|Rama Jyoti Vernon||
This is the sixth installment in a series about my trip to the West Bank in May 2015.
At dawn, we prepared for our adventure. Rob, his wife Alice, Sraddha and I now ventured forth by taxi to the border checkpoint of Qalendia between Ramallah and East Jerusalem. Rob was a veteran of these border crossings and knew where to lead us, in what looked more like confusion than danger. There were not the guns and officious looking soldiers as in the past. There was now a wall surrounding Bethlehem. I could not help but think of a Sunday sermon my husband Rev. Max once gave when he said, “The walls we build around us to defend, protect, and keep something out, are the same walls that keep something in. They can become the prison of our own souls.”
We crossed over the “no-man’s gap” between one border and the next. Suddenly, we came upon multiple lines of Palestinians waiting to get through the narrow, metal-barred passageways that acted like funnels or chutes. I could not help but think of my home in Texas and the cattle, funneled through chutes into the trains or trucks that transport them to market and their own demise.
So this is a checkpoint. Wow! Now I could understand what the yoga students had to go through to get to our classes from Bethlehem, Nablus and other areas and return to their homes each afternoon. No wonder they expressed fatigue and the need for greater strength and patience when standing in the checkpoint lines.
As we joined in the lines with the Palestinians from many walks of life, I could not help but notice the changes from 20 years ago. My sorrow deepened as I witnessed a nation of broken peoples, broken dreams and no hope for self-determination and a country of their own. Older men once proud and defiant were clothed in tattered and worn suite coats that, like their families, had once seen better days. Their bodies, once robust with vibrant youth were now shrunken with the ravages of hopelessness.
There are so many ways in all cultures of our world today to numb the pains of life. We were told there is now a growing reflection of this hopelessness through alcoholism and drug addiction.
Today, I saw so many in these lines, whose light along with their life’s dreams had faded from their eyes. My own pain was so great, I wanted to burst into sobs but I too was now an automaton like in “Metropolis,” shuffling from one foot to the other as I slowly moved in the direction of the metal barred corridor to get to the other side of several turnstiles and Passport Control.
Finally, we arrived at the taxis that could take those who could afford the fees to the border of Bethlehem. I was so grateful for this experience of knowing what some Palestinians have to live through each day just to go to work. Unemployment is severe and many did not have a choice when finding a job in another city.
There were two foreign looking women in beige flack jackets that were helping to usher people through from the East Jerusalem checkpoints to the other side of Bethlehem. They were with the World Council of Churches. I asked one if they were still standing between the Palestinian people and the Israeli guns as they did 20 years ago during the Intifada. She was forthcoming with information that seemed to say that there had been changes for the better in some areas, but not in others. She shared stories that seemed to substantiate the continuing human rights abuse stories we were hearing from people in the region. The Church Ladies couldn’t stop the abuse, but they were there to serve the needs of the people and after a three-month mission, return home to decompress and share their stories with those willing to listen.
We finally arrived at the home of our interpreter and friend. Her home was only 50 feet from the Bethlehem checkpoint, on the other side of the wall. She and her husband had a business of a restaurant and tourist shop also a few feet from the infamous border that now separates Bethlehem and the Arab sector of East Jerusalem. Our hostess’ home was magnificent with a marble courtyard entrance and marble floors throughout, giving a palatial feeling to what seemed like an oasis in the desert. They built the house to face the magnificent view of the Jerusalem hills just one year before the wall went up. Now, they had a view of the wall and beyond the wall of the controversial Israeli settlements that were taking over the hilltops of the West Bank. The home was spacious and well furnished with beautiful woods, and artwork.
Our hostess, a yoga teacher in Bethlehem, had arranged for Shraddha and Alice to teach a children’s Yoga class in the Ida Refugee camp in Bethlehem. There were over 30 children, from ages six to ten. Like children everywhere, they were happy and restless, curious and reluctant. Along with our interpreter, they did a masterful job in creating movement, story telling, and then our Bethlehem hostess brought them into stillness and relaxation.
Later as we met with the head of the school, he said that this camp held 6,000 refugees. The United Nations Relief Agency supported the camp and I noticed that Israeli militia no longer patrolled its streets day and night as in the past. There were no longer the curfew restrictions, and people seemed to go freely. Yes, these were permanent buildings, not tents. The principal of the school was born in the camp and his children were also born in the camp. The camps had become like neighborhoods, more humble neighborhoods that were attempting to create a better life for the future generations.
After the class we attempted to go by the Rapprochement center but they were closed. Apparently this was a holiday. Our hostess took Rob and me back to her home since we had not slept for two nights and were exhausted. Sraddha and Alice were taken to teach a class of Muslim women in the Dheisheh refugee camp which was started in 1949. My memories of Dheisheh were pretty grim. I had an opportunity to change past impressions. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak, so I opted out and fell into a deep sleep.
Shraddha and Alice said upon their return that instead of ten women as was initially planned, over 30 women of all different ages from two to 50 years-old arrived. As the women kept flooding in to the room, Alice compared the scene to an American flashmob, where people receive a last minute call and rush to an appointed place.
They said the smallest two-year-old Muslim yogini mimicked her mother in every pose. Sraddha said the women were hungry for yoga, even more than the yoga teachers we had just worked with. One woman’s sister had died from cancer one month ago and she asked Sraddha if yoga could help her overcome her unbearable grief. After the class she, along with five other women wanted to become yoga teachers to continue to work with the people in the camp.
My eyes are filling with tears and my heart with gratitude as I write this. Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I walked the streets of Dheisheh refugee came when an Israeli soldier pointed his gun at my husband’s chest. My husband only gave back compassion and understanding, and the soldier relaxed his grip when he saw that we were not a threat. He then began to visit with my husband, sharing his personal story. At that time, the camp was under periodic 24-hour curfews. This meant that people could not leave their homes during these curfews to even get food or milk for their children. Dheisheh used to be one of the most futile camps where daily arrests, killings, tear gas use and human rights abuses thrived.
For 25 years, I have held the Palestinian people in my heart and now, the demands for yoga here are so great, we are asked to return to Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Hebron and refugee camps of the West Bank. I wanted to cry with joy. A disempowered people under occupation can empower themselves internally through yoga. Regardless of circumstances around us, through yoga, we can always find peace and self-empowerment within ourselves.
The day was ending, the sun was beginning to set. It was time to leave beloved Bethlehem and venture back through two checkpoints into the big city life of Ramallah. The once-thriving city of Bethlehem has been hard hit by the occupation and settlement building. The city was not as clean as it once was. Storefronts, block after block, were closed and shuttered permanently. The Church of Nativity that stands over the birthplace of Jesus was closed, we were told, because it became so badly littered. The city felt tired, listless and hopeless. Just a few tourist spots were open in comparison to what I remembered of the “Christmas City.” During that time, my husband and I were taking dialogue groups to Bethlehem and were teaching the Spiritual Essence of Conflict Resolution on the journey. The Christian community had glimmers of hope for their future. Now, I was told that a smaller percentage of the once thriving Christian community of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, remained. As we left Bethlehem, the journey back over the border was uneventful but tiring. The next morning at 9 am we were scheduled to teach yoga to eleven men who were psycho-social counselors throughout the West Bank.