A Friend at Ramallah Friends School—
a letter to New England Quakers

by Skip Schiel

September 2005

© Skip Schiel 2005

Skip Schiel
California photos


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 and Palestine.


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 (2005):

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 aid.

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 of Ramallah”.

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 in 1917.

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 is threatened.

[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 cultural activities.

(To be continued)

Ramallah Friends School

To donate

Friends United Meeting & Friends School


Photos of the school by Skip Schiel

Notes on My Quaker Connections with Palestine