Young leaders from the Middle East gather to tackle the region's big challenges

At an intensive six-week session in Portland, Ore., this summer 18 students studied ways to create jobs and resolve conflicts in their home communities.

Erik Mandell for Mercy Corps
Student leaders from Middle East countries are studying at Portland State University in Portland, Ore., as part of the Middle East Partnership Initiative. Here they pose during a visit to the US Department of State in Washington, DC.

Salam, a 20-year-old from Jordan, wants to improve opportunities for Syrian refugees coming to her country. Arwa, 21, from Iraq, hopes to start an organization to help street children. And Jouan, 23, from Israel, plans to engage conflicting groups in her country in peaceful dialogue.

Coming from a region plagued by conflict and high unemployment, these students have big challenges ahead. But an intensive six-week classroom-based and experiential curriculum in Portland, Ore., this summer aimed to build job-related skills and promote civic engagement in their home communities.

The youths were among a group of 18 university students and recent graduates from 13 countries across the Middle East and North Africa who came to Portland State University (PSU) and the Mercy Corps Action Center to develop leadership skills and design community engagement projects they plan to put into action after returning home.

Developing the community-based projects was a catalyst for students’ thinking about how they might make lasting change in their communities, said Kendra Manton, education and operators officer at Mercy Corps.

What the students got here was a crash course in the process of how to think about an issue and transform it into an actual action.

The classes students took at PSU focused on conflict resolution, community leadership, democratic institutions, and participation. They used those components to develop projects that will address local and regional challenges.

This was the second year that Portland State, one of six US academic institutions to receive a $500,000 two-year grant from the US Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) Student Leaders Program, hosted student leaders.

Student leaders came to Portland from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, The Palestinian Territories, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Although they represented widely diverse countries spanning thousands of miles, their home communities face many similar challenges, especially around youth unemployment.

Youth unemployment has reached record levels across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and young people aged 15 to 24 account for 40 percent to 60 percent of all unemployed people, according to Nemat Shafik of the International Monetary Fund. And, as evidenced by recent events, young, educated people who want to be employed and engaged are critical to the stability of the region.

The goal of the student leaders program is to arm a rising generation of leaders with a toolkit of leadership skills and a broad understanding of civil society in order to fuel change in their home communities and countries, according to the Department of State.

And for a region in such dire need of new and continuing opportunities, the program is one step toward the broader Department of State mission of empowering citizens to build more pluralistic, participatory, and prosperous societies.

Portland State’s partnership with Mercy Corps presented an innovative platform for leadership development and the potential for lasting economic impact among the participants and their communities.

“The students gained an understanding of program creation and implementation by taking an area of interest and brainstorming around what’s causing it to happen, and then developing a framework to address it through actionable steps,” Manton told Global Envision.

The experience provided a primer of additional life skills for the student leaders. “At Mercy Corps students were in a professional setting, which is different than a typical classroom,” Manton said.

We practiced a lot of tangible things that are essential in the workplace – communication skills, how to present a message, and other hard skills like managing the planning process – that are useful and applicable across all fields.

The student leaders said their experience ignited passion to have an impact in their home countries and communities, and spoke of their visions of how they can create change.

Salam hopes to work with youths and university professors in Jordan to provide technical training and networking opportunities to young refugees flowing in from Syria.

“The refugee population is full of formerly ambitious youths who are losing dreams and the ability to be engaged,” she said.

“The first step in making peace is a dialogue between both sides,” Jouan said. She envisions people throughout Israel coming together to work toward common, rather than divisive, future goals.

“This is a deeply impactful program for students, not only through the academic component, but also through the cross-cultural experiences within the group that potentially extends the mission of the program more than anything else,” Manton concluded.

Kevin Kecskes, professor of public administration and the MEPI-PSU program director, agreed.

“They have the opportunity to connect on a human level,” said Kecskes, who also taught the community leadership class. “Because of programs like this we have a way to learn about our common humanity.”

As students leaders returned to their home region, they took with them a better sense of what it means to work together, and new tools to mobilize teams of peers toward common goals.

And that could be one small step toward cooperation among emerging leaders and increased stability in a volatile region.

• Get more information about the MEPI program at Portland State University.

• Read about the US Department of State MEPI Student Leaders Program.

• Watch PSU-MEPI student video of their experiences in the US.

 Resource links: MEPI Student Leaders Program, The U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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