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Yalla Shabab!

Representatives from National Societies in the Middle East and North Africa held their first formal meeting in Damascus, Syria, earlier this year. Their aim was to strengthen the voice of young people within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

It is noisy this morning in the Green Hills Hotel in Damascus. A clamour of voices speaking Arabic, English, Farsi and French can be heard. They belong to 24 young men and women attending the first formal meeting of Red Cross Red Crescent youth from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). A bell clangs at the back of the room and the eager voices are silenced as a young woman shouts “Yalla Shabab!” (Come on youth!) These participants represent 11 out of 18 countries in the region, their diversity signalled by their attire, a mixture of suits, traditional hijabs and more informal jeans or skirts. Despite the variety of languages, nationalities and religions in the region, these young people not only want to speak with one voice but they want that voice to be heard.

When these young men and women examined their collective strengths and weaknesses, they quickly identified natural disasters, political problems, war and population growth as external threats and added internal weaknesses such as lack of motivation and support. However, they were encouraged to see that their collective strengths outweighed these weaknesses, and that opportunities outweighed threats. MENA youth volunteers see their experience, common culture, similar needs, diversity, willingness, structure and communication as great strengths; and they all agree it is time to do something together. They want to improve their work, and do more to improve the lives of vulnerable people. The newly formed MENA Youth Network, with the coordinating committee elected during the Damascus meeting, might turn out to be one of their greatest opportunities for doing so.

©Åsta Ytre International Federation


Priority: youth

The MENA youth meeting was arranged following youth participation in the International Federation’s General Assembly in 2003 and the subsequent identification of youth as one of five priorities during the 4th MENA Conference in Bahrain in 2004. This conference emphasized the importanceof practical action, such as sharing experiences, networking and establishing partnerships to boost the participation of youth at all levels of National Societies and the International Federation.

Against this background the MENA youth meeting in Damascus agreed to: establish an active regional Youth Network with an effective coordinating committee, share successful programmes on the basis of regional priorities and define a regional plan of action. The aim of the Youth Plan of Action is to obtain results in Red Cross Red Crescent youth programmes, and increase advocacy at both local and national levels.

Sharing experiences

As in many other National Societies, young volunteers in the region constitute the bulk of the volunteer base and represent a highly trained repository of expertise in areas like disaster management and community care. During the meeting, an entire day was set aside for National Societies to swap experiences within priority programmes for the region, including community-based first aid, disaster preparedness, road safety and HIV/AIDS prevention.

“The participants really appreciated the experience-sharing sessions,” says Darine El Sabeh, the MENA youth adviser who organized and facilitated the meeting. “Learning about each other, their structures and management systems, how young volunteers in different National Societies deal with challenges, and how activities give visibility to young volunteers was very important to them.”

One of the stories shared was the success of the Moroccan Red Crescent (MRC) in involving youth in disaster response. Rachid Yakoubi, an MRC youth coordinator, explained that initially only 65 per cent of volunteers trained to respond to disaster were young people, but that this figure rose by almost 20 per cent in the year following the first disaster response exercise that included a highly visible youth component. He also spoke of efforts to include more women in disaster response, especially as some women felt more comfortable receiving help from other females. Due to these efforts, the participation of women in disaster response grew from 19 to 37 per cent.

Lebanese Red Cross youth shared information on its HIV peer education programme. Their experience willnow be used as young volunteers from Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Syria work together to organize HIV training for trainers in the Middle East.


Young volunteers from the Moroccan Red Crescent on a disaster response exercise.


A common future

In addition to sharing their experiences, the meeting focused on youth participation in the International Federation as well as on communication and planning. Elections were held for the first MENA Youth Coordinating Committee (YCC), before a regional plan of action was created.

In a region where young people are often excluded from decision-making, the YCC election was an important event. El Sabeh says many of the participants saw this as one of the most valuable parts of the meeting. “The participants enjoyed the election,” she says. “They enjoyed discussing the procedure and structure of the election and the committee, even though there was some disagreement.

The election sparked enthusiasm among the participants, and after intense debate and two rounds of voting, the first MENA Youth Coordinating Committee was ready. It consists of elected youth members from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, in addition to one International Federation Youth Commission member from the region. The committee will follow up on the plan of action, coordinate cooperation and communication, and advocate youth development in the region.

A new approach

The participants learned more about various planning tools, and did a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of their current situation before creating a regional plan of action. The plan was formed in compliance with Strategy 2010, with three parts: strengthening responsive and focused youth programmes; using youth participation to contribute to well-functioning National Societies; and working well together with all potential partners. Clear and realistic action was defined within each part of the plan. To achieve their goals, the youth will need to cooperate with the leaders of their Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which El Sabeh believes may be a challenge in some cases. “The greatest challenge for the new network and its coordinating committee will be to be heard by the leadership in some of National Societies in the region,” she says. “The young people are taking a new approach; it is normal to establish networks but not to use coordinating committees with regular meetings to advocate specific issues. This will take time getting used to, but hopefully the youth will make progress on their plan of action and show real results, so that the importance of the network will be made clear through its work.”


More cooperation

In addition to the plan of action and the elected coordinating committee, the first MENA youth meeting succeeded in bringing Red Cross and Red Crescent youth in the region closer together, motivating them to act together and help each other.

Several new links between National Societies in the region were forged during the meeting, and others were reinforced. One strengthened link is between Iraq and Palestine, with the support of the International Federation delegation in Amman, Jordan. Iraq is now receiving assistance from these two partners to create a youth and volunteer policy and structure and also to develop a two-year plan of action.

“Many National Societies lack youth sections,” says El Sabeh. “After the meeting, they were motivated to improve their situation; they expressed their frustration and their wishes to promote youth, and it really looked as if people realized they could do something themselves!”

Åsta Ytre
Åsta Ytre is International Federation youth communications officer.


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