Last fall, Mercy Corps held the first videoconference between Palestinian and American youth as part of our new Youth Beyond Borders program. Fifteen high-school students from the Maret School in Washington, D.C. met virtually - through a real-time video chat over Internet wires - with roughly the same number of youngsters from the "Save Youth Future Society" in Gaza.
It was a completely electrifying experience.
I had participated in youth exchanges myself as a teenager, but observing it from the vantage point of an adult was a whole new experience - and an extremely powerful one. In fact, watching the interactions was so moving that I found myself choked up; the two classroom teachers were equally moved.
A poignant, eye-opening dialogue is exactly what Mercy Corps had in mind when we proposed having Palestinian and American youth meet in the virtual world to learn more about each other's lives and cultures.
In Gaza, young people thirst for information about the outside world and for access to American culture. Here, Americans have shown rising interest in understanding the Arab world. But youth in both places have forged opinions about the other based largely on television images. What's missing is the opportunity to know how average Americans and Palestinians live day-to-day.
The Internet can change that. And we wanted to see it happen.
Using very simple Internet technology (MSN Messenger and small video cameras linked to each computer) the two groups of students met for the first time. The level of energy and anticipation on the U.S. side was palpable - the students couldn't wait to meet their new exchange partners.
The images of the Palestinians were projected onto a screen at the front of the room. Each student said their name and shared a bit about themselves, like how many siblings they had, what their hobbies were, or what they hoped to do in the future. Everyone on the D.C. side was particularly impressed by the high aspirations of the Palestinian youth -- many talked of wanting to be doctors, lawyers, teachers or other professionals. One said he wanted to attend Harvard.
The Palestinians represented a range of personalities, religions and cultural backgrounds. The diversity was particularly evident among the girls: some were fully covered in the traditional hejab and headscarf, and others were dressed very much like their Washington counterparts.
After introductions, the groups alternated asking questions. Most centered on their daily lives, cultures and values. It was fascinating to see where their experiences diverged and where they converged. At one point, I realized that the cultural dividing line was falling not between Palestinians and Americans, but between generations-- students on both sides were excited to learn that they listened to the same music. Meanwhile, the teachers and I had no idea what they were talking about!
Upon request, the Palestinians tried to show a little bit of their traditional dance, Dubka. Unfortunately it was difficult to see on the U.S. side, but the Maret students were extremely grateful and, like budding diplomats, assured their new friends that the dance was wonderful. I stepped out of the room at one point, but walked back in to find the class truly mesmerized by a traditional song beautifully crooned by one of the Palestinian girls.
The question-and-answer session lasted about an hour. The last question posed to the Maret students by a Palestinian boy was this: "America is known around the world as a country of great freedom. What does freedom mean to you?" The profundity of the question - coming from a teenage boy in Gaza - seemed to knock the American kids out of their seats a bit, not to mention the adults.
In response, a young man said he thought freedom was about being able to express his faith without fear of persecution, and to say and do as he pleased.
When the question was turned back to him, the young Palestinian man answered, "I think it means that I can do what I want within the boundaries of my community's values and rules."
In this telling bit of dialogue, these two students managed to capture one of the most significant differences between American and Arab culture - the difference between individual and communal conceptions of freedom.
In the end, all the kids involved agreed it was a wonderful day. They came away eager to move on to the next phase of the program - a series of "getting-to-know-you" exercises over the Internet.
I think we're off to a great start with Youth Beyond Borders, and hopefully starting to accumulate some experiences that will help us as Mercy Corps tries to forge these sorts of personal connections between Americans and people throughout the Middle East.