Innovative Young Arabs

INNOVATION IS THE KEY: Derar Ghanem from Palestine (C), says he quit his job to pursue his dream.

The region’s youth are creating new opportunities via social media

By Jessy El Murr

To say that young Arabs today lack serious opportunities would be the understatement of the century. For millions of Arab youth (about 105 million of them), the outlook consistently looks bleaker.

This year’s Arab Human Development Report placed the region’s youth unemployment rate at 29 percent—the highest in the world.

This alarming rate, coupled with a growing sense of exclusion, discrimination and weak social and political engagement, makes it easy for us to understand why social media has become the preferred tool for young Arabs, who are utilizing it to network, learn and grow their potential.

Sure, a large percentage of today’s Arabic social media content is still predominantly categorized under entertainment.

According to YouTube, two hours of video are uploaded every minute in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
A quick look at the daily dose of depressing news coming out of this region also makes this fact easily understandable.

However, there is a surprising rise in the number of startups launched by young Arab entrepreneurs, who are using new media to generate opportunities and create social good initiatives.

Optimistic young voices in the Levant are all over Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. They are tweeting, Snapchatting, YouTubing and using all available tools to create initiatives as part of a growing trend to encourage community participation and solutions at the grassroots level.

The following bright ideas are just a small example of young Arab individuals who have found a way to make their voices heard against all odds.

Palestine: Build Palestine
“I quit my job to launch my dream,” says 26-year-old Derrar Ghanem.

“I’ve been wanting to contribute to my community for a while now,” says Ghanem from his hometown in Ramallah.
He used to manage a co-working space but was passionate about coming up with a way to help and empower people, and to become an innovator.

Using some savings and an unsteady income from freelance jobs, Ghanem and his partner, Besan Abou Joudeh launched Build Palestine last month, a crowdfunding platform to raise funds for cultural and innovative projects with a social impact in Palestine.

The small team of volunteers filmed videos, launched a website, and connected with other entrepreneurs to secure a working space, a process that took about eight months. “We crowdfunded ourselves basically,” Ghanem says.

His startup helped raise $2,500 for Palestine’s only music and art therapy center, Al Mada Association. It also raised $5,000 to fund a scholarship initiative for young Palestinian refugees.

Ghanem now hopes to reach an estimated 12 million supporters within the Palestinian diaspora.

The first few months of any startup can mean a lot of stress and excitement—a fact Ghanem does not hide—while stressing the need for more funding to “hire more people and hold more workshops.”

But Ghanem wants more than that. He aims “to create a space where people can develop ideas and support the social enterprise in Palestine. Not just a crowdfunding platform.”

“We have minds, we have capabilities, although we face more challenges than most of the world, which makes it all the more interesting,”he adds.

Lebanese national, Abdallah Absi, quit university to launch Zoomal. At 24, he is a successful crowdfunder

Lebanon: Zoomal
A self-proclaimed “proud college dropout,” Abdallah Absi is now the 24-year-old CEO of Zoomal, a leading crowdfunding platform for projects based in the Arab world.

Much like the global crowdfunding site Indiegogo, Zoomal is a platform that offers young innovators an easy way to attract funding for their Middle East based projects.

“We have managed to support 14 projects and gathered $2 million to fund educational, developmental and creative art projects as well,” Absi proudly says.

“I dropped out of college because my opportunity cost was high. I had already started Zoomal and failure wasn’t an option,” says Absi, a former computer science major at American University of Beirut, who figured college was simply taking too much time away from his company.

He was right. Zoomal now employs nine full-time employees, and to him, quitting college was the “best decision [he] ever made.”

Absi also credits social media for his success.

“Had social media not existed today, we wouldn’t even be discussing crowdfunding, nor projects like Zoomal.”

Jordan – Under My Olive Tree
In 2010, Ali Dahmash quit his job selling software solutions, to launch his own business.

