Love as a Healing Balm

Families cope with tragedy and cling to hope

text by Diane Handal with photographs by Nadim Asfour

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The graffiti-glazed wall severing the West Bank of Palestine from the state of Israel has many names. Israelis term it a “security barrier” against terrorism. Palestinians call it an “apartheid wall.”

Whatever its name, the 440-mile fortification severely disrupts movement, divides land, cuts off access to services and resources, and undermines agricultural and rural livelihoods throughout the West Bank. The massive structure is all the more striking for its sparse surroundings: a desert landscape of beige, accented by an occasional cluster of buildings or green trees, with black water tanks in the distance.

Due to the scarcity of water in this arid region, people depend on cisterns to collect rainwater and store well water.

“We have water through the wells that come from the mountains 300 yards down,” says George Saadeh, principal of Shepherds High School in the largely Christian town of Beit Sahour, which is adjacent to Bethlehem.

“But Israel controls the wells. We have to buy water when it runs out, and it is very expensive,” he says.

The convenience of constant access to drinkable water is not known to the Saadeh family — nor is mobility.

“Palestinians are prevented from moving freely. I cannot take my children to see the Mediterranean Sea, which is a half an hour away,” he adds, his olive skin highlighted by the white hair around his temples.

All travel beyond the West Bank requires permits, which do not come easily. Even for Christian Palestinians, reaching Jerusalem for Holy Week and Easter can be difficult. It is common in Bethlehem for half of a family to receive the necessary permits while the other half is denied.

“Security” is the single biggest reason why the Israeli authorities may deny a permit. Often no reason is given.

Such challenges are customary for the Saadeh family — and for the nearly three million Palestinians who live in the West Bank. But for the Saadehs, theirs is a life overshadowed by violence and heartbreak that have tested their Christian faith. Their story, as with so many others in occupied territories, is one of struggle and survival. But it also turns out to be a story of confronting the pain of the past — and finding reason to hope.

George Saadeh and his wife, Najwa, live within a framework of concrete walls and checkpoints. Both hail from Bethlehem.

Mr. Saadeh attended Terra Sancta College, a primary and secondary school run by the Franciscan Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, and then studied aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He returned to Bethlehem in 1983 to work and teach, marrying his neighbor, Najwa, in 1986.

In 1999, Mr. Saadeh began serving as vice principal of Shepherd High School, and became its principal in 2002.

Najwa Saadeh, a Syriac Christian whose family left Turkey during the tumult of the World War I era, attended Bethlehem's St. Joseph High School and later studied philosophy at Bethlehem University. The curls at the bottom of her dark hair fall loosely on her shoulders as she speaks of her daughter Christine. Dark circles frame her big brown eyes.

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