By Hisham Jabi
November 29, 2007
Despite the violence that has been tearing Palestinian society apart, a burgeoning group of young people in the West Bank and Gaza has been organizing and taking charge —to rebuild their villages and communities. A nonviolent movement of young people in this area is historic and cause for great optimism. As formal peace talks resume next week following the Israeli-Palestinian summit in Annapolis, a key focus must be continued support for young people willing to drop their M16s and take up community service.
Nearly three-quarters of all Palestinians are now under the age of 30, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. While many young people continue to be pulled in the direction of terrorism and violence, others are starting to assume greater control of the emerging country’s institutions and civil society. Peace in the West Bank and Gaza hinges on their continued positive empowerment.
Creating a new generation of Palestinian youth leaders is no easy task. Unemployment looms as a colossal threat to stability. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions reports that more than a third of 20 to 24 year olds in the West Bank and Gaza are jobless. In Gaza alone, the youth unemployment rate leaps to 48 percent. Other barriers are equally daunting. Palestinians have a rich and vibrant culture that accords great value to the wisdom of elders. But a side effect of these long traditions is the marginalization of youth. From small villages to urban centers, the ideas, perspectives, opinions, and problems of young people are rarely taken seriously by adults.
But something new is happening. Tired of being portrayed as extremists, as agitators, or as a drain on society, many young people are responding with a range of initiatives that show them to be assets, role models, and positive change-makers in the Middle East. Taking a page from the domestic AmeriCorps model is the Ruwwad Youth Corps, a national youth-led organization with more than 1,000 active members. Named after the Arabic word for “pioneers,” Ruwwad gives young Palestinians the chance to build leadership skills and help their communities, through support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Ruwwad’s philosophy is one of youth-led change, through “service-learning”—community volunteerism with an educational spin. For example, one group of young people surveyed their own community and identified unusually high rates of breast cancer. The youth formed a team and designed a breast cancer awareness campaign that culminates in free screening for local women. Another program taps young entrepreneurs—once a month, various youth teams “pitch” projects to a panel of youth judges. In a setting that’s part American Idol, part Harvard Business School, the youth have five minutes to win the judges’ hearts. The first-place group gets up to $8,000 of in-kind support from USAID—and the chance to put their project into action.
Winning teams have already provided basic humanitarian aid to more than 6,500 needy Palestinians. It’s a ground-breaking concept, both within Palestinian society and in the foreign aid community: college-age youth showing their elders that they too can lead social change; young people managing U.S. government assistance, and taking ownership of the results.
Young volunteers report feeling better equipped to be good role models, solve problems, and work as part of a team. At the same time, several communities point to clear improvements in their quality of life, from youth-led medical campaigns, to beach clean-up efforts, to school-bag distribution to needy first-graders.
As the West Bank and Gaza’s young majority continues to grow, new skills and experience will be essential to sustain peace. It is crucial that the international community place greater emphasis on foreign aid that helps empower young Palestinians. It is clear the region’s immediate future depends on it.
Hisham Jabi is a project director for the U.S.-based Education Development Center, Inc. and runs Ruwwad, a Palestinian youth corps.