EAST JERUSALEM, State of Palestine, 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 of 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 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 the first phase of the project, 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, UNICEF is putting students in Gaza and in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in contact, overcoming access restrictions and the increasing fragmentation of the Palestinian territory -- Gaza City and East Jerusalem are less than 100 kilometers apart but their Palestinian residents can’t visit each other.
The project is implemented by UNICEF with the support of five ‘project aids’, young Palestinians who graduated from the Al Fakhoora scholarship programme in Gaza. UNICEF’s partner Al Nayzak, the Organisation for Supportive Education and Scientific Innovation, supports the project in East Jerusalem.
Overcoming stereotypes and joint challenges
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 engaging in creative and critical thinking, developing a deeper understanding of the others, and becoming able to challenge stereotypes and to advocate for change.
“Students from both sides discussed a lot about their early childhood and the similarities between them. It was a nice surprise for both sides to discover how similar they were,” says Laila Barhoum, UNICEF’s Advocacy Coordinator.
“For instance, the students realized that they played the same games, even if these games bear different names in Gaza and the West Bank. They also discussed some of the issues which affect their communities and how to solve them. In particular, they talked about early marriage and child labor.”
Students on both sides agreed that early marriage deprived girls from their right to education, and often ended in divorce.
“A girl who gets married before completing her education won’t be able to provide for her children; she is a child herself,” said Montaha in Gaza.
“We could lead awareness-raising activities for families on the suitable are for marriage, which should be 18 years old, once the girl has finished her high school education,” said Alaa in East Jerusalem.
Students in Gaza disagreed, saying that 18 was too early and that the minimum age to get married should be 21 years old, so girls can also complete university.
Making new friends
The project also helped forge friendships. 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 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 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.
“The Virtual Majilis allowed us to be united as one hand with the students form Jerusalem and Nablus. We enjoyed the experience and learnt a lot,” says Samar in Gaza.
“We are fortunate to be given this opportunity,” says Dana in Jerusalem, “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 togeth