An update from two volunteers’ semester in Bethlehem
Last February, John and Barbara Fritsche traded their downtown Chicago condo for a small apartment in the bustling center of Bethlehem.
They’d wake every morning to the sounds of church bells, calls to prayer, and shop-owners hawking their goods. They found themselves immersed in an energy that even downtown Chicago can’t rival.
A lifetime of experience in arts and education (John) and legal work (Barbara) combined with a shared passion for Middle East peace led them to volunteer at Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture for the semester.
During his days on campus, you could find John with his sleeves rolled up, sporting an apron spattered with clay. A retired education and ceramics professor, John Fritsche assisted in the ceramics classes and led assessment workshops for faculty. He spent time with students both problem-solving techniques and listening to their hopes and dreams.
“These students are so hungry for opportunity,” he shared. “As students, some have already launched small businesses and are here to hone their craft. We get to support them in both ventures.”
After teaching, John often joined students for tea in their homes, glimpsing their world beyond the classroom. As he and Barbara discovered, hospitality marked their daily interactions with Palestinians.
On Barbara’s last day in Bethlehem, she shared a 5-hour meal with Nuha Khoury, the Academic Dean of Dar al-Kalima. The perfect end to a semester filled with meaningful work and even more impactful relationships. Over the last 4 months, Barbara applied her 35+ years as a general practice attorney as she worked directly with college’s administration. With Nuha, she developed policies and procedures to be used by students, staff, administrators and faculty. She also gave tours of the college to English speaking visitors.
As a runner, Barbara was immediately struck by the lack of freedom of movement in Bethlehem. She’d start each day, jogging through the winding streets of Old Bethlehem, only to be confronted by ever-present separation wall that surrounds the city on three sides.
In her first week there, she noted that not only physical barriers limited movement. She met a Bethlehemite whose family member died in Jerusalem, yet she could not get permissions to attend the funeral just 6 miles away. Throughout the weeks and months that would follow, she and John would be reminded of the ways the occupation threatens to restrict not only Palestinians’ freedom of movement but also their freedom to simply exist. Despite these hard revelations, they clung to Rev. Mitri Raheb’s definition of hope: “Hope is when you know the world may end tomorrow, but you continue to plant olive trees.”
This is the work they were privileged to join. “It was truly an amazing and incredibly rewarding experience. We are forever changed,” Barbara shared.
You can read Barbara’s account of her time in Bethlehem on her blog.