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Bridging the divide with technology

Three from the Plasma Science and Fusion Center spend time with the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow.
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Left to right: MEET facilitators Ted Golfinopoulos, a PSFC research scientist, and graduate students Adam Kuang and Alex Tinguely spent time in Israel as part of program that provides a safe place for Israeli and Palestinian high school students to become colleagues in the study of science, technology, and entrepreneurship.
Left to right: MEET facilitators Ted Golfinopoulos, a PSFC research scientist, and graduate students Adam Kuang and Alex Tinguely spent time in Israel as part of program that provides a safe place for Israeli and Palestinian high school students to become colleagues in the study of science, technology, and entrepreneurship.
Photo: Paul Rivenberg/PSFC

“Teach. Travel. Inspire.”

It was the fall of 2006 when first-year electrical engineering and computer science graduate student Ted Golfinopoulos read those words on a poster in the Infinite Corridor, inviting him to learn more about Middle East Education through Technology (MEET). The program, since renamed Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow, seeks to educate and empower promising Palestinian and Israeli high school students to foster relationships and mutual understanding using the study of science, technology, and entrepreneurship.

Eleven years after reading those three words, and now a research scientist at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), Golfinopoulos has not only managed to devote time each year to the program, but to inspire new PSFC graduate students to apply. This past summer nuclear science and engineering grad student Adam Kuang and physics grad student Alex Tinguely joined him in what they say could be the beginning of an annual tradition.

“We were a little tentative a first to take time off, just because you are expected to be doing your research all the time,” Tinguely says. “But we spoke with our advisors who saw it as a good opportunity for us to grow as educators, work with a different population of students than we are used to, gain that cultural experience, and take a little break from research.”

Golfinopoulos recalls that he was compelled to apply after a summer traveling around Europe with a Turkish friend. Meeting up just as the 2006 Lebanon War was escalating, they were sensitive to the fact that their own friendship bridged historical conflicts and geopolitical issues between Greeks and Turks. “I think that the value and inspiration that can be drawn from people from different conflict groups meeting with one another was apparent to both of us at that time,” Golfinopoulos says.

Discovering MEET offered him a path to explore this further.

“The program purported to be helping excelling Palestinian and Israeli kids to know and trust each other and work together using science and information technology as a bridge,” he says. “Teaching is something I love to do. Computer science, a focus of the program, is an essential skill that I use everyday. This, I thought, is an opportunity for me to contribute to the solution of this problem.”

The competitive program, which is currently sponsored by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), a program of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, generally accepts fewer than 10 percent of applicants, housing an equal number of Israeli and Palestinian, male and female students. Many travel for hours and cross cultural borders to be part of the three-year curriculum, which includes summer and winter intensives taught by MIT instructors. After completing a logical thinking test, a group dynamic test, and a personal interview, successful candidates receive full scholarships.

While the program nurtures connections and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, it also has a significant impact on the MIT student instructors. Golfinopoulos acknowledges his own preconceptions about the Middle East were challenged. His early concerns that he would be judged for being American were quickly dispelled on a dusty road by a group of children who wanted nothing more than to have him find in his phrase book the words for “friendship” and “love.” He missed most of a scheduled luncheon talk playing word games with them.

Experiencing the region

Adam Kuang, traveling to Jerusalem for the first time this summer, says that the area was everything he had read about, and more.

“The reports, articles and books written about the region fail to capture how intricate and complex the situation is there,” he says. “Being on the ground made me all the more aware of just how interwoven the two communities are, especially in Jerusalem. They are so tightly woven together, yet you have so much tension because of it.”

Alex Tinguely admits he did not know much about the conflict before applying to teach in the program. He arrived with Kuang amid rising tensions, when in response to the killing of two police officers Israel had installed metal detectors at a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. The perception that Israel was purposely restricting Muslims from worshiping led to further violence. Tinguely was impressed by the way the residents carried on their lives.

“Even though a certain tension of the conflict was always present, I was surprised at how normal their lives were — having to come through checkpoints to come to school, having Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers walk around with these huge automatic weapons … that’s very strange. Other than that everything was very normal. The kids were really excited to play sports with us, or they’d talk about popular celebrity news, and everyone had Snapchat. It was impressive to see how life can blossom in that area when you might think it would be too stifling. But they make it work.”

