Middle East visitors learn together in Minnesota

UPDATED 6/17 • In Lebanon, Michel Helou’s dream is running a horse therapy program to help disabled children – while creating jobs and restoring neglected horses to health. To fight high unemployment in Jordan, two entrepreneurs want to create a market like Minneapolis’ Mercado Central. In Israel, Racheli Tapuchi wants to use leftover factory materials to produce art and promote recycling.

They are among 14 young entrepreneurs from the Middle East who met the Midwest for six weeks recently in a cultural exchange sponsored by Hamline University with help from the U.S. State Department.

The men and women from Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestine Authority learned business skills from senior executives and other staffers from some of Minnesota’s largest corporations and nonprofits – 3M, Cargill, Health Partners and Wells Fargo – and some of the smallest, including the TC Daily Planet.

“I came with one idea,” said Maya Al-Nabti, who wants to use “green festivals” to promote rural settlement in rural Lebanon. “Now I have a million ideas.”

The program is an extension of Hamline’s decade-long Civic Education Project, which has produced a common cross-border school curriculum aimed at promoting democracy, multiculturalism and peace in the Middle East.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I reported on the program for the Star Tribune from its inception and, after retiring, helped the sponsors arrange a few meetings with media outlets.

The Middle East “Education to Employment” fellows  – Muslims, Jews and Christians – were picked for their professional credentials, not their politics, said Nurith Zmora, who with her husband, Arie, is among the leaders of the Hamline program. But the participants bonded quickly. They learned more about each other’s countries, celebrated birthdays and, Nurith Zmora said, mourned when they faced parting the first weekend in June.

“We are educated. We are mature,” said one. “We don’t care about politics. We just want peace.”

The fellows represent such disciplines as computer engineering, pharmaceutical science, business, law and graphic design.

They visited a Cargill animal facility in Elk River, saw 3M CEO George Buckley field political questions at the company’s annual meeting, learned more about Twin Cities business operations in the Middle East, watched kids romp on an overnight excursion at the Science Museum of Minnesota, learned about grassroots journalism at the Planet and saw jobs programs at nonprofits HIRED and the Neighborhood Development Center.

At a final report dinner, they came across as hugely idealistic, talking about what they had learned and what they want to do for their people back home, especially to attack persistent unemployment.

“I have to do something I’m very passionate about,” said Maya Helbaoui, who wants to start educational and cultural after-school programs in Lebanon.

Others talked of starting a women’s shelter, teaching advanced English (“the premier international language”) to Palestinian kids and their moms, training Israeli ex-inmates and people with special needs for jobs, starting work programs for women in textiles and jewelry.

“They found out that corporate America has social responsibility, that diversity is good for business and that leadership is an investment that companies take very seriously,” Nurith Zmora said.

The program is financed by a $575,000 State Department grant to bring 32 fellows to the United States over 2½ years, and that must be matched by donations and in-kind efforts (more than 20 Hamline faculty and staff volunteers are involved).

The program will include follow-up visits by Hamline and corporate sponsors to help the fellows implement their plans. Because of the political situation, some fellows will not be able to visit each other, but they’ll be in touch via the Internet.

Arie Zmora related the program to current Middle East unrest.

“While writing this grant, we discussed the grim situation in the Middle East where lack of education, adequate training programs and unemployment among the educated lead to an explosive situation where disenfranchised youth are prone to violence within their local communities, often along ethno-religious and national lines,” he said at the final report dinner.

“We did not realize at the time how close we were to reality.”

CORRECTION: Nurith Zmora's title was reported erroneously in this article, as originally published. Thursday in an article about  She has been a leader in grant-seeking for Hamline University's Education to Employment Middle East program. Her formal title, she says, is "the person of interest (PI) for Hamline in regard to this grant" from the State Department.

Robert Franklin is a retired Twin Cities journalist and journalism instructor.

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