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    Skype used to open 'fierce but respectful' discussions about the Mideast

    By Function isSkypeInstalled() on error resume next Set oSkype = CreateObject("Skype.Detection") isSkypeInstalled = IsObject(oSkype) Set oSkype = nothing End Function Howard Wolinsky on October 10, 2008 in In the news.
    Over the past year and half, there has been a series of frank discussions about the Middle East between a group of global studies students from York Central High School in York, Pa., USA, and people living in the region.

    Just on Friday, the group spoke with an Israeli and a Palestinian about such things as the U.S. presidential race, media coverage of the region and life in their countries.

    It all happened under the sponsorship of, founded and run by a 22-year-old Bahraini woman, Esra'a Al Shafei. And it was done on Skype audio conferencing.Al Shafei, who has a communications degree from Franklin College in Sorengo, Switzerland, said she started Web site in 2006 to increase understanding in "one one of the most misrepresented places in the world."

    She said Mideast Youth encourages "fierce but respectful" discussions.

    She said Skype has been an invaluable tool for bringing people together. "It's more immediate and personal than e-mail," said Al Shafei.

    Al Shafei runs several other campaigns, including "Free Kareem," aiming at winning the release of a student who went to prison in Egypt, for among other things, calling Egypt's leader a "dictator" and criticizing the Islamic faith. "He got kicked out of the university and got four years in prison," she said.

    She used Skype to organize protests on Kareem's behalf around the world.

    "Skype has been a dream come true," she said. "I couldn't afford international calls. Skype was like a dream come true. You send a text message and tell people you plan to meet at a certain time."

    There can be technical and political issues.

    She said because of unreliable electricity in Palestine, a participant there was connected to the conference via his cell phone. Also, she said because of government filters in Iran, there were problems in including Iranians.

    Al Shafei also has been working on migrants rights in the region along with rights for Kurds and Baha'is.

    In May, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University honored Mideast Youth for "outstanding contributions to the Internet's impact on society." The recognition was given bringing about social change with podcasts, blogs, social networks, and online video.

    Al Shafei is using the $10,000 Berkman prize to encourage reporting from remote Afghan villages.

    Mideast Youth makes its podcasts from Skype conferences available online.