“Alumni approach problems differently,” said Dr. Ali Salim Abood, a 26-year old medical doctor from Baghdad, Iraq. “We believe that we have the power to change things. We have a bright vision for the future of our countries.”
Dr. Abood was just one of the 40 young alumni of U.S. government-supported international exchange programs who participated in the 2013 Alumni Enrichment Seminar -- "Think, Plan, Lead: Turning Ideas into Action." The alumni hailed from 14 countries across the Middle East and North Africa and gathered in Rabat, Morocco, to present and share their ideas for youth-led community service projects. At the end of the seminar, these young leaders turned their ideas into action plans and are now ready to start community service projects in their home countries.
In a region with some of the world’s greatest challenges, where some 25 percent of young people under the age of 30 are unemployed, implementing youth-led community service projects can be difficult. “Community-service and volunteerism are concepts that we learn during our exchange programs in the United States,” said 25-year-old Mohamed Hamed, Chairman and Founder of the Mariam Foundation, the first Arab-Israeli cancer awareness foundation of its kind. “But when we come back from our exchange programs and try to do [these things], it’s really difficult. These are concepts that are just taking hold in a lot of our countries.”
Yet what struck me the most about this group of young leaders, many who were alumni of community-service-themed exchange programs, was their proactive approach to making sustainable change in their communities. "My mind was blown," wrote 28-year-old Sam Vaghar, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the U.S.-based Millennium Campus Network, describing his experience at the seminar in an article published in The Huffington Post. "The negative images I had seen in the media about the region were totally out of touch with the perseverance of youth."
For example, Nacim Filali and Boualem Nabti from The Youth Company Algeria designed a project to promote active citizenship amongst Algeria’s youth by linking young leaders to local decision-makers. Ghewa Srour, Selim Njeim, and Ahmad Ezzedine from Lebanon are developing an application called We Are Here For You, a virtual platform that will connect victims of domestic violence to legal, medical, and psychosocial support. Kuwaiti disability-rights advocate Abdulaziz Almutairi was so inspired by his fellow alumni that he stood up from his wheelchair for the first time in public to talk about living with muscular dystrophy. Abdulaziz is now working with the alumni country teams from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to launch a disabilities awareness campaign across the Gulf region.
These young leaders will undoubtedly encounter obstacles as they launch projects in their local communities. Alumni often tell me that one of the greatest challenges they face when returning home from their exchange programs is a feeling of separation from their peers -- young people who haven’t had the same opportunity to travel abroad and develop expanded worldviews inspired by their exchange experience. Which is why it’s so vital that we continue providing opportunities for our past exchange participants to come together and build regional alumni networks like this one; a network that affords these inspiring young leaders a sense of shared purpose and experience as they tackle similar challenges across the region.
Think together. Plan together. Lead together. During the first Enrichment Seminar for International Exchange Alumni from the Middle East and North Africa, participants drew strength from the regional alumni network for the same reason they were originally drawn to the concept of community service: to be a part of something bigger than themselves. “We feel that it's our responsibility to come together as young alumni leaders from across the region; to develop solutions to our shared challenges," said Dr. Abood from Iraq. "To think together, plan together, and lead together…” said Abood, “… to make our [countries] better places for future generations.”
About the Author: Carey Hogg serves as Regional Alumni Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Editor's Note: Supported by the Alumni Affairs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy for Near Eastern Affairs, and hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, “Think, Plan, Lead” was the first Alumni Enrichment Seminar ever held for International Exchange Alumni from the Middle East and North Africa.