Technology eyed to help Bethlehem’s fragile economy emerge from pandemic

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — Graduating in July as part of Bethlehem University’s first software engineering class, students Marianna Bannoura, Oriana Sabat, and Mariam Qumsieh already have a market-ready app under their belts.

They hope to be part of a growing trend that sees technology helping the fragile Bethlehem economy, which has long depended on tourism, to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bethlehem University is the first Palestinian higher education institution to offer a degree program in software engineering.

“Software engineering is the future,” Bannoura, 22, told Catholic News Service. “It is very important for Bethlehem University to open and continue with this program. With the coronavirus everyone stopped working except for software engineers who continued to work online.

“It is 2021 now, everyone is into technology and we have to keep up.”

The university will be looking to acquire her team’s “BUAPI” mobile app portal, which has combined the university’s two websites to allow students easy access to information about the school. The women presented the app for their final project and once they tweak it a bit, it will be ready for widespread use.

“My team and I feel very accomplished. This started out as a small graduation project and has turned out to be a real possible startup. It is useable and useful,” Bannoura said.

Prior to the pandemic university officials were looking to revamp its curriculum to better meet the needs of the Palestinian community, said LaSallian Brother Peter Brady, university vice chancellor.

“We are looking at better ways to be doing our mission to serve the Palestinian people with education,” he said. “We are trying to create programs which will be of value to Palestinian students.”

While some academic programs such as math and physics will be phased out, others are being introduced. In addition to software engineering, new academic programs include medical laboratory sciences, archaeology and cultural heritage, and computer simulations in science and engineering. The school received 140 applications for 35 places in the laboratory sciences program, Brother Brady noted. The school decided to accept 50 students.

“The testing for COVID-19 put a lot of pressure on labs and (our graduates) will be able to work in these labs,” Brother Brady said.

The university also began a master of arts program in governance and public administration, said Fadi Kattan, business administration dean, who oversees the program. The track is part of an initiative to serve the business community, he explained.

“We are working to develop a sustainable (business) system for Palestine. Even if we improve the life of every business here it will do no good if there is not a general system for the country where everybody is working together including businesses, government, and NGOs,” Kattan said.

Brother Brady said many of the university’s graduates migrate to the business and financial center in the West Bank city of Ramallah or go abroad, but the hope is that students with degrees will have more opportunities to remain in Bethlehem.

“One of our interests is to help develop the economy here,” he said.

While the technological revolution has taken over most of the world, some resistance to its use remains among Palestinians, and that poses a challenge, said Marian Abedrabbo, 20, a third-year software engineering student.

“I think some people fear change, and don’t easily accept new ideas. They don’t like taking risks,” she said. For example, she described how students had tried to introduce an “E-Taxi” system similar to the ride-hailing service Uber for users in Bethlehem.

“(People) couldn’t imagine using it even though it was super-easy. They preferred to stay with the old-fashioned way of using the phone,” Abedrabbo said.

Outdated technological infrastructure such as lack of 4G cellular technology also will be a hurdle, said her friend and classmate Marial Basil, 20.

“It is a matter of time. People will start trying (new ways). We need patience,” said Basil, who expects young people to more readily use new, homegrown technologies.

Students interviewed by CNS spoke about the desire to gain professional experience in Ramallah but to bring back that knowledge to Bethlehem. They also dream of going on to study for an advanced degree abroad, which will only be possible with scholarships.

Graduating software engineer student Nicola Zreineh, 22, and the two other members of his final project team, Maen Ibreigheith and Seif Eldeen Obeid, are preparing to launch a startup to bring their web app to Bethlehem.

Called DenTaChX, the app’s current version uses machine learning image processing tools to develop smart systems to assist radiologists and dentists. There are plans to create a new version which will be designed for medical doctors as well.

“Our economy in Bethlehem is based on tourism,” Zreineh explained. “Now we are going to mix things up with the technology world. It will make a big difference in Bethlehem because there are not a lot of technology and software development companies in Bethlehem. So I think we will be one of the first companies and we will be the ones to lead the way.”

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