The story of Jesus’ birth which is found in Matthew’s gospel narrates events that took place months, or perhaps even years, after the miraculous night described in the Gospel of Luke. We don’t know precisely how long it took the Magi, after they first saw the star, to outfit their caravan and make their way along the ancient trade route from Persia to Judea. Stopping first in Jerusalem to inquire about the child, they were delayed while Herod consulted the temple authorities concerning prophecies of the Messiah. The protocols of oriental hospitality would have extended their stay in Jerusalem even longer.
By the time the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, the holy family was living in a house, not the rude stable-cave where Jesus had been born. (see Matthew 2:11) Jesus most likely was already a toddler playing at his mother’s knee. This supposition is strengthened by the fact that Herod targeted boy-children two years of age and under in his attempt to assassinate the Christ child. Thanks to a timely warning by one of God’s messengers before the massacre could occur, Joseph took Mary and Jesus and fled into Egypt. There they lived as refugees until they received word that Herod had died. Though there is considerable uncertainty about the exact dates for these events, it would seem that the family lived for at least a year or two in Egypt before they were able to return safely to Judea and take up permanent residence in the town of Nazareth.
That their refugee status lasted for only a few years makes them far more fortunate than are the residents of the Aida refugee camp that we visited when we were in Bethlehem in late April. Driven from their homes in villages in the areas of western Jerusalem and western Hebron during the formation of Israel in 1948, the oldest refugees in that camp have lived there for more than sixty years. Younger residents have never known another home. Deeply attached to the land of their forebears, they remain in the camp and cherish the hope that they too, like Mary and Joseph, will some day be able to return to their native towns.
Aida camp was established by the UN in 1950 and is administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Sitting on just 0.71 square kilometers (about 175 acres, or 0.27 square miles), the camp houses over 4700 registered refugees, nearly 40% of them aged 14 and under. Overcrowding presents a substantial problem. Social services are minimal. There is one girls’ school, which operates in shifts. Boys must travel to Beit Jala to attend school. The nearest health services are found in Dheisheh camp or in Bethlehem.
While the camp is connected to municipal electric and water systems, the water and sewage services are poor. Israel controls water allocation for all of the West Bank, including the refugee camps. On average, Israeli domestic consumption is 320 liters per capita per day, while Palestinian consumption averages just 80 liters/capita/day. Many Palestinian communities receive less than 15 liters/capita/day, which is below the minimum amount established by international water law as necessary to sustain human life. International human rights groups have repeatedly documented and protested this inequitable and unjust allocation.
The unemployment rate in the camp is 43%, a situation which has been made substantially worse in recent years by the installation of the separation wall. Workers living in Bethlehem and the surrounding area must now pass through military checkpoints in order to reach their jobs in nearby East Jerusalem. Day laborers with work permits start to line up at 3:30 am in order to be ready when the checkpoint opens at 4:00 am. According to a friend of mine who just completed three months as an Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme team member stationed in Bethlehem, some days it may take only fifteen or twenty minutes to pass through. Other days it takes hours.
We spoke with one woman who considered herself fortunate because her employer, the manager of a tourist hotel in Jerusalem, is understanding when she arrives late due to delays at the checkpoint, and will hold her job for her during the periods when she is waiting for a new work permit. Permits must be renewed every three months, and it can take up to a month after one has expired for the renewal to be issued. Faced with such harassment and obstacles, it is not surprising that many Palestinians in the refugee camps have simply given up seeking employment.
The separation wall dominates the landscape. Made of prefabricated concrete slabs averaging 25 feet in height, the wall separates farmers from their fields, children from their schools, the ill and elderly from hospitals, and, as described above, workers from their jobs. It does not follow the Green Line, the boundary between Israel and its neighbors that was established by the Armistice of 1949, but rather cuts deep inside Palestinian territory. Viewing it, I was reminded of my visit to Berlin in 1985, when the infamous Wall still divided that city. One side is plain and drab. The other is covered with graffiti, much of it political in nature.
The portion of the wall that runs along the Aida camp includes a number of vivid images. One shows a tank firing into a large red heart, with the legend, “You can never break me.” Many call for Peace and Justice and an end to home demolitions. A length of panels holds the Wall Museum, described as “a series of posters with true stories written by Palestinian women. The stories of suffering and oppression as well as ‘sumud’ (steadfastness or resilience), inner strength and cultural identity are here to bring out the truth of Palestinian life, which this wall tries to hide and kill.” The stories are by turns touching, heartbreaking, and stirring in their depiction of the reality of Palestinian life in women’s experiences.
One especially poignant image has stayed with me. It is a scene showing the wall running through an open area. On one side children are flying kites, each kite representing the flag of a country in the region. On the other side is a single child holding the string of a kite representing the Palestinian flag. Yet high above the wall in undivided air the flags all mingle together, a symbol of promise for a better tomorrow.
For Christians that promise is embodied in the boy-child Jesus, who was himself a refugee so long ago. My hope for this Christmas season is that refugees everywhere – from Palestine to Burma, from Sudan to Colombia – may soon find safety and security in the homelands they love.