Bethlehem Christians care for their neighbors

Suad Daboub has lived in the same place for 82 of her 83 years — in the basement of a building in the old city of Bethlehem, its entrance located off of the city’s main market street.

In addition to herself, this one-room home once housed her parents, both sets of grandparents and her five siblings. Never having married, Daboub now lives there alone.

The traditional arching ceiling and the thick walls are spotted with mold and mildew. A tiny alcove kitchen in the passageway just outside her door houses a shower and a small table. A locked door next to the kitchen opens up to the dark, dank bedrock cave her father once used as a workshop.

Despite being alone and impoverished, Daboub finds support and community from other local Christians. On the floor above her live Rose Hazbun and her daughter Samia, also Christians. The Hazbuns often invite Daboub to sit with them, eat a meal and share in holidays with their family. Samia regularly checks Daboub’s blood sugar level to keep her recently diagnosed diabetes in check.

Besides the Hazbuns, local tour company operator Anton Mousallam also helps Daboub by bringing her insulin shots and test strips from a local Christian-owned pharmacy. Sometimes he even pays her utility bills.

Lending a hand

Daboub is one of many in the Bethlehem area who receives little financial support from local and international Christian aid groups. These organizations have many families to help and not always enough money to go around. The Israeli separation barrier, which puts a stranglehold on Bethlehem’s economy and employment opportunities, in addition to the shrinking number of local Christians — due to a combination of emigration and an influx of Muslim villagers — also complicate distribution of aid. As a result, some in the Bethlehem Christian community — like the Hazbuns — feel called to help their less-fortunate neighbors.

“Thank God they help me,” Daboub said. “If it weren’t for this kind of support, all the Christians here would have left. Some are staying here only because of the help they receive from other Christians.”

The parish provides her with about $84 every month and the St. Anthony Charitable Organization, which owns her building, allows her to stay rent-free. But without anybody to support her and with no other source of income, that alone is not enough to make it through each month.

“I suffer when I see a Christian hungry and I have food,” said Mousallam, who together with his family regularly visits needy and elderly to help with their needs.

“I love Suad. Nobody tells us to do this, but Jesus said we have to be kind to each other,” said Samia Hazbun, who has seen the income from her small dry goods store shrink over the years. “We don’t ask for anything in return. There are so many people that need help and can’t find anybody to help them. We Christians are very small in numbers here.”

Community support

According to Bethlehem municipal statistics, nearly 55 percent of the local Christians today reside abroad in the diaspora within prosperous communities, mainly in Latin America and North America. While Christians in Bethlehem make up only about 18 percent of its 22,000 inhabitants, in the whole district — which includes the traditionally Christian towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour — Christians constitute 28 percent of the population.

Gabriel Gedeon, a Christian who makes a living tutoring a majority of Christian students, bemoaned the lack of assistance for the local Christian community from Christian families who have moved abroad.

Palestinian Catholic
Palestinian Gabriel Gedeon tutors Mirna Mora in Bethlehem Aug. 12. Gedeon, who is physically handicapped, receives work from many Christian families. Photo courtesy of Debbie Hill

“They have emigrated and have forgotten this Christian land and the Christian families who remain,” he said.

Not so for Hanan Mora, 34, however, who helps out the local Christian population by taking her 14-year-old daughter to be tutored in math by Gedeon. Gedeon, 54, is partially paralyzed on his right side due to a bout with polio as a child. In a traditional society where physical disabilities are not usually well-accepted, Gedeon, who graduated from Bethlehem University with exceptionally high marks, was unable to find a teaching job at the start of his career. Now he works as a private math tutor to support his family of three teenage daughters. Well-known among Bethlehem’s Christians, who know that by employing him they are helping him feed his family with dignity, Gedeon is the tutor of choice for many families, Mora said.

“It is important to help the Christian families to stay here,” she said. “We need to help each other live this hard life. With my faith, I know I am helping a family here, but on the other hand I am also helping my daughter get better grades so she can graduate and go on to the university.”

Though Gedeon, too, is helped by the parish, and the tuition costs for his daughters at private Catholic schools and at the university are waived, he said would not be able to provide for his family without the support of the Christian families who specifically seek him out to tutor their children. Almost 95 percent of his students are Christian, he said, and he receives no support from the Palestinian Authority.

“I depend on these Christian families,” he said. “I am proud that I support myself and my family in this way. It was a connection from one Christian family to another. They told each other by word of mouth.”

“I think Christian families are doing their best to survive,” he said. “The existence of one family supports the existence of another family. It is like a domino effect.” 

Squeezed finances

The domino effect continues in the Aida refugee camp, on the border between Bethlehem and Beit Jala, where Frieda Dababneh, 49, helps 84-year-old Mary Nasser with her medicines and includes her in family meals. One of the few Christian families in the camp, Dababneh, her husband and their her four children have adopted Nasser, whom they have known for 15 years.

“I would not be able to survive without her,” said Nasser, who receives monthly aid from the local parish, of Dababneh. “She loves me, and I love her, and I love God.”

“Nobody takes care of her, everybody just looks out for themselves,” said Dababneh, who is herself struggling financially. “I am doing this for God’s sake; I am serving God as I do this. As Christians we must help each other. Jesus said: When you find a man who is thirsty, give him water. If anybody is hungry, give him food. We are here by the grace of God.” 

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.