Ramallah, Palestinian Territories Report of what it's like to live there

Personal Experiences from Ramallah, Palestinian Territories

Ramallah, Palestinian Territories 12/30/13

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Not at all. We've lived in various places in Africa, Asia, and Australia.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Seattle or DC, depending on the year. We always went through Frankfurt, so about 14 hours. When departing from Ben Gurion Airport you must allow a full 3 hours for security. You may need every one of those 180 minutes and you may be escorted to the gate as your plane boards. Such service!

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3. How long have you lived here?

9 years, 2004-2013.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Work with a DC-based NGO.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

There are mainly apartments for housing in Ramallah. Depending on the location of your workplace, you can live within walking distance. Some people choose to live out in the more suburban area of Al Tireh with large modern homes-- farther from the center of town and not walkable to any office. There are also some old homes for rent, although they are disappearing by the day. These homes have heaps of character and usually come with unique maintenance challenges. They are almost always centrally located.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Groceries are available at small shops and supermarkets. The general cost of non-food items is higher than you'd pay in the U.S. It almost all is imported and comes from/goes through Israel before it arrives in Ramallah. Local items are the best value, but they are mostly food items.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Children's toys (good quality ones) and books are the hardest and/or most expensive items to find. Bring as much as you can of these items. Shoes for kids can be expensive and low quality. You can find mostly everything if you know where to look or whom to ask. I'd also add that it would be good to bring all the bicycle items you need (including rack for your car) if you like to bike.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

For "international" fast food, KFC, Pizza Hut and Domino's recently moved in. However, there are a bunch of great local places that serve regional specialties: great shwarma, hummus, and falafel. There are plenty of very decent restaurants. Cost is reasonable and you can have a good family dinner for US$20. If you go out to some of the nicer places, you'll spend more. There are some very unique places with excellent food in areas outside of Ramallah, such as around the villages of Bir Zeit, Jifna and Ein Arik.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitos are the only nuisance. Not bad at all.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

A P.O. Box in East Jerusalem for letters. DHL and Aramex are commonly used.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Domestic help doesn't readily exist in the form of maids, nannies, etc. It's also not cheap. If you manage to connect with one of the really good housekeepers, you'll pay for it (but it's worth it). Getting things repaired is easy and inexpensive.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are many gyms around town. Facilities and prices are varied according to what is available. Tri-Fitness has the largest, most extensive gym with a large pool. A few hotels will also sell gym passes. Gyms usually have some time during the day dedicated for "women only". There are also at least two yoga studios in town. Aerobics, spinning and other activities are also offered at some places, such as Oxygen Gym.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

It's mostly a cash economy in Ramallah, but a few places take credit cards (including the Bravo Supermarket chain). ATMs are everywhere and people use them with no problem.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

The Catholic church has an English mass. There is a Quaker service that accommodates English speakers. I'm not sure about others. Jerusalem has the English services for most denominations, so people (if able) go there for English. A lot of people like going to the Arabic services in town and congregations are welcoming.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is spoken everywhere in Ramallah. Arabic can help, but if your Arabic isn't strong, the conversation moves to English immediately. This is good if you're not there to learn Arabic, but bad if you want an "immersion" experience. There are good teachers for Arabic in town and you can learn in individual lessons or in a group situation.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

