It is a typical sight in modern offices. People sitting around a large, institutional office table, looking into the digital camera that sends images and voices across time and space through the convenience of video conferencing, to another group sitting around yet another large, institutional office table. But this isn’t any ordinary video conference. And these aren’t ordinary office workers. They’re Palestinian college students, huddled in a borrowed conference room at the UNDP building in Gaza, sharing their stories of struggle and survival under Occupation with their peers at Georgetown University Qatar (GU-Q).
The program is called the Student to Student Dialogue Program, and for every two weeks over the past two semesters, around a half dozen students in Gaza and a handful of students in Qatar have sidestepped the barriers of borders and distance through the power of the internet, to create a communication channel that provides GU-Q students with a different perspective on conflict and conflict resolution, and the Palestinian students a rare international platform to share their stories.
GU-Q junior Dana Qarout, who is herself Palestinian Jordanian, and the brainchild of the program, got the idea while attending a university conference. “There were NGO representatives sharing stories of teachers who had reached out to political refugees. So I got the idea to reach out to students in Gaza, to help us understand their day to day lifestyle, and to get to know the human side of the political situation,” said Dana.
To bring that idea to fruition, Dana contacted Al Fakhoura, a Qatar-based NGO that works to “secure the freedom to learn for students under siege, with scholarships, training, improved healthcare and educational building reconstruction”. They put Dana in touch with one of their coordinators in Gaza to organize sessions around the issues of conflict resolution.
“The next step was to find support from Georgetown, so I asked Professor Elizabeth Andretta, who teaches a justice and peace course at GU-Q. She gave us her full support, agreeing to supervise the program and attend each function.” The university also provides the facilities for the teleconference, and has made the Student to Student Dialogue Program an official school club that is open to all of their students
The students come from a variety of academic backgrounds - from both sides of the call. GU-Q participants represent majors in International Politics, Culture and Politics, and International Economics. In Gaza, students studying medicine, engineering, and literature, represent different schools, but are bonded by the common thread of geography, and the challenges that continues to bring.
“We’ve talked about a variety of topics, like prisoners rights, passive aggressive protest, water resource issues, education, and movement under the blockade,” said Dana. “For each session, we have a different topic. We take turns choosing one, but all of them are related to justice and peace.”
At a recent session, the topic is the continuing blockade, and the Georgetown students want to know how the Gaza students are coping. It is a two-way conversation, but more often than not, the Georgetown students, who have studied the issues at length in the classroom, listen in silent rapt attention as their counterparts bring blunt statistics and factual essays, to life. “The mainstream media tries to place a terrorist image on us in Gaza, that all we do is bomb,” says Bilqees, a medical student. “So through our stories and personal life, we try to tell them how we live. We try to change the idea through these messages.”
There is a question about peaceful resistance, and if any of the assembled youth are involved in that type of protest to try and break the blockade of Gaza. “To send our voices across these barriers, is a tool. Speaking to you right now is breaking the blockade of Gaza.”
Dana, who is pursuing a Culture and Politics bachelor’s degree at GU-Q, will soon be graduating, with plans to continue her studies in order to one day become a professor. She still hasn’t decided on a field of study, she is only sure she is not interested in studying conflict resolution. “I didn’t start this project because I wanted to contribute to the Peace Process. I am interested in the human level, how people cope with these tremendous challenges, and the personal and cultural impact it has.”
Next semester, she will be taking on a younger volunteer to train, in order to insure the continuation of the program. There is also interest from the main campus in Washington D.C., and Dana’s been asked to jumpstart the program there as well. And until the students can actually meet in person, it will be the virtual conference that brings the students together, again.