Fellowship project helps bridge Middle East cultural, political divisions through education.
Even in a global society, inspiring change remains a person-to-person business. Hamline’s Middle East Education to Employment Fellowship Project is one luminous example of how individuals can serve as agents for peace to make an impact half a world away.
The project, funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department, is the brainchild of Hamline professors Arie and Nurith Zmora. Originally from Israel, the husband and wife team have devoted their lives to bridging Middle East cultural and political divisions by connecting people through education.
Beginning over a decade ago and evolving ever since, the Middle East Education to Employment Fellowship Project brings young business leaders from the Middle East to Minnesota to study entrepreneurship and civic education in the Twin Cities’ multicultural community.
With help from area businesses and faculty volunteers, the Hamline fellows learn about equality and workplace diversity while receiving mentorship and training to grow their businesses back home. For the Zmoras, the hope is that the fellows will act as seeds for peaceful change in their communities.
Chosen for their ideas rather than their political or family connections, the fellows who convened at Hamline in 2012 represented the myriad cultural, political, and religious communities of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. For many, this was a first encounter with people from their neighboring countries and the United States. “You have to remember they have their own stereotypes of America,” Arie said. “They come here and see an immigrant as a professor or as a CEO, and those ideas start to change.”
During the summer months, Hamline faculty volunteers introduced the fellows to people and institutions that promote pluralism within the classroom, workplace, and community. The fellows also came into contact with a diversity of cultures and ideas at Hamline.
Adding a broader entrepreneurial perspective, corporations and nonprofits like 3M, HealthPartners, Wells Fargo, Cargill, Minnesota Public Radio, Neighborhood Development Center, and numerous others volunteered their staffs and facilities to show how workplace diversity leads to success.
Though education is the foundation of the program, the format is not just a series of lectures around a conference room table. The Twin Cities became the 2012 fellows’ classroom as they toured neighborhoods, met with representatives from area businesses and nonprofits, and participated in workshops orchestrated by people of different genders, races, and religions.
The Zmoras wanted the fellows to see firsthand how U.S. businesses work. There are two ways to teach civic education, Arie said. “The first is to bring in community leaders and talk about ideas like equality, affirmative action, and advancement according to qualifications. It all sounds wonderful when you put it on PowerPoint—they read it and memorize it. The other way to do it is to bring them into the workplace. When they meet the vice president of Wells Fargo or a scientist at 3M who are women or of different ethnic backgrounds and see how they work together as part of a team, then you get the promise of America: diversity, equality, qualification.”
For the fellows, some of the most valuable lessons come from simply getting to know one another. Spending evenings together on Hamline’s campus, beyond the shadows cast by the barriers of their own countries, they see one other in a new light, untainted by politics or cultural divides.
Two women in the program—a Palestinian and an Israeli—bonded as roommates. Unsure of one another at first, they soon learned they had something in common: Both suffered from insomnia stemming from rocket fire striking their homes. As they shared their stories late into the night, a friendship blossomed.
Many of the letters and emails the Zmoras receive from former participants attest to the lasting connections the experience fosters. Two Israeli students wrote, “After graduating from the program, we are now trying to find ways we can connect and be in touch and develop future projects.”
More than just business, the project offers hope for younger generations that want to bring peace to their communities. “The friendships created in the program are not the kind one will give up,” the Israeli fellows wrote. “The love, the attachment between each other, and the respect we share for each other make us figure we can be friends with no boundaries.”
For the Zmoras, gauging the impact of the program has been a difficult proposition. “Success for this program is not measured in numbers or with money,” Arie said. “It’s something you see on [the fellows’] faces. They are transformed, but it takes time. . . . Everyone goes through their own process.”
The mission of the program has its roots in contemporary issues. “In the Arab world, you have a large group of educated elite that have no employment,” Arie said. As a result, “it is a tinderbox, which creates potential for revolution.”
Indeed, with secular uprisings popping up all across the region, it appears a spark has been lit. But Arie cautions that with revolution comes a responsibility to the future. “What we need to do is help these people transition and get retraining so they will be able to find jobs for themselves and also be institutional anchors for other people in their communities,” he said.
By taking a secular stance to the heated religious rhetoric, the program links the violence to a sense of hopelessness permeating the region. The bleak political atmosphere casts a pall over many young people’s lives, leaving their future clouded in uncertainty, as violence swells around them.
Pursuing equality is more than just an economic initiative. In parts of the Middle East, women live with little or no agency over their own lives, the Zmoras said. For those in abusive marriages, there is practically no option for escape. Those abandoned by their families often end up disenfranchised, alone on the streets.
Back in their home countries, each of the fellows represents an oasis for future stability. It’s grassroots business working toward peace over profits. As purveyors of equality and diversity, the opportunities they create help assuage long-held prejudices and animosity.
Equipped with the knowledge and skills they gain in Minnesota, Hamline’s fellows offer a glimmer of hope to those who see a brighter future for the Middle East. “It’s a long trek to equality,” said Hamline philosophy professor Samuel Imbo. “But they come to the United States, and everywhere they see people joined by the same sense of purpose, a community driven by ideas.”
As the program has evolved over the last decade, it has added a global perspective to Hamline’s curriculum. A faculty volunteer and global studies professor, Leila DeVriese attributes the project with helping to spark a Middle Eastern studies minor last spring. “As this field continues to grow in importance, Hamline has the opportunity to be a leader in Minnesota,” DeVriese said.
“We all profit from greater diversity on campus,” said Eric Jensen, the provost of Hamline. “It allows people to establish connections and have their eyes opened person to person.”
By Matt Noyes MFA ’13