The Man Helping Palestinians Grow Cucumbers in the Desert

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A humanitarian who travels the world helping the underprivileged start socially oriented businesses and a Brazilian who grew up on tales of Israel

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José Maria Menéndez.
José Maria Menéndez.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

José Maria Menéndez, 54, from Spain; arriving from Mozambique

Hello, can I ask what you’re painting there?

It’s the golden dome [the Dome of the Rock] and the Western Wall [flips pages], and this is the place where the Last Supper took place.

What did you paint this with?


Are you a painter?

No, definitely not. I work in a humanitarian organization.

Which one?

It’s an international organization, and I work to assist the development of socially oriented businesses. I mean, to create businesses with a social pact. In my case, in Palestine. We are starting in Hebron and want to establish a business that will help the community there.

Where else have you done that?

In Spain and Mozambique.

What was it like in Mozambique?

Mozambique is the fourth-poorest country in the world. They have multiple problems. I worked in the north of the country. I was there just now and I’ll have to go back. The idea is to help people through cooperatives, because they are not responsible enough with their money. A lot of it is because of the dependence on grants that has been created. When you get something for free, you don’t always look after it. They’ve been getting money for a long time, but nothing is happening. They do manufacture things, not all the money has been wasted, but for example, they have citrus fruit and sometimes simply don’t pick them, because they don’t care. It’s not a normal situation.

And what is your work here?

I’m trying to create socially oriented business. People who work with us need to put up half the money and prepare a proposal, with my help. If the idea is socially oriented and the plan is good, they start the business, and the organization provides technical and business support.

What are you working on now?

We started with three organizations. We helped them to build a water reservoir in west Hebron. There’s a Bedouin population there, and they’d never tried agriculture, because it’s dry in the area. Since the reservoir was built, it has filled up quickly; everyone was happy and started to conserve water. They are now growing thyme and also selling it in the market. With the money, they are continuing to build. Another project is growing cucumbers. There, too, everything is fresh and sold in the market, everyone is happy, and with the money they help children with problems. Another business is a supermarket in the center of Hebron, in an area where it’s difficult to live. It supplies food to poor children, but open to everyone as a regular supermarket.

What’s it like to work in the face of so much distress?

It’s sad. I try to do the best. Even if my contribution is a drop of water in the desert, I want to bring hope.

Did you always want to help?

I always volunteered, even when I wasn’t working in an organization of this kind. I was in the Scouts, where they tried to teach us solidarity, and perhaps also Christian values of helping others. Also political values, particularly left wing ones: human rights, equality.

When Western countries fund an organization that goes and helps another country, isn’t it a little like a continuation of colonialism?

There really are backward countries with many resources. Maybe that’s a good place to start. It also has to do with how the people feel. Because if you ask Spain for money for Palestine, they will agree to give. For something else, maybe not. They will agree to give to Latin America, because it’s a similar culture. But for Ukraine – no. They will say it’s not Spain’s problem, but Russia’s.

Where are you going on to?

To Mozambique or to Gaza, I don’t know which will happen first. It depends on my clients; I have to help with problems that will arise down the line, it’s my job.

How is the work, in the big picture?

Interesting, but also frustrating, I have to admit. Because you see problems and it’s impossible to solve everything. And I cope with that frustration every day.

Sara Bernardi.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Sara Bernardi, 45, from Brazil; flying to London

Hello there, how was it for you in Israel? What did you do?

I came only to see the country; I’ve been twice already. I love this land. I took thousands of pictures and I’m not a professional photographer.

Where does your love for Israel come from?

I am a Christian, and was raised as such. We always heard and read about the Jews, and I loved them from childhood. My mother is a teacher and used to read us Bible stories. Every day she told us – my siblings and me – a different story. About Abraham, about Sarah, about the land God gave them, how he told Sarah she would bear a son, how they left for Egypt and made their exodus. I always learned the stories and was amazed by them, so it was important for me to see Israel.

Where all the stories you heard took place.

Yes. I don’t know what you believe here, but I believe that this is what God wanted. The fact that the country has existed for 70 years, with technology and all – for me, that’s amazing.

You were given a biblical name.

Yes, Sarah; I have siblings named Samuel and Leah. One of my sisters is starting work as a volunteer in Israel, at a guesthouse next to Lake Kinneret. She’s doing it for the same reason that I love Israel. The truth is that I hadn’t seen her for two years, and now we’ve all met. My siblings and parents also came on this trip.

Where is your family from?

We lived in Sao Paulo until I was 8; then we moved to a village, because we children had asthma. There was pollution in Sao Paulo, so we were always in the ER. It’s a big, crowded, violent city. The village is more peaceful. It’s small: 120,000 people. Well, for us it’s small. Even now, when I’m in Sao Paulo, I can feel it in my throat.

What do you do?

I’m a nurse in the city where I live, a small place close to Sao Paulo. But the truth is I’m not working just now; I have to see what I’ll do down the road.

Where did you work?

In a hospital and then in an HMO. I’ve been a nurse since 1997. I liked treating people, it seems to me that I just like being with people. But it’s not so easy, especially in Brazil. It’s complicated because of the situation in the country. Public medicine isn’t easy to begin with, and in the present situation it’s only getting harder.

What do you mean?

We had a presidential election, and there is a lot of corruption. Corruption is one of the worst things.

What effect does corruption have on public medicine?

Corruption is the main problem of the health system. One of the governors of Rio de Janeiro is in jail. Everyone steals public funds. If the money wasn’t stolen we’d have the means [to do more]. Because there are good hospitals, doctors, nurses, but corruption has brought them down. People wait forever for an operation or to see a specialist, it’s very unpleasant.

I’ll ask a naive question: Why do people become corrupt?

Maybe – and not everyone – but maybe it’s something that happens if you don’t teach your child principles. I think that if it’s implanted in his mind, his heart and his life, the child will grow up and not do wrong, because he’s been taught to distinguish between good and bad. Otherwise people grow up without principles who don’t care about anyone, only about money. King Solomon said that you should teach the child the path he will follow, and I think that’s right. Not only in Brazil, but all over the world: to love money, to be materialist is corrupting.

Do people who take money for themselves forget that it has an effect on others?

In my opinion, they don’t forget; they just don’t care. When you steal from people, it leads to death. You don’t shoot people, but you help them die faster.

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