Golfinopoulos reports a similar experience. In the summer of 2014, violence escalated into a war between Hamas and the Israeli army. MIT had canceled travel to the region, citing safety concerns, but Golfinopoulos went on his own during a cease-fire. One evening, at midnight, the cease-fire ended. One minute later, air raid sirens announced the launch of an unguided missile toward the city, causing students and staff, Israelis and Palestinians, to walk together down the stairs toward a basement shelter — the only such occasion in MEET history.

“So what’s that like?” Golfinopoulos asks. “Giggling, nervous laughter, games, running around. Everyone was on nerves at some level. They wondered, ‘How are those from the other side going to treat me?’ But the overwhelming feeling of the students in that room was the excitement of ‘It’s midnight, and we are now up past curfew with all our friends, away from home.’”

But he adds, "It's easy to forget that as strong and brave as the students are, they are still deeply affected by the violence. They need that laughter and play to cope.  And they also need to feel comfortable enough to show each other that they are upset, and vulnerable.  We try to give them an outlet to express these feelings in a positive way, to say, 'This situation is not okay — this conflict is not normal — and it's up to us to chart a better path.'  There’s much more to this region than war, and more than history — there is so much life."

Part of that teenage life inevitably involves social media, which, Kuang suggests, can spark conflict. “They’ve made these friends at MEET, and you get someone at home that puts something up on Facebook derogative of the other side. You like it, all your friends on the other side see that you liked it — it gets messy then.”

Golfinopoulos argues that while their youth may limit their perspective, it also allows the students to be more open.

“When they are young their humanity is always their louder voice. These students have heard not once, but many times, the narratives of their peers on the other side. And when they hear those stories they are hearing them from friends and people they care about. It’s not something they can ignore,” he says. “The powerful part of MEET is that it forces people to constantly reconcile being true to the communities they come from while recognizing the deep bonds and friendships they have with people who otherwise would be labeled their enemy.” 

Continuing bonds

Bonds of friendship and support form as well between students and staff. One of Golfinopoulos’s former students is now a computer science professional and instructor at MEET.

“I have pictures of him as a student with cake on his face, and now he’s my colleague teaching alongside me,” he says. “He has started up a twin program for computer science education in the West Bank.”

Tinguely and Kuang still communicate with some of the students they taught this summer. Kuang is encouraged that many students have ended up coming to MIT because of this program.

“I can see the benefit of MEET because you open doors for people — doors in their minds that they might have closed off. And it has worked,” he says. “A lot of students have come to MIT because of the program. They have met MIT individuals, they have been encouraged to apply, and they get in. It is possible. You just have to keep working at it.”

Kuang and Tinguely both wish to stay involved with the program, but with the demands of a PhD fusion research program to address, they are not sure if yearly sojourns to Jerusalem will still be possible. Although his class focused on intro to Python, Tinguely did manage to use his PSFC expertise by providing seminars on the topic of fusion.

He says his teaching experience was a revelation.

“It gave me a lot of respect for teachers of all kinds, but in particular middle school to high school,” he says. “It was exhausting teaching for 6 to 7 hours a day, having to teach things over and over, explain things in different ways. We did that five and a half days a week, and I feel that is kind of what a high school teacher does. We did it for three weeks — they do it for the whole year.”

Golfinopoulos was thrilled to work in Jerusalem with his MIT colleagues, who typically support educational outreach with him at the PSFC. He believes that the MEET program provided them with leadership roles that they would not have as junior members of a research team back in Cambridge. “The influence they had on their students was palpable,” he notes, smiling. “There are now dozens of Israeli and Palestinians who want to pursue careers in science.”

Though optimistic, Golfinopoulos acknowledges the discouragement some of his students and colleagues experience from the conflict in the region. He describes meeting with an alumnus from his first year of teaching, an open-minded Israeli student on break from his military service.

“It was clear to me that he had lost hope. He felt like, as they say, ‘What’s the point? No matter what we do we can’t kick this thing.’  That was hard to hear,” he says. “Despite that, 68 brand new kids came to MEET that year, defying not only the war but also people in their communities that exerted pressure on them not to attend and meet people from across the divide. And they met anyway.

“What gives me hope is their continued willingness to meet, and their belief in the value of doing this. Hope is a nice thing because you can lose it, and then you can find it again.”

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