Christmas in Palestine. It’s something that calls to many people, whether Jew, Christian, Muslim, or even agnostic. Birthplace of the alphabet, of Judaism, and of Christianity. With a million years of human settlement, it was one of the earliest places in the world to see organised human habitation and agricultural development.
Christmas in Jerusalem. The holiest city for Jews, for the last three thousand years. A focal point for Christians for two thousand years. A sacred site for Muslims for over fifteen hundred years. All three Abrahamic faiths place Jerusalem in a central role.
Christmas in Bethlehem. Manger Square. The Church of the Nativity. Just ten kilometres south of Jerusalem. But getting there isn’t so easy for independent travellers. There’s an imposing concrete wall separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem. A massive metal gate is controlled by Israeli soldiers. Snaking along Bethlehem’s outskirts, the 26′ high wall cuts part of the town off, affecting social, cultural, religious and economic life. A Quaker living on the Palestinian side, wrote: “Its impact is psychological too. Reflecting one morning on how it would be good to pay a quick visit to Jerusalem I was struck by feeling that I really didn’t want to have to go through the barrier checkpoint. So not only are the people of Bethlehem physically cut off from their own capital city of East Jerusalem, but it seems to me that it creates a psychological barrier too. Many are not allowed to travel to Jerusalem anyway – they need permits to visit family; work permits; health permits to visit hospitals; religious permits to go to churches and mosques in Jerusalem. But in Bethlehem the presence of the separation barrier is a daily reminder and a physical representation of their situation” (http://old.quaker.org.uk/bethlehem-and-wall).
Tourism in the Palestinian part of Bethlehem has almost collapsed, despite the central place that Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity hold for millions and millions of people internationally. The hotels in Bethlehem are struggling, though it is one of the most famous places in the world. The barrier is part of the problem – tourists are discomfited by seeing man-made divisions at first-hand. The only international airport in Palestine was bombed by Israeli forces in 2001, so most tourists fly into Israel now and are bussed in to Bethlehem on day-trips from their hotels on the Israeli side of the separation barrier.
Although only around 1.5% of Palestinians are Christians, the majority Muslim Palestinian population feel immensely proud of Bethlehem being the birthplace of a major world faith. Muslims believe in Jesus (Isa) as a prophet, and they too visit Bethlehem at Christmas – though for many families it’s a seasonal tradition, rather than a religious thing.
People of many faiths and none all have their own reasons to want to visit Palestine at Christmas. Nobody more so than Yousef. Except that the word “visit” puts a slight frown on his face. Because Yousef is a Palestinian refugee here in Málaga (154 – A Tale of Two Yousefs), and ultimately wants to live back there, safely, with his wife and tiny daughter, just like he used to, not far from his parents and his sister.
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A crash and a cry came from Yousef’s room and I heard my name. He appeared at my study door looking white. A letter from the Norwegian government had gone to his old address in Oslo, where he’d worked a few years before, and had been returned. So they’d emailed him to say that he had been granted Norwegian citizenship back in August and he needed to come and collect his passport. We talked half the night. What at first seemed like the answer to everything, wasn’t. Norway is not in the EU, though it is in the Schengen Agreement area. The passport would give him the right to live and work in Spain, but not to bring his family. Would it be better to continue the refugee process? Getting residency via the refugee route would give him the right to bring his family. But to demonstrate work contracts and social security contributions is tough – in crisis-ridden Spain NOBODY gets a work contract, let alone a refugee (far more likely to get casual work, paid under the counter).
In the end, to a man with no passport and just a document that says his country doesn’t exist, the prospect of a passport from a country in Europe (albeit not in the EU) seemed like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We worked out an overland bus route from Málaga to Oslo. Expensive, with countless changes. And off he went with a rucksack, crossing half a dozen countries without a passport. His timing was good – a week later ISIL / Da’esh bombed Paris and many borders closed, especially to Muslims. But Yousef sailed through, slept in some bus stations, kept in touch via WhatsApp, and collected the precious Norwegian passport.
Then back to Madrid, to do the honourable thing and deregister as a refugee, and collect his Palestinian passport. Back home in Colmenar he had a mountain of washing to be done, and a visit to the Málaga police to explain and to cancel his refugee status there too. And best of all, with a passport, he could book a flight to Palestine to see his wife and baby. Christmas in Palestine. The best present anyone could have. Especially when it’s home.
But his country’s only international airport is nothing but rubble. And the adjacent country does not permit him to use its airports. So we bought a Turkish Airlines ticket via Istanbul to Jordan, which is the nearest he’s allowed to fly to. After that he would face eight hours or more on buses, though showing the Norwegian passport at checkpoints was likely to lead to fewer delays. The Palestinian one would be shown only on arrival at his own border.
First though, we went down to Málaga airport a couple of days before his flight, to a Western Union office there, to collect some money Yousef’s father had sent to repay me for the flight. As clear as anything, I was treated to a demonstration of what Muslims face on a daily basis while simply trying to carry out normal tasks. Yousef has reasonable Spanish – certainly enough to offer the completed collection slip and his ID and to say to the young woman that the funds had been transferred a few hours before by his father. To say that she was aggressive and suspicious would be an understatement. She threw the paper back saying that the sender’s name was wrong. Yousef’s dad has four names, and he had put three on the slip. His father’s passport number was correctly filled in, as was the exact amount of euros (another security check, as only the sender knows precisely what their transfer is converted to in the target currency). They share surnames. His father had put the number of Yousef’s Norwegian passport on the slip at his end, and Yousef was carrying that passport. We had both witnessed other people collecting euros via Western Union and normally it takes about two minutes. But Yousef was put through the third degree. What was the money for? Who was sending it? What relation was the sender? Many questions were repeated, as though she was trying to catch him out. Yousef became more tense, and she became more suspicious. Eventually I joined in the conversation, trying to calm things down, though trying not to undermine him. With me she was entirely different, and soon handed over the euros. Yousef and I went for a coffee. “Is it often like that?” I asked. “Yes” he replied.
Two days later we returned to the airport and Yousef flew to Aqaba, Jordan. Then he caught buses through Israel, and finally crossed back into Palestine for the first time after a year as a refugee, to give his wife and baby the biggest hugs ever.
Christmas in Palestine. Home with his family. Rediscovering his baby girl. Cooking again for his wife and both their extended families. Trying to forget the casual racism of the Western Union woman. Collecting his thoughts and planning the next steps. Planning for the day when all three of them can live legally in Spain together.
Christmas in Bethlehem. As a child Yousef went to Bethlehem with his parents every December, and he has made the journey across his country to Bethlehem an annual Christmas tradition. This week he had planned to take his wife, and for the first time his little daughter too, through the checkpoint to Bethlehem to join the happy crowds of Muslims and Christians filling Manger Square at Christmas, peacefully and joyfully sharing a cross-cultural tradition at this special time of year. But then on Saturday fighting at the Ramallah checkpoint made their planned crossing too dangerous and the young couple could not take the risk with their small baby. There’s a painful irony there.
“Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek,
but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
– Martin Luther King.
© Tamara Essex 2015 http://www.twocampos.com