Interview

Living in Conflict, Living in Abundance

Q&A with Raeda Mansour, the only parish nurse in Palestine

by Jeff Hulett

Raeda Mansour is a parish nurse at Christmas Lutheran Church in the ancient city of Bethlehem and the only parish nurse in Palestine. While the city of Bethlehem is most famous as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the modern day city is home to a population of 25,000 people and located within the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Its tourism and infrastructure were severely damaged during the second intifada from 2000–2005, and periods of violence and economic depression continue to frustrate its inhabitants. In 2006 parish nursing began at Christmas Lutheran Church with the Ajyal ministry for seniors, which currently serves several hundred Christian seniors in and around Bethlehem and provides other health ministries for Christians and Muslims living in villages around the West Bank.

In April 2015, Ms. Mansour attended the Church Health Center’s Westberg Symposium and spoke at the World Forum, a gathering of parish and faith community nurses from across the world. The Church Health Center’s Jeff Hulett spoke with her about her ministry in Palestine and the unique challenges of health ministry within a conflict zone, where trauma takes particular forms.

Jeff Hulett: How did your ministry begin at Christmas Lutheran Church?

Raeda Mansour: I am the parish nurse of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, and the intergenerational project manager in the Diyar Consortium. Diyar is the plural of dar, which means home in Arabic, so when people come to our ministry, we hope that they feel at home.

Diyar is a consortium of Lutheran-based, ecumenically oriented institutions serving the whole Palestinian community from “the womb to the tomb,” with an emphasis on children, youth, women and the elderly. We focus on community building, development and outreach in the areas of civic, cultural, psychosocial, health, educational and spiritual programs. The main goal of Diyar is to work with the individual and the community to be proactive in shaping their future and to have more abundant living.

Since 2006 I have managed a senior program called Ajyal, which means generations, within the Diyar Consortium. We started with 13 seniors from the Christmas Lutheran Church. Right now, through our eight years, we’ve targeted 1,200 seniors; 600 of them are Muslim seniors from different villages in the Bethlehem district and the rest are Christian.

Please tell us about the Ajyal “Generations” Elder Care Program.

We started our ministry because there wasn’t that much for our seniors. Elder care programs were just providing meals or medicines, which, to me, is heartbreaking. When you only offer older adults meals and medicine, you are telling them, “We’re taking care of you until you die.” This is not our vision. We wanted something else for the elderly because they are the most ignored population within the community. We wanted to explore the potential of our seniors and to help them be an effective part of society.

Ajyal is based on the community nursing framework, which offers a holistic perspective to health, healing and personal well-being. It is unique in that it does not follow the traditional dependency models that most other elderly programs in Palestine adopt, which, however well-intentioned they may be, usually consider the elderly to be helpless, weak and frail. Such attitudes affect the elderly negatively and damage their emotional well-being, making them believe that they are close to dying and their lives no longer has meaning or value. This leads them to ultimately neglect their own health as they now believe this is part of the aging process.

We started with 12 elderly volunteers who expressed willingness to assist in the management of the program. They shared in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the program activities, including home visits, social recreational activities, spiritual activities, and medical health screenings. But in one of our workshops in 2007, we discovered that their dreams went beyond these activities. They wanted to have job creation and lifelong learning opportunities. So we offer them English courses, computer courses, and art courses. They have established several clubs such as drama, yoga with meditation, and book clubs. They started to learn how to use a computer and can Skype with their kids who are abroad, receive e-mails, see pictures. Our seniors are not only receiving services but also contributing to the program. It’s a new and abundant life for them. They have gone from living under a killing, boring routine to a life full of activity, hope and tenderness.

How does life in Palestine affect your community?

Life in the Holy Land is not easy. With the separation wall in their yards or their houses, combined with the aging process, our seniors feel they are at the end of their ives. Eighty percent of our seniors live by themselves and are isolated or lonely. It took me many hours and several visits to convince them just to get out of their houses. When I go back in my memory to when I met our seniors for the first time, I remember how they were hopeless, had no energy or desire to be reengaged with the community. Now, I can’t believe that those are the same people I met eight years ago!

With our ministry they feel cared for. They feel loved. When we just call them on a birthday or anniversary that they even forgot, they feel there is somebody who’s caring for them and loves them and thinks of them. One of the ladies said, “I never thought of the richness of life after 65 years old.” Another said, “My life was filled with the darkness, but now I can experience the colorful.”

Our seniors wrote three books, and through these they tried to express their fear, anger, and forgiveness. They are so proud when they say, “Oh, you know, our book is now in America, in Latin America, in Europe,”—wherever their children are in the world. One Christmas drama was about living under occupation, how Santa will come and cross those checkpoints and the separation wall and bring gifts for our grandchildren.

We are trying to bring out all these negative feelings, to start a new life. There is a hope, and this what our ministry is about: bringing hope for our suffering people. And that’s why our Savior came; he gave us the hope. This is what we are doing; we are his disciples, and we are his followers just to give hope for new life.

What are some of the challenges you face?

One of our challenges is restriction on movement. We cannot move from one city to another without facing many checkpoints. People come from all over the world—America, Europe or wherever—to visit Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, but our people can’t do that without permission, although it’s only few kilometers away. When my kids ask me why we don’t go to the beach, I tell them the sea is sleeping now. How could you convince an eight-year-old that we can’t get there unless we have permission? And even if we have permission, it is not a guarantee that we will be allowed to pass. Sometimes they just tell you that that checkmark is closed and you have to go back home after hours of waiting. It’s time-consuming, money-consuming, effort-consuming. All of these restrictions make the life very difficult for our people.

This is why immigration is very high among youngsters. They want to go outside. They want to get a better life and better opportunities. And we’re there to help keep people in the land. Christianity started in the Holy Land, and we have to be there. God want us to be there, and that’s why we’re continuing our ministry. They can build a wall around our cities and houses, but they never will be able to build a wall around our hearts. We are very faithful and hopeful people, and we love our country and decide to stay.

We always remind our people that even our Savior Jesus suffered. You know, when he was born in Bethlehem, he was persecuted. When Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, they had to register, and we have to have a magnetic card that we also use to get out. So it’s similar to his life. Of course, if we compare our suffering to his, it’s nothing like what he went through. But he is our Savior, our model.

So we have to work within what is available. We are trying to transform our people from being victims to visionaries. We believe that despite the hopeless situation we are not victims. We are still able to shape our future so we can really enjoy the abundant life that we all deserve.

 

To support the Ajyal “Generations” Elder Care Program and other outreach ministries of the Diyar Consortium and Christmas Lutheran Church, US-based donors may give online through Bright Stars of Bethlehem at brightstarsbethlehem.org.

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