Middle East Tour Updates

Update #2 – April 11, 2015 – “Being stateless for the most part of my life has taught me how to exceed the concept of borders and nationalities and to get to know people as individuals. My hope for the future is that the occupation ends and the borders are opened, and that people can get to know each other.”

Majd Khalifeh

Today was an early start as it was Westgate’s MCC Tour Day in Ramallah. Ramallah, the “big happy prison” as it’s referred to by the Palestinians is a village in The West Bank, just outside of Jerusalem. Jesse, Anna and Dan Bergen met us at the Damascus Gate to tour our students and educate us about the conflict. It’s one thing for the students to have the issue explained in Mr. Friesen’s classroom but quite another to see it in person. Today, we were taken on a tour of a refugee camp and listened to the stories of people working to bring peace among the displaced.

Sam, a telecommunications engineer met the students at the Lutheran Church of Hope today to tell his story. He is an American businessman who moved back to Palestine in the 90s to start a business. Sam has chosen to leave the life in Ohio, and raise his family in Ramallah. As a young child, his annual visits to his aunt’s house in Palestine were boring. He just sat and ate on the balcony, wasting his summer vacation away.

Upon graduation he chose to be a leader in the Palestinian movement. He chose to move to help make a difference. The Israel system wanted him to go back to Ohio but he refused to make Palestinians disappear. He fought for his green card but overnight the card applied restraints, and brought on collective punishment. Due to a few violent acts 4.5 people, including Sam are being punished. He needs to walk through a check point to get to a hospital, he is not permitted to drive a car in Jerusalem, only public transportation. If he chooses to revoke his residency card, he will be separated by his family.

Inspite of all the restrictions, Sam’s story continues to have hope. He has an active blog which he encouraged the students to read.

“Here I frequently post news and opinions from Palestine. As a Palestinian-American living and working in Ramallah/Al-Bireh, Palestine, I cover the issue from both a Palestinian and American vantage point. Most postings will be either eyewitness reports, opinion editorials or newsworthy items not readily found in the mainstream media.”
Sam is certain that either civil rights or two states will be negotiated in his lifetime. In addition to hearing from an American Palestinian perspective we also heard from Gerard Horton a lawyer focussing on the prosecution of children in the Israeli court system as well as Salsa Duaibis, who works for an international advocacy program. www.wclac.org
The room was quiet as both shared stories of collective punishment and mass intimidation. The tactics used by the soldiers are very effective and control is being maintained with small numbers. Night raids scare the villagers and terrify the communities. These raids mainly occur at the friction points. Villages further away from a settlement won’t feel the friction as they’re not sharing the same roads as the settlements.
What causes children to be arrested and serve time in prison? Children as young as 12 years old can serve time; every year about 1000 children are detained. Shooting, throwing stones at the wall, or cars are all offences that can lead to arrest. Soldiers will then go these children’s homes at night and arrest them causing terror to take over the household. The entire process tears families apart. Children will then frequently drop out of school due to the time missed and lose trust. Occupation works because of intimidation.
The occupation doesn’t only affect the villagers but the soldiers as well.
Breaking the silence is an organization of combat soldiers that are out of service and are telling their story to the Israeli people and the rest of the world.
Westgate students are hearing the Palestinian story and are asking excellent questions, some are even getting frustrated. A few are determined to write the Canadian government upon return and use their voice as a means of being proactive.

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Yesterday, our tour bus drove into a refugee camp. The students commented “It looks like a dystopian novel setting.” Yes, I have to agree, the area looked like a war zone. Then two eight year old boys approached us and asked in Arabic, “Why are you here?”
Tourists definitely don’t choose to venture into the camps, there is too much else to see in the beautiful city of Jerusalem. That’s what makes this particular trip a study tour, and a successful one at that.
Sure, Westgate students can follow the footsteps of Christ on the Jesus trail, swim in The Dead Sea, and get lost in the ruins of Petra, but they have also opened their eyes to an occupation that is destroying individuals.
When your students arrive home in just a few days, talk about the trip. They have so many amazing stories to tell you. We have laughed together, belly aching laughs that brought tears to our eyes. We have prayed together at the Western Wall, an emotional experience for many. We have sung, worshipped and played. Above all though we have learned about one another, cultural differences and have started to ask some really big questions. The other evening we worshipped with the sisters at the Echo Homo Convent. We prayed for peace in the Holy Land, but more importantly peace within ourselves.
Pray for us as we journey home tomorrow.

Update – April 10 – 2015

Update – April 8, 2015 – Today left everyone with more questions than answers. Students said goodbye to their Alternative Travel hosts in Bethlehem by 8:30 a.m. Ayman, our Palestinian travel guide met us at the bus and educated and informed our students about the situation and continued our Bible history lesson.

Our first stop was Hebron. Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, bigger than Bethlehem. As we entered, we stopped at a local glass and ceramic shop. We watched the owner create a masterpiece as well as the artisans in the back painting platters and bowls. Well, the shopping began, and students started buying for their Omas and Moms. Yes, they are thinking of you, not just their stomachs.
The mosque in Hebron held the tombs of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. Students witnessed the contrast of the mosque and synagogue within the same piece of architecture.
The rest of the day involved visiting a refugee camp and the security barrier in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Did I mention that the students had more questions than answers?
We ended the afternoon with a 30 minute hike through Old Jerusalem to the Ecce Homo Convent. Students had their backpacks full as they fought the foot traffic through the narrow streets, thankful that their packs were delivered to them during the Jesus Trail portion of the trip. Once the students received their rooms we met on the terrace of the convent which revealed the Infamous Dome of the Rock, and the skyline dotted with mosques, synagogues and churches.
We were able to debrief about the day, sing and share the excitement of the anticipation of the next four and final days of the trip. As I type, the students are embracing the evening under the stars, laughing and putting their feet up. The Dome of the Rock is within reach and we continue to pinch ourselves.
I rejoiced when I heard them sing “Let us go to God’s house.” Psalm 121

Update – April 7, 2015 -Today we left the comforts of the five star resort at The Dead Sea. Even our bus driver, the same gentleman as the day before appeared to be grinning as we all boarded. Everyone’s skin was exfoliated, the camel hair left behind, and the desert sand a fading memory….almost. The buffet breakfast had so much selection that some students, who are a little low on cash, ate for two hours!!! It was quite the sight.

Today’s departure of Th Dead Sea brings us to our final chapter of the trip, one that also takes a turn in emotion. Up until now the students have had more of a vacation feel, however now there is a definite more serious tone to the trip.
Yesterday, Ayman met us in Bethlehem. He is a Palestinian Christian, a representative of so many people that have been affected by the borders that restrict access to land, freedoms and water.
The students were told to limit the amount of water they used in their host families’ homes as water supply is controlled by the Israel government. Everyone just nodded and understood. This one overnight stay was not the place to do laundry.
The security wall became a reality today, one that our students, myself included have only talked about, seen in pictures or videos. Ayman, will definitely touch more on that tomorrow when we see the wall itself.
Seeing is believing! Has the story of our Christian faith ever become the best pop-up book. We strolled the street that Mary and Joseph were said to have walked down as they entered Bethlehem for the census. We stood at the location of the hillside where the Shepherds were told “Do not be afraid.” That led us to the Church of the Nativity, the actual place where oral history claims Mary gave birth to Jesus.
The students are learning a lot, trying to take everything in. I certainly feel overwhelmed at the reality of our location. Your children are snapping pictures, asking questions and embracing the trip. Tomorrow more learning as we visit the site of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac’s tomb. Thank you for your continued prayers.
Hebrews 11:1
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.

Update – April 6, 2015 – We’ve been off the grid for several days now. I hope Easter was a joyous celebration at home.The people here are amazing and I hope you’re not counting on the media for giving you any information about the Middle East as they are out to lunch.

The Bedouin in Petra are a people of integrity and hospitality. You would not believe the pride they have in their heritage and people. Many of them still choose to live in the mountains. As I think I mentioned we took a 22km (more like 27 km because we got a little lost) hike up a mountain to see Aaron’s tomb, the brother of Moses.
We are amazed at the stamina these kids have. In total, I’m guessing that they have walked about 150km. The days of hiking always produce treasures, even in the desert.After Petra we made a 5-6 hr bus ride to the Wadi Rum. The Bedouin picked us up in jeeps at their village and drove us to the location of our first hike. The jeep ride was nuts. We sat in the back of 7 pick-ups and bounced our way over the sand, passing camels and goats along the way. Picture Mars. Red sand with high red rocks planted everywhere.The hike was different than the Jesus trail as it required more problem solving as you had to watch where to place your feet and hands. Many of the students loved the challenge. We started hiking at 12:00, they don’t eat lunch until about 2:30 over here so the kids were starving. We didn’t eat until close to 3:00. A few complaints , but pita, tomatoes, and a cucumber never tasted so good.Instead of going back to camp we headed to a point to hike and watch the sunset. Stunning. We actually even had a moment of silence when it dropped behind the mountain range. We couldn’t believe the students could remain quiet for so long!!As soon as the sun goes down the temperature drops and it was cold. As we approached the camp, the only light we had was from the moon. We were assigned tents which even had bed frames as opposed to mats.There was no time for sleeping as we hadn’t eaten dinner yet. By 8:30 they called all of us over to a mound of sand. As they pushed it away they revealed a brown sack, as they slid open the straps you could hear the anticipation of the salivary glands. The kids were hungry. The magic was still not revealed. Then a large grey lid in the middle of the desert floor was lifted, and from the ground a chicken dinner for 60 people emerged.Boy did we feast. The food was amazing. I don’t want to complain but the desert food kicked the hotel in Petra’s butt!!! We ate under open tents by a fire, the stars shining down on us. By 11:00 we
climbed into our beds, fully clothed in our jackets and toques and crashed.The next morning we were up by 7:00 because our hike to the rock bridge began at 8:00. EARLY!! The hiking never ends on this trip but it NEVER disappoints either!! We scrambled up rock faces with the Bedouin guiding our feet with every step. The bridge was about a three hour hike with plenty of breaks along the way! Everyone managed to get across, and they all made it back too!!!

Lunch was provided back at the camp. We thought our day of hiking was done. Just about the time I thought I might have a nap in the shade the guides asked us if we were ready to go sand boarding?!?!?

Who would be crazy enough to nap with that request?! All the students jumped back into the jeeps and away we went. The energy, like the dry air is never lacking in the desert. The kids either slid down like a toboggan or rode the sand. Phenomenal. Later, after the sand was literally in every crevice, we went to watch the sunset again, this time the Westgate students sang HALLELUJAH! He is coming as well as Freedom. The singing was breathtaking.

This morning, 45 camels greeted us outside our tents and we rode back to the village. Yes, 45 camels!!! They’re actually quite cute. Back on the bus and we made it to the Dead Sea Marriott Hotel.

It’s five stars, but we all smelled like campfire and camel hair as we walked in. We got some crazy stares but we dumped our bags and headed straight into the Dead Sea. Within minutes everyone was either covered in the Dead Sea mud or hollering at the top of their lungs because of the scratches and blisters that were sizzling in the salt water.

Life is good. God is watching over all of us, thank you for your prayers. Moses, our tour guide reminded us all to go back to Canada with stories of Jordan. He encouraged all of our students to share their experiences, not the media’s. We are probably coming home with more questions than when we started, but that’s the beauty of this trip. We can’t find all the answers but relationships are being formed and eyes are being opened.

Tomorrow we’re off to Bethlehem. See you in one week.

Update – April 1 and 2, 2015 – Petra, one of the world’s most impressive sites was revealed to the Westgate students today. We began the 400 metre walk to the main gates from our hotel at 8:15 a.m. Yes!! No one slept in as they were fuelled and anxious to get started!

Moses, our tour guide led us through the gates with a history lesson every few hundred feet, as Petra is his passion. Everyone was engaged as he pointed out the architecture, the brilliant minds that designed the water systems, as well as the carved out ravine formed by nature’s powerful flash floods and earthquakes. If the students got restless, Moses charmed them with love stories of former travellers who chose to marry Bedouins and leave their western culture behind!! Don’t worry, the girls did not get any crazy ideas!

As we approached the Treasury, the best-known of all Petra’s magnificent temples, the students were silent. Every one of us held our breath at every corner anticipating the view like a five year old at Christmas. Sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. We left the ravine and found ourselves in a new world of camels, donkeys, the rose coloured stone and Arabic hustle and noise! No words can truly describe it.

Kids were posing with camels, snapping photos and just trying to take it all in. After about 30 minutes, the grade 11 students made their way to the Pace of Sacrifice while the 12s hiked to the  Monastery .

The views did not disappoint. Students spent the rest of the day exploring the caves, hiking to different lookouts or just people watching. The Bedouin children embraced our kids, either pestering them to purchase their jewellery or wanting a hand to hold.

At the end of the day, everyone gathered back at the hotel for a debriefing so that both groups of students could share some of their highlights of the past week. It was so encouraging to hear that every highlight was an interaction with the people they had encountered along the way. The Mar Elias students that hosted them, the casual encounters on the street, or a lending hand from a “old Bedouin lady” (I think she was 25) down the mountainside are just a few examples of the stories the students shared.

