Child in classroom.

Afnan Boutrid believes in the power of education to unite and heal. It's a belief reinforced in one of the world's most conflicted regions.

In 2013, Boutrid started a three-month research experience at Hand in Hand, a bilingual and binational school in Jerusalem that’s one of the few schools serving both Israeli and Palestinian students.

Despite the region’s deep social divisions, she observed Israeli and Palestinian students, teachers and administrators learning and working together.

“That experience opened up my heart and my mind to the idea of working in the Middle East, specifically in education,” Boutrid said.

Now a doctoral student in the University of Washington College of Education’s curriculum and instruction program, Boutrid is looking to take what she’s learned to advance teacher preparation in the Middle East.

Road to the Middle East

After starting her career as a middle school social studies teacher, Boutrid came to Hand in Hand to study its educational model for her master’s thesis in international educational development.

“I was taking a lot of classes in conflict resolution and I have always been passionate about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I wanted to dig deeper into that and see how education was impacting the conflict.”

From the beginning, Boutrid personally experienced the kinds of social tensions that students at the school faced.

“Traveling to Israel as an Arab has a lot of negative connotations,” she said. “There were other graduate students with me, but they were all non-Arabs. They got to live in a certain neighborhood where I was not allowed. I experienced first-hand a lot of discrimination, which I wasn’t as prepared for.”

Hand in Hand aims to place education above all social, cultural and religious divides. Boutrid said students and educators are valued for their worth as human beings, rather than being expected to conform to certain social expectations, and she observed that students felt comfortable laughing and learning with one another, regardless of their identification as Arab or Jew.

Bridging social divides

One of Boutrid’s most vivid memories with Hand in Hand happened when she joined students on a field trip to a Tel Aviv water park

“When we arrived, I saw that all the kids were teaming up, with one Arab and one Jew in each pair,” Boutrid said. “I asked this group of 6th and 7th graders why they were doing this, why they had all lined up and were linking hands with one another.”

“They told me, ‘In this space, everyone is segregated, so there is one side for Arabs and there is one side for Jews. We are different because we are a group that is together.’”    

Among themselves, the students had created a system to prevent one another from experiencing bullying and hate speech. Boutrid recognized their act of friendship as one that would begin to combat major social divides.

“It was phenomenal to see their bravery in taking on these social tensions. Regardless of the messages they were getting from society, they took a stand to fight for their values and beliefs. A lot this came from their experiences at school, from having been placed in a setting where they were seeing the humanity in one another.”

This humanizing mission was at the center of Boutrid’s work at Hand in Hand, which included studying the power of languages used in the school. The school works to equalize Arabic and Hebrew in order to dissolve social hierarchies and return the focus to education. She also helped design curriculum for cross-cultural, team building experiences, providing an opportunity to  develop personal relationships with many students. 

Visions for the future

For her doctoral research UW, Boutrid is preparing to return to the Middle East and partner with the American University of Cairo to design a lab school that will educate students as well as teachers.

“We are trying to create a space where teachers can get experience working with real students and then getting feedback in real time,” she said. “Throughout the world, including the Middle East, there is a divide between theory and practice which must be closed. We need to support Middle Eastern teachers in developing their theoretical frameworks, giving them tools to be creative and innovative in creating their own practices.”

Boutrid said she values the emphasis on multicultural education at UW College of Education and, once she completes her degree, hopes to continue living and working in the Middle East, learning from educational models that have already been implemented. Her goal is to provide pre-service teachers with experience in real classrooms before starting their careers.

“I would like to find out what are the needs of the communities, students and teachers. How can I embed all of the theories and practices I have learned at the University of Washington to help those communities continue to learn and grow?”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications