In the corner of a classroom in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem a group of Israeli and Palestinian youth, Yarden, Ammar, Jumana and Kaiser, are frowning while discussing. It is not often you see Israelis and Palestinians sitting together during times like these. But these four are planning a speech for their graduation ceremony. They have participated in MEET (Middle East Education through Technology), a three-year-long education project that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youth by providing technology training. The Embassy of Finland in Tel Aviv supports MEET which aims at reducing stereotypes and creating networks among participants.
The task of writing a speech is challenging; how to put the experience that changed their worldview into just a few words?
"Before I started at MEET I had never met a Palestinian in my life", said one of the youth. Her story is common among MEET participants who come from Jerusalem area, Nazareth area, and West Bank. After three years, it seems that working in bi-national teams has succeeded to create one big family.
MEET provides the students with technology, entrepreneurship and leadership skills. Education is at the core: it gives deeper understanding for youth whose opinions are still forming.
"Leadership skills, talking in front of the public, listening the other one, respecting others…" Kaiser lists the learnings he has acquired.
Technology and entrepreneurship skills are tools that bring the youth together. They are strong pull factors as hi-tech and computer sciences are very popular among the youth. But technology is also a powerful and enabling tool: a tool for future change.
Working in mixed teams creates ground for long-lasting networks among Israeli and Palestinian "future leaders", who understand and respect each other. Together, the youth are learning problem solving skills that can be deployed to solve bigger problems in the future.
In its first year in 2004, 30 out of 80 applicants were accepted to the three-year program. Now the number of applicants has increased to almost one thousand. In 2014, 70 new students start the program. Exactly half of them are Israelis and half Palestinians, and both groups are half and half girls and boys.
The past summer marked by the conflict has been very challenging for MEET participants and staff members.
"First when we were talking about the events this summer it was very hard. But here I've learned to listen to the other one, I've learned to appreciate the other approach", explained Israeli Yarden.
"When I talked about the situation here at MEET with my Palestinian friends I realized that we have different facts of it. They are following the Palestinian media and I'm following the Israeli media. Then I started to follow also the Palestinian media. I discussed this at home with my parents and now they are also watching the Palestinian media, something that never had occured to their minds before."
Shaked, MEET alumni who graduated last year, described: "This summer I was very hopeless. Then I came to MEET and I met everybody, and I got my hope back. We have the hope; we can change the situation, not tomorrow, but maybe in five or ten years."
MEET believes that one day, these youth are going to be leaders – whether in political, public, or private sectors – and they will make different decisions.
On the graduation day, the young speakers step on the stage escorted by the applause of their peers bubbling over with enthusiasm. "We [MEET students] were exposed to a world that was new and intriguing to us. This exposure to different perspectives opened our minds and changed our attitudes towards a few subjects."
Israeli and Palestinian parents of the dozens of graduating MEET-students are sitting side by side in the public, listening to their children on stage.
"It is not normal what is going on", notes Ala Sader, Co-CEO of MEET, to the graduation public. He reminds the young graduates: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. We have a belief that you are part of the solution of the future."
Embassy of Finland in Tel Aviv has supported MEET for two years.
More about MEET here.
Text & photos: Heidi Höök