The Bethlehem Association
Bethlehem Association

History of The Bethlehem Association

July 15, 2010
Written by: Edward Hazbun, Founder

Every year at Christmas Americans remember Bethlehem and Christ’s birth. For us Bethlehemites the tragic events of 1947-48 and 1967 had dispersed us all over the world and isolated us in small individual and family groups. Our scattered groups have been busy rebuilding their lives to provide a sense of security for their families. Our rich culture and ancient history in the town of Christ were being lost and forgotten. For this reason, in 1985, a few of us decided to form the Bethlehem Association to bring together our isolated and dispersed groups in the United States to form an effective community that can reach out and interact with each other and the larger Bethlehem community in Bethlehem and elsewhere.

Families and old friends would enjoy opportunities to meet at reunions and social gatherings. The younger generation would get to know one another. We could keep in touch by means of a Bethlehem newsletter. This would also have interesting articles about the history of Bethlehem and its families and also more up to date information about present day Bethlehem.

Although we have become Americans, we are also proud of our heritage and history that nurtured and protected the cradle of Christianity. We should show our fellow Americans that Bethlehem Palestinians have a proud and long history and have the same values and aspirations as other citizens.

Another aim was to help Bethlehem by raising money and sending it to the various existing charities in Bethlehem that organize eldercare, help to the poor, kindergartens and schools. When Anton Issa Hazboun, the father of our founder Edward Hazbun died, his family set up a memorial scholarship which began the Bethlehem Association Scholarship Fund. Over the years, fifteen other families have followed suit resulting in a substantial endowment fund. This encourages young people to stay in Bethlehem by giving them tuition aid to attend Bethlehem University. The program has since expanded to help a few students attending Al-Quds University.

Edward Hazbun spent a lot of time getting in touch with prospective members, writing up the Association bylaws and setting up with Yvonne Neno Ulrich the financial accounts. He invited several people to form a Board of Directors. Joan Hazbun suggested as a logo the fourteen pointed star marking the spot in the Church of the Nativity where Christ was born.

Our first organizing meeting was in October 1985 outside Philadelphia at the King of Prussia Holiday Inn. Forty seven people attended including Domingo and Linda, Shafiq & Lily Handal and their families, several Hazbouns and many others. Edward and Joan Hazbun were the first president and secretary, Kamal Hazboun then Tasso Bandak were the first vice presidents, Yvonne Ulrich became our Treasurer. Her husband Ken acted as our lawyer and helped register the Bethlehem Association as a non profit organization in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Alma Hazboun and Fuad Hazboun helped out too. The extended Handal family in New Jersey and New York were enthusiastic members from the start. They were just great at welcoming people and organizing our early reunions and conventions. Tasso and Norma Bandak hosted our second organizing meeting at their home in Chappaqua New York. Odeh Aburdene, Elias Aburdene, Elias and Maha Shomali, Ibrahim Said Dabdoub, Anton and Bonnie Dahbura of Baltimore, Nabil Jacir of Boston, George and Marlene Mesleh of Chicago participated in some of the early meetings.

After getting started on the East Coast, Edward Hazbun went over to California in 1986 to encourage initiating a chapter as there are more Bethlehemites there than anywhere else. Joe and Arlette Dibsy were enthusiastic; they organized a gathering at their home and invited interested people in the Los Angeles area. Many attended including Francis & Milade Dibsy, Louis, Norma, Madeleine & Mario Hazboun, Hanna & Gehad Canawati, Robert & Aida Dabdoub, Tony and Mary Dabdoub, Leila & David Giries and several others. Soon after, Hanna Canawati, Joe & Arlette Dibsy, Issa Juha, Roma Kafieh and Amal Bitar started a California chapter. Several months later George El Hihi, Samir Nassar, Clemence Shami, Caroline Basil and Elias Botto got organized in the Bay Area and in 1988 started another Chapter in San Francisco. Many of these members have been keen supporter ever since.

Our first newsletter was four pages of type written text with no photos! Joan and Edward Hazbun gradually improved it to include photos and sections on Bethlehem news. Looking at these early issues, one is reminded “the more it changes the more it stays the same.” The Israelis are still taking over Palestinian property, demolishing houses, destroying olive groves, arresting people, etc. The newsletter was always a lot of work and eventually in 2000 it got abandoned in favor of an Association website that can be updated and does not have the high cost associated with printing and mailing. We included convention and reunion photos, family news events – birth, marriages, deaths, and trips. Some of the articles on Bethlehem history are still worth reading. Hanna Canawati produced the last one in beautiful color in 1999.

After the Association was established, 1988 Hanna Canawati talked to Fayez and Fouad Nasser and Nasser Hazineh in Canada to encourage them to join. They soon organized a chapter led by Fayez Nasser, Nasser Hazineh, Fawzi Khalilieh, Joseph Shomali, Anton Rahil and Victor Ja’ar. In 1990 they hosted a beautiful convention in Toronto that attracted members from everywhere. Later people from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil and Chile came to the conventions. In 1995 members in Monterey, Mexico hosted our tenth convention at the Mexican Palestinian Lebanese (Mexpali) Club of Monterrey. It was an unforgettable occasion. Our representatives in Monterrey were: Victor Marcos Canawati, Jorge Gidi Ijha, Mily Batarse, Miguel & Odette Yga Canawati, George Mubarak Sabat, and Jorge & Slema Marcos.