We finished by singing Praise God; can our kids ever sing! Students then had dinner at the hotel followed by free time. Tomorrow brings another day in Petra. The trip is at the half way point but I believe I can speak for everyone that it’s going much too quickly!

You’d be so proud of your kids. They’re taking it all in and definitely trying to see it through your eyes as well. At one point we heard a student say, as he was exhausted from walking 20km that day, “I’ll touch this statue for my mom, that church wall for my mom, an now I’m done.”

Well done parents! Your kids are amazing to travel with.


Update – Tuesday, March 31, 2015 – We did it!!! The four day hike is complete. Today we saw Capernaum where Jesus’ ministry began. In addition Peter’s original home as well as the location of the Sermon on the Mount.

Not only have we walked through the Bible, but through beautiful scenery. Tomorrow brings us a rest as our bodies are groaning. The “pillows of pain” as David Epp calls them need a day to heal.

Spirits are up. The food is amazing. Tomorrow we head back to Jordan in anticipation of Petra!!

Update #4 – Monday, March 30, 2015

Update #3 Monday, March 30, 2015 – We are at Mar Elias. Everyone is well. The students were very happy to see each other again.

Update #2 Monday, March 30, 2015

Update #1 Monday, March 30, 2015 -Wow!!! Today was gorgeous. We trekked 20km and came across hills , hills and more hills. The Horns of Hattin was in full view. The horns are formed from a volcano…you can also see the Sea of Galilee from there.

I couldn’t get over the scenery. We passed a thousand cows just eating their life away. We saw the ruins of a Hittin mosque and climbed to the top.
The Arbel guest house has an Unheated pool but it does look inviting. The students complained a little but they did accomplish a lot today. I continue to be the cheer leader even though my hamstrings, shins and calves are starting to talk to me!!
We’re awaiting dinner in the sunshine however it does cool off quite a bit at night. I’m wearing my jacket right now. It feels like a May evening in Winnipeg.
The trail is glorious. Today was the hardest but the most rewarding. Funny how the two go hand in hand.

Update Saturday, March 28, 2015 – We just finished our toughest day of hiking and everyone is well. As you can see we befriended a dog. She is not coming home with us though. We are in Arbel for the next two nights.

Update #1 Friday, March 27, 2015Grade 11 – We dropped off the grade 12 students in Nazareth and then the grade 11 students ventured another 25 minutes by bus to Mar Elias school.

The students were waiting, breaking into applause as our bus meandered around the narrow street into the courtyard. The Westgate students immediately stated, “we look like crap compared to them.” The boys tucked in their shirts, the girls pulled their hair back and out we went, greeted by hugs and cheers.

The rest is somewhat of a blur. The kids were whisked away in fancy cars and the two day adventure began.

I saw them in Haifa today, spirits are full as well as their stomachs. The hospitality shown here is unbelievable. We are being treated like royalty. Unbelievable. All we can keep saying is “Shookran” meaning thank you in Arabic.

Tomorrow we make our way to Nazareth.

Update #2 Grade 12 – It’s hot hot hot but lots of fun here in the Middle East. Just arrived here after our second day of hiking. Everyone is well and having a wonderful time. Last night we enjoyed Cana Guest House hospitality. Food and a bit of wine ( in honor of Christ’s first miracle ) were wonderful.

Update #3 Grade 11 – We left Mar Elias school today with tearful goodbyes. Hospitality was invented by Israel. The grade 11 students are now at Fazi Azar. We’re going to go.discover Nazareth. See ya!!

Update #4Grade 11 – I (David Epp) spent Thursday hanging out with the Grade 11s as the Mar Elias students showed us a good time in Ibillin and Haifa. We saw the Bahai Gardens, had the best hummus to be found in the Arab neighborhood, and went swimming in the Mediterranean.

Update #5 – Last Supper before the Jesus Trail

Update #6Grade 12 – Jesus Trail

Update Tuesday, March 24, 2015 – We’re in Amman. Received our baggage. Flight was perfection and so our the travelers.

in Amman Airport

Update Monday, March 23, 2015 – Middle East Tour departed Winnipeg Monday, March 23rd.  They will return on April 13.  Updates will be posted on this page as they are received.

Middle East Group at Airport
In Winnipeg Airport