Teenagers in Gaza

West Bank and Gaza, June 22, 2007

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Palestinian students from the youth group "Gaza Waves" hold up a banner with the name of Mercy Corps' Internet exchange program, "Why Not?" Photo: Mercy Corps

"What's happening in Gaza feels like a recurring nightmare that I and my friends have to endure again and again, because it never ends. I don't even care that the food at home might soon run out. Those who live in fear, have no appetite. I am depressed, hopeless and angry."

These are the words of Yusra, an 18-year-old girl from Gaza. In the days following Gaza's bloody street battles last week, she did not look out her window; she could not make herself read a book or listen to a CD or even to watch a movie. She just listened to the shootings, watched the news on TV and tried to appear strong and not scared for the sake of her parents.

"No one sleeps at night. No one knows what to do during the day. No one has anywhere to go."

For this teenager and her friends, the world looked a bit more hopeful a week before, when they chatted with American students from Portland as part of Mercy Corps' "Why Not?" youth Internet exchange project. It's designed as a way to build cross-cultural connections that reduce isolation, create more accurate perceptions and deepen each groups' understanding of the other's political and social realities. In the past month, teenagers affiliated with two Palestinian non-governmental organizations, the Sharek Youth Forum and the Save Youth Future Society, connected with three classrooms at two Portland high schools.

Just days before the Hamas takeover of Gaza, about a dozen teenagers in Gaza City chatted with five students from Portland's Trillium Charter High School using Skype's video chat feature. Previously, the students had written poems on the themes "I am from" and "Just because." Jana Potter, who manages Mercy Corps' Why Not? program, says the poems revealed the Palestinian students' commitment to the struggle for independence and the survival of their identity and cultural heritage, and the American students' struggles against racism, religious intolerance, gender inequality, divorce and sexual orientation.

Palestinian teens see their American counterparts on a large screen in a Gaza City youth club. Photo: Mercy Corps

The 90-minute conversation — which took place at 8 a.m. Portland time, 6 p.m. Gaza time — covered a wide range of topics, says Mercy Corps' Amie Wells, who was with the Portland teens in a Mercy Corps conference room. "They discussed gender constructs, race stereotypes, the 'American Dream,' violence in Gaza…. We even had a live sample of Palestinian rap music and laughed about cultural restrictions on long hair."

"It was clearly a transformative experience. The students were engaged, interested, even enthralled with their counterparts," Wells adds. "The best was to hear them laughing; it showed they were connecting at a level that made difference and distance irrelevant."

Yusra says she and her Palestinian peers came away from the conversation feeling like they'd made new friends. "There we were, sitting in front of a group of American teenagers who weren't looking at us as terrorists, who actually didn't think we were bad people, who were enjoying our fun stories and trying to understand our plight for independence. At the end of that videoconference we wanted another one, a longer one. We kept talking about the experience with our friends."

Today, in the wake of Gaza's bloody internecine conflict, they're talking about other things. This week I asked another youth participant, Mahmoud, 19, to describe what's going on in the streets of Gaza, he answered: "Madness." What are you feeling? I asked. "Shame, anger, fear."

"So many people are injured, so many are killed," he went on. "There are not enough ambulances to carry them; there is not enough medicine in the hospitals to treat them. Food is finishing and fuel cannot be found everywhere. We are living in fear."

"We are afraid that the international community will just abandon us for what we are causing to each other," he says. "We need to talk to those Americans who watch Gaza on TV and we need to tell them 'Don't believe in either side of the story. Don't believe in the reality as it's told by the political forces who hold us hostage. Believe in us!'"

Yusra is also worried — about what Hamas rule means for Gaza, and for women; about how the world will now view the Palestinian struggle. She returns to a question she posed to one of the American students, a boy named Chris, last week — "If you don't agree with your government's foreign policy, why don't you protest in the streets?" — and wonders how she'd answer that question herself.

"If we had another chance to talk, I would tell Chris that I now understand that it's also our responsibility as a Palestinian youth to protest against this massacre that our political parties are causing in our streets, at our expense, for their benefit. I would assure him that I am not the only one who thinks that violence is not always the only means to achieve a just peace. I would tell him that our way — talking to each other and educating each other about our lives and struggles — is the best way to fight for justice."

"I would have told him and the other students a lot of other things," she continues, "but what I would have asked most fervently from my American friends is, 'Please don't give up on us. We are not the ones who are killing each other in the streets. We are not the ones who have guns. This is not our battle, not our fight.'"