By Zehra Hirji ’10

It blows my mind that four years ago I was taking off for Israel and Palestine for the very first time. I was off to work on a project in Digital Storytelling with children in the Palestinian Refugee Camps in the West Bank after being inspired by a guest speaker at Harvard in my freshmen year. At that time, I knew absolutely nothing about “the conflict.” I didn’t understand what occupation meant, I was trapped in this narrative that for decades Muslims and Jews hated each other and just couldn’t resign to living with each other. I was a naive outsider, aching to visit the Middle East, test my newly acquired Arabic skills, and lend my perspectives on interfaith cooperation. The trip, five weeks living in Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus and listening to the heart-wrenching stories of Palestinian children, changed my entire life. I was traumatized by how severely wrong I was about this “war” between Jews and Muslims, and found myself overwhelmingly moved, changed, and inspired by the suffering of the Palestinian people.

Since that trip I have returned three times, once to stay for six months in Jerusalem and study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and live with four Israelis in order to feel like I could sincerely grasp “the other side” of this contentious and sensitive political conflict. That trip was my most difficult by far, being the only “Arab” or other, in my program of over 300 American Jewish students, but in many ways also the most rewarding. I now find myself, fortunately or unfortunately I haven’t decided yet, ready to embark on yet another trip back there, but this time on official business with the organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) as a fresh graduate from Harvard College.

OLPC is an organization that I deeply respect and admire, and I still cannot believe my unbelievable luck in getting to work for them this year. OLPC serves to transform education for the poorest and the most disadvantaged children in the world by providing them with a low-power, rugged, and connected laptop computer in order to facilitate uninterrupted and high-quality education in difficult environments. When I was hired in January, OLPC had just received official approval from the Israeli government to donate thousands of laptops to the children of Gaza, after 11 months of trying to work through Israel’s restrictive limitations on goods entering Gaza. For the first time in years children in Gaza were given access to new learning materials, textbooks were on the list of banned items by Israel and OLPC was able to facilitate the digitizing of Palestinian textbooks so that the children could access them on their new laptop computers! Laptop distributions are under way in Gaza and the West Bank, with the sincere hopes that in the very near future every single Palestinian child will have their own localized laptop in order to enhance their learning. My trip next week will be to oversee the trainings of teachers, administrators, children and parents on how to best use the laptops and truly capitalize on this new learning opportunity with our partners in Palestine, UNRWA and the Ministry of Education. Laptops may not change the world and they certainly won’t end the occupation, but the education of children is something that I strongly believe should never be on hold, and that is all I hope to be able to work towards with this endeavor.

Despite spending collectively almost a full year living in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I am ashamed to say I am still terrified of going there. Not because I fear for my safety, I have never genuinely feared for my physical well being there, but rather because the whole devastating experience always sits so heavily on my conscience and the tension in the air is constantly palpable. Sometimes I think the weight of the whole world sits on the souls of those in the Holy Lands, and for some reason I cannot seem to stop going back, despite the anxiety it brings. To so intimately witness the suffering of the Palestinians, and have to prove its veracity at home, even at a place like Harvard seemingly full of compassionate intellectuals, is infuriating, exhausting, and frustrating to the point where I wonder constantly, with respect and awe, how the members of the PSC community can find the energy to keep on fighting for such intangible justice. Regardless, I look forward to this new project in this new chapter in my life and hope to provide more updates on the work of OLPC in Palestine!

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