By Aisha Habli
20 November 2013
Beirut – The glow of the Arab Spring wore off in the media a while ago. Violence, internal division and widespread frustration have replaced the hopeful scenes of youth standing up to demand change. But have youth really stepped back from the frontlines of such change? I followed up with my peers, co-participants at an Arab Youth Leadership workshop earlier this year, to find out.
I first checked in with Marouane Bakit, a social activist in Libya and co-founder of a project, Sonaah Al Amal (Makers of Hope), which brings together youth of different races and ethnicities to discuss and engage in post-Arab Spring development. They are buoyed to continue their work due to the impact of some of their early results.
At the end of 2012, in post-war Libya, Marouane and a small team of youth visited the refugee camps in their city, Tripoli, to which hundreds of families have sought refuge from Bani Walid, Sirte, Tawergha and Misrata that were badly affected during the war. Marouane’s team was inspired to change the terrible conditions they observed – people were drinking seawater and kids were sleeping on the ground, with no shelter in cold weather.
They reported their findings to government authorities, who responded by relocating about 300 people who were living in the worst conditions to places with better living conditions, and later investigated the refugee camps in Tripoli. Marouane reports, “This success gave us a push, so we did a video report on refugee camps in Tripoli which was broadcast on the most widely-viewed Libyan TV channels. We were a young and small organization, and we changed the lives of 250-300 people in the camps. We were a positive change in their lives.”
In Palestine, social activist Ohood Murqaten describes how many youth initiatives have been active in calling for national dialogue around the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. She mentions her involvement in The YaLa Young Leaders Online Academy (YLO@), a year-long educational program that teaches critical skills, empowers youth and serves as a communication platform for young leaders from the region. “For many this is the first time Arabs, Palestinians, and Israelis are getting together and studying and becoming friends. For many of the Israeli participants, this is the first opportunity they have had to sit and talk and listen to Palestinians and Arabs, and to learn that we have ideas, languages and creativity, and are educated,” Ohood tells me in an elated tone over Skype.
She recalls, “The conversations would often turn highly emotional, but there was never any arguing. During a cultural night, participants shared their music, food, and dance. In the Israeli session, we all danced the Horah in a big circle and during the Palestinian session, the Israeli participants joined in the Dabke traditional dance, and wore the hatta (Palestinian traditional head dress) and for a while, we were all the same.”
Like Marouane and Ohood, other youth in the MENA region remain engaged, advocating for dialogue and youth engagement. Bassam Ghaber, an organiser at the Yemen Elections Monitoring Network (YEMN) mentioned that youth-led organizations have been working to promote a culture of comprehensive national dialogue and raising awareness on the importance of civil participation in their communities. And Najwa Uheba, another Libyan participant and activist, shares how youth initiatives in her country are tailored to critical current events. “Several youth initiatives advocate for nonviolent expression, particularly in demonstrations and protests,” says Najwa.
The desires of youth are simple. They want safety and security. They want to be free from armed conflict and they want to take part in the development taking place in their respective countries.
Achieving these lofty goals is not an easy process. Newly formed democratic bodies need to mature and create better mechanisms for public involvement, and in some cases new ones need to be created. Youth-led organisations in MENA also often struggle to become independent and self-sustainable.
Nonetheless, MENA youth are resilient and remain determined to be agents of positive change. Despite the frustration and the challenges, they have refused to give up, or to sit passively on the sidelines. We have a big role in carrying our communities forward even when the older generations may have grown tired, and we will continue to create positive change.
Aisha Habli works as a public relations and media specialist. She is a peace activist and a member of the Media Association for Peace and MasterPeace Lebanon.
By Arrangements with Common Ground News Service