Sizable groups from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Jamaica and Haiti have periodically attended our conventions. Giries & Mary El-Ali, Tawfiq & Issa Hasbun & Khalil Hasbun and their families from Brazil, Nagib & Yolande Handal and children Nathalie & Alexandra of San Domingo, Robert Said Dabdoub and family of Kingston, Jamaica. All have been loyal and supportive members. Later on in Texas, Abraham Frech (Freij), Juan Siman, Kathy and Abraham Jr. Frech, Moses, Janette and Mary Khano started a Chapter in Katy & Sugar Land, Texas. They held several local gatherings and wanted to host the national convention.

The convention locales give an indication of where local activists were able to organize the event. They include Philadelphia, the Catskills in upper New York state, Miami(twice), Orlando, Toronto Canada, Los Angeles, Orange, Chicago, San Diego (twice), San Francisco (twice), Washington, DC, Atlantic City, Whippany NJ, and Monterrey Mexico. In addition, there have been many regional parties and picnics for Christmas and Mother’s Day in California. It is moving to witness the reunions of long lost friends or scattered families. Young people enjoy meeting new friends and going places together. Sociable sightseeing trips offer additional interest and fun. A few marriages have resulted from friendships fostered at our conventions. It was always exciting at convention banquets to ask the guests from different countries and regions to stand and introduce themselves. It made one realize how far and wide the Bethlehem family extends.

Conventions also featured well known and eloquent speakers and discussion groups such as Palestinian representatives: Afif Safieh, Mano Hassassian, Nabil Aburdeyneh, Anis Barghouti. Bethlehem Mayors: Elias Freij, Hanna Nasser and Victor Batarseh. Bethlehem University leaders: Thomas Scanlon, Bernard Knezich, Vincent Malham, Jack Curran and Patrick White. Arab-American leaders: Odeh Aburdene, Ibrahim Dabdoub, Senator James Abourezk and Jim Zogby. Senator Paul Findley. Poets: Nadia Riemer Hazboun, Francis Shomali. Humanists: Mary E. King, Pearl Burns, Gordon Webster, Rick McDowell, and Journalists Ray Hanania and Charley Reese, and various professors. We are also eternally grateful to Rev. Hanna and Mary Sakkab for participating in most of our conventions. Father Sakkab invariably moved the audience with his stentorian delivery of eloquent Arabic poems composed for each occasion. We have been blessed by the generosity of some long time members. Edward and Joan Hazbun brought in matching funds for the first few years. Shafiq and Domingo Handal and their families and Edward Saleh Hazboun and his family were generous early supporters. William and Blanca Hubbell, introduced to the Association by Shafiq and Lily Handal, became our most generous supporters even though they are not from Bethlehem We have enjoyed their company at most of our conventions.

Over the years other members have donated the thousands of dollars necessary to cover minimal administrative expenses, help the charities in Bethlehem and to expand the Scholarship Fund. We have been able to provide over $500,000 to charities in Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahur. In addition, the Scholarship program has granted 20-30 scholarships every year to Bethlehem University students for the past 20 years amounting to about $250,000 in Scholarship aid to Bethlehem Students.

More recently, a concerted effort has been made to nominate executive committees from our younger generations. In 2003, David D. Handal from New Jersey and William Shahin from California were elected President and vice-President with Sanielle Handal as executive secretary and Joseph Hazboun as Treasurer. They all were active members since the start of the Association. David has led our young members ever since the first convention. He and his committee and beautiful wife Michele ran the Association for four years until 2006 including a great convention in Parsippany New Jersey. They were followed by Muna Handal Dayeh of San Diego. In addition to the successful 2008 convention in San Diego, she helped organize a small Convention in Bethlehem in 2007. It was a real pilgrimage and a moving experience to all the members who participated and to our families and friends in Bethlehem.

The executive committee members also acted as members of our Board of Directors which consists of 10 to 15 members of special standing who decided on all key Association issues. We are specially grateful to all our past and present Board members including: Edward Saleh Hazboun, Albert Hazbun, Nina Bazouzi Cullers, Robert S. Dabdoub, Suheil Baddour, George El Hihi, Dr. Elias Kawas, Shafiq Handal, Lily Handal, Maro M. Hazou, Michel Lama, Fayez Nasser, NasserHazineh, Elias Botto, Odeh Aburdene, Nabil Jacir, Ibrahim Dabdoub, Nagib Handal, Fuad Mansour,Fuad Sahouri. Their advice and fund raising over the years for the general fund and the scholarship fund are greatly appreciated.

Our main problem has been the voluntary aspect of the Association. Keeping in touch with members, updating the mailing list and records, organizing conventions and parties, performing all the ensuing accounting and tax returns and maintaining and updating our website and preparing occasional newsletters demand effort and real sacrifice of time. All of us have careers and family responsibilities that make this difficult. The scope is there to increase our membership but we need more people to work at it. Some of our past members and contacts have dropped out because of the lack of regular follow up. We have to provide a benefit in terms of news, social contacts, networking and ways to help Bethlehem and make it fun in getting together with other people from Bethlehem. We invite our young members and retirees to step forward and participate in running and building up the Association. You will always cherish the time spent doing so; it is an intrinsic part of your heritage and self identity.

The Association, its members, the Bethlehem community everywhere and the many poor people and students that have been helped are appreciative and grateful for all the hard work, time sacrificed and money donated by the many people who founded the Association and who have been running it for the past 25 years.

Happy 25th Anniversary!