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The Making of Middle East Citizen Journalists

Even after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and ignited protests throughout the Middle East, 21-year-old Nourjahen J. didn’t feel afraid, but empowered.

The student and human rights activist in Tunisia is blogging and posting her truth on social media.

“You cannot say that Israel doesn’t exist,’” Nourjahen tells protesters. “’You cannot say to just get rid of Israel or bomb it. Israel has nearly nine million people. Are you going to kill all these people? Displace millions of others? That’s what Hitler did,” she said via phone interview.

“This is the time, more than ever, to come together to talk and build bridges and dialogue.”

Nourjahen considers herself a citizen journalist. She is one of nearly 2,000 young adults in the Middle East who, since 2012, have been trained by YaLa Academy’s Aileen Getty School of Citizen Journalism, a joint project of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation and the YaLa Young Leaders Program that was founded in 2011 by Israeli peace negotiator Uri Savir.

YaLa brings together leading journalists and new media experts to train Middle Eastern and African youth in basic journalism techniques, said Sarah Perle Benazera, who runs the program with two Israelis, two Palestinians and one French colleague. Four-months of free online training courses teach participants about journalistic ethics, blogging and article writing as well as taking group photos, editing short videos, building a storyline and telling cross-cultural narratives.

The program takes place in English through video lectures on the YaLa website and Facebook. Students from Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, Israel and Gaza communicate with one another and sometimes even co-write assignments. At the end of each semester, they receive a citizen journalist certificate.

“Media today travels through cell phones, and people often don’t have the tools to analyze information they see,” said Benazera, explaining that taking a picture and sharing it on social media does not make one a citizen journalist, as much as contextualizing photos and taking responsibility for what they post.

“In a region where media is often a tool for nationalism, division and fear, YaLa citizen journalists are being empowered to express themselves and tell a very different kind of story,” Benazera said.

Nourjahen, whose last name is not used for security reasons, says she grew up with “the same prejudices against Israelis and Jews, like everyone in my region.” Then, she spent a year in the US. “I was shocked to see they’re human beings.” She joined YaLa to learn more about different narratives.

At YaLa’s recent conference in Jordan, Jews and Muslims learned to talk — and listen. Image by Courtesy of YaLa

Moriya Rosenberg, 26 from Tel Aviv, has a similar story.

“To engage with people who are my so-called enemy broke down walls of fears I grew up with and stereotypes I didn’t even realize I was playing by,” she said via phone interview.

Rosenberg joined YaLa Academy in 2014, shortly after an operation in Gaza that she describes as “one of the lowest points” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She says there was an ease with which people expressed ever-intensifying hatred for the other side that was gnawing away at her faith in humankind. She found YaLa on Facebook.

“On the street, the reality was separation and animosity,” said Rosenberg. “But when I got accepted to YaLa, I met these amazing people from the Gaza Strip and we began talking over Facebook. I found an oasis of peace in the courses and a way to make all the borders between us disappear.”

At a recent YaLa conference, participants talk to each other — and llisten.

YaLa has hosted four citizen journalist conferences, most recently in November. Some 100 past participants will meet in February. Benazera doesn’t publish specifics about the conferences. “We have to be super careful when it comes to our participants’ safety.”

YaLa does not publish photos with their faces or full names, but participants have full access to one another.

Rosenberg attended the 2015 conference and was struck by how similar she was to her Palestinian peers.

“I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked,” she says. “But we spend so much time in our society thinking and imagining we are so different.”

Nourjahen recalls how on her conference’s last day, the youth threw a spontaneous dance party and each participant shared a song and dance from their country.

“There was this moment when I saw this Palestinian guy showing an Israeli how to properly dance the Palestinian dance, and I was so mesmerized and happy to see this scene simply because I don’t think you get to see it in ‘real life,’” Nourjahen said. “We were serious people, talking about tragedies happening around us, yet we could dance and love and hug and promise to try to visit each other again. I think about it every day, and I want it in Tunisia.”

Benazera says there is an untapped potential in the region’s youth. She says that while mainstream media is reporting about casualty numbers, they should be counting – and counting on – the efforts of the youth.

“With the amount of talent, curiosity and commitment I see,” Benazera said, “the youth of the Middle East could bring about a miraculous change.”

Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman is a Jerusalem-based freelance writer.

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