Friends School Ramallah Class of 2017 Commencement Speech

I apologize for presenting this speech in English. Every Palestinian’s life has been taxed. My tax, as many in the diaspora, is paid every day by not having had the opportunity to master our Arabic language.

Thanks to the Board of Trustees of the Ramallah Friends School, faculty, staff, and, in particular:

  • Thank you Joyce Ajlouni for the warm introduction you gave to this Class of 2017 and for your 13 years of service to the Friends School. As a parent, a work colleague, and most importantly a friend, I wish you the best of luck as you embark on the next chapter of your life, knowing very well you will never be far from the Friends School.
  •  A big thanks also to Deputy Principal Istaz Jeries Abu El-Etham for his lifelong service to the Friends Boys School. We salute your dedication and patience throughout the years and look forward to engaging with you as you transition into retirement.
  •  Principal Dr. Riyam Kafri-Abu Laban, I thank you for upholding everything this school was meant to be and going the extra mile by joining your colleagues in teaching the largest class ever their Theory of Knowledge (TOK). I heard a few gray hairs have emerged in the process, but I promise not to talk about them.
  • Before my most important thanks, I want to congratulate each and every parent of the graduates. Your tireless efforts are bearing well-deserved fruit today. And for the parents that passed before reaching this day, may you be resting in peace knowing that your child is our child, and we are all proud of each and every one of these shining stars.
  • My most important thanks is to you, the Friends School Graduating Class of 2017, for sticking it out, meeting all the deadlines, well, almost meeting all the deadlines, well OK, let’s not talk about the deadlines. Instead of deadlines let’s talk about you. About what you’ve just been through during the past 12 years. About what’s happening to you today. About what to expect tomorrow.

For 12 years, nearly 2,000 school days, you woke up, dragged yourself to school, went from class to class, assignment to assignment, waiting anxiously for this exact day.

In a few moments, you each will walk up and be handed a piece of paper which confers upon you a high school diploma. Your parents will shed a few tears, tears of joy for your accomplishment, mixed with a few tears of worry as you embark onward to what awaits you, and maybe most of all, a tear for the emptiness you will leave behind in their lives as you focus on your life’s next chapter at home or aboard. More than 57 million children worldwide do not have a school to go to, so you have a right to feel proud about completing your education.

Did I say you are “completing your education?” Pardon my mistake. What’s happening to you today is by no means a completion of anything, of course it’s not, that’s why it’s called a commencement! It is the start of something. Today is the start of you inventing yourselves through your transition to adult, professional, spouse, father, mother, citizen, bread-winner, and community leader.

Today, you will come to realize three major shifts in your mindset:


The grades you earned aren’t as important as the education you received.

You earned a grade for taking a history test, but you got an education for understanding why slavery, dispossession and military occupation are immoral.

You earned a grade for taking a math test, but you got an education for understanding that mathematics allows us to fly, build software, and produce a meal.

You earned a grade for writing an English essay, but you got an education for understanding that words are literature and literature is a key way humans try to make sense out of our complicated world.

You earned a grade for passing a physical education exam, but you got an education for understanding that you are the safe keeper of your body, no one else, and without health you have nothing.

Lastly, you earned a grade for passing your Arabic grammar test, but you got an education – a better one than mine for sure – for understanding that the Arabic language is the 5th most spoken language in the world (242 million native speakers—spread across 60 different countries worldwide) and that mastering and maintaining your Arabic language skills will set you apart from your peers in the U.S. and elsewhere for a lifetime.

Remember the grades you earned aren’t as important as the education you received


You are no longer living your parent’s story.

From today onward, you would be well-advised to start crafting your own story, or someone else will craft you in theirs. No matter where you go next, but especially for those of you heading abroad, consciously think how you will answer the question you will get asked a hundred times over, where are you from?

What will you answer, I’m from the Middle East? The Holy Land? Jerusalem? Or will you stand proud and say I’m from Palestine!

Home of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, where age-old prophets are laid to rest and modern-day prophets are made every day, on every street, in every refugee camp, on every farm, and in every Israeli jail cell.

I’m from a place where we are part and parcel of the land, right next to the olive tree and grape vine.

I’m a Palestinian who has never lived in peace and grew up only knowing walls, fences, settlements and checkpoints, yet, I cherish life.

I come from a school whose buildings’ stones have seen more turmoil than the world’s five-star generals, combined, but taught us to live the Quaker values of truth, simplicity, peace, equality, tolerance, service, creativity, discipline, and justice.

I come from a people of refugees who lost their land, but for 70 years have held on to hope.

I come from a place where our parents had a hard time seeing the future, but were blinded by the conviction that educating their children was the key to getting the boot of Israeli occupation off our collective neck.

I come from a land that is bleeding but from a people in struggle.

And you, my fellow classmate, where are you from?

Remember, you are no longer living your parent’s story.


You are about to realize that learning never ever stops.

It also doesn’t happen in the classroom, that’s merely where grades are handed out.

If you don’t wake up tomorrow morning without a book in your hand, you are already falling behind.

If you don’t already have a CV written—yes even as a high school graduate—you’re already late, so write one, tomorrow.

If you have a few months over the summer, take a training course in something, anything.

Lifelong learning does not happen in a comfort zone. Exit your comfort zone. Meet new people. Turn off your smartphones and look people in their eyes. Ask someone how they are doing and actually mean it and listen to the answer.

Education is great thing, but wisdom, common sense and street smarts are even greater.

Remember, learning never ever stops.


And with that, I promise you tomorrow morning will be very similar to this morning.

Until you decide to act, every morning going forward will bring the same. From today onward, acting is totally in your hands.

You each entered this school as individuals, kicking and screaming little kids. Your parents will vividly remember those first days of school?

You leave this school not as individuals, but as a Class. A community. Your first formal network. Technology allows you all to stay in touch, so do so. Be there for each other, even if from across the globe. Lean on each other. Encourage each other to be their best.

Dear graduates, I must say it is a great sense of power to know that I stand here between you and your degree. But like I hope you know by now, the use of power demands responsibility. So, although I can speak for another three hours, I will close here to let you get on with why we are all here today.

I’ll end here by reminding you to always, always, know where you’re going.

And never, ever forget where you came from.


Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on June 9, 2017 on ePalestine, a website featuring commentary by Sam Bahour.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Bahour.


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