A young Christian woman from Beit Sahour – a Palestinian town east of Bethlehem – has returned from a year in Bern, Switzerland, where she served with an organization that helps people with disabilities.
In an interview with Paul Calvert, for his “Focus on Israel and the Palestinian Territories” YouTube channel, Hala Gharib said her desire to volunteer began during the COVID-19 pandemic, while serving with Bethlehem-based Palestinian NGO Hogar Niño Dios.
There, Gharib took part in rehabilitation and educational activities for children with both psychological and physical disabilities.
House of Hope in Bethlehem, another center for disabled persons, depends on volunteers to serve as “house parents” for the residents, fulfilling a vital “parental” role in areas such as meal preparation, washing, dressing, cleaning and playing.
Gharib also volunteered at House of Hope, in collaboration with Youth Wake-Up, an organization that “works on the social transformation of disadvantaged groups in conflict zones through the involvement of local young people.”
When COVID restrictions worldwide began to relax, Gharib considered taking her volunteer experience overseas to be a blessing to other nations.
“I had the idea of volunteering and I wanted to experience it outside of my country. I was volunteering in Palestine with the NGO [Hogar Niño Dios] during the pandemic. And then I wanted to try to volunteer outside of my country,” Gharib said.
To meet this motivation to serve abroad, Gharib said she applied to European Voluntary Service, an international program funded by the European Commission. EVS initially sent her to Switzerland to volunteer in a plant garden outside the capital city, Bern. There on the Swiss countryside, she worked with people with disabilities.
“They have many workshops and I worked with them, showing them how to plant. I was working with people who had social [worker] background(s) and we volunteered together in that garden.”
Gharib said she did not have much experience working in gardens before her trip.
“I was there for five months and then I moved to a different project to experience more people and do more things,” she said.
Gharib also volunteered to teach people how to use a sewing machine, make carpets and even do laundry with residents who face mental challenges.
In the process, Gharib developed photography and video skills and taught the residents how to use the machines with her own instructional videos, such as “How to start the sewing machine.”
“We used to put the videos on a TV and they used to really like it a lot, and learned,” she said.
Though the disabilities are the same as those she encountered among the people in Bethlehem, Gharib said she had challenges communicating with the Swiss.
“The language was different for me because, here [Bethlehem], I could understand the people and I could talk to them, but there I could not. I learned how to speak German, but it was hard to connect with them – so I connected with them through emotions and so on,” she said.
The EVS program enables young people, aged 18 to 30, who are legal residents of Europe, to serve in an organization or public body in Europe, Africa, Asia or South America for a period of two to 12 months. The informal intercultural approach provides a unique opportunity for volunteers to become immersed in a different culture and to acquire new skills and abilities useful for personal and professional growth.
Gharib spoke about her unique role in Europe, as a volunteer from Bethlehem.
“So, every time I say I’m Palestinian and I’m from Bethlehem, they are shocked because they never have met someone like me, who [has] come to work and have the experience … And everyone was so happy to see a Palestinian, and someone who is coming from the Holy Land and living there all my life.”
They asked a lot of questions, she said, such as, “How does it feel to live there?” and “How do you feel being in the Holy Land?”
Gharib said people beyond Israel don’t always know there are Christian Palestinians, because they are such a small minority.
“We are only 2%. And they’re mostly shocked by the fact that I’m a Christian living in Palestine, and for them, it’s like, ‘Whoa—how [are you] Christian?’ And most of them — they ask me if [I come] from a different background,” she said, adding that most were surprised that there are Christians living in an area with Muslim Arabs.
While living in Bern, Gharib attended an English-speaking church.
“They were like actually my second family. I celebrated Christmas with them, Easter and many, many more [events] … with the church members there. They invited me to their homes and welcomed me as family,” she said.
Aside from learning new skills as a volunteer, Gharib received personal discipleship, including through attending a “life group” study each week.
“I actually felt more close to God this year because I got to know different backgrounds from all over the world, international people. And, one time, someone said that Heaven will be like international people — [just like] this church — people … coming to worship Jesus. So, it was really nice to get to know [the church members] in my evenings or my free days.”
Gharib also enjoyed the international meal gatherings, where members would bring different foods representing their own countries and, afterwards, share the Word of God.
Her overseas volunteer experience helped Gharib gain confidence to travel alone, as well as learn practical things, such as using public transportation in other countries.
In addition, she made some new discoveries about cultural differences, specifically Swiss time versus Palestinian time.
“Especially in Switzerland,” she said. “They go on time exactly. If I say ‘at 7 a.m.,’ everyone comes at 7 a.m. – no one comes before and no one comes after,” she joked. “But it’s special that I have learned this and I will take it with me.”
Gharib wants to go on similar trips in the future, and is even considering an annual two-month mission trip, because she wants “to serve and do … good works.”
The young woman from Bethlehem said she prays for good health and protection, and looks to Jesus to guide her way, to direct her steps, and to “be with me all the time.”
To watch the full interview with Christian journalist Paul Calvert, click here.