In 1869 Quakers founded a school for girls in Ramallah. And in 1901 a boys’ school was founded with just 15 boys. A new building for the Boys School was finally completed in 1914. For many years now both schools have been co-educational. The Girls School serves as a primary school and the Boys School as a secondary school. A majority of the 580 pupils are boys, whereas most of the teachers are women. As in many other countries, teaching is poorly paid and less attractive to men as a career.
Jeries Abu Al-Ezam, the Deputy Principal, told us (12 participants in a Quaker Voluntary Action project) about the Quaker ethos of the Friends Schools. Meetings and weekly school assemblies begin with a moment of silence and Quaker values are taught in ethics classes. Most of the pupils are Muslim, but many are from various Christian churches. It is the only school in Palestine in which pupils study for the International Baccalaureate. Many students go on to universities in the USA, the UK, and Arab countries.
The newly-elected president of the school council and a few other pupils came to talk to us after Jeries had taken us round the school. They all said that they aim to study abroad and go on to obtain a Masters degree. They clearly valued the privilege of being educated at the Friends Schools and said that getting a good education was the only way to “fight” the Israelis whom they perceive as their enemies.
I asked whether they were aware of the Arab Peace Initiative, which promotes a two-state solution with a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders except where minor changes are agreed. Jeries knew about it and complained that, in spite of the major concessions that Arab states were willing to make, the Israelis had rejected their Initiative.
The pupils were suspicious of projects which bring Palestinians and Israelis together. Such dialogue gives the impression that there is peace between Palestinians and Israelis and nothing happens to stop the injustice being done to Palestinians. Only if justice for the Palestinians is the end result, is dialogue worth pursuing. And only great pressure from the international community will force the Israelis to agree to a just solution.
The Friends Meeting House is only a short walk from the Boys School. We were welcomed there by Hekmat Bessiso, who is looking after the Friends International Centre, Ramallah (FICR), which is adjacent to the Meeting House. After lunch we all set to work in the garden. Some of us swept and raked up leaves. Others picked olives. Megan (from Wales) weeded the herb bed. Hekmat eventually brought us all tea. She told some of us about some of the restrictions on her as a Palestinian living in the West Bank. But whatever happens, she intends to get on with her life and make the best of things. We were most impressed by her positive attitude.
Hekmat gave me an especially warm welcome when she learned that I am the British Quaker who is going to come to the Meeting House as temporary Friend in Residence for six weeks after the Quaker Voluntary Action project. She showed me the spacious accommodation which will be my home and told me that her husband will give me a tour of Ramallah and introduce me to various people. They are clearly looking forward to me being present at the Meeting House. I shall look forward to learning a few things from Hekmat, who describes herself as a life skills consultant and trainer. The motto on her business card is “achieve your personal best”.
We had a little time to wander round the centre of Ramallah before returning to the guest house where we are staying. Andrew, Hazel, Megan and I found an ice cream parlour. Back at the guest house some of us took up the invitation to join our host, Rawda, at a short Catholic Mass in the nearby church. The Mass was conducted entirely in Arabic, so I understood nothing, but it was good to have some time for prayer.
After supper we met as a group for reflection on our experience of the past two days. Some were discouraged by the attitude of the pupils at the Friends School, who regard Israelis as their enemies and are not inclined to engage in dialogue or any kind of “normalisation” of the current unjust situation. At least they did not say that they hated Israelis, so we can hope that they might remember what Jesus said about relating to enemies. I’m reminded of the book by Hildegard Goss-Mayr: “Wie Feinde Freunde werden” (“How enemies become friends”). Hildegard tells the story of her life with her French husband, Jean Goss, and how people in a number of countries (Brazil, the Philippines, Mozambique, etc.), with their help, overcame violence and injustice by turning enemies into friends. I would willingly translate this excellent book into English, if a publisher or foundation could be found to pay me a living wage whilst I’m doing so! Any ideas?