“What is your biggest tip for young people like me, Grandpa?”
“Always give back to your community. Always”
My grandpa, Jamal Bannoura, is the nicest, most humble person I know. He went from being one of the youngest of 6 poor children in the small village of Beit Sahour (right next to Bethlehem) to becoming a prosperous craftsman helping to give back to his community through starting his business, Bethlehem Handicrafts.
How did he do it? Why did he do it?
On his 70th birthday, I asked him just that. With his permission, I am now telling his inspirational story.
Humble Beginnings in the Village
My Grandpa’s father died when he was just 11 years old. He and his siblings were left to fend for themselves without a steady flow of income from the head of the house.
His family was poor as dirt regardless. Some nights, he did not eat so that his siblings and mother could.
Seeing his family starving was hard for him. The first action he thought to take was to drop out of school and get a job to help feed his younger siblings.
That is exactly what he did.
He went to work small jobs around the village to support his family. He worked as a grocery bagger and cashier at a local market, among other jobs, to support his family.
All of those hardships were worth it, he says, because he got to grow up to see his siblings happy and healthy with families of their own.
Creating Olive Wood Carvings as a Past-Time
My grandpa started carving olive wood since the second he could hold a tool, starting at around 10 and continuing on until his late 60s.
He worked whenever he could, carving the same crosses and statues that are now placed in our homes (and yours!) with honor.
At the age of 16, he began selling crosses and statues around town to people who could afford such decorations. He took great pride in his work.
A Family of His Own
His legacy began when he met my grandma and they had their four children: Fadi, George, Fida, and Michael.
Grandpa and grandma were both doing odd jobs to support their family, but they both were there to say goodnight to their children every single night.
On their days off, my grandma would stay in the house and my grandpa would head straight into the workshop, rising long before the sun had done so.
His children would follow him to the workshop, asking him what on earth he was doing up so early. He would never respond. He was too focused.
As the sun shone through the window of the abandoned hotel grandpa so affectionately calls “the workshop,” It became clear to his children what he was doing.
He was carving.
Even after all of these years, he still found time to do what he loved, the pastime that has been a part of his family’s legacy for thousands of years, and the pastime that his grandchildren still continue back in the Holy Land.
This pastime has given him a life filled with love, creativity, and, most importantly, family.
My grandpa (third from left) with his sons Fadi (fourth from left) and George (third from right) teaching his grandchildren the art of carving
The Origin of Bethlehem Handicrafts
Carving was a wonderful pastime for grandpa and his children (and now even his grandchildren), but how did he make a living out of carving olive wood?
Grandpa enlisted the help of the best support system he had: family.
“Everything comes back to family, to community,” he always tells us grandkids, “always give back. Take care of your parents when they grow old, just as I would have done for my parents, just as your parents have done for me and your grandma."
His family helped spread the word about his wonderful artwork, and, in turn, he taught his art form to them.
“Marketing” was not a concept that the villagers of Beit Sahour, the Shepherd’s Field, or the surrounding area of Bethlehem knew very well, so everything was spread by word of mouth. Once one person spread the knowledge of his wonderful artwork, others started coming in flocks.
Before he knew what was happening, he was making a living off of carving figurines of Jesus and beautiful depictions of Mary, along with other sculptures, all because his family spread the word of his wonderful olive wood carvings.
He was able to dedicate his whole life to carving olive wood figurines, creating some of his most proud creations with his family surrounding him.
My grandpa alongside two of his proudest statues
Where is He Now?
Because of the support from his family, my grandpa is able to retire comfortably from a life that was filled with trouble and toil.
He now lives in Aurora, Colorado, with his wife, two sons, and three grandchildren. He is surrounded by people who love him, twenty-four-seven.
You will never find my grandpa without a smile on his face.
Want to meet him? Come visit our store at 4114 S. Parker Rd, Aurora, CO, 80014
He will be there to greet you with the same smile that his family looks forward to seeing every day.
My grandpa (Right) and my dad (left) at the Bethlehem Handicrafts store with a statue of St Micheal
My grandpa always told me that family was important, and I always believed him, but his story of success from a life filled with poverty to one of comfort and creativity through the support of his family really solidified that concept for me.
He was able to do what he loved and be prosperous in it because his family supported him in carving these wonderful figurines.
This is the meaning of family that he was trying to teach me ever since I was little. He was trying to teach me that family and community were everything to a person.
When I asked him on his birthday if he could summarize everything he had learned in his life into a lesson for me and his other grandkids, he did not hesitate with his answer.
“Give back to your family and your community whenever you can. They are the reason for your success.”
This is the basis of Bethlehem Handicrafts. This is why the company was started, coming straight from the founder.
This is why we help the members of the Christian community back home.
They are the reason that the Holy Sites stay clean and are tended to daily.
They are the reason Christianity still exists in the Holy Land.
They are the reason we as Christians around the world can still visit the Holy Land.
They are the reason for our success.
Through my grandpa, I have learned many lessons about family and community. Too many to list here. Too many to even comprehend.
The most important lesson I have learned from him? Always love your community and support them however you can.
From an 11-year-old father-less man who came from poverty and now lives a comfortable life in the US, also known as my amazing grandpa, this is a very valuable lesson that I will hold in my heart for my whole life.
At Bethlehem Handicrafts, we love our elders and pray for them every single day! Today, in honor of labor day, we reflect on all of their hard work and life lessons they have given us.
What is a lesson you have gotten from your elders that you will carry throughout your entire life?
We, the Bethlehem Handicrafts’ team, are so proud to put the Holy Land in your hand by giving you a variety of the best and the most outstanding original Bethlehem’s olive wood carvings with the best quality made in the Holy Land.