I know it’s been a while since I’ve added something new, but life has been moving at full speed here, which has been great! School, church, wedding parties, olive harvesting, confirmations, and the list goes on! This place is slowly becoming more familiar and I am so thankful for the people who have welcomed me here with open arms and hearts. With that being said, everyday here is filled with challenges and successes, things that break my heart and things that lift my spirit. The following two stories happened a few weeks ago and are both seemingly small, yet significant, pictures of life here.
As I have started to get myself incorporated into life and community here, I have joined a Bible study on simple living, started by the women of the English-speaking congregation at Redeemer Lutheran. A few weeks ago, heading to Bible study, I was looking forward to the bus ride and the 45 minute walk that it would take me to get to the top of the Mount of Olives; time that I would use to think and reflect on the past few days, time to prepare myself to think about the Word. I wisely put on my tennis shoes, fully prepared for the hike. Walking around Jerusalem is not like the walking I am used to in the flatland of Moorhead, MN. I only thought that I was fully prepared. As I was walking, doing my standard speedwalk, I encountered a few people, mostly Jewish Israelis because I was walking through a predominantly Jewish area. Coming around a corner, I noticed that about 25 feet in front of me was a middle-aged hijabi Muslim woman, which to be honest, surprised me. There is nothing that prohibits this woman from walking around in this neighborhood, nothing that says she should not or cannot be there, yet things are so heavily separated here in most places that I found myself wondering why she was here and what her story might be. And then the following interaction played out, right in front of me. Up ahead of the both of us, a middle-aged Jewish Israeli man approached us. As I watched him approach her, he not only avoided eye contact, but he physically turned himself away from her. As he passed her and looked in the other direction, she moved to the other side of the trees that were lining the sidewalk, a physical barrier between the two of them. And then he got to me. As he passed me, he waved, looked right in my eye, and said, “Shalom, mah nishmah?” (Hello, how are you? in Hebrew). I answered with “Shalom” and kept walking. Along with being the standard “Hello”, “Shalom” in Hebrew translates into “Peace”. In that moment however, the last thing I felt was peace.
Living in Beit Hanina is certainly a different experience from living in Beulah, North Dakota or even Moorhead, Minnesota. I am used to being in a small town or on a small college campus where people recognize you and say hello. The eastern section of Beit Hanina is within the borders of the municipality of Jerusalem, a city with over 800,000 people. There is a much greater sense of anonymity here than I have ever experienced. Despite that, I walk the same street to and from Helen Keller everyday and now that I have been doing it for over a month, there are some familiar faces. There is the owner of our favorite grocery store, who always says hello and asks how I am. There are the school children that I see every morning walking to the bus. There is the shop owner who I’ve lovingly nicknamed “grumpy grocery man”, who always acknowledges me, but never smiles. One of these days, we are going to exchange a smile. Then there are people like Hamad and Omar. I saw Hamad, a middle-aged Palestinian man, and his very young son Omar, on my first day walking to Helen Keller. Walking to my first day of school, I was filled with apprehension and anxiety, not truly knowing anyone at the school or what my role would be there. As I rounded the final corner to the school, I saw them. Omar was wearing a tiny backpack and holding the hand of his father who looked at me and gave me a huge, genuine smile. I thanked God for that smile, knowing that Hamad will never know the comfort that gave me. A few days later, after a few more smiles were exchanged, Hamad said “Sabah lher” to me and I responded “Sabah nnur”, the good morning greeting in Arabic. The next week however, was even better. After turning that final corner, Hamad and Omar came into view. It is really amazing how a familiar and friendly face, even one of a relative stranger, can make a place feel like home. Hamad smiled and said “Sabah lher” and then stopped and continued to speak to me in Arabic. With a panicked look on my face, I tried to explain, “Shway Arabi” (I only know a little Arabic!). He immediately understood and began to speak in English. He introduced himself and his son to me and asked me where I was heading. I told him that I am a volunteer at Helen Keller for one year and he looked at me square in the eye, with a huge smile on his face and said, “I’m so proud of you.” I was so taken aback that I could barely get out a “Shukran” (thank you). We chatted for another brief minute, and as we were getting ready to head our separate ways, he told me again that he is proud of me and said that we would see each other again soon. I do hope that is true.