by Rose Hackman
Earlier this week, 10x10’s LA team was able to attend the launch of this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which brought together more than 1500 high school scientists from 65 countries, finalists selected from more than 7 million students who participated in science fairs around the world.
In my opinion, there is nothing quite like a story of success and beating the odds, especially when it comes to girls in hostile environments making the most of their education. Not surprisingly, Intel ISEF is a great place to encounter these types of stories. With Intel’s help, I decided to research three of the stars of last year’s fair.
Aseel Abu Leil, Nour El Arda and Aseel Sha’ar are no normal 15-year-old girls. For starters, the three classmates are refugees, they live on Askar refugee camp in Palestine’s West Bank and, like many others, they attend a UN school. They are part of a larger population of 4.8 million co-nationals dispersed in camps across the region, often living in slum-like conditions.
But this is not what distinguishes them from other teenage girls around the globe. Rather, it’s their minds and their invention of an infrared walking stick for the blind they refer to as ‘stick tech’ that senses obstacles, holes and even water. Almost exactly one year ago, the stick earned them an award at the international INTEL-sponsored science fair, ISEF, held in San Jose, California. It also earned them celebrity-like status through coverage on Al Jazeera and CNN among other news outlets, making their three smiling faces a surprising Palestinian symbol of intelligence and promise.<!–more–>
Often standing next to them, and instrumental in their success, was their teacher, Jameela Khaled, now 27, who talked to me in between classes on a morning phone call from the West Bank.
“This project has meant that their hopes have become wider and deeper,” she said, “I am very very proud of them.”
Khaled says that the girls have now entered 10th grade and moved on to another school, but that they keep regular contact through text messages. “They still have brilliant minds and good marks in school.”
The meaning of their success goes further than personal accomplishment. The UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, has picked them to be included in Peace Starts Here, a filmed project that follows fifteen stories of Palestinians overcoming adversity through courage and skills.
One year after their award at ISEF, Chris Gunness, the local UN spokesperson, hopes that the three girls’ story will relate a clear message to the world.
“It shows that when given a chance, there is real brilliance from within a difficult situation, it sends a signal that Palestinians can achieve greatness,” he said, adding “it is especially amazing as this is a situation where girls overcame boys in a traditionally male subject and in a predominantly male driven society.”
But what now for the three teenagers?
“They will attend university,” Raja Salam, the girls’ former headmistress warmly announced when Jameela Khaled passed her the phone. In her sixties, Salam says she has dedicated her life to education, having held her current position for “thirty eight and a half” years.
The two educators confided that a “rich Palistinian man” has offered to give Aseel, Nour and Aseel a full scholarship to university. While her two friends remain unsure, Nour has already declared she would like to study genetic engineering.
“This is a big progress for them,” Salam told me, “they will be changed from it.” She paused for an instant before saying in a firm voice:
“The rich Palestinian man has said he will pay for university, but he has not signed a paper. He must sign a paper saying he will do this. Who knows what could happen.”
Confronted by such multi-generational female brilliance and strength, it seems highly unlikely that he wouldn’t fulfill his promise.