For someone with mobility issues, it would be hard because the sidewalks are filled with obstacles and cars park on them. Ramps are very rare. Elevators aren't also so common. It wouldn't be easy, but not absolutely impossible.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are fine. You can get bossy and tell drivers to slow down, if it's getting too fast for your taste. Arabic helps for negotiating the price, but the rides aren't expensive and may be preferable for someone who doesn't want to invest in a car. No trains are available around Ramallah. Bus service to Jerusalem and other cities and villages exists and people use it with no problem.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Roads are narrow in town and parking is at a premium everywhere. Smaller is better. You don't need a 4WD really anywhere in or around Ramallah. A VW Golf is a common car and it's easy to get repaired anywhere in Palestine or Israel. Duty on any vehicle imported is nearly 100% so cars are generally expensive. Driving is a challenge and fender-benders are common.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes. Reasonable and getting better and cheaper every year. It is a relatively privatized market.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Cell phones are ubiquitous and there are several companies who compete for customers.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No, but all incoming pets follow Israeli guidelines. Kennels aren't common, but you can find people to watch your pet while you're gone. There are a few vets in town. They will make house calls and will do minor surgery. For more intense surgery/long-term care, as well as low-priced spaying and neutering, there is an animal clinic in Kalandia/Atarot outside Ramallah. It is a good place to volunteer as well, if your permit/visa allows you to cross the checkpoint.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Job opportunities exist, but pay is much lower than what you would receive in the U.S. For this reason, many expats elect to volunteer for groups.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are many volunteer opportunities to work with local and international organizations and you can get great experience doing so. Teaching English is also an option. No matter what you choose to do, your contribution can make a significant difference in the lives of people, particularly young Palestinians.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Smart casual is standard for most work places. Men wear button-down shirts with or without ties and tailored trousers. Women don't wear skirts and dresses as much as other places -- dress slacks/pant suits are more common. Long skirts are sometimes worn. Jeans are worn with a nice blouse and nice shoes -- never running shoes. Wearing black clothes isn't as common as other places because it is associated with mourning. Even when not at work, people tend to dress less casually than in America. Shorts are rarely seen and usually only on kids, particularly boys. Middle age and older men do not wear T-shirts in public. Adults do not wear track suits other than for exercise. Tank tops aren't seen on adults outside the gym. Sandals aren't worn as much by men.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

No. Staying away from protests is a pretty basic rule of thumb.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

No major health concerns. Quality of health care is adequate and inexpensive. Doctors are dedicated and some come in from Jerusalem to work at clinics once or twice a week. If you can go into Jerusalem, the Haddassa Hospitals provide excellent service as well.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Healthy except for a few days when the "Hamsini" comes in and coats everything with a layer of dust.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Summers are somewhat hot during the day and cooler nights. Not too humid. It begins getting cooler at the end of October. Rains begin sometime in December for the winter season. It's cold when it rains, but it never rains for too many days in a row without a little sun. Spring starts in late February. Blossoms are everywhere. It still might rain now and then through April. Love the weather!

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are no truly international schools available in Ramallah. There are a few schools with an English language section so that students with no Arabic can attend. Two of the best are the Al Najah Schools and the Palestine American School. The oldest and most established school is the Quaker Ramallah Friends School. This school offers the IB and MYP in the secondary school. However, the curriculum in the primary years is delivered for the most part in Arabic. Other good schools in the same situation are the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School and the Lutheran School of Hope. The Lutheran School will be moving in the next year to a new and expanded campus. All three - Friends, Episcopal and Lutheran - have long waiting lists for entry and prioritize siblings and the children of alumni. They take a very limited number of new students each year. Our children attended Friends School from the time they were in kindergarten until we left this summer.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Accommodating students with special needs is just at the beginning stage in Palestine. The Ramallah Friends Schools (Quaker) has a well regarded program. It's considered a model and there is a huge demand to be part of it.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Childcare is pretty basic and cheap if you take your child to a preschool or daycare. Getting a babysitter isn't easy because it's just not part of the culture. People that know you will offer for free to have your kids come to their house if you want to go out sans kids in the evening.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Outdoor sports programs are somewhat limited by the lack of many large fields. There are a few soccer clubs. Indoor sports include dance (traditional dubka and ballet), karate, badminton, basketball (also outdoor). There is a community swimming pool open in the summer for lessons and recreation. Kids can take horseback riding lessons in a village north of Ramallah or in Jericho.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The expat community is large and very international and fairly transient. Morale isn't really a factor--anyone living here as an expat has made a conscious choice to do so and accepts the reality of the situation (or leaves). There is a big presence of European expats in town and many cultural events are sponsored by these countries. Single expats (young and old) are here to work with NGOs, governments, volunteer, or study and there are many social groups to be involved in. Expats with no family ties to Palestine are not as common, particularly if their children are school-aged beyond lower primary. If you live in Ramallah, your social group will involve Palestinians or people married to Palestinians. It's one of the best things about living here.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There is a schedule of arts events throughout the year and people make connections by going to these events (movies, concerts, lectures, dance performances, etc.). Ramallah has some good restaurants and a cafe culture (downside: lots of smoking). Hiking is an activity for some people like to do, particularly in the spring when the countryside is green and flowery. There is a hiking group on Saturdays that explores the areas just outside Ramallah that meets all year long. During the summer and fall harvest time, there is a harvest festival in various villages each weekend. Taybeh -- just outside of Ramallah -- is the site of the only beer brewery in Palestine and has an enormously popular Oktoberfest. Jericho is a destination for some people on the weekends during the winter. It is a good place for biking. The Franco-German Cultural Center holds classes for German, French and Arabic learners. For home entertaining, people BBQ in the late afternoon if outside. The big meal is late lunch.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Good for all. If your children are school age, they will be limited in the schools they can attend if they cannot read and speak Arabic.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

