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Interview: Laila Asfoura, executive director, St Martha’s House, Bethlehem

17 December 2021

‘I’m happiest when I start my day with gratitude’

St Martha’s House is a community centre for 30 to 40 elderly Palestinian Christian women in the Bethlehem area. I founded AHDAF (which roughly translates as “goals”, or “objective” in Arabic) as a non-profit charitable society in the late 2000s to serve families from the municipalities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour. St Martha’s House is our primary project.

For over a decade, St Martha’s House has functioned in various leased buildings in Bethlehem,
providing elderly women with an opportunity to come together as a community from Monday to Thursday, offering a shuttle service to and from their homes to the House, providing meals, socialisation, health check-ups, and occasional leisure outings.

The House has also provided part-time employment for middle-aged women from the community.
They act as stewards of the House, preparing refreshments, meals, and maintaining the facility. All of this has helped meet a need of the Christian community in the Bethlehem area to adjust to a reduced social network that is no longer able to provide as much care for its elderly women as in generations past. St Martha’s House has been recognised as an innovative solution to these community problems by civic and religious leaders.

My role as the founder is to monitor, guide, and direct the vision of the House with the rest of the board.
We work to ensure that we enrich the lives of the elderly ladies by bringing comfort through supervised activities, as well as personal hygiene and meal preparation. Each one of the ladies can take advantage of a variety of fun and educational activities designed to improve their mental and physical health. At the same time, we offer carers a break from their duties, knowing that their loved ones are in good hands.

I’m also striving to continually develop the medical/wellness consultations with professionals,
and to increase support from local and international donors through more regular communication. And I’m also having to recruit new staff, as many are reaching advanced years and need to step away from working, to look after their own health.

My passion has always been to help the most vulnerable Christian community in the Bethlehem area.
Initially, I was focused on sourcing skilled olive-wood carvers who were reliant on selling their goods for an income. I identified the most needy, and shipped items to the UK. With the help of my husband, Salim, I continue to do so for Friends of the Holy Land to sell.

Then, in 2010, I discovered that a day-care centre was a means to provide support, care, love, and a sense of community to the most vulnerable.
St Martha’s House has helped Bethlehem’s community come together to find a way to address this problem of an ageing demographic with increased needs.

Friends of the Holy Land in the UK provides much of the financial support towards the running costs of the House,
and also engages with many pilgrimage organisers to arrange for pilgrims to visit and meet the “living stones”.

In Palestinian society, care for the elderly has traditionally fallen on the children and grandchildren;
but many younger people have left for Western countries in search of a better life. Those that remain often must work in multiple jobs to sustain their families, and this leaves them very little time to care for older family members. Also, there’s no state-sponsored system to care for those who don’t have any family to look after them.

Cooking is another passion of mine:
spending time on planning what I’ll cook, and actually cooking it, and then serving it can be extremely therapeutic. I love to see my family’s happy faces tasting delicious food.

The Palestinians’ star dish is qedra.
It is a Christmas feast meal which consists of lamb and rice, cooked in a wood-fired oven, and served with yogurt and fried almonds for decoration. Qedra is considered a traditional Palestinian meal plated up on special occasions.

We never thought that we will be living through nearly two years of a global pandemic.
But I have woken up to the fact that my life was very stressful before the coronavirus, because I had to spend much time commuting back and forth to work. During the pandemic, we have used our time to cook more food and enjoy being closer, watching our grandchildren growing up.

Being based in Bethlehem, and having an in-depth knowledge of the area,
I established my own tour company — despite many difficulties. It handled a lot of pilgrimage business from the UK.

The collapse of the tourism trade has devastated the Bethlehem economy in general,
putting great strain on the limited financial resources that support my family business. Also, the difficulties of trying to encourage Holy Land pilgrimages has had adverse impacts on our emotional and mental health.

Despite this, I remain committed to my career, and believe in its purpose now more than ever.
With continued dedication to my work, and continued support of our partners, we believe that we will not only survive, but achieve even more of our goals.

One of the blessings
has been being able to devote more time to support the work of Friends of the Holy Land [FHL], in Bethlehem and across the West Bank, and to give back to my local community.

I come from a big family, composed of 12 children.
I am number ten. My father worked so hard to bring up his children, and, besides, he looked after his elderly sister and sick mother. My mother sewed and embroidered clothes to help my father to cover our daily needs and education.

I am Greek Orthodox,
and married Salim, a Palestinian Catholic from Bethlehem. The Lord is so good: our only daughter, Maria, has three beautiful grandchildren, four years, three years, and 18 months old.

My object in life is to understand and to grow,
by increasing the desire to learn. Reading and watching videos is what I do in my daily home life. I never give up in the face of difficulties. We are used to them being presented to us. I still have the desire to do two things. Life is a continuous learning experience. Socrates said: “I know one thing: that I know nothing.” So, I have to keep learning. And I want to give back in a big way.

My personal experience is that God has always taken good care of me.
I trust him, I love him, although there were things that have happened in my life that I did not understand. I had to wait for 16 years to become a mother. I look up to him and pray: “God, I love everything you put me through.” I thank him by knowing that I really care for what God has given me.

Liars and lies make me angry.
Some people ruin other’s lives for unfair reasons. It is horrible when people make up lies about a person that others may believe.

I’m happiest when I start my day with gratitude.
Being consciously aware of what I am thankful for increases my happiness. Second, seeing, with God’s help, the difference I can make to the lives of those in greatest need, through the work of FHL.

This last year has taught me to live life to its full extent.
Life is short, and we never know what tomorrow brings.

Family is important,
and hearing a family member’s voice is my favourite sound of all.

I have lots of hope.
Hope is a source of energy. Hope comes from knowing we are not alone, we are not forgotten. With the help of those in the UK and elsewhere, we shall maintain a strong Christian presence in the Holy Land. It is wonderful to see a few pilgrims return to Bethlehem. All our new hotels are encouraging visitors to stay in the city and experience how different life is here to Jerusalem.

I pray to increase my love for God,
to have a stronger faith, to feel God’s presence, to hear God clearly, for growth in the fruit of the Spirit, for my family, to be humble, to love all people.

If I was locked in a church for some time
with anyone, I would choose my celestial mother, the Virgin Mary. I have no mother on earth. She is in heaven, with the Lord and all the saints.

Laila Asfoura was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


Laila Asfoura’s recipe for Qedra:

1kg shoulder or leg of lamb, cut into chunks
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 tsp ground allspice
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cardamom
pinch of ground cinnamon
1 onion, peeled and left whole
600g short-grain rice, ideally aborio
pinch of saffron, pounded
4 bulbs garlic (or to taste), crushed
50g samneh (clarified butter), or melted butter

Place the lamb, spices (not the saffron), and the whole onion in a pan and cover with water. Simmer gently for 1¼ hours or more, until the meat is tender.

Lightly grease a large casserole dish and add the rice to it. Strain the lamb into a colander and keep the stock. Pour the stock over the rice and add the saffron, garlic, and samneh or melted butter.

Place the cooked meat on the top, cover, and cook for 30 minutes at 200°C/400°F/Gas 6, until the rice is cooked and has absorbed the liquid.

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