“If anyone can bridge the gaps between Americans and Palestinians, it’s us: youth leaders.” These words, delivered by Ruwwad Youth Ambassador Suad Soboh in Boston, were a strong, fitting conclusion to a momentous trip for six Ruwwad youth. Coming at the end of a two-week tour where the team presented a “Made in Palestine” youth leadership model to American audiences, U.S. government officials, and university faculty at Harvard and Tufts, Soboh’s statement captured the essence of the entire youth exchange, an event aptly called “Palestinian Youth Voices Heard.”
For most of the young men and women in the diverse Ruwwad group, the trip marked their first time outside the West Bank, their first time on a plane, and their first time using a passport. But these challenges didn’t intimidate the youth; they inspired them. By the end of their trip, Ruwwad’s youth ambassadors had succeeded in sharing their message of positive youth leadership with thousands of Americans and international youth leaders—leveraging their unique status as youth to build ties with U.S. decision-makers and young peers.
One of the the trip’s main highlights was a visit to Washington, DC, where the youth helped build momentum for the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership—a new initiative launched by the U.S. Government and private sector partners to grow the Palestinian economy and create youth leadership opportunities. Addressing USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore and senior staff at the Aspen Institute and Case Foundation, the Ruwwad Youth Ambassadors gave a frank—and often heart-wrenching—account of the challenges they had faced growing up amid violence, and how they had parlayed their tough childhoods into young adult leadership success. This main message—that Palestinian youth can and do act as positive leaders—was also at the forefront of the group’s presentation to the 19th annual National Youth Leadership Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The team’s final stop was Boston, where they spoke at Harvard and Tufts universities and pitched in for a day of active volunteering with local non-profit CityYear.
At each stop, the youth focused on presenting the perspectives of young Palestinians—but also on learning from U.S. hosts. Amani Samara, a 21-year-old group member from the Jenin refugee camp, found it tough at first to open up and share her story with others. “When I was 15 years old,” she explains, “I woke up to the destruction of Jenin refugee camp. My neighborhood was turned to rubble after the fighting. At that moment I became determined to rebuild what had been destroyed. I wrote a story about the Jenin refugee camp, which attracted praise from a British teacher. He and I then worked together to train other camp children in the art of story telling, through a theater program.” Amani contiues: “When American audiences listened to my story, they broke down in tears. At first I didn’t know how I should respond. But I felt comfortable once I realized that they really recognized our humanity as Palestinians, and they understood that we are just like them: humans who want peace, freedom, and a normal life.”
For Mohammad Kilany, age 25 and also from Jenin, the experience of traveling to the United States was like a dream. “I will never forget the amazement in the eyes of the people that we spoke to: Their sympathy for our situation, and their strong expressions of admiration for our presentations. These are bonds between Palestinians and Americans that cannot be broken now.” Kilany was also excited about the prospect of U.S. support for the projects that each youth ambassador is working on. “Each of us wants to achieve specific things in our communities,” he explains. “I have been working at a software company that developed a system which uses text messages (SMS) to link youth across the West Bank. This is crucial in a region where military checkpoints make it hard to travel. Now I want to scale this up and use it for elections and for ‘job matching’: Have people vote by SMS from their phones, or get information about jobs…not just here, but all over the world. This will help make elections more fair and safe, and it will help reduce unemployment. Now that U.S. contacts know about my project, I hope they can contribute to help me make this a reality.”
Judging from the reactions of listeners at the Aspen Institute, the Case Foundation, and other tour stops, there’s a good chance that the group’s ideas will find backers: USAID’s Henrietta Fore was quick to seize on the idea of a training program for new engineers proposed by Kilany’s colleague Yazan Nabulsi. The 21 year-old Nablus engineer was asked to send more information and sketch out a detailed training plan.
According to Soboh, the 20-year-old ambassador from Ramallah, the group’s visit was a greater success than anyone had anticipated—especially for the young women in the group. “There was a lot of pressure, because we had to represent our people in a way that Americans could understand. And in general, women in Palestine are not usually given strong public speaking roles. In the end, though, we impressed both our audience and ourselves with the strength of our presentation and the effect it had on others.” Twenty six year-old Linda Abu Halaweh, from the southern city of Hebron, echoed Soboh’s thoughts: At first, she faced strong resistance from her community about the prospect of going to the U.S. unaccompanied. But this only made her more determined to go—and so she was overwhelmed with joy when her family finally agreed and she boarded the plane with the others. “The struggle I went through, as a woman, to get here made the trip all the more meaningful,” she told new friends at a lunch event at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
As the group prepared to return home, Ahmed Ameer, a 24-year-old ambassador from the Tulkarem region, reflected on the success of the journey—and the importance of the cultural exchange that took place between the Palestinians and the Americans they met. “We ‘see’ them, and they ‘see’ us, but all of this ‘seeing’ happens through TV, where only the most stereotypical images of each group are portrayed. Are all Americans like Sylvester Stallone or Angelina Jolie? Of course not. By the same token, most Palestinians are not wearing bandannas and firing machine guns in the air either. Now our American friends know much more about us, and we have learned so much about them too. I can’t tell you how much my own perspectives have changed after this trip.”
For all of the young ambassadors, it was clear that “Our Voices Heard” opened their eyes to new opportunities, new ideas and new points of view. They came away from the experience with fresh plans and new contacts across the U.S., as well as a sense of accomplishment at having successfully represented Palestine to what many see as an unwelcoming post-9/11 America. Most importantly, Amani, Mohamed, Suad, Yazan, Linda, and Ahmed returned to the West Bank with a new sense of responsibility toward their country, and a new-found drive to create positive change that will improve the lives of their generation and the generations to come.
Originally published on May 1, 2008