part, built large 30 foot walls around Palestinian strong-holds. Israelis are allowed to move freely in and out of these walled enclosures, Palestinians are not. The people are imprisoned. The walls are officially there to uphold Israeli security. The reality is that Palestinians cannot access the basics beyond the resources available inside. Inside there are few trees, they have been cut down to provide wood. There is little infra-structure, little of the luxuries we might label as necessities such as medical care. As a result, the number of blind residents insides the wall is striking and heart breaking in equal measures.
Driving up to the Palestinian controlled area in which the orphanage is situated, we ran the gauntlet of an Israeli army check point. The contents of our collective baggage allowance, full of childhood and institutional necessities, buried deep in the bowels of our mini bus. Luckily the army search was cursory. If our stash had been detected it would have been confiscated.
The two orphanage buildings, one for girls and one for boys stood at the top of a barren, rocky lane. There was little vegetation in the surrounding, stony fields. Hundreds of colourful plastic shopping bags littered the roadside; the only thing contrasting the pale, sun-baked stone.
Immediately dozens of children’s’ faces peered through the fence. They waved. They smiled. They jumped. They danced.
What happened in the coming hours and days, dear readers, passes through my memory in waves on a daily basis.
Upon departing our transport, we were met by crowds of children cuddling us and wanting to hold our hand. They led us to the orphanage’s founder and matriarch Mother Alice; a Palestinian Christian who opened the institution in 1972. Mother Alice was old and frail. However, she was one of those few people we may be lucky enough to meet in our lifetime; who has an aura of saintliness. She had recently undergone surgery which had been performed by a former resident of the orphanage. She explained that may of her children have gone on to be doctors, lawyers, architects.
She thanked us profusely for our gifts. We had refrained from going into town and sampling the Israeli taverns and restaurants during our trip around the country so we could save every bit of spending money we had brought to give to the orphanage. Veterans of previous trips had pre-warned me that frugality on the earlier part of the trip would be for a far greater good if we could leave as many shekels and dollars as we could at Jeel Al Amal. They were right 10,000 times over.
A quick tour of the buildings followed, the plumbers in our group plumbed, the accountants accounted. But the children were desperate for us to come and play. I opened my big bag of footballs and soon had many friends. Sport transcends language, cultural and political divides once again!
I don’t cry easily, if at all. I might shed a tear at a funeral; never at a soppy film though, never because my football team has lost and the television cameras are poised on me. But what happened next made me weep, dear readers. Weep.
A young boy pushed through the crowd. He was dressed in a black shirt and told me in very broken English that he loved football. I looked up from the bag at the boy. He was about the same age, with the same facial features, as my son back in England. It startled me. He begged me to play football with him. He told me his name was Fadi. He must have thought it strange that this jovial fat man, laughing and handing out footballs had suddenly gone quiet as he grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the playground. But I was transfixed by his face. It was so like my son’s; familiar and comforting. It made me think of home and how lucky we are.
I spent the next several hours playing football under the hot Middle Eastern sun. I must have exchanged 1000 high-fives. I must have celebrated 100 goals in an overly enthusiastic fashion.
The seasoned veteran, who had been most insistent that I undertake his final tour with him walked onto the playground with the orphanage’s school staff. They wished to talk about their curriculum. I pointed out Fadi to my travelling partner who also knows my own son well. I remember the tears coming down my sunburnt face as we both marvelled at the likeness.
The sights, the sounds, the memories of Jeel Al Amal resurface in my mind every day. Fadi must be 16 years old by now and ready to strike out into the world like my own son. Mother Alice died soon after our visit but I am pleased to report that her daughter and son have taken up the task of running the orphanages. At the end of today’s blog, you can click on a short You Tube film that focuses on the Lazarus building. It is made by some American church and I post it for the visual impact rather than the narrative.
Jeel Al Amal translates as Generation of Hope. Thankfully, no Israeli soldier can ever build a wall high enough to imprison hope. Wherever you are tonight, Fadi, I wish you that hope in bags bigger than the one I used to bring you the footballs. I wish you love and peace and the realisation that there is a world outside the walls that does care.
Keep The Faith,