Humanitarian trip to a ‘parallel universe’

Sue Beardon in Palestine
Sue Beardon in Palestine
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Sheffield woman Sue Beardon is just back from a three-month stint in the Middle East - where she encountered men with machine guns, humiliation and destruction. The Star’s Rachael Clegg reports.

WERE it not for a certain email, Sue Beardon’s perspective on the world would be very different.

Last year her daughter, Hannah, sent her mother a link about a charity project – the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.

It was a day before the application deadline. Successful candidates would be whisked to Palestine and Israel for three months as part of the charity’s ongoing work in the region.

Sue, aged 63, not knowing what to expect, applied. And before she knew it, Sue was packing her bags and setting off for a three-month mission to one of the most troubled regions of the Middle East.

This wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a typical holiday.

sueRC''Sue Beardon, a keen walker has compiled a book about walking called Women's Ways. Jo Davison took a walk with her starting Redmires Reservoir

sueRC''Sue Beardon, a keen walker has compiled a book about walking called Women's Ways. Jo Davison took a walk with her starting Redmires Reservoir

“Before we set off we were advised not to travel together in case one of us was questioned and turned away,” she says.

So the group split up and, in preparation for forthcoming events, had one week’s training in Jerusalem.

“As part of that we had a tour of Jerusalem with an Israeli woman who took us on an ‘alternative’ tour. Most tours of the city take you to all the pilgrimage sites but what they don’t show you are things like the destroyed houses and the fact people have been evicted from the city.”

But Sue – a walking guide and former management consultant – is an adaptable woman. During her three-month trip she dined with-Palestinian families, witnessed the aftermath of destruction, and survived political blockades, checkpoints and interrogations from armed security officers.

Sue Beardon and Grandma Amina in Palestine

Sue Beardon and Grandma Amina in Palestine

“Nothing is what it seems in Palestine,” she said. “The whole region’s a parallel universe – there are roads that link the Israeli settlements on which only settlers can travel. Palestinians have to use the other roads.”

And despite the mass news coverage of the ongoing political troubles between Israel and Palestine, Sue, from Nether Edge, says it is impossible to grasp the severity of the situation from the reports, however frequent.

“It doesn’t matter how much you read or how many times you have seen news reports on the television, nothing can prepare you for what you see when you are out there. It is quite shocking to see the daily humiliation the Palestinians are subjected to.”

Examples of such humiliation are, according to Sue, aplenty.

Muslims praying in a demolished mosque.

Muslims praying in a demolished mosque.

“I was staying in a village called Yaroun in a designated house, and the mayor of the village had recently been to court to prove that he owned a particular patch of land. He successfully proved it was his but he was only allowed to access his land two or three times year.

“Even when he visited the land on the designated days he’d be chased away.”

Sue also said Israeli soldiers regularly walk through the village armed with machine guns.

“Yaroun’s not even on the map – many Palestinian villages aren’t even registered,” she says.

“I’ve seen the aftermath of villages having been demolished – there have even been animal shelters destroyed with the lambs still in them.”

But the Palestinian resilience is strong.

One of Sue’s pictures shows five men face-down praying among a pile of rubble. The construction debris – bricks, broken bits of concrete and the dregs of a structure – comprise a mosque, one that was destroyed.

Sue’s experiences of what she describes as ‘human humiliation’ is a consequence of the long-running political upheaval that has plagued Palestine since 1967, when Palestinians started living under Israeli occupation.

Over the years Israel has built settlements in the West Bank – in Palestine – which is now home to 400,000 Israelis.

Sue is of Jewish heritage and said: “One man drove past me and told me to ‘go back home’ – but in a way, because of my heritage, this is home.”

Not all Israelis agree with the situation in Palestine.

“I met very humanitarian Israelis that care deeply and think that, as a race, they shouldn’t forget their own history.”

In spite of the struggles Sue has seen, the armed security men she has faced and the first-hand experience of destruction and demolition, she is keen to go back to Palestine again in the future.

“I think it gets in your blood – I’m still finding it hard to adjust to a normal life now so I want to go back next year. It is remarkable that people can be so inhumane. We complain in this country about things but we don’t realise how lucky we are.”

She’s also rueful about the fact the Palestine-Israeli conflict means the region is not realising its potential.

“It’s such a shame that, if the region were peaceful, it would be a cultural melting pot – there is so much religious history there, it would be fabulous.”

Sue will be giving a talk next Tuesday at 7pm, about her travels in Palestine, at the Quaker Friends Meeting House on St James Street in Sheffield city centre. She will speak again on February 28 for Sharrow Community Forum at the old Sharrow Primary School.