Addressing conflict by helping youth

Yemen, November 30, 2011

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As Yemen continues to grapple with political turmoil and multiple conflicts, Mercy Corps is hoping that engaging youth in their communities can help the country realize a brighter future.

Our biggest program there is called Engaging Youth for Stable Yemen. It's a conflict-mitigation program that brings youth together and builds their capacity to create positive change by teaching them life skills, job skills, and helping them participate in community service.

I recently spoke to Rafael Velasquez Garcia, who manages the program out of our office in Aden:

We hear a lot about the political turmoil in Yemen. What is life like there these days?

Rafael: The situation in Yemen has been deteriorating over a long period of time. Even before the recent political turmoil and demonstrations, Yemen was facing a number of difficulties: it's the poorest Arab country in the region and disproportionate number of young people. By some estimates, close to 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30.

Since the protests began earlier this year, more than 100,000 people have been displaced nationwide. We've also experienced fuel shortages, electricity blackouts, as well as exponential increases in the prices of daily household commodities.

How is it impacting our work?

Rafael: Our goal is to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable. Mercy Corps, along with a number of INGOs and UN agencies, is coordinating with local authorities to try and address some of the prevailing difficulties and hardships. With support from our donors, Mercy Corps feels that the life of Yemen citizens can change for the better. That is our aim.

What kind of activities are going on now?

Rafael: The biggest program is called Engaging Youth for Stable Yemen. It's a conflict-mitigation program that brings youth together and builds their capacity to create positive change by teaching them life skills, job skills, and helping them participate in community service.

We also promote participatory decision-making by bringing together youth and local leaders in dialogues where we identify needs of the communities, support the establishment of youth groups, and then develop and carry out community service projects.

During the last four months we have supported four different dialogues between youth and community leaders, which have resulted in community-service projects aimed at addressing the most pressing issues in the communities. For example, the youth in Al Hota are teaming up with local leaders to refurbish a local mosque, including the women’s prayer room.

And here in Aden, youth in one district cleaned the streets and painted some older buildings. In Tuban, where schools have been severely damaged due to the influx of IDPs, the youth group supported the establishment of student environmental committees in three schools and provided them with tools to help clean up.

Helping youth connect to jobs is also part of the program, right?

Yes. As part of this program, we launched an internship program aimed at providing youth with the opportunity to gain and strengthen employable skills.

We had a success story today to tell you about. Two weeks ago, one of our youth participants came to a meeting to learn about the internship program and was very worried that he wouldn't get a chance to take part because his education is quite limited. Well, he took it upon himself to find a place that would give him a chance to train as an apprentice — a bike repair shop — and today he brought in all the required paperwork that enables us to support him for three months with a stipend to cover his travel and other job-related costs.

Soon, we will launch the business development and mentorship component of the program. We'll help young entrepreneurs develop business plans and improve their access to credit.

Can you speak generally about the aspirations and challenges of youth in Yemen?

Rafael: The challenges are many: unemployment, insecurity, limited or no access to education, multiple layers of conflict, just to name a few. But the youth of Yemen want to live peaceful lifes and be positive contributors to their communities and the world at large. They have a lot to offer to their country, the region and as global citizens. What they are asking for is a chance, a platform from where they may be able to prove to their families, communities, friends and fellow citizens as well as those beyond borders that Yemen youth can play a positive and constructive role in their future.

What kind of difference has our project made so far?

We've had a great response from the youth, and are constantly fielding requests from youth in adjacent districts to expand our work.

Currently we are working with 400 youth in four districts: Dar Sadd and Sheik Othman which are part of the Aden Governorate and Tuban and Al Hota which are part of the Lahj Governorate. We are hoping that in the next two months we will be able to reach an additional 400 youth. Our indirect beneficiaries include their communities, local council, traditional and non-traditional leaders.

We conducted a baseline survey so we'll be able to quantify and pinpoint areas of progress. But at this point, anecdotally we've seen improved relations with local communities, turnout and participation in trainings and community service project, and also changes in attitudes and behavior. They see what they can accomplish with local authorities, they see their communities improve through the community-service projects we help them implement.

They're beginning to feel that they can be positive agents of change, and to believe in the possibility of a better future for their communities and their country.