Life, Interrupted: One Palestinian Family’s Struggles in Wartime Jerusalem
The three Butrus siblings were born and raised in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem. Their parents, devout Palestinian Christians who committed their lives to Jerusalem’s churches and preserving Christianity in its birthplace, raised them to be hardworking and appreciative. Despite living under Israeli occupation their entire lives, the Butrus children have always been grateful for being able to remain in their beloved city with one another, unlike tens of thousands of other Palestinian Jerusalemites. But October 7, 2023, has changed all that.
As for all Palestinian families in Jerusalem, life for the extended Butrus family has certainly not been easy under Israeli occupation since 1967. But they never thought it could get as bad as it has since October 7, 2023. Members of the modest Christian family hold either Israeli permanent-resident status or Israeli citizenship and live in Beit Hanina in the northern part of occupied East Jerusalem. Today, they are questioning their and their children’s future in the city.
The Parents: Umm Rami and Abu Rami
Devout Catholics, Umm Rami and the late Abu Rami attended church daily and raised their three children—Mary, Sophie, and Rami—to respect and cherish their Christian roots and traditions, even if the latter didn’t actively practice the faith. Most important to the parents was to contribute to ensuring the survival of Christianity in its birthplace, what with the dwindling numbers of Christians in the region.
Abu Rami attended Franciscan Seminary in his youth and then worked as a tour guide (or turjman, literally, “interpreter”) of Christian sites in Jerusalem—an honorable and long-standing profession among Palestinian Christians, especially in Jerusalem and Bethlehem—for much of the 20th century.
While Abu Rami passed away in 2010, to this day, and despite being well into her 80s, Umm Rami volunteers at a church in Beit Hanina almost daily.
Since October 7, the Butruses have continued to count their blessings for the privileges they have had of working in relatively stable jobs, remaining close to one another, and living in their birthplace. But the fear of what is to come continues to keep them awake at night.
While Mary emigrated to the UK years ago, Sophie and Rami remain in Jerusalem with their spouses and children, just down the road from their aging mother. Here they share their stories and current realities with Jerusalem Story.1
Sophie and Chris
Sophie is married to Chris, an Armenian Jerusalemite from the Old City who works in the restaurant business. Sophie, gifted in people skills as her late father had been, joined the hospitality industry and worked in several of Jerusalem’s hotels. The couple, both in their 50s, have two adult sons who also work in the hospitality and tourism sectors: Anton, as a server in a hotel, and Michael, a rising star in the city’s turjman scene, like his grandfather. The hardworking family lives in a gated residential complex in Beit Hanina established by the church for the Christians of the area.
Since October 7, Chris and Michael have barely worked. The city’s restaurants have virtually all closed, largely due to the inability to keep up with the costs of remaining open with little or no business. During the war, people don’t eat out much, and with tourism ground to a complete halt and the city’s residents mostly staying home, what little street life arises is limited to Jewish West Jerusalem. Palestinians in East Jerusalem, including the Old City, only leave home for work and other necessities, preferring to avoid confrontations with Israeli Jews and Israeli police and security forces. And with Michael’s job relying entirely on a constant stream of Christian tourists, he hasn’t worked a single day since the last tourists left Jerusalem in mid-October.
“I turned 30 five days before the war,” Michael said. “I can’t believe that was only three months ago. It feels like years. You age very quickly in Jerusalem, experiencing in weeks what others would in a lifetime.” These days, he is burdened with the basic question of whether he would ever work again in Jerusalem. He continued: “It’s not like you have many options for careers in Jerusalem if you’re not Jewish. You take what you can get and hope it pays enough to let you live a decent life and who knows, maybe even marry and start a family one day.”
Michael held several odd jobs throughout his 20s, though for the last two years, he enrolled in courses to become a tour guide.
“I finally found something I enjoyed and was good at, something that made my family proud and that I could see myself excel in,” Michael shared. “But then this war happened, and you can’t blame tourists for canceling their trips to the Holy Land. The city’s completely dead. The churches are completely empty. There’s nothing holy about this war.”
Fortunately, the city’s hotels have remained open, mostly to accommodate press, diplomats, humanitarian workers, and other guests involved in the war in different capacities. Sophie and Anton have therefore continued to work. Anton, 25, shares that he is happy to be able to help his family during these difficult times. “Of course, we have fewer guests at the hotel than usual, so the tips are much less, but at least the salary is the same, and I still have benefits,” Anton explained. “And there are people who haven’t earned a single shekel since October 7, so how can I complain?”
Escape on wheels
Anton is an avid cyclist, part of a group of Jerusalemites who ride their mountain bikes in the hills around the city, normally closer to the Jordan Valley. “It’s my escape,” Anton shared smiling, “my escape from all the worries of this life.” Anton saved money for years to buy a GoPro so he can record his daredevil cycling down steep, rocky, dirt paths in the parched hills east of Jerusalem.
