Information technology breaks barriers between Palestinian adolescents
By Monica Awad
EAST JERUSALEM, State of Palestine, 9 December 2016 – For 15-year-old Nawal, who lives in East Jerusalem, engaging with her peers in the Gaza Strip seemed an impossible task.
“Due to the blockade, I never imagined I could meet girls my age from Gaza,” she says.
The Gaza blockade, which will reach its tenth year in June, makes it impossible for Palestinians living there to engage with Palestinians living in the remainder of the Palestinian territory – the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Things changed when Nawal heard the ‘Virtual Majilis’, an online exchange platform run by UNICEF to help connect students in Gaza with students in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Students use online video conference systems to communicate with each other and overcome barriers such as distance and access restrictions. The platform, created and supported by Al Fakhoora -- a programme of the ‘Education Above All’ foundation funded by the Qatar Fund for Development -- enables adolescents to debate, negotiate and communicate with each other.
In a first phase, UNICEF used the ‘Virtual Majilis’ to put students in Gaza and in Qatar in contact, overcoming the distance – more than 2,000 kilometers.
In the second phase of the project, UNICEF is putting students in Gaza and in East Jerusalem in contact, overcoming access restrictions and the increasing fragmentation of the Palestinian territory between the two cities, which are less than 100 kilometers apart.
“The ‘Virtual Majlis’ gives Palestinian adolescents an opportunity to engage, and to develop a deeper understanding of each other, which they could not do without this platform” says Maysoon Obeidi, UNICEF Adolescent and Development Officer.
The project is implemented with the support of five project aids working with UNICEF and Al Fakhoora in Gaza, and with UNICEF’s partner Al Nayzak, the Organisation for Supportive Education and Scientific Innovation, in East Jerusalem.
As adolescents regularly meet up, they discuss the topics which are relevant to them, including historical and religious landmarks, cultural issues, role models and inspirational leaders. They learn about each other’s life, challenges and aspirations while and becoming able to challenge stereotypes and to advocate for change.
Thanks to the project, East Jerusalem resident Nawal was introduced to 10 girls her age from Gaza. She says she enjoyed talking, listening and learning from then, especially 16-year-old Aya.
“Since girls in Jerusalem attend co-educational schools*, I always thought that they acted more openly, like people living in the Western world,” says Aya from Gaza. “By talking to them, and contrary to our beliefs, we found out that they upheld Palestinian cultural values,” she adds.
Her feeling is echoed by her peers in Jerusalem.
“I thought that adolescent girls in Gaza were very conservative, shy and not willing to engage with others,” says Nawal in East Jerusalem. “But we were very impressed by their thoughts, life experiences and daily challenges.”
Through the virtual Majlis, adolescents are able to identify commonalities and differences between Gaza and East Jerusalem.
“We all have a passion for life and peace, but there are also differences, the most striking of which is the difference between the Arabic dialect we speak,” says 15-year-old Dana.
As adolescents were discussing role models, they realized that their peers in the Gaza Strip were heavily influenced by public figures, such as the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Meanwhile, Adolescents in Jerusalem like Dana and Nawal were inspired by people whom they had daily contact with.
“I am inspired by the founder of my school, Ms. Hind Husseini,” says Dana. “She makes me realise that nothing is impossible, and that nothing can stop me from becoming an astronomer.”
Nawal says that her role model is her mother, who is a volunteer at her school. “She continuously encourages me to be cooperative, dynamic and peaceful. She encourages me to continue my education and to fulfill my dreams of becoming a calligrapher,” Nawal tells.
Adolescents in both locations aspire to visit each other’s cities, which are less than 100 kilometers apart. But given the restrictions on movement, they find that the virtual Majlis is the best alternative to reach out to their peers.
“We are fortunate to be given this opportunity,” says Dana, “but we all dream of the day when we can visit each other and meet in person,” she smiles.
* Co-ed = schools where girls and boys study together