Public Service Innovators -- Hala Taweel, MPA 1997: Peace Through Education

April 10, 2003
Lory Hough

Palestinian-born Hala Taweel, MPA 1997, never expected to one day say these four words: I have Israeli friends. Growing up under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank city of Ramalla, Taweel watched as soldiers killed friends in front of her. Her mother, a journalist, was put under house arrest for speaking out. But today, Taweel, whose sister is married to Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, does say those words: "I have Israeli friends. Good friends."

She thanks education for the transformation. After just a few weeks at the Kennedy School studying alongside Israelis - most of them soldiers - she started to find common ground. Now she is trying to recreate the same experience for others in the Middle East through her nonprofit, University of the Middle East Project.

"People know their differences, but they don't know what they have in common," Taweel says. "The classroom lets them see that. It lets them see the human side. This is the force of education."

The project, based in Cambridge, conducts graduate-level summer institutes for teachers, pediatricians, and NGO leaders. Students eat, live, and learn together for a month in Boston, Spain, and Morocco. All classes are taught in English. Eventually, the project plans to offer master's degrees at academic centers located in the Middle East.

"We're building an institution of higher learning that doesn't really exist in the Middle East. There are lots of good schools, but we're trying to bring something different," Taweel says. "It's not the 'American' university of the Middle East. It has an American touch, but provides the region what the region needs. We teach skills students can bring back to their communities: conflict resolution, negotiation, and new ways of looking at human rights, for example."

The project started in 1996 when Ron Rubin, an Israeli-American teaching at MIT, showed Taweel his two-page vision paper at Café Algiers in Harvard Square. Initially he wanted to build one university with campuses in Israel and Palestine. Students would study at both.

"He wanted an Arab partner. I immediately said yes," she says. Early brainstorming dinner sessions in Boston's North End and Cambridge with students from all over the Middle East region included Camelia Sadat, daughter of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. "We sometimes took over restaurants!" Taweel says.

"Eventually people asked: why limit the project to just Israel and Palestine? Everyone in the region needs peace and education," she says. Their mission expanded.

With military conflict currently blanketing the Middle East, Taweel says the project is more determined than ever to move forward. They are looking for a dean. They are debating whether to build their own campuses or continue using existing facilities. They lobby for funding. And Taweel is relearning Hebrew.

"I first learned to speak Hebrew when I was 17. I wanted to know the language of my 'enemy,'" she says. "Now in my 30s, I want to learn the language of my friends."

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