About the Authors: Vince Murphy and Shannon Quinn serve as Foreign Service Officers in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
In January, two groups of honor students from Gaza had the extraordinary opportunity to meet and share their experiences with some high school students from the Washington, D.C. area. The ability of Palestinian refugees to travel outside Gaza has been severely restricted since Hamas took over in 2007, making cultural exchanges like this one a rare occurrence. The group of 15 ninth-grade Palestinian girls from Gaza, followed a week later by a group of 15 boys, visited the United States to learn about American perspectives on human rights.
The tour was sponsored by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and funded by the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). The girls and boys were selected out of thousands of ninth-graders in recognition of their high performance in the newly expanded human rights curriculum taught in UNRWA-operated schools in Gaza.
Students from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland's D.C. suburbs met with the kids at the Smithsonian museums. The Americans helped interpret at the museums, and then escorted their guests back to Bethesda for an evening of dinner, indoor basketball and soccer, and visits to local homes for dessert and video games.
Highlights of their trip included meeting former President Jimmy Carter at the Carter Center and learning about the civil rights movement in the U.S. at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta; touring the White House and meeting with members of Congress in Washington; and conversing with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the UN in New York.
But certainly some of their fondest memories will be of the American kids that reached out to them with no agenda beyond just making friends. Language and cultural barriers could not withstand the warm smiles and enthusiasm generated by the encounter. Students from both places had a unique opportunity to learn about each other and establish friendships in a relaxed setting far from the tensions of Gaza.
In 2009, the Department of State provided $267 million to UNRWA to support 4.7 million Palestinian refugees in the region, including 1.1 million in Gaza. UNRWA teaches 220,000 students principles of tolerance and human rights in its 220 schools in Gaza.