Harvard’s Hotbed of Hope

text by Brother David Carroll, F.S.C.
photographs by Ilene Perlman

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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.

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Tags: Middle East Education Unity