It is a conservative area, so nothing is out and in the open. However, as an expat you can do what you want.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

None. It is all good! (heavy sarcasm)

Not sure where to start on such a question when talking about Palestine. The history of the place epitomizes religious problems and certainly race and gender are interwoven, lesser issues, but only because the Arab-Israeli Conflict as it is frequently called is too often characterized as only or primarily a religious conflict. The field of literature on this area is vast.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Harvesting olives each autumn with friends. Hiking in Wadi Qelt and Ein Gedi. Watching the Easter parades on Ramallah's main street. Attending Christmas Eve service in Shepherd's Field in Bethlehem. Riding bikes in Jericho and Jaffa/Tel Aviv. Having dinner at the "Old Man and the Sea" in Jaffa. Keeping a big garden. Rukab Ice Cream. Enjoying occasional snowfalls. Just having a plate of hummus, falafel, and foul at the place up at the top of our street. Simple pleasures.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Wadi Qelt is one of the most beautiful places in the whole world. It is an absolutely stunning landscape -- particularly in the spring with the flowers. It cannot be walked during times when rain threatens because of flash floods. You can hike the length of it over a space of 8 or so hours (more if you walk with kids -- not recommended for those who will not climb down ladders). It stretches from just outside of the village of Hezma (between Ramallah and Jerusalem) and ends at Jericho. A journey that should not be missed during your time in Palestine.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Embroidery items, particularly pillow cases and framed mirrors. Olive wood carvings. Armenian pottery and tiles from Jerusalem. Olive oil and honey. Contemporary Palestinian art from the West Bank and from Gaza.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

There are many advantages to living in Ramallah. Ramallah is a small city (getting bigger by the day), so you'll still be known by name by everyone you have dealings with in your neighborhood. You will get to know a lot of people just by walking around. Palestinians aren't the shy and retiring types. As the de facto center for the Palestinian Authority, it has a "capital city" feel with visitors, tour groups, and events. You could be out every evening at some kind of gathering. Everything is less expensive in Ramallah than in Jerusalem, and the service is fast and friendly. If your work is mainly in the West Bank, you will save yourself going through (or by) the big checkpoints at the wall. The traffic is horrendous at these junctions and adds a giant dose of stress and unpredictability to life. Not worth it if you are not forced to live on that side of the wall, as many Palestinians must to keep their identification cards. Believe me, the tension and what you witness at the checkpoints will wear you down. Limit how many times you have to endure this experience. It's soul crushing and a complete downer.

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10. Can you save money?

You can save money if you do not eat meat. Vegetables are plentiful and inexpensive for the most part, particularly if you eat locally produced veggies and buy them in the vegetable market. If you eat meat, especially beef or lamb, prepare to pay a lot more than you might expect. Chicken is less expensive. Heating oil is expensive, so you'll need to watch your use of heat in the winter.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Nothing really. Maybe the Arabic alphabet. Living here is an education in itself.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Of course, no question about it, yes. We learned something new every day and made good friends. We had many visitors and everyone has loved coming here and seeing both the beauty and tragedy of Palestine. It hasn't been easy to live here. The occupation is hard to witness as a bystander expat. It affects the people here in profoundly negative ways. It casts a shadow over every business transaction, friendship, plan. Everything is political--absolutely everything -- and it can be very draining because it goes back to sadness, loss, humiliation. You can't not be moved by seeing the daily heap of injustice piled on this group of people. You can be impressed by their patience, fortitude and dignity.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Mainstream (U.S.) media view of the Palestinian people. You might as well leave your American flag at home, too.

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4. But don't forget your:

Good humor, goodwill, defensive driving skills, and sense of irony.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

5 Broken Cameras (2011), The Gatekeepers (2012), The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (2008), and Rana's Wedding (2002)

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6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Any writings by Edward Said and by Mahmoud Darwish. A few noteworthy books include Palestine, Walking Palestine: 25 Journeys into the West Bank, and Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Living and working here has been a tremendous learning experience and we are the better for it. Peace.

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