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Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Cisco helps open world to Mideast students

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Nazareth, Israel -- In a community center in Upper Nazareth, Jewish and Arab schoolchildren are learning together. It's a rare scene in this tensely divided country, where ethnic divisions have been widened by fears of terrorism and underlying tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What makes it unique is the bank of video screens on one wall connecting this room with similar groups of teenagers around the Mediterranean. And what makes it historic are the two dark-suited men sitting with the students and chatting over the uplink to the kids joining in from Portugal to Jordan via Morocco and Turkey.

One of them is Shimon Peres, the octogenarian president of Israel. The other is John Chambers, the CEO and president of San Jose-based Cisco Systems.

The chat crackling across the loudspeakers is part of the Mediterranean Youth Technology Club (MYTecC), a Cisco-sponsored two-year program that intends to create a virtual society of 400 teenagers across six countries who use the Internet to study English, computer science, leadership skills, communication and, most importantly, each other.

A related project, Digital Cities, is bringing computer technology to underprivileged towns in Israel, beginning with Nazareth and Ramla.

'It's really interesting'

"We learn technology and that will make us stronger in future," says Sha'ed Bishara, an Israeli Arab ninth-grader. "We learn about things we never knew about before, everything about the Internet. It's really interesting."

"Before this program I had no contact with my Jewish neighbors," she says. "Now I have Jewish friends. Cisco made us into friends. It will affect our future. We need to live together, without wars and all that. We all get on well together here."

Peres beams with pleasure as the youngsters guide him around their computer lab and show him Cisco-developed platforms developed that link the participants.

The two community projects in Nazareth - worth more than $2.5 million - are using Cisco's communications technology to advance dialogue between school students and give underprivileged teenagers a boost into the modern world.

"What is fascinating is that your generation will be about communities working together. The exciting thing about the Internet is that eliminates time and distance," Chambers tells the teenagers.

The MYTecC and Digital Cities programs were the brainchild of Zika Abzuk, a senior executive of Cisco in Israel. She says she was encouraged by the company to embark on the projects even though it meant largely abandoning her income-producing work for the company and diverting their resources into what is basically a philanthropic venture.

"Kids come twice a week to a technology center where they learn English, technology and how to be citizens of the world. They use the Internet and their natural curiosity to get to know each other and learn about each other's culture," says Abzuk.

At a community project in the back streets of East Jerusalem, Palestinian teenagers are combining leadership skills activities with surfing their favorite pages of the MYTecC Web platform.

Sara Salameh, 14, says she most enjoys chatting with her counterparts in Jordan and Morocco using her new screen name "Sarsoorah."

"I want to learn more English and communicate with friends from outside," she says. "I want to learn more about computers and tell my friends about our culture here in Palestine."

The sessions are supervised by 20 instructors from eight different countries, who have undergone intensive training for the past year at various locations around the region. A 20-day session for senior instructors was held in Istanbul in July. A new group of Palestinian and Jordanian instructors were trained in Amman during August. The technical operation of the project is itself an exercise in international diplomacy.

West Bank group forming

Rajwan Odeh, a 26-year-old computer scientist from Ramallah in the West Bank, is responsible for MYTecC technical development and communications platforms, as well as being the instructor for the first West Bank group that will begin meeting this fall. A Palestinian group in East Jerusalem started in February. Her content manager is another instructor in Portugal. Her troubleshooting consultant is in Tel Aviv.

The project brings together instructors and students from various countries that have tense relations with each other - Portugal and Morocco, Turkey and Cyprus, and of course Israelis and Palestinians. But they eschew attempts at amateur diplomacy. Instead the participants have chosen to respect each other's differences and get on with the work in hand.

'Open to other worlds'

"I was really motivated to do this because I like to be open-minded, open to other worlds, to other people and have cultural diversity" says Odeh, who wears a traditional Muslim hijab and tells hair-raising stories of her treatment at Israeli checkpoints as a student during the intifada.

"I'm looking for students who need what we have to offer and don't already have the opportunity to experience these things. Many Palestinians at private schools in Ramallah already have access to this kind of technology," she says.

"Teenagers can go on the Internet by themselves, but MYTecC is different. It's not just working on computers. It's the virtual activities, the social empowerment, the whole program that helps make them good people in their society. They would be in touch with other people through the Internet anyway, but this way they are in touch with ethical people. It helps to empower their values and develop them as leaders in their society," she says.

E-mail comments to foreign@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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