“Why isn’t life that simple?” It’s the question one delegate from Jordan asked when referring to some of the seemingly unlikely relationships that were formed among young leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa. Another from Libya emphatically stated, “If we can do this at the individual level, surely we can do it at the political level in the coming generation.”
While some governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) may not be willing to talk with one another and acknowledge the shared interests that exist, young economic and social entrepreneurs from the across the MENA region reaffirmed the power of young people to find commonalities and common cause while promoting a more connected vision of a “world as it could be.”
From March 26-April 16, 18 young social and economic entrepreneurs from across the MENA region participated in the 22-day State Department-sponsored Active Citizen Summit 2.0 held in Chicago, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. The summit, organized with partners from the American Council of Young Political Leaders, featured leadership and communications trainings, professional internships at Chicago-based organizations, substantive policy discussions, opportunities for relationship building, and the drawing out of actionable ideas to be implemented back home.
Highlights of the program included a lively opening session with Near Eastern Affairs Bureau Deputy Assistant Secretary Richard Schmierer and Special Advisor to Secretary Kerry for Global Youth Issues Zeenat Rahman; a “Reverse Town Hall” with Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel; meetings with Chicago and D.C.-based business leaders; and capstone presentations by the delegates themselves on actionable ideas that they plan to implement in their respective communities and countries back home.
And while the actionable ideas presented reaffirmed the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of young people across the region, it was the stories about the seemingly unlikely connections made that gives me incredible hope for what the future holds: A young Israeli and Palestinian girl braving the bitter cold to attend a mosque for Friday prayers in Chicago together; a young Iranian and Saudi swapping stories about starting their own businesses in challenging entrepreneurial environments; a young Algerian and Moroccan discussing a resolution to the situation in Western Sahara over deep dish pizza; a group of young women from the Gulf sharing innovative ideas across the breakfast table for expanding the number of women entering into the workforce.
This was the second year of the Active Citizen Summit and builds upon a program that was held last year for 55 leading youth political and civil society leaders from the region. This is a sampling of the way in which the U.S. Government is trying to engage young people in the Middle East and North Africa around the challenges of expanded economic opportunity and political voice while building relationships for the future.
About the Author: Andy Rabens is the Special Advisor for Youth Engagement in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.