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Portland to Palestine: A Student-to-Student Project Evokes Empathy and Curiosity

By Ken Gadbow

When asked to synthesize 16 weeks of study on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, covering dozens of readings, films, role plays, guest speakers, and discussions, the high school students in my Middle East Studies class at Trillium Charter School in Portland, Ore., quickly organized a nine-point list of the most important topics and activities. All but one were related to the Mercy Corps’ Why Not program, an internet-based exchange run by the international humanitarian relief organization (also based in Portland). My students’ real-time interactions with their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza made real the suffering and daily lives of people their own age living in conflict, and challenged them to consider the responsibilities of global citizenry.

Why Not, now part of Mercy Corps’ partner organization Global Citizen Corps, began as an informal email exchange program between students in northern Iraq and Taiwan in 2003, facilitated by Mercy Corps, and has grown to encompass over 600 youth in the United States, United Kingdom, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, corresponding through two-way blog and live video conferences. The “Why Not” label was coined by a group of students organizing a Mercy Corps-supported community newsletter in Beirut in 2005. Plagued by pessimism about the potential impact of their efforts, some were suggesting that they should abandon the project altogether, when one eager, hopeful participant blurted out, “Lesh la?”—Arabic for “Why not?” The words became the name of the group’s newsletter and later of the Mercy Corps program itself.

Why Not was dropped in my lap in the spring of 2007, just a few weeks before summer break. Mercy Corps was looking for some flexible partners who wanted to work with youth in the Palestinian Territories. I had done no previous teaching on the Middle East, and was relatively uninformed about Palestine-Israel. I was aware that the United States was a supporter of Israel, that presidents from Carter to Bush II had been involved in peace efforts, and that the U.S. media frequently portrayed Palestinians as violent aggressors, but I did not know much more. I took the opportunity to learn along with my students.

The Why Not experience involves on-line discussions, loosely moderated by teacher-facilitators, and videoconferences using web-cams, microphones, and LCD projectors. Mercy Corps helps teachers get started, but the process is relatively simple: The blogging portion is simpler than using Facebook, and the video portion can be run from common applications like Skype. During the videoconferences, participants can generally all see each other on the screen at the same time as students take turns in front of the microphone, posing and responding to questions and ideas.

Six countries have students taking part in internet and video exchanges facilitated by Mercy Corps. The Palestinian Territories are among them; Israel is not.  We talk a lot in class about the need to balance perspectives. We frequently turn to news reports from the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and the Israeli government to look at events from different positions.  My students are captivated by the experience of speaking directly with young people living in war, but it is not simply the Palestinians who become real to them, it is the whole conflict, it is the reality of war itself.  People are suffering.  People are living in fear.  Israeli kids riding buses are living in fear.  Palestinians whose homes might be bulldozed are living in fear. Children, Israelis and Palestinians, trying to get to school are living in fear.  Students get that. 

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