In a nutshell, the Ramallah Friends School is high spirited, percolating
with Quaker values, important to the future of Palestine and Israel, and
very connected to Friends in New England, a connection intense in the
past, waning for a period, and now to be encouraged. That’s partly why
I write. Also to express my great joy at discovering the school. I hope
to share that joy with you now.
I write also to activate you about the region, it needs your attention.
Palestine and Israel are key to the resolution of conflict between the
Muslim-Arab world and the West, to put the matter broadly. Peace in the
Middle East won’t happen without peace and justice in the Levant, the
land of the rising. The so-called “War on Terror,” which at the moment
features the war on Iraq is embedded directly in Muslim-Arab hostile feelings
about the oppressions and fears visited upon the various parties in Israel
A VIGNETTE OF THE SCHOOL
Let’s have a look at the school. Some 1000 students and 100 teachers
learn and teach in the school. Ages range from 4 years to 18, kindergarten
thru senior year of high school. It’s over 100 years old, depending on
when you date its founding. It has 2 campuses, elementary and secondary
schools, once known archaically as Girls and Boys, but it is now co-educational,
itself a remarkable development in the rather traditional climate of Palestine.
The elementary school is in Ramallah, traditionally Christian, about 10
miles north of Jerusalem, and the secondary school is in neighboring El-Bireh,
about 3 kilometers to the northeast.
The school is the first and so far only Palestinian school to offer
the International Baccalaureate degree, itself a mark of distinction.
Since 2000, this program has allowed many students to continue studies
abroad and often with major scholarship assistance. Most graduates excel
in higher education programs.
The school has a community service component, bringing in neighboring
students with learning impairments, raising money thru its annual White
Gift campaign to benefit those in poverty, singing in old people’s centers,
sharing Ramadan feasts with girls in an orphanage, and other activities.
It also has a special needs program, based on an inclusive educational
philosophy. This allows all children to be mainstreamed while receiving
integrated special education services.
The school leads in computer training, beginning in kindergarten. I
observed and used some of the equipment and dealt regularly with the computer
coordinator, a man of high ability and gracious service. The 7th thru
12th graders have school based email accounts allowing them communication
with their teachers. This and the website (www.palfriends.org) has proved
critical during times of Israeli military incursions and curfews.
It houses the Said-Barenboim music program which supplies professional
musician-teachers to work with students throughout the year, teaching
and performing publicly with them. They are forming the first ever Palestinian
Youth Orchestra (more about this later).
It is known as one of the finest schools in the region. Thru its rooms
have passed many Palestinian leaders, many more are preparing for major
leadership positions at this moment.
Funding is a major issue. To quote from the school’s most current literature
The ongoing Israeli occupation has resulted in a near collapse
of the Palestinian economy, with soaring unemployment and a sharp increase
in poverty. According to World Bank reports, the median family income
has dropped by 40% compared to 1999 levels, to which the Palestinian
population has responded by resorting to coping mechanisms such as reducing
their consumption levels, selling off assets, delaying payments and
incurring debts. These strategies are nearly exhausted. Also, with the
Separation Wall that Israel has constructed to seal off about 50% of
Palestinian Territory, the movement of goods and services has been effected
as well as jobs. Moreover, in spite of the relative calm during recent
months in Ramallah, the economic situation has not improved. This alarming
situation is proving very difficult for many families; making them unable
to meet their tuition fee obligations due to a substantial decrease
in their income. This in turn has put more pressure on the School, which
apart from dealing with the educational problems arising from Israeli
closures has to now find new ways to provide needy students with financial
Funding comes from a variety of sources, besides the tuition (how much?
Amount and percentage) recent graduates contribute, as do individuals
from Quaker meetings and churches in the United States, Britain, Europe
and as far away as New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Japan. Various Quaker
organizations, primarily in England and thru Friends United Meeting (FUM
now owns the school) fund the school, along with various international
organizations like the UN and USAID/ASHA. It is constantly strapped for
funds, since the occupation impedes Palestinians earning money.
In 1869 Eli and Sybil Jones from the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends
visited Ramallah, asking what do you need? The answer: a school for girls.
