Staying in Sebastia
Today , May 16, we travelled to Sebastia, in the north of the West Bank. Sebastia was at one time the capital of Samaria, and is a place of enormous archeological interest because of the many remains of earlier civilizations, including being the place where John the Baptist was beheaded.
We stayed in the beautiful Al-Khaled Palace, an old Ottoman palace converted to a guesthouse through grants from Sweden. Sebastia is twinned with, and supported by, the Hanwell (London) twinning group, who raised the money to provide the necessary furnishings and make the guest house able to function as a business. The manager is Abu Yasser, a great character, a fund of local knowledge and culture, and an excellent translator. He told us how important their ‘twin’ town had been to them, and it was apparent all the time we were there how highly Jean and Cathie are regarded in the town. Jean has visited on several occasions, and has run courses to help the guesthouse operate more smoothly and to encourage local people to act as guides for tourists by being able to tell them in English a little about the history of Sebastia.
When the guest house first opened, Abu Yasser tried to employ local women, but their husbands refused to allow it. So Sameh, Abu Yasser’s wife, started doing the cleaning and cooking, and as time went by attitudes changed through this example. Now the guest house is a much-needed source of employment for a number of the townsfolk.
Sebastia is mainly within Area B (coming under both Palestinian and Israeli jurisdiction ) but one part of it is within Area C – Israeli rule. Because of the historical value of the area the Israelis have tried to claim the ruins with the use of bulldozers and diggers. Fortunately this was stopped before too much damage was done, but the locals are forbidden to clear any of the sites. Abu Yasser told us that they wanted to brush away some of the dust and rubble to reveal the remaining mosaics underneath, but are not permitted to do anything.
We went to visit a family who have been helped through the town twinning scheme; the father is very ill and the family quite poor, so they have been set up with five bee hives. Um Ahmed is very proud of her bees, and will soon be getting her helmet and other equipment. In spite of their lack of money and amenities, the family welcomed us into their house and insisted we stayed for coffee, fresh baked bread and fruit from their trees. Everywhere we went we were greeted with the same warmth and hospitality. Another project that has benefited the community was the money provided to a few families to buy chickens .
These small initiatives provide help both financially and in developing confidence and self sufficiency. We visited Abu Yasser’s sister in the Women’s Centre at the base of the Palace; she showed us the local crafts women had been working on, and the lovely items they had produced to sell. Jean said later that she could hardly believe the enormous change she saw in this woman, now conversing more fluently in English and showing us with great pride and delight all she and her friends had achieved. While we were there, we saw many plaques on the walls declaring that funding had come from different countries to set up various projects, but the only donation from the UK government appeared to be the establishment of the village square – and that was during the time of the British mandate ! (Although it has to be said, it is a very nice area to be able to sit and talk over mint tea .) Here again, it is the London twin who has planted up the garden with gifts of trees and bushes, and helped make it the centre of the village community. It is easy to see the impact that this active friendship link has had for both participants, and if we are able to establish our link with Rummanah as effectively, we could feel that we are really able to make a very positive contribution.