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Staying young at heart

By Daniel Wermus
Many people associate the Red Cross with a nurse who distributes blankets or gives injections.Today, youth volunteers are modernizing the work of the Movement. To illustrate their contributions, Red Cross, Red Crescent highlights youth activities in three countries: Lebanon, Syria
and Uzbekistan.

The value of traditional emergency response at the heart of Red Cross and Red Crescent work is undeniable. But it is also important to rise to new challenges, such as alleviating the effects of environmental degradation, the economic and sexual exploitation of children, delinquency, racism and social exclusion. At the same time, some National Societies considered too close to political circles and institutions are in need of rejuvenation. Youth volunteers are leading the efforts to breathe new life into programmes from first aid to social welfare. They are also vital participants in the revival of National Societies overcome by the effects of conflict or political and economic transition.

When it comes to young people’s involvement in humanitarian activities, there is a noticeable difference today between the countries of the North and those of the South. In rich countries, adolescents can choose from any number of leisure activities and, with rare exceptions, show little interest in their local Red Cross or Red Crescent. The Movement is often dismissed as old-fashioned and gets sidelined to the advantage of other societies or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are perceived as more dynamic.

In developing countries, the reverse is true: National Societies have few problems recruiting young volunteers, who devote themselves to helping people in need and healing divided communities. For these new recruits, the National Society offers a chance to break away from the past and develop new platforms for dialogue and action.



Uzbekistan: an open book

A little red book is blowing a humanitarian wind through Uzbek schools. Entitled Man and Society and co-produced by the ICRC, the Ministry of Education and the local Red Crescent Society, it deals with civic education, geography and history. After a successful pilot phase, 500,000 copies are about to be distributed to upper grade classes (ages 16 to 17) throughout the country’s schools. A similar textbook has been published in Tajikistan. Alongside this project, awareness programmes on international humanitarian law are either in progress or about to start in schools and universities throughout the former Soviet Union.

The textbook responds to an urgent need. The candid classroom discussions are remarkable, covering numerous topics from family life to major international issues. The success of the project depends on the combination of three elements: reference to humanitarian traditions drawn from national history; the involvement of the Uzbek authorities from an early stage; and an interactive approach, which is stimulating for both teachers and pupils.

A fitting model

Edith Baeriswyl, who is in charge of educational programmes at the ICRC, says: “One of the main values of the programme is that it encourages pupils to find parallels between situations they encounter in their daily lives and events that occur far away in space and time.”

Roberto Simona, from the ICRC’s delegation in Tashkent, underlines the importance of the ties – born of professional esteem and ultimately friendship – that have been forged with the authorities at the Ministry of Education. Vassili Kostezskij and Miasar Isakova, officials at the ministry, admit to an initial reticence: “Then we saw how it instilled a sense of humanity in the pupils and helped to foster freedom of thought. The teachers view it as a gift, and all of them want to extend its use to 34 hours of teaching a year, instead of the present eight.”

Uzbek history proves, if such proof were needed, that the West has no monopoly on humanitar-ian concerns. The manual starts with the life of the great savant and artist, Avicenna (Abou Ali Hussain ibn Sina, 980-1037), born in Bukhara and forced to flee from the persecutions of the period. It recalls Tamerlane (Amir Temour, 1336-1405), symbol of national identity, whose statue in Tashkent has replaced that of Karl Marx. He developed a code for the respect of prisoners, which bears striking similarities to the Geneva Conventions.

Another national hero is also worthy of mention: the blacksmith of Tashkent who, during the Second World War, adopted 14 children of different Soviet nationalities. His example opens the way for a discussion on the dangers of xenophobic nationalism and the rights of children during wartime. The tradition of hachar – the free mutual aid offered by neighbours and friends – is also touched on.

The classes also enable students to learn about the work of the Movement. At the request of teachers and community leaders, a chapter is to be added on the environment, prompted by the Aral Sea disaster.


Beyond the classroom

Designed as a reference manual, the book ultimately leads to concrete action. In the grey post-Soviet suburbs, young people do not have many amusements or aims in life. Thirty-one-year-old Marat has set up a Red Crescent youth club, with little means but great success. Young people help the elderly and children with disabi-lities, as well as organize events and camps. The members, whose average age is 15, have had to overcome their shyness and the “conservative” reticence of their parents.