We have none. The Jones’s established several girls schools in Ramallah
and surrounding villages. Borrowing heavily from the school’s literature,
in October 1889 Friends Girls School opened as “The Girls Training Home
The fifteen students who enrolled the first year came from Lydd,
Jaffa, Aboud, Jerusalem, Beirut and Ramallah, and six years later the
first class graduated. Gradually, class by class was added until Friends
Girls School became a secondary as well as an elementary school. A Boys
Training Home was founded in 1901, at the urging of community members,
for the purpose of providing Palestinian boys a rigorous academic program
under girded by the principles of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
The school was first housed in a building near the Friends Girls School
in Ramallah and as the school grew from its initial enrolment of 15
students, land was bought in El-Bireh in 1905 and the first stone of
the main building laid in 1913. The first experiments in mixed classes
of boys and girls began in 1902, the two training homes for Boys and
for Girls had classes together for one and half hours a day and it was
hailed as a great success. The Friends Meeting House in the centre of
Ramallah was built in 1910. (More later about the meeting and its connection
with the school.)
In 1914 the Friends Boys School Main Building was completed but
it only came into use as a school in 1918. The Girls Training Home and
the Boys School like all other schools in Palestine were closed throughout
the First World War. During those years Turkish and then British troops
occupied the buildings. British troops used the Boys School as a hospital
Both schools reopened in 1919. At the newly named ‘Friends Girls
School, day students, as well as boarders were accepted. The Lowell
Jones Library was given by Rufus Jones in 1928.
The partition of Palestine in 1948 and the subsequent expulsion
of many Palestinians again changed the character of the School. Friends
Meeting House and the School grounds as they became the temporary home
for refugees. School numbers swelled to accommodate refugees from the
coastal cities. The White Gifts giving was instituted to give foodstuffs
and money to needy families. There was a conscious endeavour to increase
the Schools’ scholarship support. As World War Two came to an end, once
again the schools continued to struggle to be a positive influence in
a troubled world.
The schools had a relatively peaceful life during the Jordanian
period from 1948-1967.
Following Israeli occupation the boarding sections in both schools
were closed, as students from neighboring countries were no longer able
to come. Since the very earliest years of the schools’ foundation, both
boys and girls from the two separate schools had shared some classes
and this strategy had proved successful. Both boys and girls were always
taught together from Kindergarten to Grade 2. The upper Kindergarten
had begun very early in the Friends Girls School history and was permanently
expanded to the Lower Kindergarten in 1983. There was a growing belief
that co-education was educationally sound and could work well in Palestine.
As the first Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, grew in strength, enrolment
plummeted. The financial situation also put pressure on the Board to
look closely at how to use the resources of the two schools more efficiently.
In 1990, the campus of the Girls School became a co-educational Elementary
School and Kindergarten and the campus of the Boys School became a co-educational
High School. When both schools are fully occupied, [elementary school]
will have 580 pupils in Kindergarten and grades 1 to 6 and [secondary
school] 470 boys and girls in grades 7 to 12.
Following the Oslo agreements, the uneasy peace brought greater
stability to the schools with the emergence for the first time of a
government in waiting that had a real interest in Palestinian education.
The second Intifada began in September 2000. Since the beginning of
the second uprising, the Schools have been in the center of towns exposed
to a new level of violence with sequences of nightly shelling from Israeli
tanks and light artillery and attacks by helicopter gunners. The psychological
well being of parents, students and staff was shaken and enrolment figures
fell to 370 pupils in the secondary school and 540 in the elementary
school in 2000/2001 as families left for America and elsewhere to escape
the violence. The expansion of the elementary school to three classes
in each grade from 1 to 6 was completed in September 2003. However,
in the past following each tragedy the school has recovered, maintaining
its reputation as a leading academic center in the Palestinian community.
Despite everything today the Schools continue to demonstrate the resilience
and patience of the Palestinian community keeping alive the hope and
vision of a better future and to demonstrate the willingness of our
Friends and Alumni overseas to help financially when the school’s viability
[so we see that] The Friends School in their checkered political
history has served not only as schools but as a center for refugees,
as a hospital, as a center for community lectures, concerts and other
(To be continued)
Ramallah Friends School
Meeting & Friends School
of the school by Skip Schiel
on My Quaker Connections with Palestine