Our tour group turned a corner to find a young girl huddled on the stone steps. A woman in a black headscarf and robe crouched near her, speaking gently. Our guide, Najwa, paused briefly while she and the woman spoke to one another in quiet tones. She then motioned us on. I was near the front of the group and Najwa explained softly that the child had been brought to them after a traumatic experience with her family. The little girl had been there two days, but was still unwilling or unable to speak. “She needs time. We will care for her.”
We were touring the Jeel al Amal School and Boys Home in Bethany. We’d been welcomed by a roomful of boisterous, bouncing boys and a loosely choreographed routine of jumping and shouting and wide grins. We’d already seen the brightly colored kitchens and spacious lunchroom and were on our way to the dormitory area when we had come upon the scene on the stairway. The boys' rooms were spacious and neat with comic book heroes adorning doors and beds. The outdoor playground had murals and bright colors. The vibrant interior was a stark contrast to the crumbling village outside the school walls.
Bethany — home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus — is in East Jerusalem, within walking distance of the Mount of Olives. Bethany is the backdrop for countless sermons centered on Jesus’ teachings. Groups of Christian women study those few verses about Mary and Martha, scrutinizing and weighing their own hearts and behavior. Children in Sunday school make delightedly disgusted faces as they imagine the smell of Lazarus’ decaying body. Our focus is always on what happened there, rather than where the story is set. But Bethany is a real place. Today it’s behind the Separation Security Wall and is struggling economically. The streets are full of burned cars and rubble. The boys in the Jeel al Amal school are from the Palestinian Territories, often orphans or children who have experienced terrible domestic problems.
The school started in 1972 when Alice and Basil Sahhars rented a building and moved in bunkbeds and old school desks. A teacher, Basil had a vision of children growing to become free and independent thinkers. His social worker wife, Alice, worked with refugees and dreamed of a world where children would no longer cry from fear, hunger or thirst. The Christian couple named the school Jeel al Amal: "Generation of Hope” in Arabic. Now 45 years on, there is a specially designed building housing a coed primary school with more than 400 hundred students and a dormitory for 150 orphaned boys.
What draws me in is Jeel al Amal’s focus on the children and their desire to create a loving, safe and supportive place for the children without concern over different beliefs. The school demonstrates peaceful and joyful co-existence of different faith and cultural narratives. Girls and boys learn side-by-side, creating a sense of equality. Christians and Muslims work and learn side-by-side. The local Christian and Muslim communities work alongside global partners to raise funds for the school, which is entirely donation-dependent.
There is an equal focus on providing a good education. Jeel al Amal is accredited by Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian education authorities, and there is a frequent need for funds to send students on to college. A few years ago, Jeel al Amal added special training in children’s rights, conflict resolution and negotiating to the curriculum. In the face of the cultural and political realities of Palestine and the Middle East, teaching children to resolve conflict is visionary.
Jeel al Amal Alice and Basil’s daughter, Najwa, runs the school now, carrying on the vision of her parents:
The children of the poor deserve to get the same education that affluent children receive.
They deserve to grow into self-confident, responsible people.
They are the Generation of Hope: Jeel al Amal.
They dream that Arabs, Muslims, Christian and Jews will again live together as neighbors in peace.
At Jeel al Amal, they are living the CMYK value of “Everyone matters and is on the same level, independent of place, history, race, sexuality, gender or belief.” I am in awe of what Jeel al Amal has accomplished and how they continue to succeed. I love that the CMYK Community can stand beside them and with them in their vision of hope.
Kris is a member of the CMYK Community and a fifth-generation Montanan. She is working on coming out of the evangelical closet, while simultaneously loving everyone – both in the closet and out. Kris is also on staff at CMYK, working on all those things Matt doesn’t want or like to do.