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A debate club is not the usual way you'd expect the United States to be nipping Islamist extremism in the bud. But this week the State Department honored Firuz Yogbekov of Tajikistan for creating a way for schoolkids to develop the critical thinking skills to resist the lure of radical Islamism. He is among 10 recipients of the Emerging Young Leaders Award, which publicly recognizes young change-makers and provides two weeks of discussions and workshops with experienced practitioners in their chosen fields of positive social change. The ceremony on Wednesday underscored the value of the kind of soft-power diplomacy that has been dismissed and even come under outright attack by an administration more focused on the exercise of hard power. To Mr. Yogbekov, the support the US provides through the award is really about promoting the values Americans hold dear around the world. “A program like this … inspires a lot of efforts and movement on things that seem to be important” to the US, he says. “So I would say the Americans paying taxes, they are paying for inspiration. They are paying for something new on problems facing all of us.”
If a single event from the State Department Wednesday makes it into the history books, it would probably be the ceremonial swearing in of Mike Pompeo as the 70th secretary of State.
It was President Trump’s first visit to a department that has flagged under his presidency. Vice President Mike Pence also attended the ceremony, held in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room. In his remarks, Mr. Pompeo repeated the pledge he made at his confirmation hearing to bring “swagger” back to American diplomacy.
But later in the day, at the other end of the building, another ceremony was held. This one honored 10 young people, ranging in age from 18 to 25, from Iraq, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan, Panama, Norway, South Africa, and Tajikistan, as well as a Yazidi woman getting her university education in Lithuania.
The Emerging Young Leaders Award recognizes young change-makers each year with not only a ceremony and a nice crystal statuette, but, more importantly, two weeks of discussions and workshops with experienced practitioners in their chosen fields of positive social change. The State Department holds events like this fairly often, honoring stand-outs from around the world in categories ranging from educators and young entrepreneurs to women in government and development.
Yet the ceremony also underscored the value of the kind of soft-power diplomacy that has been dismissed and even come under outright attack by an administration more focused on the exercise of hard power.
After all, Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, viewed much of the department and the work of its diplomats as superfluous enough to merit lopping off nearly a third of the State Department budget – even as the Pentagon was getting a bump-up in funding.
But to listen to these young people’s stories is to hear a variety of ways key United States interests are being promoted around the world – from countering Islamist extremism to furthering prosperity through women’s and girls’ development.
To hear Tanzil Ferdous of Bangladesh describe how she works with refugee Rohingya children so that they can one day resume their education back home in Myanmar, is to hear how US dollars are helping address a humanitarian crisis and stabilize an explosive Southeast Asian conflict.
To hear Zina Salim Hassan Hamu describe how she endured the 2014 ISIS-perpetrated genocide of her Yazidi community in Iraq, and persevered to tell the story of Yazidi women and girls through her photojournalism, is to hear how international humanitarian assistance can spark the human spirit.
And to hear Firuz Yogbekov of Tajikistan describe how he shared his love for debate by creating clubs where schoolkids can develop the critical thinking skills to resist and debunk the allure of radical Islamism, is to hear how modest US support can help nip Islamist extremism in the bud – before it must be repelled by costly military intervention.
Indeed to Mr. Yogbekov’s way of thinking, the support the US provides through programs like the Emerging Young Leaders Award is really about promoting the values Americans hold dear around the world.
“A program like this is not simply spending money on some activities for a group of foreign young people coming to Washington, but it inspires a lot of efforts and movement on things that seem to be important” to the US, he says. “So I would say the Americans paying taxes, they are paying for inspiration. They are paying for something new on problems facing all of us.”
Dania Hassan of Pakistan exemplifies how a seed planted by a US public diplomacy program can sprout into something larger promoting US interests. In 2016, when Ms. Hassan was 16, she took part in another State Department-sponsored program, the “Summer Sisters” exchange, which brought her to a summer school program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.
Once back in Pakistan she established “Fun to Learn,” which sends volunteers into underprivileged schools to teach lessons in personal hygiene, green living, and personal and community safety, through song, cartoons, and other “fun” activities.
“We take the serious things like school safety and incorporate some fun into it,” says Hassan, who notes that much of her organization’s small budget is funded by Americans. And what that tells her, she adds, is that Americans understand how countries and people are interconnected and face many of the same problems.
“People may say one thing, but to me the American people are kind, caring, and passionate about helping others,” she says. “I’d say my organization gives an example of that.”
Ms. Ferdous of Bangladesh says the recognition she’s getting from the State Department is providing a second wave of inspiration for her work with Rohingya refugees.
“It’s given me so much motivation to see how, even though they have gone through so much and lost so much, they still have hope,” she says of the Rohingyas. That prompted her to create what she calls a “child-friendly safe space” in the refugee camp: a series of three tents where Rohingya refugee children go for education and creative activities, to develop digital literacy, and for play.
Ferdous is keen to point out that the funding to get the children’s “safe space” off the ground came from Washington – for her a reflection, like the award she’s received, of the importance Americans put on humanitarian issues.
“None of us thought we’d get a prestigious award – but this tells us that people in a completely different part of the world see value in what we are doing,” she says. “This is an inspiration for us, and motivates us to work more.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Firuz Yogbekov's last name.