While in Ramallah, Palestine, I spent some time with a friend of mine from Earlham College. She had grown up in Palestine, attended the Ramallah Friends School and graduated from Earlham the previous year.
My friend and I met each other through mutual friends while singing in the college gospel choir. When I came the West Bank we planned to meet up. At the time of our preliminary planning I didn’t realize what our visit would mean… to either of us.
She lives at home now with her other brothers, new born niece, sister-in-law, and her parents. After four years of relative freedom in the United States, she now has many eyes watching her movements. She must watch who she interacts with and where she goes. “Reputation,” she said, “is important in this part of the world.” Her family surrounds her, quite literary; they make up a city block!
My friend doesn’t expect to return to Earlham anytime soon. “Maybe one day” she dreamed. When her loans are repaid and she can afford the journey of traveling into Jordan and then to the U.S. “I’m not going to make the five year reunion.” She replied after my suggestion of a realistic goal for which to save. “What’s realistic here is limited.”
She took me around to see where her family lived. We walked into the church where her uncle and aunt work. Her brother was married in this church and she expects to be married here someday too. “It will probably happen… I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon, so yes… someday.” She smiled.
For the Christmas holidays, my friend and her family were granted travel documents to visit Jerusalem. During the rest of the year, she and her family cannot cross through the check points that guard entry into Israel. “My aunt remembers riding her bike to Jerusalem,” she relayed. “It is close enough even now to walk to, but these days… it’s impossible.”
My friend laughed as she told me about her holiday escapades. “All the internationals head to the old city to see the holy sites… and the Palestinians? We head to the mall.” “What about BDS (Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions—an international campaign to put economic pressure on Israel)?” I ask. “It’s all well intentioned,” she replied. “But in the end we want we can’t have in Palestine, whether it is pretty earrings or nice shoes. It doesn’t matter who made them at that point. We just feel a bit better about ourselves when we can live like we’re not under occupation.”
While my friend is safe and doing well, she had a good job working with a humanitarian organization, her story of place sits heavy on my heart. I know the privilege I carry that grants me freedom to travel this world; I exercise that privilege often. However, there is a part of me that assumes that people with similar educational and economic backgrounds as myself, also have that privilege of freedom. My naiveté was reduced a bit during our time together.
Even within America, we (Americans) have the freedom to travel and while that freedom is being challenged in some cases, such as in Arizona with the new racial profiling laws, we have a great expanse in which to move around. Our country is extremely large compared to the limited land of the Palestinian territories. My personal questions concerning where I want to live next year embody the wealth of choices I have before me.
Yet several of the friends with whom I have graduated are restricted to the borders of their countries. Prevented from the important things like specialized hospital services and consistent running water. Jobs are extremely limited in Palestine and life without a means of lively hood must feel even more constricting because you can’t just move somewhere else to try again. As I prepare to return to the Middle East, my heart goes out to those in the world trapped by economic, social and religious forces. I pray that their voices can be heard over the chaos and they can feel heard.