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The promise of youth

Yemen, October 23, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Through Engaging Youth for a Stable Yemen, young people are organized and trained to implement community service projects like this street clean up in Aden. Hareej works to foster more of this engagement in her peers. Photo: Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    The Al Hota youth group cleaned and refurbished a local mosque as their first community improvement project. A key success of Engaging Youth for a Stable Yemen is bringing young people together across ethnic and regional divides. Photo: Mercy Corps

I live in Aden, Yemen. I have high hopes for my community and believe we can help it become peaceful and prosperous. But the crises that have engulfed Yemen in the last year have had a negative effect on my people. In my city we are not used to seeing young people carrying guns and showing no tolerance or warmth toward one another. Now it happens much too often.

I began focusing on community service in 2005, and three years ago established the Leaders Community Services Association in Aden with 39 other young people who had also been volunteering with various local civil society organizations. I had traveled abroad and was sad to see the degree to which development in other countries greatly outpaced what was happening in Yemen. I wanted to change things back home. Our mission is to help support our community and, most importantly, find ways to engage young people in its improvement.

Early last year I took part in a life skills training that was part of Mercy Corps’ Engaging Youth for a Stable Yemen (EYSY) program. It opened my eyes to how much more can be done to empower and motivate young people to become active in their communities. The training sessions polished my own skills in leadership and communication. They also got me thinking of new ways to help our Yemeni youth.

I wanted to find ways to increase the range of my association’s activities and target more young people. By the end of that year, 15 association members and I asked Mercy Corps for support to create a local festival promoting peace and understanding in the community. Mercy Corps helped us to organize an event that promoted two important themes we wanted youth to learn about: how to avoid idleness and use their time constructively, and why they should shun the carrying of arms.

We decided to engage the young people through contemporary entertainment, so the festival focused on documentary movies and a concert featuring hip-hop and rap acts that expressed the two messages that we were keen to disseminate. It was the first of its kind youth festival ever held in Aden.

Listening to attendees express amazement at the quality of the various shows, which they said were both amusing and effective, led me to believe that our efforts succeeded. Most importantly, my team came away with an understanding that Aden youth are excited to work for change and volunteer to benefit their community.

Motivated by our success and very happy with how Mercy Corps helped us pull the event together, I wanted to learn more about how I could become an effective community activist. I pursued a three-month internship through EYSY, working with Mercy Corps’ local partner Creative People’s Solution (CPS) Institute. The training consultancy began working in Aden in 2008 and helps Mercy Corps conduct trainings like the initial life skills session I attended.

Now I am working with them to hold training session on community dispute resolution, which will reach 6,500 young people in Aden.

And most recently, I received a U.S. government grant for a project targeting 400 youth at the University of Aden’s schools of medicine, engineering, education and arts. We are encouraging these young people to become community activists; they will receive life skills training and will be asked to develop and implement ideas on how to improve the colleges they are attending.

I admit that I have become obsessed with seeing improvements in my community and with helping its members understand each other within a healthy social environment. It is a lifelong labor of love that that Mercy Corps and USAID are helping me to pursue.

Areej Haider is a 26-year-old community activist in Aden, who is also in her sixth year at the University of Aden School of Medicine.