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Youth Leadership In The Arab World: Ten Winning Strategies

Sheila Kinkade | June 20, 2013

According to a recent survey, three-quarters of Arab youth say their best days lie ahead. What are some of the most innovative strategies that the region’s youth have for shaping their collective future? One need look no further than the 10 finalists of the 2013 King Abdullah II Award for Youth Innovation and Achievement (KAAYIA) for a range of pioneering solutions to issues ranging from improving the quality of education to boosting entrepreneurship, from strengthening access to health care to amplifying youth voices in policy debates.

Announced on May 26 at the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea, these exemplary young leaders were selected from an applicant pool of more than 365 youth from 13 Arab countries. They join 20 of their KAAYIA peers from previous years who are tackling urgent social, economic, and environmental challenges with creativity and drive.

Several weeks prior to their appearance on this prestigious platform, I had the chance to meet the 2013 KAAYIA Fellows, the newest members of the YouthActionNet global network. What struck me about this group was their warmth, their infectious sense of possibility, and their commitment to ensuring that the most marginalized members of their societies are able to realize their full potential.

And, of course, there was their passion. “This is my calling,” effused Zeina Saab of her decision to launch the Nawaya Network in Lebanon, an online platform that links talented youth with limited resources to opportunities to develop their skills and interests. “I found something that really makes me happy, that I want to put all my attention into.”

Fueled by their passion and commitment, these young leaders are pursuing a range of innovative strategies to achieve their social change goals.  

1.  Amplifying Youth Voices – “Young people have great potential – and ideas – but if they don’t have a voice, they can’t change much,” said Amani Qubati, 23, co-founder of Empowerment for Yemeni Youth, a youth-led NGO in Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city. In 2012, the group spearheaded efforts to create the nation’s first and only Youth Council. To date, the 41-member body has won approval for 200-plus policy recommendations on issues ranging from health insurance to improved sanitation.    

2. Equipping Youth to Shape and Propose Policies – Seeking an alternative to the violence and bloodshed that characterized the Arab Spring in his native Egypt, Ahmad Elawady, 28, started researching alternatives. Through Ana Al Wazir (I’m the Minister), he empowers young activists with policy analysis tools to pursue their ideas for change without putting lives at risk. To date, 35 youth have produced 18 policy briefs on topics related to health, education, drug pricing, and the power of law enforcement authorities, while engaging their peers in spirited policy debates.  

Nawaya Network3. Using Technology to Foster Empathy – “Often you hear stories of youth resorting to crime and violence because they have no hope,” says Zeina Saab, 29, who created The Nawaya Network in Lebanon to connect aspiring young artists, athletes, dancers, actors, musicians, and writers to the resources needed to maximize their gifts. Through Nawaya’s online storytelling platform, youth share their goals in short videos, with viewers encouraged to offer their support in the form of training, mentoring, materials, jobs, or financial resources.  

4. Maximizing the Power of Social Enterprise – Recognizing that both the public and medical professionals in Sudan had no where to turn to obtain life-saving information about medical facilities, doctors, and pharmacies, Mazin Khalil, 25, created SudaMed, an online portal where users across the country can find what they need in a centralized, easy-to-access location. The idea has taken off with the site receiving more than 24,000 unique hits per month. Mazin has now expanded SudaMed’s services to include a range of for-profit ventures (e.g., medical marketing consulting and the training of health professionals), with 70% of profits supporting SudaMed’s charitable activities, including a 24-hour medical help line and a discount card for those who can’t afford medical treatment.  

YARA5. Inspiring the Leadership Potential in Every Person – Asked what motivates him, Amir Shihadeh, 27, responds, “I want people to be aware of the potential they have within them so they can do good things. Too many people don’t take advantage of all they can do and be.” Through the Youth Association for Reality and Awareness (YARA) in Jordan, Amir creates opportunities for everyday citizens to develop their leadership potential through serving their communities. Over three years, YARA has initiated over a dozen awareness campaigns aimed at preserving the environment, promoting interfaith dialogue, and addressing the needs of refugee children.

6. Creating Avenues for Youth Civic Engagement – The 2013 KAAYIA Fellows excel at creating avenues for youth to contribute actively to their communities. In Jordan, Saeed Abu El Hassan, 25, founded the Irbid Youth Volunteers to channel the energies of hundreds of university students into leading local projects, including neighborhood cleanups, healthy living activities, and arts and cultural events. In 2012 alone, the group mobilized more than 1,000 volunteers to carry out projects benefitting 20,000 people. Saeed’s plans now call for expanding the initiative’s reach to other parts of Jordan, as well as to Libya, Kuwait, and Yemen.

7. Promoting Youth Entrepreneurship – “Creating more entrepreneurs in Jordan isn’t a TTIchoice, it’s a necessity,’ says Nedaa Kharoub, Co-founder of Trip to Innovation (TTI). TTI challenges high school and college students to use their imaginations in exploring entrepreneurial ideas. In addition to hosting awareness-raising events, TTI offers technical trainings and mentorship opportunities to aspiring entrepreneurs. To date, more than 1,500 youth have participated in TTI activities, with over 10,000 visitors accessing its online resources.   

8. Leveraging the Power of Media – Seeking to increase public awareness of the needs – and unique gifts – of individuals who are visually-impaired – Haitham Shoman, 24, and his peers at the Egyptian Medical Students Association launched “Dinner in the Dark.” Through the initiative, top celebrities enjoy an elegant meal with visually-impaired children in a darkened 5-star restaurant. The annual event is highly-publicized in the media and has led to increased interest and support for the blind. “What people don’t realize is that when you close your eyes, your other senses go to work,” says Haitham. “This is part of what makes blind people so talented.”Educate-Me

9. Reinventing Education – Recognizing that  mainstream education in Egypt often fails to provide children with the basic skills and abilities needed to succeed in life, Yasmin Helal, 28, began exploring alternatives. Her search led her to what she calls “dream-driven development,” or education that empowers students to pursue their interest and dreams, making them responsible for their own learning process. Through Educate-Me, the nonprofit   foundation she founded in 2010, Yasmin has developed an educational strategy centered on five learning pillars – Ask, Know, Cog, Nurture, and Play. To date, more than 40 children have benefited from Educate-Me’s unique methodology with Yasmin planning to establish an alternative school in the future.

10. Using Dance as a Tool for Healing – Through I CAN MOVE Community Dance, Nadia Arouri, 26, uses dance as a tool to promote healing among disadvantaged populations in Palestine. Dance is unique in its ability to nurture physical, emotional, cognitive, and social resilience, emphasizes Nadia. I CAN MOVE begins by training a core group of advanced dance instructors, who, in turn, work with groups of 80 to 250 children and adults to develop their skills, culminating in a public performance. Past events have focused on themes such as exile (2011) and child labor (2013).  Already in 2013, I CAN MOVE has trained 20 trainers, reached 250 children, and entertained 3,000 audience members.