May 25, 2019

Youth activists from the Middle East tell their stories to Leiden University students

By Guido Lanfranchi.

In an event jointly organized by Karama Europe and Leiden University’s Middle East Committee, four young activists from conflict areas across the Middle East shared their personal stories of activism with an engaged audience of students.  

Over the past years, the international community, notably the United Nations, has devoted more and more attention to the role of youth and women in armed conflicts. When overwhelmed by the violence of a war, young people face hard choices: they can fight, they can stand by and observe, or they can get engaged in activism. While the images and stories of fighters are easily spread and seen all over the world, the experiences of youth activists unfortunately often remain more in the shadows. With the aim of reversing this trend, Karama Europe and Leiden University’s Middle East Committee decided to organize an event in which four young activists from Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Syria shared their experiences with an audience of students from all over the world.

The event was introduced and moderated by Ms. Elisabeth van der Steenhoven, Director of the European branch of the NGO Karama, active across the Middle East to “end all types of violence against women in the Arab region”. Ms. van der Steenhoven proudly introduced the four young activists, who travelled all the way to The Hague in order to meet a number of Dutch civil society organizations and politicians, with the support of the office of Karama Europe, situated in The Hague since October 2017.

The activists told their personal stories to an attentive audience. All four stories were characterized by a similar pattern: finding themselves in the midst of an armed conflict, these young people would decide to eschew the path of violence, focusing instead on having a positive impact in their communities and their countries. Wijdan al-Matari, for instance, was only 18 years old when the conflict in Yemen erupted. As the conflict shattered her opportunity to study abroad in China, she decided to get involved to help her community, for instance by organising film festivals, as well as by helping people displaced by the conflict.

Tara Ali Ashour, from Iraq, experienced conflicts since her early childhood. Her family moved from her native town, the capital Baghdad, to the northern city of Erbil, in the Kurdish region, looking for more safety. As the Islamic State conquered territory across the border between Syria and Iraq, Tara decided to get engaged in several volunteering organization, which led her to be among the first people to enter Mosul after the city was recaptured from IS. Currently, she works for the Women Empowerment Organization, a position in which she struggles to empower women, as well as to support displaced people and refugees in their daily life. 

Younes Nagem, from Libya, defines himself as an activist since he was 7 years old, on account of his longstanding experience as a boy scout. When the Arab Spring started in 2011, he immediately got involved, but he refused to take up arms. He focused instead on getting engaged through media platforms, until he was forced to leave the country for security reasons. When the security situation in Libya improved, he returned to his hometown, where he combined his social dedication with his background as a telecommunication engineer. He thus founded BYTE, Benghazi Youth Technology Entrepreneurship, a civil society platform that provides support to young Libyans through the help of technology.

Bushra al-Hamdan, 27 years old from Homs, in Syria, made the same decision of her colleagues: finding herself in the midst of the Syrian civil war, she decided to focus on helping those most in need. Working with organizations in coordination with UN agencies and other partners, over the last years she has helping to provide aid to displaced people. She has been working with different organizations, sometimes focusing on children and women, other times focusing on eliminating hunger. During her experience, she faced a lot of difficulties, but her commitment to help others has not decreased, and currently she is still engaged in a number of volunteering initiatives, including learning activities for kids.

Answering a number of different questions posed by an engaged audience, the young activists explained what it means to live in a conflict situation, and how is it possible to refuse using arms, pursuing instead social work. Moreover, they called on Western media to support their work by sharing their action and making them public, in order to show that in countries affected by conflict there is not only death, but also people helping each other.

While all these activists focus on providing help to those most in need, such help should not be mere short-term assistance – they specified. As Bushra put it: “You start by giving them food, you end giving them seeds”. Hopefully, this approach will lead these countries out of the armed conflicts affecting them, towards a future characterized by more peace, prosperity, and happiness. 

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