MEET – Middle East Education through Technology

Like everyone else I know, I have a cousin in Israel. He is 14 years old, cute, smart and told me that his favourite subject at school is Arabic.

“Have you ever met an Arab kid your age?” I asked him.

“No.”

“Would you ever like to meet an Arab kid your age?”

At this point he started looking at me suspiciously and promptly changed the subject.

The truth is many Jewish Israeli kids seldom get a chance to meet Arab kids, let alone Palestinians, many of whom live a few minutes drive away. In fact, like my cousin, many are afraid to.

An exceptional programme in Jerusalem has succeeded in transcending this fear by creating a bridge between these two societies. Brilliantly, it uses technology as a common language. The programme is called MEET (Middle East Education through Technology), and it brings together Palestinian and Israeli high-school students to learn computing and business skills. This is certainly no touchy-feely airy-fairy programme though. Rigorous and competitive, the programme accepts only forty-four students of the several hundred 9th graders who apply for a spot. It is for talented and motivated individuals who will likely  be future leaders in their fields.

After making it through rigorous testing, students commit for three years – for a few weeks during the summer and then weekly meetings throughout the school year. The students come away with a “mini MBA,” having been taught by professors and graduates of MIT who are flown over during the summer. The training takes place on the Hebrew University campus in computer labs allocated for this purpose over the summer.  The price per participant is about $15K  for three years of programming (>500 academic hrs per yr), all of which is funded by donors.  For the students, the program is entirely free.

MEET participants learn by doing.  Through the various projects they complete, they learn business and leadership skills as well as Java programming. Perhaps most importantly though, they learn to talk to each other. And through learning to talk, they are able to broach those otherwise divisive issues that most adults don’t even know how to begin to discuss.

In meeting  some of the participants over this summer, I discussed the value of the programme with them.  In just a few weeks they had learned skills that many universities teach over the course of a year.  They were working on sophisticated programming projects for real clients, including HP, Google, and G.ho.st. These  were smart, computer savvy kids who confidently spoke about social marketing, user interface design and Amazon Cloud services as easily as they spoke about their personal lives. And yet, when asked about the most valuable thing they are learning, the answer was resoundingly the same. They would look at each other with shy smiles and tell me: “Learning that ‘the other’ is the same as me.”  Each of them seemed to be amazed to discover how alike they were.  They listened to the same music, watched the same films, programmed in the same language and had the same hopes and fears. And through the intense training, this realisation only deepened.

The participants come from Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem, and the Israeli towns of Beit Shemesh and Mevaseret Zion. In some of their communities they are challenged for taking part in such a programme.  One religious modern Jewish girl told about how she was ostracised in her school for taking part in the programme. At first, she kept it hidden from her friends at school. But now, she has begun to talk about it openly and already some of her peers are interested. Likewise, many of the Palestinian students are shunned for participating in what have been coined “normalisation” projects. Said one student, “The situation is not normal, and I can understand why people in my community do not want me to advertise a programme that makes it appear that everyone gets on with each other.” But for this student, the product that MEET offered him was just too valuable to turn down.

It should come as no surprise that MEET is quickly becoming a brand name, and with some of the graduates’ acceptances into top universities like MIT, Harvard, Cambridge, the Technion,  as well as prestigious army units, it is becoming even more attractive to just about anyone looking to get ahead.  Whether the student sees the value of MEET in the skills they learn or in the interactions they have, the program clearly offers talented young people something that is both relevant and worthwhile.

Perhaps next year my Israeli cousin will enroll, and for the first time meet a Palestinian peer with whom he can practice his Arabic- all while learning Java.

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IF MEET WERE TO WIN $1000 it would use it as seed funding for the student winners of the annual Y2 Social Enterprise Competition, an intensive 48 hour activity designed to introduce the topic of innovation to their Year 2 students (16 yrs old). The students compete in small bi-national groups to develop a project idea which is original, meets a defined social need, incorporates an earned revenue model, and is executable within 4-6 months. MEET will match the $1,000 and the winning team will receive the seed money and a consultant to help them realize their idea.

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