In the particular lies the universal.
I was only four, but I could tell that someone special was coming to our house. There must have been clues easily interpreted by a four-year-old: probably excited voices and an extra busyness around the house in preparation for the guest. Late one evening, she arrived.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see the smiling woman standing in the doorway to our living room; a large trunk (which I felt sure might hold something for me) sat in the middle of the room. I was excited, and shy. This was my Aunt Mildred White, my mother’s sister, whom I had never met, come from a faraway place. It wasn’t long before I was sitting on her lap, happy to hear her songs and stories. I was one of six nieces and nephews born while she was away. It was only as we grew older that we would understand she was coming from a country called Palestine, that she was a teacher in a Friends school in the town of Ram Allah (Hill of God), ten miles north of Jerusalem.
I did not realize then, of course, that this was a pivotal point in my life: the beginning of a love for a beloved family member, and through her, for the country, the school, and the people who showed her such hospitality and became her lifelong friends.
Mildred’s home meeting, Rich Square Meeting in Henry County, Indiana, a part of Indiana Yearly Meeting, kept in close touch with her over the years (1922 to 1954), and we lent our support as best we could. Through her letters, we saw the rocky countryside of Palestine sprinkled with a profusion of wildflowers in the spring; went on picnics in olive groves; suffered through droughts and rejoiced with her when there was enough water for baths; and learned about daily life in a boarding school—the laughter and tears. We rode with her on the mission mule to bring a little girl to school, joined in the adventures as the children searched the countryside to find and identify wildflowers, and celebrated when Ramallah Friends School won for finding and identifying the most. Following the partition, we agonized over the violence that hit the countryside and the daily restrictions of living under the heavy hand of occupation.
During those early years, there were several young people who went out from Indiana and many other places, including other countries, to serve in Ramallah Friends Schools and the Ramallah Friends Meeting. And for all those who went, there were families, Friends meetings, United Society of Friends Women’s groups, yearly meetings, Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting), and others who provided networks of support. Interconnections grew between here and there as some students from the school came to the United States for college education (including Earlham in Richmond, Indiana), and we had the opportunity to meet these articulate, outstanding young people. Trips to Israel–Palestine enlarged understanding and compassion.
Aunt Mildred gave wholehearted love and effort to her service in Ramallah, and received love overflowing.
Love and concern developed for the school: the students and teachers and the small country that was, after all, the one we had read about in biblical stories, in communications from Friends, as well as in the news. For 32 years, Mildred White was a part of the mission in Ramallah; even on her brief times home, she traveled about telling the stories of life in Ramallah, encouraging support for the school. Her last stint of teaching was from 1949 to 1954, beginning just the year after the partition of Palestine and the flight of 600,000 people from the western side of their country into the hills around Ramallah, and beyond to Jericho. Many of her old students and their families were now refugees. They thought it was temporary, and kept their keys to reopen their homes and businesses when things settled down, but behind them, hundreds of their villages were turned into rubble, and there was no going back. Since then, as we all know, the country set aside to be theirs has shrunk drastically, as Israel continues to expand settlements. Many Palestinians have left the country to settle where they have freedom to live their lives. Although there are many in Palestine and in Israel who would seek justice, peace, and equality, we know those dreams are far from being realized.
Aunt Mildred gave wholehearted love and effort to her service in Ramallah, and received love overflowing. Many years later, after she was gone, that love spilled over on my husband, Carl, and me when we twice had the opportunity to visit the land called “Holy Land” by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and meet some of her former students.
During a trip with a large Methodist group, three of us Quakers took a day out to visit Ramallah. I was beyond excited. We had meeting for worship in a classroom where I was overwhelmed with the sense of the presence of “a great cloud of witnesses.” (The meetinghouse at that time, 1995, was in very poor shape. It has since been transformed and is beautiful and welcoming.) Donn Hutchison, teacher in Ramallah for many decades, had us for a lovely meal in Swift House, then took us down the street to visit a young man named Ghazwan Khairi and his parents, where we made friends over cake and tea. For three years, Carl and I had contributed a modest sum to Ghazwan’s school expenses. Then on down the street, we went to the home of Violet and Leila Zaru, sisters who lived in the house their father had built. They had been students of Aunt Mildred’s, and here, too, we were met with love and welcome. My cousin Esther White Sunderland and I had corresponded with Violet for several years, sometimes sticking a $20 bill in the envelopes for something for the children in the Amari refugee camp. Violet always replied with gratitude, saying, “I told the children that even people from far away care about them!”
I’ve seen the country roads that are cut off from main highways, the ugly wall, the long lines at checkpoints, the stumps where whole olive groves have been cut down by settlers. But I have also met kind people, thoughtful people, who would see justice for this land and its people, Palestinians and Israelis.
Ten years later, I had the privilege of going again with a group of 16 Friends. We were in Ramallah for nearly a week, staying in homes of Ramallah residents. We heard stories of tragedy and sorrow, and joy and courage, too, as families shared with us. I saw how the restrictions on traveling within the country had multiplied, hurting family life, and had made getting to fields, to school, and so on a trial. Again we were there on a Sunday and this time we could worship in the renewed meetinghouse within the lovely landscaped plot of land in downtown Ramallah.
Unexpectedly, just last year, I heard from Ghazman, the young man whose parents we visited in Ramallah. He now lives near Columbus, Ohio, near his two brothers and their families and their mother whom they brought over after their father died. Ghazwan had searched for Carl and me for two years on the Internet. My daughter-in-law in Ithaca, New York, discovered his message and gave him my email address. He was eager to bring his family over to visit me at Friends Fellowship Community in Richmond, Indiana. Ghazwan; his wife, Dana; and their three children came with a Palestinian dinner cooked and ready to eat! He brought a gift of a scrapbook with the letters I had written to him when he was a student at Ramallah Friends School, and some pictures of his family.
“Palestine,” Elihu Grant, an archeologist and teacher, wrote in 1929, “has been one of the famous schoolrooms of humanity, where experiments are made in family life, individual effort, in trade, battle, travel, monarchy, and democracy, where an ethics was born and religions perfected.” Would that someday we can add peacemaking to that list. The system of oppression under which the Palestinians live is intolerable—not good for anyone—not even Israelis. I’ve seen the country roads that are cut off from main highways, the ugly wall, the long lines at checkpoints, the stumps where whole olive groves have been cut down by settlers. But I have also met kind people, thoughtful people, who would see justice for this land and its people, Palestinians and Israelis.
I can’t imagine my life without Aunt Mildred and her life in her other home, Palestine. Oh, and that four-year-old wasn’t disappointed; there were two little dolls dressed in Palestinian clothing for me in that big trunk. They opened up a network of connections brought about through love, hospitality, compassion, listening, and learning. I am sure that network is just one of many that have come about, thanks to the many chances to develop relationships between people. Someday, that is what I hope will lead to peace.