Letter from Palestine

Our work has blessed us with friends all over the world, who keep us grounded in the realities of life outside the comfort zone of home. Nora Lester Murad is one of those people.

Until just a few years ago, Nora combined a life of teaching at Bentley College in Massachusetts with a life of consulting to governments, foundations, corporations and community organizations on matters of racism and intercultural understanding.

Then, in 2004, she and her husband moved their three daughters halfway around the world, to the Palestinian community of Beit Hanina, in Israeli controlled East Jerusalem. “My husband is Palestinian, and we wanted to be near his family. We wanted the girls to grow up with a deep sense of belonging to both Palestinian and American cultures, with full access to both sides of their heritage and languages.”

For the past two years, Nora has been focused on building Dalia Association. Dalia is a community foundation in every sense of the word community, birthed and run by people who actually live in Palestine – a rarity in a land dominated by foreign aid (and therefore foreign priorities). Dalia Association’s purpose is to get beyond the politics and just take care of the people.

Those of us who run Community Benefit Organizations* think we’ve got it rough. But try doing that work when the simple act of accepting a donation becomes frustratingly complicated. Try doing that work when a quorum cannot be met, due to roadblocks. Try doing that work when board members are afraid to leave their homes, hearing gunfire yet again.

I have asked Nora to guest blog every once in a while, to share a bit of her life with all of us, and she has graciously accepted. Today is her first post, a lighter one than many of the stories she has shared with me, but a great way to get started. I hope you will welcome Nora and Dalia Association into your hearts.

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Hildy, you asked me what it is like trying to run a nonprofit (in my case, a Palestinian community foundation) under Israeli military rule, and in a challenging political and cultural environment. Well, I have no problems thinking about challenges, the difficulty is figuring out what ONE thing to share.

So, I thought I might share with you and your readers about my experience cashing a check. I know this sounds boring. In the US you can just put a check in the mail with a deposit slip or drop it into an ATM if you don’t feel like driving to the bank and parking in their parking lot. For me, however, cashing a check is not boring; it is exhausting. I’ll explain.

First, to cash a check, you need a bank account. Dalia Association was registered as a nonprofit in Belgium, but despite our legal paperwork, it took nearly two months to open a bank account at HSBC in Ramallah, the main city in the Palestinian Authority. HSBC investigated the organization. They investigated our donors. They investigated our board of directors, even though they are all reputable community leaders, most of whom already bank at HSBC. And who knows what else they investigated?

During that two-month process I “stopped by” a couple times a week to keep things moving. I put “stopped by” in quotes because it takes me nearly an hour each way to go the 7 miles from my house in Jerusalem to the bank, taking two buses and a taxi through two military checkpoints. I shouldn’t complain. At least I can go through the checkpoints with my US passport, while literally millions of Palestinians can’t travel without military permits. And there are innumerable reasons why they are more often denied permits than granted them.

I digress!

We finally got a bank account. That enabled us to put a “Donate Now” button on our website using Click & Pledge (There are only two services that take donations for charities that don’t have a US bank account. The other one, WorldPay, is terribly expensive). Almost immediately we got over $500 in donations! This was very encouraging – until we learned that Click & Pledge won’t wire money to international bank accounts for security reasons.

They sent a check. Since we couldn’t get our own post office box, our mail goes to the American Friends Service Committee. It took a couple of weeks until I could coordinate with their staff person, so he could pick up the mail and I could then get the check from him. Finally, I had a check in hand for $426 – the $500 minus Click & Pledge’s fees.

I took the check to HSBC in Ramallah to deposit it into our account. They wanted a $100 fee! The check was only $426. How could I justify paying $100 for HSBC to send the check by DHL back to the US, where they would wait until it cleared and then charge us even more to wire the funds to our account?

The bank suggested that I simply cash the check at a money changer. Alas, I was in a rush to go home, so the search for a money changer had to wait until the following week. Back I went through two checkpoints to get home.

I went back a couple days later and visited FOUR money changers. None would cash the check. You have to know someone. You have to be trusted. Finally, I called a friend to see if he could convince his money changer to cash the check, based on my friend’s reputation. My friend called his money changer, and the money changer said yes! I took a 10 shekel taxi to that part of town (only about $2.50 but, believe me, it adds up) and the very nice money changer looked at my check. He said he needed a “Dalia Association” stamp on the back along with my signature. I didn’t have a “Dalia Association” stamp. Off I went back through two checkpoints, again, out of time.

The next day I called the graphic designer who made our logo and asked if they would design a stamp saying “Dalia Association” that I could use to stamp official documents, like checks. By the time we went back and forth regarding the design (he wanted to do something very fancy, a beautiful but completely inappropriate design), another week had passed.

Finally, the following week I went back through two checkpoints to pick up the stamp. It was fine. Then I took the check to the money changer and, under his watchful eye, I stamped the back of the check with my very official “Dalia Association” stamp. He took his fee and gave me $420! Good job! I rushed to the bank to deposit the money.

The bank was closed.

I’ve had that cash for several days now, unable to get to Ramallah for a variety of reasons. I’m definitely going on Monday, though, and I will finally deposit the funds into the Dalia Association account. I can’t say I’ll be completely relieved until the money is in there.

What is most amusing to me (besides the important work I did not get done because I was trying to cash the check) is that ALL of these procedures are designed to reduce the possibility of fraud and terrorist financing. And yet, in the end, I have organizational cash in my pocket, which is completely inappropriate. At this point there is no paper trail should I just run off with the money or direct it to evil ends.

But don’t let your readers fear, I am completely committed to the health and good governance of Dalia Association–no matter how difficult they make it.

Warm regards to all,

*** Click here to read the next letter in this series***

Nora Lester Murad is the volunteer Executive Director of Dalia Association, a new community foundation that mobilizes resources for Palestinian-led social change and sustainable development in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip and the Palestinian communities inside Israel.

Curious about our use of the term “Community Benefit Organization?”

2 Responses to Letter from Palestine

  1. Well I think this just shows how we take things for granted. She’s definitely right. Cashing a check isn’t boring. It’s exhausting. Not to mention frustrating, annoying, depressing… I really admire her perseverance against such odds. If I were her, I might have given up already!

  2. Jen: Thanks for your comment! I have received a number of notes from folks, thanking us for posting Nora’s letter. To all of you, thanks for letting us know these kinds of posts have meaning for you!