On Sunday we left Jerusalem and drove to Ramallah, in the West Bank. I was very excited to arrive at the school with which we have had a strong connection for decades. We arrived in time to attend Meeting for Worship, which gave us a rare opportunity for quiet reflection in the beautiful Meetinghouse in town with members of the meeting and several visiting Friends. We were greeted warmly there by Jean Zaru, Clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting and a longtime Palestinian peace activist. While the Meeting is small, its witness and outreach are very large. After meeting, Jean shared some inspiring reflections with us on the importance of recognizing the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all people. She emphasized that the spiritual basis of peace work is the “indwelling divinity of all people,” or that of God in all persons. This inclusive spirituality is not only a gift for the individual – it gives each of us responsibility to recognize the face of God in every human we meet, and to ensure that their human rights and dignity not be trampled. She pointed out that compassion is found in all religions, and urged us to look for things that unite us and give us a way to act together. “If we know what we are standing on,” she said, it leads us to action. “I commit myself to the otherness of the other.”
After lunch at a pizza restaurant, we walked back to Ramallah Friends School, where Director Joyce Ajlouny welcomed us and introduced us to the school and to our host families. Ramallah Friends has been a pioneering school serving Palestinian families since 1869, despite the volatile political situation in the area. Joyce emphasized that the school provides academic excellence and restores hope and dignity to students growing up in a land under occupation and helps them to grow into “incredible human beings.” She attributes the school’s resilience and ability to accomplish a great deal with limited material means to the strength of the community and its Quaker roots and values. She thanked us for coming and encouraged all of us to ask questions on any subject, engage in meaningful conversations, and forge new friendships.
The next two and a half days were an immersion experience, and those conversations and interactions happened on both campuses of the school, as we attended classes, engaged with speakers, visited a local mosque and a play center in the Amari Refugee Camp supported by Quaker organizations, and played “football.” The dialogues have been riveting as students from both schools have shared their experiences with passion, conviction, and open friendliness. Our students rose to the opportunity to share their knowledge and perspective and served as resources in some Lower School classes. I am proud of them and the energy, attentiveness, thoughtfulness, critical thinking skills, and good will which they have displayed as they have engaged with young children, Lower and Upper School RFS students, and adults in a wide variety of settings and often around highly complex issues. During one of those discussions a parent who speaks widely on the political and human rights issues facing Israel and Palestine today, said a question asked by Conor was one of the most brilliant questions he had ever heard, including on college campuses. This kind of engagement has happened again and again. As Phil Cottone commented, “I realize that this is is a Senior Project, and it’s about us growing up and being able to take on challenges as adults.”
The warmth, generosity, and kindness of our Ramallah host parents and students has been remarkable; more than one host parent told our guys that “You are my sons (or daughters) for the next three days.” On our last evening, the family of our current Ramallah student, Anas, welcomed our entire group to their home for the most delicious meal I have enjoyed for a long time. Sitting around living rooms, kitchen and dining room tables, driving to and from school – in some cases through checkpoints- sharing stories and everyday experiences, hearing about our hosts’ lives, including the sorrows and struggles they face, we have indeed forged new friendships – and renewed old ones. It was a special joy to see Joyce (whose son, Tarek, attended Westtown), and Yasmeen Hadi and Fadi Duwani, our Ramallah scholars of the past two years, in their own community. I celebrate the ongoing, vibrant and durable friendship between our two schools, half a world apart, who share a commitment to peace and to creating global problem solvers and difference makers. I look forward to continuing our relationship with Ramallah Friends for years to come, and I am grateful for their being part of this transformative journey for all of us.
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