When Cara Van Goder-Lasof's students returned to school from winter break, she had some sad news for them. One of the students from Gaza that they'd gotten to know over the previous months was dead.
"They've been feeling pretty upset about it," says Cara. "They're feeling a lot of anger, frustration and sadness over this."
Cara's class at Open Meadow - an alternative high school for at-risk youth in Portland, Oregon - has been participating in Global Youth Connectivity, a program that links students from the Middle East with their peers in the United States. For almost three years, Mercy Corps has connected hundreds of Palestinian youth with their peers at high schools in the U.S. through this program. Global Youth Connectivity was designed as a way to build cross-cultural connections that reduce isolation, create more accurate perceptions and deepen each group's understanding of the other's political and social realities.
Cara's classroom had been corresponding with a group of Gazan students, holding videoconferences, trading videos and sending e-mails about their lives in their respective countries. One student in Gaza was a 14-year-old named Christine. In the words of a classmate, Christine was "more active than most adults", spending her days in school and her afternoons and weekends harvesting olives. What free time she had she spent keeping in touch with her "GloPals" (as they call each other) in the United States.
But on the first of January, Christine suffered a heart attack and passed away, just as bombs started falling nearby her family's home.
"It's a huge loss to them," Cara says of her students at Open Meadow. "They've had so many quality exchanges with the students in Gaza."
Cara also says that Christine's death is compounded by the worries that her students are having about the situation in Gaza, something that they wouldn't have paid much attention to had it not been for this program.
"They already have so much going on in their lives and so many stresses that they don't have a lot of time to just sit down and watch the news," Cara explained. "So for them to be paying attention to this, I found that really amazing."