Saeed Kharouf has come a long way from Beit Hanina, the East Jerusalem neighborhood where he grew up. He studied at the American University of Beirut, interned at Intel in the United States and is now working as a hardware engineer at Intel Israel’s Haifa plant while he completes his master's degree at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.
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On Thursday, he met the president of the United States. The meeting at the Israel Museum was arranged to show President Barack Obama some of the success stories to come out of bi-national high-tech cooperation. One of these is a project called Maantek, an initiative of President Shimon Peres’s office that aims to recruit qualified Israeli-Arabs into Israel’s flourishing high-tech industry.
“I was of course anxious to meet him, I was a bit nervous,” acknowledged Kharouf, 26. “But I think he was good at breaking the ice. He was smiling, which made us feel a bit more comfortable.” The meeting included one other student connected to the program, Ola Zaher, who studies at Ben-Gurion University and works at a high-tech startup, as well as the general manager of Cisco Systems. Kharouf told Obama that his dream was to one day be the CEO of Intel – or perhaps a slightly smaller high-tech company.
“I said that hopefully one day, maybe in 20 years, I’ll be president or CEO of Intel and try to help my people to have better job opportunities and give them the same opportunities I had,” Kharouf recalled after the meeting. “Obama laughed and said, ‘Why not?’”
Maantek, Kharouf said, tries to provide a bridge for Arab students into the workforce. Aside from Intel, it has connections with another 30-odd multinational companies operating in Israel. “They help students with resumes, holding workshops, preparing for interviews, everything you need to be successful,” he noted.
“The work Maantek is doing really is important for people like me. I honestly faced some difficulties myself, with the language and the culture, when I was looking for a job here,” he added. Although he might easily have found work in the United States or Lebanon, he wanted to return home to be close with this family – and now splits his time between Haifa and Jerusalem. “I think we can be examples to young people, so they can find the motivation to work hard. I hope my success is paving the way for them. This is extremely important for the development of the country and for Arab people. Still there’s a lot to do, but it will take time. We need to keep motivating youngsters to study, and to be in a position to effect change that might one day change the world.”
Asked about what kind of change he hopes Obama can bring in terms of pushing Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table, Kharouf said: “I’m the kind of the person who’s focused on my work – I’ll leave problems like that for politicians.”