Scholars acquire needed skills in U.S. universities
Washington -- During the first week of January 2002, 28 young Palestinians arrived in the United States to pursue graduate degree programs in finance, public health, information technology and management. They are the latest group of "Clinton Scholars," recipients of a unique U.S. government scholarship aimed at enhancing Palestinian government and commerce through education.
By the end of this year, a total of 93 Clinton Scholars will be enrolled in master's degree programs across the United States, from Harvard to the University of Arizona. The scholars, whose average age is 28, are from Gaza and the West Bank; 23 of them had never before traveled outside of Gaza, the West Bank or Israel. Most obtained their undergraduate university education at a Palestinian institution and many were students during the fractured, tense period of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1990).
During the subsequent ten years of Palestinian-Israeli political dialogue, Clinton Scholars like Yahya Shunnar and Sakher Kandeel developed their vision of the institutions that would be needed for a future Palestinian state. Both men see themselves as the "young technocrats" vital in those institutions.
Shunnar is a 31-year old from Nablus whose business and political acumen surfaced when he worked as logistics manager for the Oslo II and Interim Agreement meetings. By the late 1990's, he had taken his managerial talents to the Palestinian stock exchange, which he still believes to be one of the most technically advanced markets in the region. When the stock market was not doing well, he contemplated moving to a Merrill Lynch affiliate in the Gulf area, but opted instead to pursue a master's degree in business administration (MBA) on a Clinton scholarship.
Shunnar recalls meeting President Clinton twice, and says he was convinced that the former president wanted to offer a chance to develop leadership for a future Palestine.
After six months of preparatory work at The Economics Institute (EI) in Boulder, Colorado, Shunnar is now successfully pursuing an MBA at the University of Arkansas. Most MBA students will pass through EI's intensive pre-admission program that includes enhanced English language training (with a special emphasis on professional writing), business and economic courses, test preparation, academic advising for university placement and guidance in understanding the cultural and academic environment of American life.
"The preparations program broke the ice between the Palestinian education system and American university life," Shunnar said.
He views the first months as a valuable part of his learning experience.
"As a businessman or negotiator you spend 4 or 5 days here or there," Shunnar said. "I quickly learned that remaining in one place longer, you have to communicate and the more you communicate, the more you gain in cultural understanding."
Firuzeh Saidi, who works closely with the Clinton Scholars at EI, sees Shunnar as a young person imbued with leadership skills.
"He, like so many of the Clinton Scholars, has enriched the Boulder community through voluntary activities. Some have worked in area hospitals, libraries and high schools. Yahya has been an avid speaker with groups like the Rotarians," she said.
"Involvement" is a key message she shares with Clinton Scholars from the moment they arrive in the United States. Having worked with three groups of Palestinian MBA scholars, Saidi notes, "They arrive from a highly politicized environment. Their guard is up and they need to develop trust with Americans. I ask them to leave politics aside and promote Palestine in a different fashion. By sharing their histories in a very personal way, they are ambassadors of a future Palestinian state."
Sakher Kandeel said his four-month orientation program in Arizona provided many of the basic cultural and academic tools needed to take full advantage of his scholarship. Unable to take the prerequisite courses in his native Gaza, he completed them in Arizona and secured admission to Tulane University's Public Health program. There, Kandeel is earning all A's in health administration. Get him talking about his program and you'll hear his infectious enthusiasm for long-term planning, business forecasting and how to manage services in a bigger environment. Kandeel says he's eager to get back to Gaza and apply all he is learning.
Disabled by polio, he underwent 14 surgical procedures in Gaza. After becoming a rehabilitation specialist through a program administered by a Canadian university in Gaza, he joined the Ministry of Health set up by the Palestinian Authority.
"Because I have had so much experience as a patient, I can see the need to better coordinate, plan and deliver health services. We also need to be planning for long-term provision of services and I'm very interested in learning more about the health insurance business in the United States," he told the Washington File.
Kandeel would like to return to the Ministry of Health, where he believes his management and organizational skills could have the greatest impact.
"In health, the private sector is not very active and most residents (in Gaza) still count on government services," he said. "I will also be able to teach at a Palestinian university with my degree from Tulane."
Kandeel, like Shunnar, often acts as a spokesman for Palestinians. "Americans are so uninformed. I spend a lot of time explaining where I come from and correcting some of the most basic points about Palestinian history and culture. People are generous in giving me the time to do this, but there are so many misconceptions, sometimes I have to ask myself 'What did we do to get here?'"
Kandeel says he never loses his patience. He knows the impact he can make as a Palestinian, a scholar, a Muslim and a disabled person. "When I was a school boy I learned to play soccer on the local team. I always tell people you must insist on achieving your goals. You cannot choose where you are born, but you control your life."
The tragic events of September 11 compelled many of the Palestinian scholars to articulate their views to Americans angered and confused by the terrorist attacks.
Clinton Scholar Fida Shaf'i, who is studying public administration at the University of Southern California, recalls how she stayed at home after the attacks on the World Trade Center, frightened of anti-Arab backlash.
"After two weeks, I said to myself, 'I came out of the intifada to represent my people. I cannot stay home.' I went out to speak at schools," she explained to the Washington File. A poised speaker, she was invited in November by the president of the University of Colorado at Boulder to speak at a Ramadan Dinner.
Shaf'i, 31, grew up in the confines of the Asker refugee camp outside Nablus. Her work with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Save the Children foundation provided what she calls "a realistic" look at the conditions of women in all Palestinian areas. She is passionate about her current studies, which she believes will help her better implement development programs and serve Palestinian women and children. At the same time, Shaf'i said her interaction with American and international students is very stimulating.
"Palestine is a small community within the world but we don't have many connections with the world," she said.
"Connecting" is a common thread in the experience of these Palestinian scholars.
Mohamed Said obtained his MBA in June 2001 and has returned to Ramallah as the financial and administrative manager of the third largest Internet service provider in the West Bank and Gaza. He noted that working with a team was the most valuable lesson he took away from his American experience. He said he still maintains regular contacts with friends in the United States. Said is the only Clinton Scholar so far who has graduated and returned to work in his hometown.
When the U.S. Congress authorized 35 million dollars for the Clinton Scholarships in May 2000, no one predicted the collapse of the political dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and subsequent economic devastation of Palestinian areas.
The scholarships, which are funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), were designed to build up the long-term business and professional ranks of people who would be needed for a vibrant Palestinian state.
Elaine Strite, who works for the Academy for Educational Development to manage the Clinton Scholarship Program in the Palestinian areas, recognizes the immediate benefit of this U.S.-supported educational exchange program.
Speaking from her office in East Jerusalem, Strite noted, "There is a perception, especially these days when life is so tough, that this program is one of the few avenues to self-development and development of the community -- a little light on the horizon for the 400-450 individuals who have completed an application since we've been running."
USAID is a U.S. government agency that provides economic and humanitarian assistance to other countries. USAID's West Bank and Gaza Mission was established in 1994 and has since provided some $535 million in aid to Palestinians. Information on USAID's work in Palestinian areas is available at http://www.usaid.gov/wbg