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Report, Birzeit University, 8 September 2001
Ra’ed had circles under his eyes, yet he was beaming with pride and a sense of triumph. “We made it,” he said grinning from ear to ear. “Ten Local Academies are now ready to go”. Raed El Sharif, program manager at Birzeit University’s Information Technology Unit (BIT), and CISCO’s main contact for the Regional Academy (RA) at the University was referring to the Local Academy training for trainers program that took place at the University for semesters three and four. For three weeks, Raed was practically working around the clock to make this training succeed. Like all Palestinian towns and villages, the city of Birzeit, 20 km north of Jerusalem and 7 km north of Ramallah has been placed in a state of siege by Israel as a means of collective punishment.
Local Academy (LA) trainees from various parts of the West Bank had to travel for hours on dirt roads, through numerous road blocks and olive groves, changing several taxis and even on donkeys through parts of the trip in order to reach Birzeit which is normally an hour’s drive away at the most. To overcome this situation, arrangements were made for LA trainees from the more distant areas like Hebron and Nablus to stay at Birzeit during the course. But just before the program began, Israel intensified its closure, and commuting from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and even villages in the Ramallah vicinity became extremely difficult. A last minute decision had to be made to house those trainees at Birzeit. On the day the course began, Israel even closed the road between Ramallah and Birzeit. Imad Tartir, the instructor for semesters three and four, and some of the trainees had to walk through the hills to reach the University.
Sumoud another Cisco trainee whose name ironically means steadfastness in Arabic, was no exception as she was prevented from reaching the University. Armed with determination she was not in a compromising mood as she knew that the web camera, desperately needed to link the West Bank trainees with their fellow besieged colleagues in Gaza, had to reach Birzeit in order to conduct the videoconference training and defy the military might that would derail the will of the 28 eager instructors.
Videoconferencing was another story. A story that served the realization of a dream that seemed so distant a few years ago. A story that saw the emergence of a new technique which was not attempted in Palestine before especially as the necessary equipment for such training was not readily available and required an extensive amount of last minute preparations and coordination. According to Marwan Tarazi, Director of BIT, “e-learning, once thought of as a luxury item of tomorrow, suddenly became vital in our situation.”
The team at BIT and the Welfare Association (WA) that sponsored the event, and the establishment of the academies and CNAP program in Palestine, managed to set up the basic equipment needed to train the students in both the West Bank and Gaza: computers, LCDs, web-cameras, Internet (IP) address, and adequate connection lines between the two sites.
A moment of rejoice and achievement was felt the day classes were scheduled to start. All participants were anxiously waiting to see how technology was to work in their favor, and how they would be able to interact with both their trainee and fellow colleagues a mere 100 kilometers away. While it was happiness that occupied the hearts of many, bitterness filled the hearts of others who were forbidden to visit their homes in both the West Bank and Gaza and even meet their fellow Cisco instructors face to face. Things went smoothly, and the course started without major problems. “…hello..hello Birzeit calling…hello greetings from Gaza” the first messages to be delivered back and forth in a triumphant and exuberant atmosphere. The six students in the Gaza Strip asked their questions and carried out their presentations on-line via the web-cam.
Two weeks later, all 22 trainees in the West Bank, and six in Gaza became certified LA instructors. For every trainee, this was the victory they were all keen to witness. It was a round the clock ordeal. Trainees would show-up at the lab early in the morning, and continue to work sometimes late into the night. “It was a good test for working under extreme pressure,” Ra’ed and his friends said smiling.
According to Dr. Sabri Saidam, the Cisco Academy instructor and technology program coordinator at the Welfare Association, who shared the exhaustion of preparations and the sweetness of success, “this experience was a serious challenge to all of us. It was our way of resisting the oppression and onslaught we are facing. We adamantly decided that we would go ahead against all odds- so everyone worked extremely hard, and with great determination and enthusiasm we made it happen. It was a great sense of achievement.”
Imad Tartir, the BIT’s RA trainer for semesters three and four, said that the kind and quality of on-line material and delivery methods provided by the CISCO academic program, helped the e-learning experiment succeed, especially the linkage with Gaza. “The program enabled us to pilot what could be an extremely important educational tool for Palestine. Other institutions are now eager to learn from our experiment and repeat it in other areas.”
Isam Ishaq, a resident of Beit Sahur, next to Bethlehem, and now an LA instructor at Al-Quds University, said that it was a real challenge for him to concentrate on his training at Birzeit while his hometown was being shelled by Israeli tanks almost every night. “I worried for my family and friends, and felt a great determination to work harder on such a program. Education and human resource development are assets for developing our country that no one can take away.”
Marwan from Deir Al-Balah, a poor area located in the middle of the Gaza Strip, who drove by hordes of refugee children whose homes were raised by Israeli tanks last month, fully agrees with Isam. Marwan said, “had it not been for my family and children, who witnessed periodic Israeli shelling of our area, I would have stayed in the lab over the many nights. Instead I had to return home, live with the nightly power cut by the Israelis, light my oil lamp and continue my Cisco revision. “While I was sitting in class connecting routers and switches, I thought of these homeless children, how to help them have a better life and a better future. I had a strong conviction that what I was doing now would somehow contribute to this. This made me work especially hard.”
“I had come all the way from Nablus a week earlier. I traveled through ditches, bulldozed lands, checkpoints inhaled tear gas and witnessed live ammunition, in fact I went through hell, I’m not turning back now”. This is how Sumoud decided to continue her adventure. “Going back meant defeat and the drowning of my hopes and ambitions, I wasn’t one to accept that”, she concluded.
On Tuesday, August 14th all 28 instructors had completed the training for semesters three and four. It was all smiles, thumbs up, and a great feeling of victory.