Visits to School 110 in Tashkent, in a quarter where the majority is Russian, and to a rural school in the Buka district, confirmed the enthusiasm of both pupils and teachers. Young people in the city tend to be more open to new ideas, but participation by the students in the provinces was just as lively. Among the many reactions, one young man exclaimed: “This book wakes your brain up!”

Lebanon after the war

Still traumatized by 15 years of civil war (from 1975 to 1990), controlled in the south by Israel, Lebanon has not yet healed all of its wounds. Beirut remains scarred despite the proverbial vitality of its inhabitants, hemmed in by its skyscrapers, which thrust up in all directions in the midst of bombed ruins, unchecked urbanization and chaotic traffic. In a frenzy of property speculation, building sites have proliferated, disfiguring the coastline and leaving little room for nature. At the same time, thousands of apartments lie empty, waiting for an economic upturn. Yet this “casino economy” has not revived its previous fortunes. Squeezed into 10,000 square km, four million Lebanese live between East and West, past and future. “We are all children of the war,” explains Zyad, a young Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) first-aider. “We come here to put some things right.”


Welcome to the club

“We are in a mainly Maronite area here, but in our group we do not seek to know who is what – Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Druze… That does not interest us,” say the members of the LRC youth club at Baabad, in the hills above Beirut. Volunteers at the emergency call centre give their surnames as: “Tintin here, Dettol here,” avoiding any religious distinctions arising from a reply such as “Hassan” or “Georges”. Most of the other associations have religious links. “Here we can breathe, we are not in a sect,” explains Rania Saheli, head of the LRC youth department. There are 30 similar clubs around the country, with a total of 1,000 active volunteers. To these can be added the 1,500 first-aiders who provide paramedical services in the absence of a state system.

“The Red Cross’s main purpose is not only to deliver food and medicines, but also to clear the time bombs of hatred in people’s minds,” states Georges Harrouk, president of the LRC. “Only young people, who did not take part in this war – this tribal, religious and ideological madness – can provide the leaven for change.” This respected former military chief, still known to his staff as “General”, has dedicated himself to humanitarian endeavours.

Besides its traditional activities (blood donation, first aid, vaccination campaigns, assistance to elderly and disabled people and orphans, and running camps for needy children), the youth section has broadened its scope to include an “eco-bus” to raise awareness of environmental issues, tree-planting, work with delinquents, visits to Palestinian camps and cooperation with other NGOs, not to mention organizing the Children’s Festival, which brought together thousands of young people in Beirut last March. Methods have also changed. Active education, communication and leadership techniques, and theatre are all employed to breach the divide between communities and promote youth initiatives within the National Society.

At the American University of Beirut, 83 members of the Red Cross club decided to join the effort to rebuild their war-torn society. One member explains: “I am not helping out of pity or guilt. I am doing it because I like helping. It makes me feel good.” The most difficult obstacle to overcome for members is the indifference of their fellow students. “Ten years ago, the students complained of the shelling,” recalls Rania Saheli, one-time undergraduate at the university. Today, “the rich think of fashion, the poor have other priorities, it is mainly the middle class who participate in and support our efforts” says Ali Shaheen, coordinator of youth training at the LRC.

A group of adolescents at Zaharani, 15 km from Saïda and not far from Israeli-controlled territory, decided to establish a youth section in their community. Several of them have had their houses occupied or destroyed, or count casualties of bombardments among their families. The economic situation is bad and the needs are enormous. The group was formed recently through word-of-mouth and has taken on a new role visiting the mentally ill at Fanar hospital. “Doing something for humankind comes from my very depths, it is stronger than me,” says Jamal, a trainee hairdresser. “In a society rife with conflicts, the Red Cross is my saviour,” adds Ahmed, a high-school student. “We are no longer divided, we can help everyone.” Everyone, but what if it was a wounded Israeli soldier? A moment’s hesitation. “Yes, we would help him, even if we feel that such a thing would not come easily,” Sahra and Rima, two sisters wearing jeans and Islamic headscarves, reply in

Something new in Syria

Spared from war for the past quarter of a century, Syria does not bear the scars of the Lebanese crisis. In comparison with Beirut, the capital Damascus exalts in its beautiful wide avenues and bathes in the calm of a political life dominated by President Hafez el Assad, in power since 1971. Whilst waiting to open the way for the Internet and mobile phones, the government is treading a cautious route to modernization.

