The Rachel’s Tomb area in north Bethlehem was well-known when I was a child. It was full of restaurants and shops. I still remember the faces of the soldiers guarding the Tomb. They sometimes smiled at me. Together with my parents I used to pass by the Tomb as the area’s main street directly led to Jerusalem.
I asked my dad about the place. My father narrated the story of Rachel from the Bible and mentioned that she was a holy symbol for Jews, Christians and Muslims. I asked him about the reason why the Israelis put soldiers there, guarding a dead woman. I still remember his face turning red. He said with deep sadness, “My love: the Israeli occupation made her holy just for the Jewish believers and excluded the Christians and Muslims.” Since that time until now, I have felt the strong will to know more about the area and its inhabitants and their willingness to work for justice and peace.
In 2004-2005, the Israeli army built an 8-10 meter high Wall around the Tomb. Most of those living in the Rachel’s Tomb neighborhood – mainly Christians – deserted the area. It became dead, ghostly. The people became frustrated, they lost hope as they lost their sources of income and their lands, while a Wall with military towers surrounded them. They came to live in a big prison far from the heart of Bethlehem as well as from Jerusalem.
Some of them decided to move on and open businesses elsewhere. Others gave up, cried and stayed where they were. Still others chose to emigrate. To support the people, Arab Educational Institute (AEI) decided to open an office in the area. On behalf of the AEI, I became coordinator. I decided to knock at people’s doors. I talked especially with women, to understand their needs, problems and fears. I tried to give them space to narrate their stories. I knew I could not do miracles but told them we could do a lot when we were all together. I collected data about the people who remained to live there, and paid them several visits. Initially they were not enthusiastic to come to the office. Just five agreed to come. They had lost hope.
After a needs analysis carried out by AEI, we decided to open a house and named it Sumud Story House. Sumud is an Arabic word which means steadfastness, resilience, being together, sticking to the land, continuing peaceful resistance, hoping against hope… This house would aim to strengthen, encourage and empower women. We called it a house in order to give the women and their families a feeling of good atmosphere. We paved the way for them to feel at home and be able to find inner peace.
We called the house a story house. The women would be given time and space to narrate their stories of suffering, frustration and despair, but also to tell about their strength, willingness to share, sumud, and hope for a better future. This would help them to overcome their stress and strengthen their inner peace that could be transformed into an external peace shared with others. In this way they would become tools of change as peace builders and decision makers. They would be ambassadors, telling a peace message from Bethlehem to local and international visitors. The women narrated their stories to different visiting groups. AEI posted them on the Wall. Thus started the “Wall Museum”. The aim of this museum is, first, to say “no” to the Wall, and, second, to be a tool in communicating Palestine in all its many aspects: history, culture, Christian-Muslim living together and present political situation – both the occupation and the hope we cherish for freedom, justice and peace.
While we began our meeting with five women we now have more than 80 coming together. They are from the Rachel’s Tomb area and from the Bethlehem region as a whole. They have different religious backgrounds and ages. The women come together in order to narrate their stories as an expression of sumud. They feel very relaxed and comfortable at the Sumud Story House. They feel at home. They go out from their houses, express themselves and are able to confront their reality with hope, strength, love and sumud. They share indoor weekly discussion meetings as well as outdoor activities including interreligious meetings, peace building, peaceful communication, advocacy, reviving the religious heritage, telling about human rights, women’s empowerment activities, singing, and hosting international visitors.
Pax Christi International Board Member