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MEET builds ties, fosters innovation in the Middle East

Middle East Education through Technology program brings together Israeli and Palestinian youths with a shared passion for technology and entrepreneurship
MEET students work together during the summer of 2012.
MEET students work together during the summer of 2012.
Photo courtesy of MEET

During a visit to Israel and Palestine in March 2013, President Barack Obama made a speech to a crowd of 2,000 young Israelis in Jerusalem in which he encouraged the nation’s youth to push for peace. In his talk, the president paid tribute to an educational program near and dear to the heart of the MIT community: The Middle East Education through Technology (MEET) program founded at the Institute with CSAIL support.

“There’s a program here in Jerusalem that brings together young Israelis and Palestinians to learn vital skills in technology and business,” President Obama said in praise of the MEET program.

Since the program’s inception in 2004, MEET has been making waves for its novel approach to fostering relations between Israelis and Palestinians that centers around bringing together youths with a shared passion for technology and entrepreneurship. Founded by MIT graduates and siblings Anat Binur and Yaron Binur, along with their friend Assaf Harlap, MEET was modeled on MIT’s Africa Internet Technology Initiative, a student-run organization that promotes economic development in Africa by cultivating young technology entrepreneurs.

The MEET curriculum, which is based on MIT courses and taught by MIT students, was created based upon methodology developed by faculty from CSAIL and the MIT Sloan School of Management. While MEET initially started as a five-week summer program, it was such a success that at the conclusion of the first session students clamored for more. MEET has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding, with 163 students graduating from the program, student recruitment expanding beyond Jerusalem to five nearby cities and Nazareth, and the creation of a new Venture Lab in partnership with Google to help cultivate startups launched by MEET alumni. In one of the program’s most notable signs of success, five MEET students have been accepted as students at MIT.

The decision to focus on computer science as the motivation for MEET was easy, based on the program’s targeted age group and the growing need for leaders in all fields to be well-versed in technology, according to MEET Co-CEO Noa Epstein.

“For teenagers technology is a natural common ground. They share an interest in technology development, in mobile applications, in all things innovative and new,” Epstein says. “Additionally, in the 21st century, regardless of if you are going to be a computer scientist or not there is a basic set of technological skills that you need to have. We believe that by providing a medium and skill set that is useful for leaders our students can go onto careers in government, the humanities or technology. No matter what they do it is good for them to have this training.”

Backing from MIT helps attract not only technologically talented and driven youths, but also individuals from different backgrounds than those typically inspired to attend reconciliation programs for students in the Middle East.

“Traditional peace camps bring together students who are motivated, vested and open to the process. MEET attracts a wider range of people because it’s a great opportunity for them academically. The fact that the main focus is not reconciliation paradoxically makes the program that much more effective in promoting peace,” says Professor Daniel Jackson, who leads the CSAIL MEET Advisory Board and has been involved in training MEET student-teachers for the past seven years.

Building lasting connections

Wissam Jarjoui was the first MEET graduate to be admitted to and graduate from MIT, where he was an undergraduate researcher in Institute Professor Barbara Liskov’s Programming Methodology Group at CSAIL. It was the MIT connection, and pure chance, that brought Jarjoui to MEET. After his brother encouraged him to apply to the program, Jarjoui almost missed his acceptance phone call. He received word he had been accepted to the program during a game of soccer, when he chased down a ball that fell near his backpack and heard his cell phone ringing.

Since that serendipitous moment, Jarjoui has come to think of MEET as a second home and his fellow students in the program as his family. It’s a common occurrence among MEET participants due to the length of time the students spend together, which spans at least three years of their adolescence.

Jarjoui now works as a software engineer at Box and helped co-found one of the first bi-national startups in MEET’s new Venture Lab in 2012. The MEET Venture Lab is aimed at not only allowing MEET alumni an opportunity to develop business and social ventures, but also strengthening the MEET alumni network and furthering its mission to empower Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

“MEET really helps facilitate, build and nurture connections between Palestinian and Israeli students. Students love hanging out at MEET,” Jarjoui says. “The goal with MEET Venture Lab is to harness the time that MEET alumni want to spend together to help bring some of their business and technology ideas to fruition.”

Teams admitted to the MEET Venture Lab receive seed funding, work space and mentoring. Additionally, in collaboration with Google’s Launchpad initiative, MEET Venture Lab teams can participate in a two-week entrepreneurship boot camp at Google. Thus far, lab teams are working on developing new technologies like hand recognition software for the elderly and children who cannot use a conventional keyboard, an app that coordinates spontaneous gatherings using social networking, and a website that combines crowd sourcing and artwork to create personalized, reasonably-priced artwork.

As for Jarjoui, he hopes to one day return to his family in Jerusalem and take on fulfilling and impactful work that will be beneficial to the region, which, coincidentally, is the overarching goal of the MEET program.

“Our biggest hope for MEET is that the participants continue to draw on their relationships and will be leaders in their own community, not just technological leaders, but social and political leaders. This is what will ultimately change the atmosphere in the region,” Epstein says.

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