By Olivia Brown
The conflict that Palestinians face day in and day out is a burden that most would struggle to persist through. Christian Palestinians might struggle all the more as they have watched their fellow brothers in the faith migrate since the Nakba in 1948. Though there are Christian Palestinian families whose parents are fighting to keep the roots of their legacy in Palestine, once Palestinian children have matured, they have a choice of their own where they will move on to begin their future.
Grace Awad just celebrated her high school graduation May of 2021. She graduated from Jerusalem School Bethlehem, a private K-12 American school located in the heart of Bethlehem, Palestine. Jerusalem School Bethlehem is very different from other schools in the town in that everything is taught in English by an all-American staff. Awad has attended this school from kindergarten to the twelfth grade.
Attending such a school was certainly a privilege that afforded Awad a more well-rounded world view that perhaps some of her peers attending the local Palestinian public schools may not have received. However, it never changed her position on where her heart calls home- Palestine.
Since graduating, Awad has, nonetheless, been very conflicted with where and what she might study post-graduation. The job market in Palestine is very difficult in the midst of all of the political turmoil that the land is experiencing and it has only become more challenging in the midst of this past year’s global pandemic. Until she finds a career that she can build a stable life with in Palestine, she has decided to take a gap year.
“During the pandemic, I started to get a lot of ideas. I wanted to become a chef, because I was baking a lot. And I wanted to become a hairstylist because I was trying different hair styles with myself every day,” Awad says with a giggle. She does not seem to have much of a care for what her future might hold even in the midst of her confusion. That is likely because of the powerful support system that she has around her.
“My parents give me ideas,” Awad says. “They think of something like ‘Try this’,” says Awad. Awad’s mother is a Filipino that has been living on a tourist visa for the last twenty years. Awad’s father is a pastor in Bethlehem of Baraka Presbyterian Church. Both Awad’s father and mother have been able to provide their family with pretty great opportunity compared to a family who may be living in a refugee camp, for example. The children have had excellent education and live in a relatively safe and secure environment in their Beit Jala home.
Along with the safety, security and support that Awad’s family has provided her with, they have instilled in her a desire to remain rooted in their home country. While the safety, security and support may have some influence on Awad’s desire to remain in Palestine, she most importantly shares in the conviction that her father has passed on to her to continue to build the diminishing Christian church in Palestine.
“I really like Palestine and I really want my kids and grandchildren to stay in Palestine so we can have more Christian Palestinians living in Palestine,” says Awad. Awad says that whether she chooses to study abroad or in Palestine she is always going to come back to Palestine.
Anthony Khair, a friend and peer of Awad’s at Jerusalem School Bethlehem, was a bit more overwhelmed with some of the same thoughts as Awad when it came time for his graduation just last year. “I was having a crisis in my life- the corruption, all of the occupation, not being able to get inside of the wall, not being able to study what I actually want, not even knowing what I want to study. It was all really crazy for me,” says Khair.
Unlike Awad, Khair was eager to leave Palestine. He was awarded several scholarships, accepted into various U.S. schools and even an international relations program in Budapest. However, financial problems and, of course, the pandemic caused a bit of a setback. During this setback though, while Khair was forced to stay in Palestine a bit longer, he was granted the opportunity to study theology at a local college and gained some clarity on his next steps through what he believes was this God-given chance.
“If you would have asked me a couple of years ago [if he was going to stay] I would have been like ‘No, I’m out. This is too much’,” says Khair. However, now he stands somewhere in between. “We Palestinians have goals that we cannot achieve inside walls,” says Khair. Though he says that he will always call Palestine home, what he has been moved to do now is travel the world spreading the Palestinian message through journalism.
It is natural for Palestinians to want a better life for themselves and everyone chooses differently on how they will go about building the best lives for themselves and their families. At around 30 years old, George Ghanem decided that he would relocate to the States from Beit Sahour to pursue his Bachelor’s degree at New York University in 1996.
He said he never intended to stay in the States. As a matter of fact, he and his wife moved their family back to Palestine when their children were born that they might know their homeland and be closer to he and his wife’s relatives. However, the limitations in Bethlehem were tremendous and George feared the trauma that might impact his children’s lives if they stayed in Palestine. So, in 2002 they relocated back to the States.
Since moving back to the States Ghanem has also completed his PhD in Child Psychology, an accomplishment only .01% of the population in Palestine can say they’ve accomplished. However, Ghanem and his family have not lost sight of where they come from. They continue to spread not only the Palestinian message but also educate local churches and organizations on the fact that there are, indeed, Christians living in Palestine.
“Most people ask ‘Are you Jewish’ when I say I’m from the Holy Land, then Muslim but they never think we are Christians,” says Ghanem.
He and his family have volunteered by visiting 20-25 churches a year for the past several years, encouraging them to engage Palestine and come to understand the Palestinian experience, and furthermore the Christian Palestinian experience. The Ghanem family also regularly donates money back to Christians in Palestine with the profits made from the sale of products made in Bethlehem.
It may not be as easy for everyone to leave Palestine as it was for the Ghanem family. However, whether Palestinians are a part of a dying faith group such as Christians, whether their families want them to fight to their land to justice is seen, it is the individual decision of every person to decide what is right for them. It may be most noble to stay and defend Palestinian history. It may be noble to stay and contribute to the growth of the Christian church but the burden of the limitations that come with such a decision make that a challenging one to make.
The unchanging truth that seems to stand between Awad, Khair and the Ghanem family despite their differing paths and perspectives is that no matter where they are located they will always advocate for their people’s heritage.