"What message should we bring back home?" we asked the young Palestinian college students we met in Hebron on the West Bank.
"The West thinks we are all uneducated, uncivilized...a bunch of terrorists. We are not. We want peace. Tell everyone what the real situation is here."
We had experienced an hour of their "situation," walking through the main market in Hebron. On the ground floor on either side of the road, merchants sold their wares. And above the shops lived ultra-right wing Israeli settlers. Netting was stretched over the street we walked. The netting caught the garbage the settlers threw out their windows onto the Palestinians shopping below.
The twenty students were participating in a program at Palestine Polytechnic University, a program initiated by Mercy Corps, an international relief and development organization. Along with computer skills, the students were taking classes on job-seeking skills -- how to write a resume, how to interview, how to network. This cadre of twenty was representative of the 100 students working with Mercy Corps on the West Bank. They are beneficiaries but they also work to survey the West Bank job market and potential workforce to help prepare young Palestinians for meaningful work.
These students have been given a chance to be ambitious. When we asked them to share their dreams for the future, they were exuberant and eager to talk:
"I want to have my own PR and communications firm."
"I want to work with young people and get them off the streets."
"I want to be a journalist."
At first they were wary of us. They do not get to meet many Americans. Nor, for that matter, do they come in contact with Israelis, except at checkpoints.
In contrast, several days before in Jerusalem we had visited a different organization called MEET (Middle East Education through Technology), which brings together Palestinian and Israeli high-school students to learn computing and business skills. A founder of MEET, an Israeli now studying at Harvard Business School, said to us, "I had never met a Palestinian until six years ago, and I have never been to Hebron, though it is only a short drive from Jerusalem--that's why I started MEET."
During the course of their projects, the MEET students practice team building and leadership skills; they learn they can talk to each other about divisive issues, because they learn how to talk to each other. The students are accepted into the program after rigorous testing, and they are required to commit for three years--during the summer and the school year. Their teachers in the summer come from MIT.
These are young teens at the top of their classes. Often their peers and teachers disdain their commitment. Said one Palestinian girl, "I asked my teacher if she would postpone a test scheduled for tomorrow because I wanted to come to this MEET presentation. She told me she would have postponed the test for any other reason. I looked her in the eye and told her I would go to the presentation anyway and still get an A!"
At the end of our time with them, one 16-year old Israeli told us, "We know we live in a bubble here at MEET, but I love my bubble, and I never want to leave it." The group all cheered in agreement.
As we drove back to Jerusalem from Hebron several days later, we thought of the shiny bubble that was MEET. These students, 220 trained in the last five years, will not stay in their bubble. They are being groomed to be leaders in their communities, to spread the good will and good faith they have experienced in their small groups to ever widening circles.
But what about the 100 students in the Mercy Corps program on the West Bank? What about the 100 Mercy Corps students in a similar program in Gaza? How long before they would have the opportunity to sit down with Israelis of their age and learn how to talk to each other? How long would they stay hopeful?
Yes, the Middle East is a complicated place, but some things are not complicated. It is not complicated to understand that many young people care not for politics, but only want a just life and a decent job. As we left Hebron, one of the college students declared, "We don't care about Fatah or Hamas, we just want a better life." It is not complicated for us to bring this simple message back to America.