Transcending tensions through technology

Regeen Handan and Dvora Peretz quickly became good friends through their participation in MEET (Middle East Education Through Technology).Dvora Peretz, from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor and Regeen Handan of Bethlehem might reside only a few kilometers away from …

Regeen Handan and Dvora Peretz quickly became good friends through their participation in MEET (Middle East Education Through Technology).Dvora Peretz, from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor and Regeen Handan of Bethlehem might reside only a few kilometers away from each other but they speak different languages and live in very different worlds.

Thanks to a unique program, the two girls now have had the chance to learn and work together in a common and non-political language: the language of computers.

The program they are participating in, MEET, is simultaneously empowering Israeli and Palestinian youth while teaching them leadership and management skills, all in the name of coexistence.

“I wanted to get involved in the program when I heard about it because I liked the idea,” said Handan. “I have met many wonderful friends” motioning in the direction of her lab partner, Dvora, “we do most of our activities together.”

Now in its second year, MEET (Middle East Education Through Technology), partnered with MIT, is teaching the high school students how to communicate through computer programming.

“The attitude and atmosphere is very fun, the instructors from MIT are great and it’s nice to be in a place where everyone wants to learn,” says Peretz.

Founded two years ago by MIT students’ siblings Anat Binur and Yaron Binur and their friend, Assaf Harlap, MEET aspires to give youth technology and leadership tools that they can take back to their community. The program, held at computer labs on Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus, brings students from Jerusalem and Bethlehem for a six-week intensive course on Java script programming and business and leadership skills. The courses are all facilitated by volunteer MIT students.

The idea for MEET came out of Yaron Binur’s experiences while teaching in Kenya as part of MIT’s Africa Internet Technology Initiative. Harlap set out on a trip to visit Binur in Africa and from his experience identified the power of technology and education and how it affects people’s lives.

“Together with our own accumulated experience and to give back to the community the skills we learned abroad. We wanted to make a huge change and impact in this region and we didn’t see anyone coming up with any creative ideas to change things.” Harlap told ISRAEL21c.

Harlap regularly injects business and high-tech savvy words when he speaks, immediately delivering the message that this isn’t your average coexistence program.

“We call ourselves a ‘social start-up.’ “We built up this model that is unique and leverages the power of education and technology by bringing people from different conflict regions together to achieve one goal. The students participate in top of the line leadership workshops and activities that normally high-tech companies send their upper-management and executives to take part in.”

Its success, he says, relies on focusing on business. “The focus of MEET is not to become friends, it’s to be able to work together as a team, to be business partners, whether its with the group here or with other Israelis and Palestinians they will meet in their careers.”

While building friendships isn’t a foundation of the MEET, Harlap concedes that friendship is a valuable by-product of the program.

“Even though building relationships is part of our strategic goals, we never encounter it head on. The best interactions are between people who are interested in the same things. If I bring a scientist and a writer, they aren’t going to click as well as two scientists would. The fact that youth that can envision a future together – working together, doing research together, and opening a company together – it becomes much more powerful.”

“Last year in our pilot program we had fears and worries about Palestinian and Israeli interaction, but I have to say in this regard we have no problems whatsoever – it’s not just a pretty picture we are trying to paint but the reality of the situation. This model is working,” added Harlap.

The evidence shows however that friendships between the students do indeed blossom and the students are made more aware of each other’s realities.

“Last year we had student who lived on a settlement for ten years and had never met or talked to an Arab before. Someone like him wouldn’t be interested in a normal coexistence program. The same can be said about some of our Palestinian participants, but because of MIT and because of computers, they are coming here to study – despite having both Israelis and Palestinians.”

MEET’s instructors are made up of volunteers from MIT. This year, eight instructors were selected from over sixty applicants from seventeen different countries and eighteen different majors and the chosen run the gamut from doctoral students, undergraduates, master degrees, and even some alumni.

Kwan Lee, a Ph.D. student in the Viral Communications research group at MIT Media Lab and a volunteer at this summer’s MEET said “Some Israelis and Palestinians say that they have never interacted with each other before, but I came here and saw both Israeli and Palestinian students interacting quite naturally.”

“Sometimes friendships come through and sometimes they realize they have even more differences – not necessarily between Israelis and Palestinians – but on a personal level. Some of them just don’t get along. But working on a team, we try to encourage them to live that down, put personal differences aside and work on the project together.”

All participants receive full scholarships for the program. MEET is funded by MIT, the government of Japan, Germany’s Daimler-Chrysler and private donors. Several Israeli and Palestinian high-tech companies not only financially support the program but also participate by way of lecturing the students.

Another important partner of MEET is the Hebrew University, which has donated the use of their computers and classroom and lab space.

“The Hebrew University has been absolutely amazing to us from day one – from the lowest clerk to the President of the university. We’ve been given everything – rooms, computer labs and security. They are absolutely with us in making sure this program happens and is dedicated to the long-term vision of MEET,” said Harlap.

The first-year students focus on learning theoretical and practical java script and leadership skills. A typical day features a lecture in the morning by one of the MIT instructors followed by a guest lecturer from the industry. After lunch they break up into smaller groups and work on the material they have learned earlier in the day.

The second year program’s focus is on projects. Eighteen of last year’s thirty participants came back for this summer’s program. The returning students have been working together all year, meeting twice a month to complete on ongoing projects with a mentor from the high-tech industry. Each student is given the opportunity to be the project manager, business manager and quality assurance manager, giving them substantial responsibility and the ability to lead their own team. The focus of the second year is how to implement the skills they learned in the first year. “We want to give them the tools to know what to do when they have a good idea for a company or a business,” said Harlap.

The students are required to converse only in English. “We always tell the students that if they really want to work in the top end of the high-tech sector, or to study at places like MIT, their English must be perfect. In addition, they work on very diverse teams, so if they don’t speak English all the time, someone might feel excluded”.

“Our goal is to create the strata of the next generation of leaders in this region – it could be in business, medicine, academia, even politics – but the basic idea and the skills and values we instill in them is to really go out there and lead. Take the tools and impact into their own community. We really view these students as agents of change.”

About Harry Rubenstein

Harry Rubenstein coordinates all of ISRAEL21c's digital media marketing efforts and manages the ISRAEL21c website. Harry has previously worked as a content developer and in various marketing positions for a myriad of high-tech companies in Israel. He is currently the co-proprietor of Action Packed Media, a creative workshop specializing in content, the development of innovative Internet initiatives and digital strategy.