Youth activity has come more recently to the Syrian Red Crescent (SRC) than it did in Lebanon. Some 700 to 800 volunteers assist a country of 15 million inhabitants. Apart from a well-structured group in Damascus, the distances make it difficult to coordinate between sections. Furthermore, unlike in Lebanon, emergency medical services are provided here by the Ministry of Health. The SRC, therefore, does not receive the public support which would allow it to finance other activities. But these practical difficulties only reinforce the deter-mination of young people. The arrival as president of the SRC of an influential and dedicated businessman, Dr Abdul Rahman Attar, has undoubtedly given them renewed zeal. It must be understood that outside the Ba’ath party in power, there is no other in-dependent youth organization. The opportunities for action and creativity are therefore all the more vast: events, concerts, the production of calendars, camps for the handicapped, assistance to refugees, seminars on humanitarian law organized with the ICRC, and much more.


Sharing and encounters

“The great ‘door opener’ that draws people’s interest remains first aid,” explains Firas, a young volunteer. “Our aim is to have a first-aider in every branch.”

Another motivating factor for young people, according to Loury, is that “there is nothing much to do in the evenings, particularly in the provinces. We meet up as friends, both boys and girls. We like working together,” she says.

Rabih feels as if it has given him wings: “I can act on my own initiative. It helps build many social relationships. I have a friend in almost every town. There is always something new to learn and to teach. And above all we learn to depend on ourselves. Today, I believe in myself and in something that links me to the rest of the world.”

A link with the outside is what Attar insists upon. “We need to send young people for training elsewhere and to invite foreign experts here to improve the work of our volunteers,” he says. He strongly supports the the international youth camp to be held by the sea at Kafrseata from 20 to 30 August 1999. The occasion should achieve two things. It should reinforce cohesion between sections throughout the country, and the participation of 150 to 200 volunteers from the rest of the world will foster many contacts and release new energies among young Syrians.

Stopping violence in its tracks

It was one murder too many for the people of Norway. In 1995, a boy was shot and killed as he walked down the street in the capital, Oslo. Spontaneously, people began leaving white handprints near the wall where the murder took place as expressions of sympathy for the family. The national newspaper, Dagbladet, immediately after the tragedy, ran a series of articles about the upsurge of violent incidents throughout the country. The image of a handprint with the words Stop Violence accompanied each article.

The youth section of the Norwegian Red Cross decided to take action and launched a nationwide Stop Violence campaign. Four years later, over 200,000 people have committed themselves to take a stand against violence. Campaign slogans are backed up with concrete measures to change people’s attitudes, combat the spread of violence and help victims.

What began as a local youth initiative is becoming an international campaign as Lithuania, Colombia and Lebanon launch national Stop Violence programmes. “Imagine” said one Norwegian volunteer, “what could be achieved if every Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteer worked together to stop violence in its tracks.”

Power of youth

“The leadership within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement frequently talks about youth power, but their words are not always followed up with support for youth initiatives,” says Malika Ait-Mohamed Parent, head of the youth unit at the Federation. “I think as we identify new trends and develop strategies to meet the humanitarian challenges of the 21st century, we overlook the fact that youth volunteers are already helping to define the future not only of their National Society but the Movement as a whole.”

Uzbekistan, Lebanon and Syria offer some insight as to what is on the minds of youth volunteers and their reasons for joining the Movement. Red Cross and Red Crescent leaders need to continue listening and learning from the next generation. They have shown that it is not only essential to continue vaccinating against disease and providing relief, but it is also vital to inoculate against violence, alleviate poverty and protect our natural resources


Daniel Wermus
Daniel Wermus is founder and director of the InfoSud news agency based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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