“My year in Bethlehem”: the testimony of Chiara, who has just returned after her Universal Civilian Service.
I am Chiara and I have just finished my year of Universal Civil Service in Bethlehem with the Association Pro Terra Sancta for the project “White Helmets for the Inclusion of Fragile People in Palestine.”
When one thinks of Bethlehem, perhaps he or she connects it directly to the birth of Jesus and Christmas. What one is less familiar with is the conflict situation that characterizes that area.
The dividing wall between Israel and Palestine,which also separates Bethlehem from neighbouring Jerusalem, the occupation that is exercised in different ways and characterizes people’s daily lives, the check-points and the long lines to cross them.
Living there for a year for me also meant trying to put myself in the shoes of these people I learned to appreciate much more the freedom that we have here and that is not so taken for granted in other parts of the world.
An extraordinary personal growth
I left with many questions, for some I found answers, for others I did not, indeed new ones arose. I did, however, allow myself to be questioned by the context, because that was also part of the experience.
I met so many people and listened to their stories, those of extraordinary people who work every day to build a better, more just, peaceful future.
This year of community service was very intense and as much as I had imagined it, it far exceeded my expectations. I decided to go both to gain work and educational experience, having studied international cooperation, and because I wanted to put myself out there, trying to overcome my insecurities and try to get to know myself better.
Despite my initial fear, I jumped in, knowing that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I’m glad I took the risk because it was really worth it, and it was an amazing personal growth experience.
I did not experience the community service alone but together with the other three volunteers, Morgane, Roberta and Sara, with whom a beautiful friendship was born, a fundamental part of the experience and with whom we supported each other especially in the most difficult moments.
During these months we shared the beauty and the hardship, in some cases, of living together in the guest house, provided by the association, and of spending leisure time and outings together.
The beauty of the meeting
We were known in our neighborhood and it was nice to meet people greeting us on the street, both when we left in the morning to go to work and in the evening when we returned we always found the elderly women housed in the facility next to our guest house waiting for us.
The work experience was highly formative:I learned so much from my colleagues, I was able to put into practice what I had learned so far, and I treasured everything, both the things that went right and the things that went wrong.
In particular, I focused on the design part and it was nice and motivating to see firsthand the concrete results of some of the projects. Moreover, having already studied Arabic in college, it was also an opportunity to practice it and learn some dialect. This was useful especially with the beneficiaries of the projects and with the children where I was volunteering.
Over the last few months we have all been very busy with preparations for the inauguration of Pro Terra Sancta’s new cultural center in Bethlehem. The center is called Dar Al-Majus, the house of the Magi. It has been a wonderful team effort, albeit tiring at times. Dar Al-Majus has become a bit of a second home for me along with the big family of staff and all the workers.
My family in Bethlehem
This was a year of all-around service. In addition to the hours I worked in the office in the mornings, in the afternoons I was involved as a volunteer at Hogar Niño Dios. It is a home for disabled children and youth run by the Sisters of the Incarnate Word. I actually had already been years ago for a summer camp experience.
I was very happy to have also had this opportunity that enriched my service. In fact, before I left I had hoped to have enough time to visit them occasionally; but I never expected to be able to go every afternoon.
These children and young people turned my life upside down in a positive way. They gave me three times as much as the little I used to give them. And they helped me to “unplug” and recharge my batteries for the next day, even though it was very physically demanding.
The sisters and the children were like family, and I spent the Christmas and Easter holidays with them, sharing lunches, dinners and happy times together. But also the religious celebrations and the rosary recited together every afternoon with the children.
I am grateful for the experience. I carry all this in my heart knowing that it will be part of the baggage I will take with me into my new life and work experiences.