After listening to media reports about Ramallah in the US, you would think that the city was bombed out, with people hiding in their homes amidst the rubble. What a misconception! Ramallah is a vibrant city, crowded with people. The main streets are filled with shops, businesses and restaurants. There was even a “Stars and Bucks Cafe”, complete with the green sign and a similar logo! The vibrancy of the city really touched me.

We started our visit at the Friends Schools. We were given a tour and brought up to date on their situation. Since the election of Hamas, they have seen a dramatic reduction in the payment of tuition as more of the parents of students go without receiving their salaries. It is beginning to put a real strain on their cashflow. The director said that by August, they are looking to only pay half salaries to their faculty and staff, unless the embargo on funds being paid into Palestine is lifted. On the plus side, they have some wonderful programs and have been able to do some fund raising to update their facilities, primarily from alumni – something they really haven’t done in the past.

Next, we met with representatives of the American Friends Service Committee. They gave us an overview of their programs including two very inspirational success stories of people overcoming the odds of this region to accomplish goals of education, community activism and support of others. We then walked from the Friends School, down through the center of town to the Friends Meeting house for lunch. This is where I became amazed at how “normal” everything seems. We listened to two women tell their story. One is a Palestinian married to an Israeli citizen. She explained how difficult it is for their relationship to survive. She is not legally allowed in Jerusalem nor is her husband legally allowed in Ramallah. They have no idea what they will do once the wall is completed.

In the afternoon, we toured Birzeit University, meeting with professors and students. The university is located on the edges of Ramallah, so we drove past areas we have seen on TV, such as the rubble that was once Yassar Arafat’s compound where Israeli tanks surrounded him in a stand off several years ago. The university has a student population of about 7000, 52% of which are women. They have several programs of study – adding more as is feasible. They are the largest Palestinian university and as such have seen their share of problems from being shut down for 4 years in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, to checkpoints being set up about a mile away so that students and faculty cannot get to classes, to the Israeli army coming to their gates on the day of their student council elections, firing tear gas and rubber bullets onto the campus to disrupt the elections. The overwhelming message we received there is one of active resistance to the occupation and hope for an end in their lifetimes.

A great day, full of images of people, color, hope.

News Muse note: Beth Sullivan is the bookkeeper for DisciplesWorld and has served as board member of the United Christian Missionary Society and the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago. Sullivan is visiting Middle Eastern holy sites on a trip with her alma mater, Earlham College, located in Richmond, Ind.