“When you live in Jerusalem, you have to get creative because you are forced to get used to long periods sitting at home,” he said. “You never know when a flare-up will happen, when they’ll shut down the Old City and the Arab parts. All of a sudden, your parents will call you to rush home and you end up stuck there for days.” Anton said that months had gone by throughout his life where he wouldn’t see friends who live just a 10-minute drive away. “So, you have to get creative with all this alone time. Making videos and reels from my biking trips and posting them keeps me entertained.”
But since the war, Anton hasn’t been able to go on his cherished biking trips. “Again, I can’t complain. It’s not a big deal sacrificing my hobby during a war and when a lot of the areas where we like to bike are closed or dangerous,” he said matter-of-factly. “But sure, I miss it and can’t wait to get back to it, but I’d rather be safe than have my hobby get me killed.” The bike trails Anton visits with his friends are largely in Area C of the West Bank, areas which have come under much heavier Israeli military scrutiny since the war, as well as settler violence.
Fortunate, for now . . .
Sophie and Chris consider themselves to be one of the lucky few non-Jewish families in Jerusalem who have managed to maintain a steady flow of income during the war, though they are wary of the long-term impact of father Chris and son Michael not returning to work the longer the war drags on.
Of course, a complete closure of the city could also shut down the hotels where Sophie and Anton work, which would be devastating.
“Who knows how long we can go on like this,” Sophie said, “but definitely not for too much longer. We can’t rely on our savings forever, and the boys’ future is in question.”
Rami and Lina
Rami, 48, and Lina, 35, live in Beit Hanina, just down the road from where Rami grew up, and they both work in tourism in the city center. Lina works for a Palestinian travel agency in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, while Rami has held several jobs, mostly connected either to a church or a tourism agency. Over the years, he worked as the personal driver of church clergy in the Old City, and held several jobs in the service industry, from restaurants and bars to grocery stores. He currently operates a private car service to transport tourists across historic Palestine.
But neither Rami nor Lina have received their salaries since October. “The last day I worked was October 10,” Rami explained. “I had to drive a group of tourists who were stuck in Jerusalem to the northern crossing with Jordan since Ben Gurion was closed. And nothing since then. Not a single tourist.” Lina hasn’t been to the office in Sheikh Jarrah since late October. “The only work I’ve done has been at home since the war,” she shared, “and only to cancel upcoming tour groups and process refunds. They’ve all canceled, through 2024.” Rami started shaking his head, and Lina said, “we don’t know what we’ll do.”
Stuck at home with no sight of the war ending, Rami says that it’s “the pandemic all over again. Except this time,” he goes on, “the end seems even less possible than the end of COVID-19. At least we knew we just needed to wait for a vaccine during the pandemic. Who has a vaccine for this war?” He and Lina chuckled and shook their heads.
“And can you imagine how crazy that drives you?” Lina asked rhetorically, “not knowing if or when all this will end. You want to scream from frustration, so you end up letting it out on each other or your kids.” She paused and laughed. “But at least we’re not in lockdown and can actually leave the house,” she added.
Rami interjected, “Sure, but at least during lockdown, we were getting paid 75 percent of our salaries.”
Limited school, no playdates
Rami and Lina’s two young boys, 12 and 9, attend private schools in Beit Hanina. Rami shared that the boys have been struggling since October 7. Periodic physical school closures in East Jerusalem due to heightened security have entailed a short-term switch to online learning, which is one form of disruption. Perhaps more detrimentally, many of the boys’ teachers who live outside Jerusalem in the rest of the West Bank have been unable to get to school to teach due to Israel’s many-layered closures on Palestinian areas of the city. The boys have sat through many classes with substitute teachers or have been given random free periods or been dismissed from school for the day altogether. As a result, the quality of the education they have been receiving for nearly three months has suffered tremendously. “The teachers aren’t able to advance in their curriculums,” Rami shared. “You can imagine what this means for the boys’ young brains.”
Even socializing with their classmates is no longer an option. “We hear sirens [signaling possible incoming rockets—Ed.] every few days, and we know to stay inside at those times,” Lina said. “We could try to organize playdates for the kids, but at any moment, you could hear the sirens or get news from someone that the police are blocking this or that road because they arrested someone or are storming a neighborhood.”
The most the children get up to these days when not in school, the couple explained, is visiting their grandmother up the road. There, Umm Rami feeds them abundantly and they mostly do their homework and watch television. It gives Lina and Rami a break from parenting every few days, and from being cooped up at home. It also lets the kids get out a bit and spend time with their grandmother.
Rami added: “But they can’t stay at my mom’s too late. We usually make sure to get them home before rush hour.” Though his mother’s house is less than a five-minute drive away from his own, Rami explained that the situation is too volatile and unpredictable to risk having the boys get stuck at their grandmother’s. “You’ve seen the traffic in Beit Hanina. It would be a nightmare trying to pick up the kids if they suddenly blocked roads between here and my mom’s. Everyone would be frantic, and the police would be tougher.”
Lina joined in: “Exactly. Khalas, just keep the kids at home as much as you can and save yourself the worry and headache until the war ends. Inshallah.”