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MIT program bridges Mideast divide

Maria 'Masha' Kamenetska, an MIT undergraduate, instructs participants in the Middle East Education Through Technology program earlier this summer. The program brings Israeli and Palestinian high school students together to learn computer science, entrepreneurship and leadership skills.
Maria 'Masha' Kamenetska, an MIT undergraduate, instructs participants in the Middle East Education Through Technology program earlier this summer. The program brings Israeli and Palestinian high school students together to learn computer science, entrepreneurship and leadership skills.
Photo / Assaf A. Harlap

Much has been said about the political, religious and historical rifts that divide Israelis from Palestinians, but two MIT students have found something young people from these groups have in common: an interest in technology.

Inspired by the MIT spirit of using academic knowledge and resources to address real-world problems, the students and a friend founded Middle East Education Through Technology (MEET) two years ago with the goal of using education and technology to bring Israeli and Palestinian high school students together.

"The vision behind MEET is to use technology to create a common language between Israelis and Palestinians that can be translated into future cooperation between the communities," said co-founder Anat Binur, a graduate student in political science at MIT. "The program is not about creating friendships. We want our students to see that, despite their political differences, they have common interests and can work together as professional partners."

Binur's brother, Yaron Binur '06, got the idea for the program from MIT's Africa Internet Technology Initiative. He interested his sister and a friend, Assaf Harlap, in the idea, and the three Israelis founded MEET in 2003.

Based on MIT curricula and taught by MIT students, the intensive two-year program, held in Jerusalem, focuses on providing Palestinian and Israeli high school students with computer science, entrepreneurship and leadership skills. The program encourages students to work together as professional partners in an environment of mutual understanding and respect.

By making technology the common denominator, MEET attracts students across the political spectrum--not just ones already open to meeting "the other side," Anat Binur said.

"Yeah, we know there are political problems, but among the students this doesn't really come up; the kids would rather talk about Java," said Jake Abernathy, who graduated from MIT in 2004 and just spend his second summer with MEET. "For me, coming out of MIT, this was such an amazing idea: that computer science can bring people together."

To be selected for MEET, students need strong academic and leadership skills plus an interest in technology and an understanding of the role it can play in the world. There were more than 250 applications for this year's MEET class of 31 youths. The students themselves pay nothing for the program; teaching materials, transportation and food are provided. The curriculum consists largely of Java programming, problem solving, business skills and an emphasis on team building.

The program begins with an intense five-week summer session on computer programming taught by MIT students, followed by yearlong programming projects that are mentored by high-tech professionals from the region. MEET students then return for a second, more advanced summer course that teaches them additional computer languages as well as basic business skills such as presentation tools and how to write a business plan. After that, students move on to work on projects for real clients and to do internships at top companies in the region.

Would-be MIT instructors face a highly competitive selection process. This year, MEET had nearly 60 applicants, from 17 different countries, for five open positions. MEET pays all instructor expenses, including air fare, and provides a stipend.

"We look for highly professional and committed MIT students and alums who want to utilize their skills to make a positive impact," Binur said.

The MIT instructors provide a neutral environment. "When you put 50 Israeli and Palestinian students together, it's rather difficult to get them speaking a common language," said Harlap. "In MEET, the kids are told to speak English because their teachers are Americans from MIT and not because they are being forced to interact."

"We not only teach and empower the students, but when we are around, the kids have no choice but to speak English and come together as a team," said Abernathy, who worked as an instructor in 2004 and returned to provide managerial help this summer. "As MIT students, MEET provides us not only with a unique teaching and leadership experience but also with an in-depth and balanced view of the Middle East--as well as an understanding of how the skills we have learned at MIT can be used creatively to make a difference in the world."

MEET has received support from the MIT community--particularly from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and from Charles M. Vest when he was president of the Institute--as well as from Hebrew University, the Japanese government and from academic and business leaders around the world.

"During a tense time in the region, the MEET program represents a hope for the future. The experiences of the Israeli and Palestinian students, as well as our MIT student staff, is one which changes their entire perspective and shows the way in which, despite conflict, people can work together on common professional goals," says Abeer Hazboun, MEET's regional manager, who is responsible for recruitment and logistics.

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