THE ROUGHLY 81-ACRE DHEISHEH CAMP on the outskirts of Bethlehem was built to house 3,000 refugees after more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Today, it has a population of about 15,000 Palestinians.
Reem Jafari MC/MPA 2019 grew up there because that’s where her grandfather, who was from Deir Rafat, a village to the west of Jerusalem, fled after the war. Her parents were both teachers, with her mother working in a school run by the United Nations. Jafari, who graduated in May, wants to return there to help build a better future for her community.
“How can I give more opportunities to Palestinians to pursue further education, to reach their full potential, and have a dignified life?” asks Jafari. “How can I help people who don’t have the tools to provide for their kids, to send their kids to school?”
These are the questions—and this is the type of person—that Bashar Masri had in mind when he established the graduate Rawabi Fellowship for Leaders from Palestine at Harvard Kennedy School in 2018. Masri, a Palestinian American businessperson, hopes that Jafari and the students who follow will be the ones bringing change to this troubled part of the world.
“I believe that forward-looking young people will find solutions to problems that appear intractable to us today,” Masri says. “And education and exposure are the building blocks of change. It’s how we break the mold, how we innovate.”
Before coming to Harvard Kennedy School, Jafari worked at organizations such as USAID and World Learning, building the foundations for a future Palestinian state, and offering hope and sustainable solutions for marginalized communities such as child laborers and people with HIV. Her efforts have helped individuals in Ecuador, Ethiopia, Uganda, and her native Palestine
The Rawabi Fellowship allowed Jafari to attend the Kennedy School, and now she wants to use the education she’s received to advance statehood for Palestine and improve the quality of life for all Palestinians.
“Mr. Masri has opened opportunities for future leaders to come to Harvard, a place that is central to policymaking and leadership,” says Jafari, “and he is contributing to building a core group of leaders from Palestine who can go back and serve.”
Masri’s vision is audacious. He is not only giving promising leaders from Palestine the opportunity to attend Harvard Kennedy School; he is also developing an entirely new city in Palestine. This new city, named Rawabi (which means “hills” in Arabic), is situated a half-hour north of Jerusalem, in the heart of the West Bank. Built with funding by Masri and Qatar, it is by far the largest private-sector development in Palestine. It is currently home to about 4,000 people, a number that Masri, a native of Nablus, hopes will increase to about 40,000. With luxury shopping and space to lure high-tech companies, Masri aims to offer additional economic opportunities to residents of the West Bank.
Jafari, who has visited Rawabi, says that the new, sustainable city and the economic opportunities it will bring are powerful representations of what would be possible with Palestinian statehood. “There’s a huge correlation between democracies and economic opportunity,” she says. “In the West Bank, we have a very high unemployment rate—it is about 35 percent for youth. Young people struggle with finding jobs and becoming active members of their community. Achieving Palestinian independence and providing economic opportunities is crucial in Palestine.”
At the Kennedy School, Jafari focused on leadership and negotiation. “I’ve worked on core skills for developing and exercising leadership, and analyzing groups and systems so we can mobilize people toward a common goal,” she says. “How do you negotiate in a multistakeholder context? How do you frame the issues in ways that are understandable to the other side?” She cites her classes on negotiation with Brian Mandell, the Mohamed Kamal Senior Lecturer in Negotiation and Public Policy, and Kessely Hong, lecturer in public policy, as particularly helpful.
Despite the apparent intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jafari is an optimistic realist. “In terms of achieving Palestinian statehood, mobilizing communities, and building a democratic culture, economic development is one aspect—but you also really need to work on education, and not just formal education, but informal education as well,” she says. “When I talk about education, and about changing cultural norms, it’s working on problem- solving, teamwork, and consensus building. These are important to creating an underlying foundation for a community.”
As she prepares to return home, Jafari says it is crucial to put a face on the many challenges confronted by the Palestinian people: “I think having Palestinians here at the Kennedy School is important because of the conversations we can have with other classmates from around the world, providing a better understanding of Palestinian history and culture. There are very few places like the Kennedy School, where you have people from around the world with unique backgrounds—we all learn so much from each other both in and out of the classrooms.”
Masri concurs. “By bringing young leaders from Palestine like Reem Jafari to Harvard’s atmosphere of excellence, and positioning them within its unparalleled network of global influencers, I hope to empower the thought leaders of Palestine’s next generation.”
Portrait by Raychel Casey