From ONE Magazine

Harvard’s Hotbed of Hope

How would you feel if you had traveled thousands of miles to earn an advance degree and found yourself living with people you had been taught to distrust, even hate?

For a Palestinian woman, Hala Taweel, and an Israeli woman, Ofra Preuss, the experience was an eye-opener. Both hold Middle East Educational Fellowships at the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East (ISEPME) at Harvard University. Quickly, the two became fast friends.

Hala frequently minds Ofra’s two-year-old daughter, Imbal. Ofra, who holds the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, hopes to use her newly acquired skills to influence fellow Israelis in the ways of peace with their Palestinian neighbors. Both women will never be able to view their erstwhile enemy in quite the same way again.

But this sort of happy outcome is the rule, rather than the exception, for students in the Middle East Educational Fellowship (MEEF) Program. Its basic principle is simple: Bring strangers together, put them under the same roof, place them in the same classrooms, burden them with heavy course loads and they will become good neighbors – more than likely, good friends.

Academic courses are basic to the program, but it is the one-on-one, person-to-person contact that will, hopefully, change the face of the Middle East.

MEEF was born in 1987 when Mr. John Califano, former United States Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York and President of CNEWA, agreed to establish the program. At that time, CNEWA made a 10-year commitment to support the program with a grant of $100,000 per year.

Under the direction of Professor Leonard Hausman, founder and director of ISEPME, the program consists of academic classes and weekly seminars in which fellows come together to share their experiences.

Each year, six to eight professionals from the Middle East come to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, its Graduate School of Education, School of Public Health, Institute for International Development or School of Business (added as the program grew) to obtain an advance professional degree.

The fellows then return to their respective countries to fill public service positions and, it is hoped, collaborate with their peers in other Middle East countries. It is a tremendous act of faith.

To date 80 fellows have graduated from the program. Their alumni society, established in 1993, meets regularly. Between meetings, there are the telephones, the faxes and, of course, the Internet. Already, the alumni have developed regional workshops that reach health care programs in the Middle East and North Africa.

This year, six fellows, from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, are enrolled in the program.

Their stories are as diverse as their backgrounds. Jacqueline Raffoul was Project Coordinator at the Beirut office of PMP – CNEWA. She learned about the program from a bulletin that crossed her desk.

Firas Raad had been on the opposite side of the desk. He was on the selection committee in Amman, interviewing Jordanian candidates for MEEF. Once he became acquainted with the extent of the program, he decided to join the fellowship group himself.

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.

It is a two-way street. Tamar Miller, Associate Director of ISEPME, disclosed that every year a group of 10 Wexner fellows come to the Kennedy School from Israel. They too interact with the MEEF students.

“This year,” Ms. Miller reported, “There are three or four Wexner fellows who seem to be very hungry to connect with the Middle East fellows to understand more about people’s professional, personal and political views.”

How do the MEEF fellows like the United States? Very much. Jacqueline said that after surviving civil strife and shortages in Lebanon, she finds the challenges of living at Harvard a welcome change.

She had worried about finding a school for her nine-year-old daughter, Maya, but American schools, she said, are excellent, challenging and most helpful. The U.S., she said, is “consumer friendly” and Americans in general are “optimistic problem-solvers.”

This is especially true of the teachers. The fellows find the teaching faculty extremely supportive, yet challenging. Even when critical, teachers are constructive. “You feel good about your work,” Ofra commented.

The fellows also find much to appreciate in the American way of life.

“With a phone and a credit card you can do practically anything you want,” Firas said, laughing.

Amany noted that things are systematic here.

“A summons for parking illegally in a handicap zone is paid, and you do not do it again. You learn to respect the law.”

“At home,” she continued, “you can get many tickets, but this can be taken care of with a gift to the appropriate authority. This limits the effectiveness of law and weakens the system.”

Although all of the Middle East fellows have benefited from the networking, formal and informal, it is perhaps Ofra whose preconceptions have been most shattered. As a military person, she had been caught up in the chain of command; she took orders and she gave them, whether or not she liked them. She had strongly defined pictures of Palestinians and, indeed, of all Arabs.

“To change my mind,” she said, “I had to leave Israel.” Harvard was the place. When she returns, it will not be to the military but to the peacemakers:

“I want to make a difference,” she declared. “I want my daughter to play with the children of everybody.”

What lies ahead for these intelligent, sensitive, idealistic young leaders when they leave Harvard and return to their homelands? Surely, they will keep in touch for, as one fellow observed, they have become “like family.” And just as surely, they will be in the forefront as change engulfs the Middle East.

“I think, politics aside, the peace process is stumbling along,” Firas stated, “and therefore I think it makes our work all the more urgent in terms of showing the people in the region the fruits of this process.”

Hopefully, they will help to establish peace and prosperity in a region racked for so long by poverty and war.

“I think I can make a difference.” Ofra summed up the thoughts of her peers in one short sentence. She pointed to her daughter.

“I want to do it for her.”

The child, God bless her, smiled.

Brother David Carroll, F.S.C., is the Assistant to the Secretary General.