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Cordaid NL
Security and Justice Women's leadership

Young leaders don’t wait for big plans

Young community leaders from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) got together in Istanbul from May 30 – June 5. “The program organized by Cordaid, Human Security Collective and WomenPeacemakers Program was about gender sensitive nonviolent action for human security. Young leaders got to know each other and could freely exchange their experiences and ideas”, says Sabina Atzei from Cordaid. She was in Istanbul and runs you through the highlights of a special week.

A detour to Istanbul

Sabina: “Bringing the group together was quite a challenge. Until the very last moment we were not sure if they would make it to Istanbul. There was a strike at the airport in Tripoli. Three Libyan participants eventually took a bus to Tunis. From there, they boarded to Istanbul. The story about the participants from Gaza is a much sadder one. They were not allowed by Israeli authorities to leave Gaza. That was a blow. We used Skype to have them with us, but that’s not nearly as powerful as having them with us. Youth from Gaza have been going through a lot, especially after the war in the summer of 2014. It is important that international organizations and governments continue their efforts to create equal opportunities and not to leave them in isolation.”

Mahdi from Libya (photo: Cordaid) – Click on the picture to read Mahdi’s full story.

Elamahdi Mohamed Abdusalam (Mahdi, 22) is one of the Libyan participants. Ironically, he explains that “Libya means the ‘land of the traveler. It once was a hub to cross from Egypt into the Middle East. But look at the country now. I never thought the situation would become this bad and complicated; sometimes I am not sure where Libya is going.”

There was a time, not long ago, that Mahdi was not convinced about non-violence at all. “When I was 18 I joined the national army. I was working in the Special Forces. Soon I was promoted and became a Major.” But suddenly everything changed in Mahdi’s life. “In 2013 my brother got killed whilst fighting in the army. It opened my eyes, I got to a dark place, didn’t know what to do, my heart was taken out of my chest. My little brother was murdered. From that moment on I knew: I will never go into the army again, kill or get killed. I am going to do whatever it takes to make my country better. But only in non-violent ways.”

“We all want to make our countries better places to live in. I am committed to do whatever it takes to make this happen.”

Not just any youth 

Sabina: “This event was organized specifically for youth from the Middle East and North Africa. Often they are portrayed as troublemakers by the leaders in their countries. But we see something very different. They are young people who are driven and talented to make real and positive changes in their communities. From Iraq to Libya they convey similar messages, live and work in similar volatile and conflict-affected contexts . There is a huge potential for these youngsters to learn from each other’s experiences.”

The need for nonviolent action

The program in Istanbul focused on gender sensitive nonviolent action. Sabina explains: “In Istanbul, we explored ways for nonviolent protest and action. How can you stand up for your rights, organize your community without using force and violence? We mapped the youth’s circles of influence: who can you reach and involve in your mission to bring about peace and change?” Women Peacemakers Program provided exercises and examples and explained how to work on gender sensitive nonviolent action, for example ensuring that the needs and realities of both women and men are considered in the topic of which the gender sensitive nonviolent action is mobilizing people.

What is needed to create human security? A mindmap made by the participants (photo: Cordaid)

After the theoretic part there was time for some role plays. One of the groups presented an example how they would organize a nonviolent action against violence within school.

Shadia (photo: Cordaid)

Shadia Abdulwahed Qader is from Iraq and works on youth engagement. She brought in a personal example of how nonviolent action can be effective: When I was 12 I had a package of cigarettes that I hid in drawer in my room. I came home and opened the package one day but all the cigarettes were broken en put back. Until my father died in 2009, he didn’t say anything about it. His strategy was very effective, probably much more than him yelling or beating me.”

“These young leaders understand they have the power and talent to change something.”

We have the power to change

Sabina:Whilst participants were discussing and exchanging ideas, I noticed they suddenly realized the enormous expertise and knowledge they already have. For me, that is one of the main highlights. That these young leaders understand they have the power and talent to change something. The realization they don’t have to wait until the international community comes up with resolutions or big plans.”

When the going gets tough

“In both Libya and Palestine, we see a major crackdown on young activists and leaders”, Sabina explains. “Some of the youth leaders in our group are keeping a low profile because of the security situation. Some of them have lost friends, recently killed in Libya for example.  A known women’s activist was killed brutally last year in Libya. In such dire security situations it is wise to stay low and to be smart about your interventions. Every participant in Istanbul could recall moments when it would have been much easier and safer to stop his or her work. The reason why we brought them together is that it enables them to feel strong as a group of like-minded people and to empower each other.”

Thaer (photo: Cordaid)

Thaer Hanaysha (29) is from Palestine and works for the Palestinian Centre for Peace and Democracy. “I had the chance to leave Palestine, but I stayed, even though my career opportunities were weak. I really love my country and I feel part of society and committed to my people. I believe I have the capacity and the will to change something. It will take a long time, but we can change things. If everyone would leave, we would lose so much: our family, society, country and, eventually, we would lose hope. I feel I have a duty to stay in the country. Change is easy if you believe in it.”  

Women for peace

The lack of women’s involvement in peace processes was identified by all participants as something that blocks real change in their communities. Sabina: “Bringing youth from different countries together, men and women, contributes to more collective thinking about the daily safety in their community, promotes gender equality and more collaboration and participation from both women and men, It’s essential that in conflict affected countries like Libya and Palestine young activist women and men join hands. Together they enrich each other’s activism with diversity, new perspectives and expertise.

Shadia: “My father is my inspiration. He had six daughters and two sons. He used to say: ‘Each one of my girls equals seven men.’ He was respecting our opinions, singing for us, made sure we could all could continue our study. I hope every man to resemble my father and respect women the same way.”

Thaer: “In Palestine, there is no good law against early marriage, there was a law that stated girls could only get married when older than 14,5 years old, but this law is not implemented. Risks of early marriage should be acknowledged firstly, this would already be a big help. I want to work hard to achieve this, together with other youth activists.”

The start of a new network

“When speaking of circles of influence, these youngsters found a new one in Istanbul. I am sure they will stay in touch; they are already connecting on social media”, says Sabina.

Mahdi from Libya: “The young women and men here share the same goal. We all want to make our countries better places to live in. I am committed to do whatever it takes to make this happen in Libya and I will keep in touch with other young leaders, so that we can work on this together.”


Read more about Cordaid’s efforts to strenghten youth’s voices in peace building.