Friday, August 20, 2010

Enduring Hope: The Quaker School in Ramallah

I just learned that an old friend of mine from high school (whom I just reconnected with through facebook) has a daughter who went to Earlham College and also to Ramallah, where the oldest and most prestigious Quaker school in the Middle East is located. For her and for others who are looking for hopeful signs in Israel-Palestine, I am posting this review. May the Ramallah Friends School thrive!

Enduring Hope: The Impact of the Ramallah Friends School by Patricia Edwards-Konic. Friends United Press, Richmond, IND. 2008. 138 pp. $15.00. Reviewed by Anthony Manousos, Santa Monica (CA) Friends Meeting.

The most common image of Palestinians depicted in the US media is that of terrorist or victim. In her book Enduring Hope Patricia Edwards-Konic, a Quaker minister and journalist, helps to dispel these stereotypes by showing Palestinians deeply concerned about educating their children and making a positive impact on the world. Palestinian voices seldom heard in our media—the voices of teachers, parents, and students—speak movingly about their values, their formative educational experiences, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

Enduring Hope describes a remarkable Quaker educational experiment that began in 1889 in the Arab village of Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem. Deeply committed to gender equality, Quakers opened a school for Palestinian girls in order to provide them with the same education that was being given to boys. The school was so successful that a Quaker school for boys was opened in 1901. Since then, Ramallah Friends School (RFS) has grown to over 1,000 students, K-12, and has become co-educational (highly unusual in the Middle East, where segregation by sexes is the norm). It is also the only school in Palestine to mainstream students with special needs. Furthermore, the school is one-third Christian, and two-thirds Muslim; and everyone gets along, thanks to a carefully developed, values-based curriculum that stresses religious pluralism and toleration.

“We were taught about all religions,” reports Michael Karam, a 1957 graduate who now works as a medical doctor. “Christians and Muslims were all studying the same things. It taught us tolerance and how to accept differences in people.”

RFS has become one of the most prestigious and successful schools in Palestine and has a world class reputation. Teachers from around the world have come there to teach, including Max Carter, director of Quaker Studies at Guilford College, who writes a fine introduction to this book (and leads groups to the school and to Israel/Palestine each year). Over 98% of RFS graduates go to college, many of them to first-rate universities abroad. It is the only school in Palestine that offers an international baccalaureate degree. Over the years thousands of Palestinians—many of them leaders in business and government—have gone to RFS and have been instilled with “Quaker” (really universal) values such as nonviolence, religious tolerance, equality, creativity, self-discipline, and community service.

After presenting a brief history of the school, Edwards-Konic weaves together the impressions of sixty graduates of RFS to show how this school has molded their hearts and minds. That is for me one of the best parts of the book. Students reminisce about their school days and how RFS made a difference in their lives. Writes Akel Biltaji, a 1959 graduate: “It was at the Friends Boy’s School when I started to learn how to live in a larger family, how to share, and most importantly, how to accept and respect the other. It was the grounds where I found peace within myself and others...”

RFS encourages students to give back to the community. Students do service learning projects, like volunteering at the Amari refugee camp. They also take part in fundraising events for the less fortunate, even during the dark days of the intifada, when an Israeli missile “accidentally” hit the school, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

For the most part, Edwards-Konic avoids dwelling on the all too familiar horror stories of Israeli occupation. She does mention that after the 1967 invasion of the West Bank with the ensuing turmoil and closure of the borders, the school almost closed. She also alludes to an 8-year-old student who wrote an essay about his experiences under Israeli occupation and was threatened with arrest by the Israeli army for expressing his views! For Palestinians living under Occupation, such incident are all too common, as I learned first-hand when I visited Israeli-Palestine and RFS in 2004.

What Edwards-Konic emphasizes is the extraordinary support the school has received from various sources, including prominent Jewish entertainers. Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame) is just one of many celebrity musicians to have performed at the school. In 2001, at the height of the most recent intifada, Daniel Barenboim, the famed Jewish Israeli conductor and pianist (and close friend of the great Palestinian educator/intellectual Edward Said), came to the RFS and helped to help launch the first Youth Orchestra in Ramallah.

RFS has become a center for cultural, social, and athletic activities in the West Bank—a source of hope and pride.

It was disturbing to note that most of the bright, articulate former students interviewed in this book no longer live in Palestine. They live abroad, where they can have a normal life and prosper. “The number of Palestinians living outside Palestine who are working for nonviolent change is enormous,” writes Edwards-Konic. “But there are also many alumni who remain in the Palestinian community and live lives of nonviolent resistance and change.” Joyce Aljouny, the current director of the school, is a good example of an alum who has chosen to stay and make a commitment to the community. I wish more of these alums had been interviewed.

Because RFS has such a long tradition of excellence and such deep roots in the community, some families choose to return to Palestine so that their children can attend RFS. Ghada Dahir writes: “I left the USA when I was seven years old, my two sisters and brother, to what they called our ‘home.’ Upon arriving in Palestine, all sorts of crazy things went through my mind, like what in the world are we doing here! It was only after we were enrolled in the Friends School, did everything seem better than alright.”

Reading this book, one is reminded of the words from the Gospel of John: “The Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness was not able to extinguish it.” In a region where despair and violence are so pervasive, it is gratifying to read about a Quaker school which offers Palestinian children and parents a sign of hope and a vision of a peaceful future.

2 comments:

  1. Hi,

    My great-grandparents were Quaker co-founders of your school in Ramallah and that is a part of our family heritage of which we are ever so proud.

    Today I am a tutor for an IB program here in Houston and have a Palestinian student who is one of the best and brightest. He plans to study medicine and will
    doubtless make a wonderful doctor.

    I wish you all the best with your mission to teach tolerance and peace.
    May you prevail!

    With warm regards,
    Mary Jane Taegel, Houston, Texas USA

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  2. As a Palestinian Christian who graduated with my brothers and sisters and before me my mother and grandfather from the Friends School in Ramallah, will take this opportunity to thank the Quakers for their contribution to our society. Now that we are people without a country, we still hold the values we learnt at the School and will continue to preach for peace.

    Best Regards

    Elias

    ReplyDelete