In every major conflict there is the risk of a “lost generation.” A generation of young people who, through the violence they encounter and being uprooted from their homes, face an unpredictable future in which their direction is unknown. In this day and age this is most prominently seen with Syrian refugees, who have fled their home country to escape the violence. Their struggle to find means in an effort to survive has culminated in a maelstrom of uncertainty and a lack of direction and meaning. However, there are those who seek to remedy this situation and create an opportunity for the Syrian youth during their exile and upon their return to their homeland; this is embodied in the Leadership Project, a joint venture between SPARK and Al Fakhoora.
The Leadership Project is an international, multi-stage human and monetary investment in the future, which is not only presented through scholarships for higher education but also with the aim of fostering leadership within the Syrian refugee community. Leadership not only for the self, but for the betterment of the refugees’ host community and, eventually, home country. To say this project is a sensitive and ambitious one is an understatement. It takes planning and tact, as well as a cadre of expert facilitators, to enact said goals.
Facilitators for the Leadership Project undergo a rigorous, three-step selection process. Shymaa Al-Khatib, a facilitator in Beirut, Lebanon, describes the selection process, “I have never seen a program that is organized into three stages: first an online application, then a phone interview, and finally a boot camp. The organization of the process is quite fair; if someone misses points in one stage they can gain them in another. It really focusses on the character; some students really deserve it if they have these traits and characteristics, and are passionate and willing to learn.”
The characteristics of the applicants are very important to the selection process, as it gives the organizations an insight into which candidates have the innate qualities which make them a good investment. Mohammed Masri, a fellow Syrian and a facilitator in Bikra, Lebanon explains what the facilitators are looking for, “Several characteristics of students who deserve the scholarships are personal features like empathy and respect, respecting differences, selflessness, respect for other’s opinions, and the ability to compromise and challenge ideas. It is important to find those who don’t react negatively, have sincerity, play fair, and are democratic during conversation.”
It is in initiatives such as the Leadership Project that many Syrian youth find a sense of salvation and hope, to not only better themselves but the community around them. “You see a lot of pain, but you get hope from them, when you look at the younger generation you can see that it can go on. The older generation tends to be cynical, but with the younger crowd there is a sense of positivity. They are impressive and inspiring. I gave up some hope with what has been happening in the Middle East, whether or not it will it get better in the next 10 years. Then you see the youth and how they speak about rebuilding their country,” recounts Reem Jarhum, a facilitator in Gaziantep, Turkey.
A common theme amongst the facilitators is not only the impact the program has on the students but also on themselves. Shyma Al-Khatib says, “After running the boot camp for more than seven days it starts to feel that it’s routine. Then you see the individual characters of the students, and this feeling can vanish in a few seconds. Although the activities are the same the interaction is different, it’s always changing. Even if you see repetitive interactions, it’s nice because having the smiles around, it’s a great feeling. It’s a great feeling when you’re helping these students. Students who are in extra hard cases, when you see the hope in their eyes it’s amazing. Thank God there is someone good.”
This personal interaction between applicants and facilitators can cause an emotional reaction for those in charge. Reem Jarhun recounts, “You are afraid because you are involved with their future. We are trying to create a calm environment, but it can be a struggle. It is hard to look at them individually and not get attached, and use the system the best you can. I know how it feels to come from a country where you have no idea where you are going. I am 27 and I will never see what they saw. We are all trying our best here, to select the best people.”
However, despite the rigorous program and emotional feelings involved, each of the facilitators has taken a sense of pride and hope from their experiences and breakthroughs. For Reem Jarhun it was the opportunity to break down gender barriers between students from traditional back grounds, and allow them to participate. “Some girls are shy, and you have to encourage them to be louder and to speak out. They are not introverted, they are just shy and told to be quite in their society. It’s a great opportunity for barriers to be broken, as many come from conservative families. The girls at times need more pushing to get their personality out. The guys approach the girls but the girls don’t approach the guys. Then, after the icebreaker, you can see them open up.”
For Mohammed Masri, his involvement in the program affected him deeply and personally, “I was very happy, and most of the evaluators, there were tears in our eyes when one applicant entered in a wheelchair and had burns on his legs and arms and he had challenged his own family to apply for the scholarship. At first they said why, you can’t, you won’t even physically be able to do it, but he insisted. His father told us that he was very stubborn and wanted it badly. When he came he was very tried. He wanted to get his chance and try. He was a resident of my own village, that’s why I was very proud. Even being injured he wanted to do something instead of waiting forever.”