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An Egyptian, Amany Yousef, had accompanied her husband when he studied at Harvard. Their three children are now of school age, and she decided the time had come to study at Harvard herself.

Hala and Ofra both learned about the program through contacts with the officers of the Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.

This year, there are 66 nationalities represented by 130 foreign students in the Kennedy School. Another 130 students are from the United States. This enrollment gives the fellows plenty of opportunities to network on a worldwide scale.

Last November the fellows were asked what they hoped to get from the program. In spite of their varied backgrounds their expectations were similar. Each had a remarkably clear agenda. Jacqueline, for example, plans to work in the public sector in her homeland, as does Hala, who will work for the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education.

“I may seek public office through election,” Ofra announced. Like the other women in the program, she has no intention of playing a subservient role in the affairs of her country. These are women firmly committed to both their careers and their families. They see no insurmountable barriers in combining the two.

Several brought their children with them. Ofra’s toddler played quietly throughout the interview, to the delight of the fellows and me. The child was clearly at ease. Before the group dispersed, the daughters of Amany and Jacqueline wandered in for their share of hugs and smiles.

The Arab women quickly dispelled the image of the heavily veiled, subservient homemaker, perpetually confined to her house. Amany noted with considerable amusement that she is often surprised by the reactions of Americans when they learn she is both homemaker and professional.

When asked what was so special about the MEEF program that they had wanted to pursue it, all agreed that MEEF was special because it was unique.

No other program, anywhere, offers the academic and personal opportunities available in MEEF, they said. Not only does it give mid-career professionals a chance to improve their skills, but it also breaks down human barriers, destroying stereotypes and building trust.

Ofra was particularly touched by the program’s human dimension. A single mother, she depends on Hala to baby-sit while she attends class. When her daughter was ill, it was a fellow student, an Arab physician, who saw her through.

Ofra noted that this human dimension of MEEF made a very deep emotional impression on her.

“I had never had a real discussion with a Palestinian,” she explained. That was before coming to Harvard. Now she says, “We can see that we can laugh, we can cry, we can talk.”

She relies on Hala, both academically and with her child, and she says, “I feel secure because I have the help of a Palestinian, and this is strange.” Nearby, her daughter chattered softly.

Firas backed Ofra up. “Lots of little things deepen personal understanding,” he declared. “The children play together…Ofra lends me her car.”

Hala noted that early in the year she had had a heated discussion with another fellow concerning the Gulf War. Once they had a chance to stake their positions, however, each began to see the other’s point of view. In the end, they became good friends.

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Tags: Middle East Education Unity