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Building Cyber Bridges to Understanding

By Kim Pozniak

The students in Ms. Link's class are your typical teenagers—they give sassy smiles and make the peace sign as their picture is taken. They are also experts on all things technology. Divided into groups of four or five, they huddle around the screens in their school's computer lab firing off e-mails and logging onto chat rooms.

Palestinian participants in Cyber Bridges.

Palestinian students communicate with students in Chicago, Illinois, as part of the Cyber Bridges program. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Encouraged by their teacher, they talk about sports and music, compare hobbies and exchange photos. But unlike most of their peers, they're not surfing Facebook or MySpace. At least not today. The students at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago are using their lab time to talk with teens at a community center half a world away—in the West Bank.

Students at Mount Carmel High have been participating in a program called Cyber Bridges for several years. Created by Catholic Relief Services, the program uses technology and the internet to link students in the United States with their peers in developing countries. Through Cyber Bridges, they are able to learn about different countries and cultures, often discovering they have more similarities than differences.

Connecting to the World

When he first heard about Cyber Bridges, one of the students at Mount Carmel was skeptical about e-mailing complete strangers. The 15-year-old sports fanatic—who wants to be an architect or professional baseball player—says he wasn't sure what to expect. "To be honest, I have never even thought of people that lived in the West Bank," he admits.

But the teen quickly changed his mind after being introduced to the Palestinian students in the small community of Beit Ula in the West Bank. "It became a lot more exciting to hear what they had to tell us once we started to get to know some of the students. We were able to have honest discussions and ask good questions from each other. They sent us pictures of what kind of clothing they wear," he remembers. "They are mostly Muslims, and we talked about the scarf for the girls and the different religions and cultures between us."

Another student says he was very curious and interested to learn more about the Palestinian teens. "I had absolutely no idea about anything involving the West Bank," he says. "I especially learned that [they] are just like us in so many ways."

New Horizons

Most of Ms. Link's students had only a vague grasp of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and life in the Palestinian territories, a situation so complex most adults don't understand it. Through Cyber Bridges, they were able to learn more about the conflict and the everyday lives of teenagers in the area. "We are alike more than we are different," one of them soon realized. "They go to school to learn subjects like we do. They also have some of the same worries about social justice as we do."

Palestinian youth from Beit Ula.

The realities young people in the West Bank face are often unfamiliar to students in the United States. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Cyber Bridges encourages an open exchange to dispel myths and rebut stereotypes. Students learn about different cultures and customs, and sometimes the political backgrounds of their peers' home countries. One of the program's goals is to educate students on social justice and instill in them a responsibility to look beyond the boundaries—and privileges—of their own lives.

"In order to become engaged citizens, capable of making informed decisions, children must first learn about and understand the global community," says Hedley Abernethy, CRS' program advisor for Cyber Bridges.

To date, hundreds of high school students in the United States have learned about places as far-flung as India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Colombia, Kosovo and Palestine. Together with students in those places, they have discussed topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ethnic violence in Kosovo.

Changed Perceptions

"I liked that the students were not shy in telling us anything about their life and what they go through," one of the students recalls of his Cyber Bridges sessions. He then points to what he thought was an unjust disparity in their lives: "Their lifestyle. And how they need to be aware of what they do outdoors and be careful from conflict all the time. I feel free to go out and basically do as I please without worrying about finding trouble or violence."

While learning about the sometimes-harsh realities in developing countries is part of the student's growing cultural understanding, it's the informal exchange of likes and dislikes, hobbies and life in general that the students enjoy the most. After the initial introductions, one student used the opportunity to find out what exactly kids in the Middle East do. "They talked about their culture and what they do for fun. I liked to tell them about Chicago city life and the types of buildings and details that our city has."

When asked if his perception of people living in other countries had changed after participating in the program, one boy says he learned to pay more attention to the world. "I really didn't care for [Palestinians] or give people in other countries much thought. It never crossed my mind before. Now, I sympathize with them, and I share with these teens in a desire for peace."

Summing up the Cyber Bridges experience, another echoes a shared sentiment that there is only one thing he didn't like about the program: "I would go to the computer lab more often so that we could communicate to each other a lot more rapidly."

Kim Pozniak is a communications officer for CRS based in Baltimore, MD.

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