Besides from the many differences in culture, social norms, language, and traditions, I have found an aspect in many people in the area that I can relate with, and helps me to get closer to them. I have come to realize, that in the Bethlehem district, a great number of Palestinians have migrated out of the country due to the many difficulties they face here. But what really surprises me is that most of them, especially Christians, have gone to countries in Latin America, such as Chile, Honduras, Panama, Peru, and some others. Because of this, most of the time when people ask me where I am from, when I say I am from Ecuador, they all have either heard about it, have relatives there, have visited, and some even answer me back in Spanish.
Gathering information from different people in the area, I have come to understand a little better about the waves of migration from the Bethlehem district to different countries in Latin America and elsewhere. Many of the migration happened at the end of the last century, 1800, under the Ottoman rule, and it seems that one of the mayor reasons was because many people did not want to be part of the military, which was obligatory at that time. At this point, many people migrated to South America. However, the biggest wave of migration came later, under the British occupation of the area, when many families tried to reunite their members and so entire families migrated to meet their relatives in different countries. Since then, and due to the difficult situation of living under Israeli control, many more people have used family connections in other countries to migrate looking for a better life.
Because of this, some estimates show that in Latin America there are around 500,000 Christians Palestinians in countries like Chile, Honduras, Venezuela, Brazil, among others. The city of Beit Jala, close to Bethlehem, with a population of around 12,000 people, the majority Christians, has 78,000 people, originally from Beit Jala, living in Chile along. This has created strong links between Beit Jala and Santiago de Chile.
While attending the Crimesan weekly mass, just outside of Beit Jala, which is a Catholic weekly prayer against the construction of the wall, I was surprised when I found out that one of the priests that attend the mass was from Argentina. A few weeks later, however, I met a Chilean family that was visiting their remaining relatives in Beit Jala, as they try to do every year in order to maintain the connection strong. As the Easter festivities approached, however, I started to hear more Spanish in the crowd, to see more shorts and sleeveless shirts (not common for Palestinians), more cameras and more Chilean flags. The link reached its highest point when at some point part the mass was given in Spanish!!
As recently as a week ago, I attended a house demolition by the Israeli military, just outside Beit Jala. For my surprise, as I was introducing myself to the owner of the house, he stopped me and switching his voice from broken English into a fluent Spanish, started telling me the whole situation and even his personal story. George, originally from Beit Jala, lived in Colombia for many years, in Barranquilla, and now has 6 children and many grandchildren, all Colombians. He came back some years ago to live in Beit Jala in order to cultivate his family land. While he was telling the story of the farm house that was demolished, he also told me, very frustrated, the difficulties of living under occupation and of being part of the Christian minority in the region. He told me that once his last daughter graduates from high school, he is thinking of going back to Colombia, to get together with the rest of his family and have a somewhat easier life.
This example only made me realize that the migration phenomenon is still very present among the Christian families in the region, and how the Israeli policies against Palestine are actually forcing people, including many Christians, to leave their land and migrate far away looking for a better life.
This scenario of mass migration is well known for Ecuadorians, where most of the families have a migrant relative living abroad or know someone that has migrated. Because of this, I have been able to create this strange connection with people around the area and it has allowed me to understand some of the conflicts and nostalgia that exists around their stories.