Palestinian teens reach finals of Silicon Valley app pitch

NABLUS, West Bank (AP) – Four Palestinian high school friends are heading to California this week to pitch their mobile app about fire prevention to Silicon Valley’s tech leaders, after winning a slot in the finals of a worldwide competition among more than 19,000 teenage girls.

For the 11th graders from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the ticket of admission to the World Pitch Summit signals a particularly dramatic leap.

They come from middle class families that value education, but opportunities have been limited because of the omnipresent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, prevailing norms of patriarchy in their traditional society and typically underequipped schools with outdated teaching methods.

“We are excited to travel in a plane for the first time in our lives, meet new people and see a new world,” said team member Wasan al-Sayed, 17.

“We are excited to be in the most prestigious IT community in the world, Silicon Valley, where we can meet interesting people and see how the new world works.”

Wassan al-Sayyed (R) and Massa Halawa run the team’s virtual reality game ‘Be a Fire Fighter’ in the West Bank city of Nablus. – PHOTOS: AP
Wassan al-Sayyed uses a 3D glasses headset that is running the team’s virtual reality game

Twelve teams made it to the finals of the “Technovation Challenge” in San Jose, California, presenting apps that tackle problems in their communities.

The Palestinian teens compete in the senior division against teams from Egypt, the United States, Mexico, India and Spain, for scholarships of up to USD15,000.

The competition, now in its ninth year, is run by Iridescent, a global nonprofit offering opportunities to young people, especially girls, through technology.

The group said 60 per cent of the US participants enroll in additional computer science courses after the competition, with 30 per cent majoring in that field in college, well above the national rate among female US college students.

Two-thirds of international participants show an interest in technology-related courses, the group said.

Palestinian Education Minister Sabri Saidam counts on technology – along with a new emphasis on vocational training – to overhaul Palestinian schools, where many students still learn by rote in crowded classrooms.

Youth unemployment, particularly among university graduates, is a central problem across the Arab world, in part because of a demographic “youth bulge”. Last year, unemployment among Palestinian college graduates under the age of 30 reached 56 per cent, including 41 per cent in the West Bank and 73 per cent in the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.