A Week in Bethlehem: Blog Part 1

On the 9th December, I took a week long trip to Bethlehem, the small city believed to be the site of Jesus' birth in the West Bank.

The purpose of our trip to Bethlehem was to allow two final year undergraduates from the Creative Therapies course at the University of Wales, Newport to experience working therapeutically with children from a different culture who speak a different langauge. They both use art therapeutically as a means of allowing children to express themselves emotionally and to seek to help them deal with some of the complicated issues many of them face or need to deal with as they grow up. In their practice in Britain they would normally visit once a week for three months, but they needed to work fast and intensively in this environment - so they took on three groups of around six children each, working with them every day. They were accompanied by two members of staff. I was there as the photographer to document the trip.

We flew from Luton to Tel Aviv, then took a taxi. After an hour we arrived quite suddenly at the Bethlehem checkpoint and saw the Security Wall for the first time. An Israeli soldier with her feet on her desk glanced at our stack of British passports before wordlessly nodding us through: into the West Bank. Even though it was dark, as soon we passed through the gate I saw the buildings you recognise from photographs and footage on the news. The contrast between the roads and buildings on the Israeli side and the Arab side are stark. Immediately things look older, poorer and more run down.

I was to stay with a Greek Orthodox Christian family in Beit Jala. We reached their house about 5 minutes after entering the West Bank and I was dropped off with my bags and the others zoomed straight off for bed, up the road in Bethlehem itself. I felt at home there straight away. The family were incredibly welcoming. The streets in Beit Jala aren't lit and can be very dark, but I didn't ever feel unsafe walking home at night.

The family's house was a bungalow, with a small annex at the back. This is where I stayed. It had its own bathroom and I used it during the days as a place to store my equipment and to download all my images to a hard drive at night. The house is next to the local mosque which would wake me at dawn with the Adhan - the Islamic call to prayer. I didn't need all the layers that I had brought with me. The weather was warm - even dusty sometimes.

As well as the mother and father, there are three sisters and two brothers, aged 32 to 21. They are educated professionals. Their house is a mix of new and old. They have Wifi and four computers, and all the children use Facebook. The house was decorated all over with Christian iconography; and because it was Christmas time Santa Claus was everywhere: even hanging on strings from parachutes concealing motors that would lift him up and down to music.

I was fed brilliantly. Every morning we would eat breakfast based around fresh warm pitta breads to either dip or fill; with sauces, jams, hummous, sausages and cream. There was various styles of chicken and rice and the falafel sandwhiches were excellent. The food in Bethlehem was cheap, even in a cafe overlooking one of the busiest squares we had four sandwhiches and four drinks for 20 shekels: about 4 pounds.

On the first morning I walked to the SOS Village to find the group and meet the staff to be shown around. The Village has a main building and twelve houses. Each house is home to seven to ten children, looked after full time by a 'mother' and 'aunt', who are supported by the village staff. The children are all young, and live in the houses until they are 14. They come from a variety of different backgrounds. Some are orphans, some are from families who are unable to look after them. Either way they live full time at the Village - though some do visit their families during holidays.

Due to the circumstances of their background, many of the children face particular challenges with their emotional development. Most of the children in the groups were around 7 or 8 years old. They spoke Arabic but very little English. The intention for the art therapy students was to work closely with small groups of children over the week. Using art therapeutically employs the creative process of making art both as a means and an end product. The very act of creating using materials can be a therapeutic process that allows self expression and can be a powerful aid to personal development. The products of such work, whether they are drawings, paintings, sculptures, or constructions can act as an aid to communication and insight allowing the therapist to work towards healing, recovery or development for the individual. The children in this case were not directed or instructed: they had a table of materials and were able to do anything they liked with them, either by themselves or with others in the group.

The SOS Children's organisation runs both the Village and the SOS School in Bethlehem. Most of the children at the Village also attend the School. There were three groups of children. Two groups took place at the School in the mornings and one at the Village in the afternoons. At the end of the sessions the children left what they had made, and the students made notes about the session and the children's progress through the week. At the end of the week they were able to take everything home with them.

I photographed in and around the sessions. I wasn't inside most of the sessions as the fewer adults are present the better as this makes for better self expression by the children. It's also better for their normal teachers not to be involved in the process, as it's important they don't feel they need to do anything other than what they want to do. Of the work I did see, I found the drawings particularly powerful. Some depicted family scenes. Others rather enigmatic and ambiguous arrangements of figures. Others abstract shapes and lines, or even simply a fully blackened sheet.

The children were friendly and seemed gregarious - at least with us. They would run up and introduce themselves, asking our names and where we were from. Our Arabic improved quickly and by the end I had most of the greetings and basic phrases learnt, though my phrasebook was essential. Because it wasn't dialectic, I would attempt a phrase and people helped me refine it to get it right. Having lunch in one of the houses I had one of my fondest conversations where the mother, aunt and myself had virtually no shared language and we spent time over a cup of tea attempting and failing to talk - so we laughed instead.

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