Business, Finance & Economics

East Jerusalem Teens: Want Peace? Start Here

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Huda Abu Zaid opened a high school for girls in East Jerusalem three years ago. She is principal, and also teaches Hebrew classes. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the Middle East this week and he met with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Kerry is reportedly looking for ways revive the Arab Peace Initiative from 2002.

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But he will have his work cut out for him.

The Arab peace proposal calls on Israel to re-divide Jerusalem. — essentially, to give up parts of the city it considers to be its "eternal and undivided" capital for the Palestinians to use for their own future capital.

I visited one of those neighborhoods recently to talk with some young people about how they see the future.

Like other Palestinian sections of East Jerusalem, the Shaufat neighborhood suffers from a shortage of classrooms. So, when the Dar al-Huda High School for Girls opened up three years ago, it didn't take long for all 250 slots to fill up. And there is a long list of students waiting to get in.

Most girls here study Hebrew. If they want to succeed beyond high school, Hebrew language skills are probably going to be important.

I ask the students who wants to go to a university after graduation? Every single one of them raised her hand

A 15-year-old named Iman told me she wants to go to college and study engineering. "I want to be a bread-winner," she said. "Even after I get married and have kids."

But if she does graduate and manage to start taking college courses, Iman will be in the minority. Last year, around 40 percent of East Jerusalem 12th graders dropped out of school.

Even here, at a semi-private school that emphasizes the importance of higher education, principal Huda Abu Zaid told me that most of last year's graduates didn't make it to college.

"Out of 70 students last year, only 10 attended universities," she said. "The others they got married, or they stayed at home, or they went to work even."

Abu Zaid said helping Palestinian youth — especially girls — to get a proper education, "is like rescuing them from drowning."

"Every woman [who] gets educated is a prophet," she told me in her tiny office. "[She is] a prophet for the family level, for the nation [sic] level, and once [a] woman loses her education, it's a loss for the whole nation, for the whole society."

Abu Zaid said some parents are conservative. They just don't see the value in educating their daughters. They would rather that girls get married young and start having children right away.

In parts of East Jerusalem, poverty is another problem.

The house where 16-year-old Jamila Shehada lives is about a 15 minute walk from the high school. The ramshackle cinderblock structure with sheets of tin for a roof is home to Jamila, her four siblings and their parents.

Jamila's father is a truck driver who's been out of work for several months. Her mother is busy at home with the younger kids. Even by East Jerusalem standards, the family is poor. And that's probably a big reason why Jamila takes school so seriously. Math is her favorite subject.

"I would like to get an education in order to be able to teach," she told me.

Graduation is still two years away, but Jamila is already worried about how the family can come up with the money for college.

"It makes me sad. I feel sad about the prospects of not studying."

Back at the high school, I asked one student how she felt about President Obama's vision of a future Palestinian State and how Jerusalem might be different then?

"It would be better," she said. "Israeli people gonna go out, all of them."

"Kick Israeli people out," I asked?

"Yeah, I want to kick them out because they don't want to live in peace with us. So, I want them to go out."

That kind of sentiment comes as no surprise to Rami Nasrallah of the International Peace and Cooperation Center. He is from East Jerusalem himself. Nasrallah said that people here have lost hope in the peace process that began in the early 1990s.

"Peace at the end of the day is a way of living, not an ideology," he said. "It didn't improve in the last 20 years. So, if this is going to improve, there's no doubt people are going to support it and they will defend it."

"But there's nothing to support, there's nothing to defend today. That's why people will go to the extreme and the easy way is to completely deny the existence of the other side."

"We are doing this on both sides," he said, referring to both Palestinians and Israelis.

According to US policy, the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem are expected to hold tight and wait for a political solution with Israel. Eventually, these neighborhoods could become the capital of the future state of Palestine.

But in the meantime, the residents here are stuck. And Nasrallah said they are suffering for it. It is time for people like Barack Obama and John Kerry to focus on solving practical problems, Nasrallah said, like education, housing and the economy.

"The political [side], one day, it will come," he said with a heavy sigh.

"But there is no assurance. So, it's better to proceed with the package of the daily life needs and the rights of the Palestinians, just to avoid a clash, an escalation of the conflict."

Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday spoke about the "festering absence of peace" as a problem for America and the for the region. Rami Nasrallah suggested that Kerry could get a real sense of what that looks like on the ground, if he comes and visits parts of East Jerusalem.

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    There's a shortage of classroom in Arab areas of East Jerusalem. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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    16 year-old Jamila Shehada says she wants to be a math teacher, but she's worries her family can't afford college tuition. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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