“I remember it cost me $1,000 to launch a website and print some business cards. I had no employees, no office and no clients.”

It took him one month of sitting with his laptop in cafes across Amman before he landed his first client.

His digital media agency Reach 2.0, specializing in digital marketing and advertising, and has now grown into a team of 35 employees with clients spread across the GCC.

His social entrepreneurship skills led him to launch Under My Olive Tree, a registered NGO which helps students cover tuition fees and receive soft skills training. In return, students are required to complete 40 hours of community service.

Some 35 out of 50 students have graduated thanks to his initiative, which began on social media.

“This all started because of social media,” Dahmash recalls, adding that he pulled a lot of crowdfunding just by posting on his personal Facebook and Twitter.

“We once wanted to help out a young blind student who needed a laptop. I remember writing a post on my Facebook and within 12 hours, I had the money collected.”

The student he helped out is now pursuing her studies and about to be the first out of her siblings to earn a college degree.
“What we do is give students hope. We show them that there is a way out, and it is through learning and pursuing their education.”

ONE STEP AHEAD: In 2010, Ali Dahmash (C) quit his job selling software solutions, to launch his own business. He had $1,000, no employees and no office. Today, his team is growing and so is his business.

ONE STEP AHEAD: In 2010, Ali Dahmash (C) quit his job selling software solutions, to launch his own business. He had $1,000, no employees and no office. Today, his team is growing and so is his business.

Syria: Afkar Plus
“We offer training, support and hopefully a way to connect young Syrian entrepreneurs with investors and a basic funding for their web based projects,” says Fadi Amroush, the founder of start-up Afkar.

The Arabic word Afkar, which means ideas in Arabic, is the best way Fadi and his Syria-based co-founder Samer Aswad hope to spread the word about their business incubator.

“We have received tens of ideas in the past year sent virtually by young Syrians inside and outside Syria.

Through apps like Skype and Facebook, we got in touch with many of the applicants in order to choose the wining projects,” explains Amroush.

The start-up has now adopted four projects and is in the process of helping develop them into businesses.

Iraq: Wasel Tasel
Last month, a young Iraqi reached out to me via Facebook: “We are a group of volunteers raising funds to help the internally displaced from Mosul. Please check out our page.”

I did, and in just a few days, I was interviewing Mohammed Dylan about the challenging logistics he faces in delivering crucial donations to areas in and around Mosul, an area that has been the site of intensive military operations led by the Iraqi army and international coalition forces in an effort to reclaim it back from the militant group Daesh.

“I spend short of four hours every day on the road delivering emergency aid with my group of volunteers,” Dylan explains.
“I do that at least four times a week.”

The group gathers used clothes, meals, water, and money, and uploads short videos of their work on the group’s Facebook page, the platform where most of their appeals for donations takes place.

Dylan is an English major student who stopped going to classes since the Mosul operation started. He says he felt he was needed there.

“You see, we were all uprooted from our towns so helping others is like a duty to us,” he explains.

Over 80,000 people are said to have fled the fighting in and around Mosul, and are now spread across refugee camps set up to absorb the massive displacement.

Many people don’t understand why he would spend that much time helping others, Dylan says with apparent sadness in his voice.

“But my sense of achievement,” he quickly continues, “lies in the fact that we are a non-sectarian group with no support from any political party. And we were the first volunteers to enter Mosul. That’s my achievement.”

Arab youth today make up a third of the Arab world’s population, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), a fact it describes as a “demographic momentum” and a “historic opportunity which Arab countries must seize.”

They may be unemployed, disenchanted and surrounded by a stream of news about continuing conflicts affecting their lives on a daily basis.Yet, Arab youth are reaching out to each other, launching businesses and funding humanitarian campaigns all on their own.

That’s because they’re no longer waiting for opportunities. They’re finding ways to create it.

Jessy El Murr is a Lebanese-American TV Journalist covering social media stories for SkyNews Arabia.

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