AMMAN, JORDAN - Every significant journey starts with a vision, a single step and kindred spirits.

Chady El Masri dreams of a brighter future for the Middle East. An oral surgeon in Lebanon and a Palestinian, Masri is a courageous fellow in a region where candor is discouraged and speech often is repressed. But he has a vision, a plan and newfound Middle Eastern colleagues, thanks to a life-changing program headquartered in an unlikely place: Hamline University in St. Paul.

Masri, 28, has no powerful political or military backers in the faction-divided Middle East. But he did emerge a leader among his group of scientists, business, health professionals and journalists in the 2012 class of Hamline Middle East Fellowship. The participants -- including Jews, Christians and Muslims from several Middle Eastern countries -- speak of their five-week fellowship at Hamline as a transcendent experience.

"I am executing my business plan to develop dental clinics in every city in the Middle East, modeled after HealthPartners in Minnesota, which our group studied while I was at Hamline," Masri told me one August evening in Amman. "We will focus on health and educating our youth ... who are too influenced by guys with guns. I believe we can make an incredible difference."

More than 20 of the Hamline Fellows from 2011 and 2012 had gathered for two days of meetings in Jordan's capital, one stop on a several-day tour of the work underway by the Hamline Fellows in Jordan, Israel and Palestinian territory on the West Bank.

Minnesota experience

Masri's new partners include Ofir Libstein, another consensus leader from the 2012 class of what's formally called the Middle East Education to Employment Fellowship Project. Last spring, they spent five weeks at the large likes of Wells Fargo, Cargill and HealthPartners, as well as nonprofits ranging from HIRED to the Neighborhood Development Center, to see how Minnesotans of different races, religions and ethnicity collaborate at businesses and nonprofits, finance housing, commercial expansion and health clinics.

They also studied the media, including the Star Tribune. In August, I was invited along with several Twin Cities business executives, nonprofit employees and Hamline professors to visit many of the 2011 and 2012 fellows in their homelands.

The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and is the brainchild of Israeli-born Arie Zmora and his wife, Nurith Zmora, a Hamline history professor. The Zmoras recruit the diverse group of Middle East professionals -- some of whom have never known a Jew, a Palestinian or a Lebanese Muslim or Christian -- to learn from each other.

Libstein, 38, an Israeli businessman and social entrepreneur, hopes to one day collaborate with Palestinians in Gaza, about 1 1/2 miles away from his farming and technology region, Sha'ar Hanegev. It occasionally is hit by rockets fired by militants in Gaza.

"I would like more business and less trouble," said Libstein. "I'm hopeful for a better life for my children."

Hamline Fellows Nir Hindi, a technologist and entrepreneur from Israel, and Inbal Levavi, an Israeli environmental educator, established newfound relationships through the Hamline-sponsored program that challenged negative stereotypes about Arabs.

"We are now trying to find ways to connect and develop future projects," Hindi and Levavi said in a letter to the U.S. ambassador to Israel several weeks ago. "The love, the attachment among ourselves and the respect we share for each other inspire us to find ways in which we can be friends without borders."

Palestinian Jehad Shommasneh, a Hamline Fellow and computer scientist from the West Bank, said: "We know how to make peace together. It's the political leaders ... who don't."

Tension ... and hope

These are tense times in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatens an airstrike against Iran and its nuclear facilities. The Israeli Hamline Fellows, who serve in the Israeli Defense Forces as reservists, would be mobilized in the event of war, possibly moving on Gaza or in armored columns, heading to southern Lebanon, if an Israeli airstrike triggers rockets from armed elements of Hamas or Hezbollah in those Palestinian strongholds.

Yet among the Hamline Fellows, there is hope. They spent five weeks in Minnesota, starting with team-building exercises at the St. Croix Valley YMCA. In Minnesota, they saw kids born in America, Mexico and East Africa working together to learn automotive mechanics and computer science at St. Paul College. They watched Wells Fargo bankers interact with diverse customers and small business specialists at Neighborhood Development Center coach immigrant entrepreneurs.

They know the United States is not perfect. But now they see how commercial and cultural ties can bridge differences.

"I always thought everything was simple in the U.S. and you just made lots of money," said Mayada Diab, a Palestinian who holds an MBA from Bir Zeit University and who wants to start a tourism business. "I learned a lot about struggling small businesses and minorities in the U.S. We can put that to use."

Thomas Johnston, a retired U.S. State Department officer, has championed the Hamline program for several years.

"These are young, bright Israelis, Lebanese, Palestinians and Jordanians who are selected because they are opinion leaders in their own generations and watched by the older generation," Johnston said. "Their experience means they do not fear each other. They can become multipliers when they return to their countries. They have new and valuable ideas for their communities."

The fellows are proceeding with cross-cultural plans, such as Masri's Dental Partners, first conceived at Hamline. Other projects range from a cardboard-recycling business in Ramallah to a school for troubled Israeli and Palestinian kids on a horse ranch in Israel.

And amid the dark political clouds surrounding the Middle East, there are signs of progress. For example:

• Israelis have reduced the number of military checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah, permitting freer flow of commerce and workers. And hundreds of millions in capital from Palestinian, Israeli, U.S. and other sources is going into housing and technology ventures in Ramallah, which has been dubbed the "Silicon Valley" of the West Bank.

• Israel and the Palestinian Authority, headquartered in Ramallah, have reached a tax-collection agreement that is designed to facilitate the flow of goods between Israel and the West Bank; reduce smuggling, and increase tax revenues to be shared by both parties. The agreement also is designed to increase the institution-building capacity of the Palestinian Authority, which is funded partly by the United States, Israel and other nations.

• Israel and Jordan, its neighbor to the east, have struck a long-sought deal to collaborate on a $10 million project on badly needed energy from solar, biofuels and wind, where Israel already has achieved international distinction.

These collaborations are not without peril. Several Hamline Fellows did not wish to be pictured or quoted for fear of retaliation within their countries. Communications must be very discreet, for example, between Israeli and Lebanese fellows.

Israel is the economic engine of the Middle East. But it would falter without several billion annually in aid from the United States, its largest trading partner.

These ecumenical entrepreneurs from Hamline, and other like-minded moderates in the region, believe they can collaboratively build a stronger economy in the Jordan-Israel-West Bank-Lebanon neighborhood.

Without efforts such as theirs, the Middle East will remain hobbled by the religious and political walls that bar a more prosperous future.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •