From coding camps and engineering courses to co-works and job networks, these people are changing the outlook for youth progress across the Middle East and Afghanistan, bringing hope of progress.
More than half a million people in Afghanistan have lost their jobs since the Taliban takeover, with hundreds of thousands more expected to be out of work by the end of 2022, according to the UN. Key sectors like construction and agriculture have been devastated as the economy falls deeper into decline, shrinking by an estimated 20 to 30 percent in the year following August 2021. For young people and women, the outlook is particularly dire as they struggle to find a way forwards in the poverty-stricken country. But slowly, Afghans are adapting to the grim new reality, finding ways to evade restrictions and pursue pockets of opportunity. These come in the form of projects like AfghanCoders and organizations like the Awareness Brokers Foundation, pioneered by brave individuals determined to make a difference. It’s not just in Afghanistan. Across the Middle, East, innovators are addressing the lack of opportunities for youngsters through enterprises like Wedonet, a new freelance network in Kurdistan, and SE Factory, which runs coding boot camps in Lebanon. These are just the kind of projects Ideas Beyond Borders likes to support, making a tangible impact on people’s lives and driving them to pursue the future they dream of, not one that’s forced upon them.
Farid Ahmad Anwari, Afghan Coders, Afghanistan
Murad Ismael, Sinjar Academy, Kurdistan
“The whole of Iraq is suffering from job shortages, but in Sinjar, it’s worse – 70 to 80 percent of graduates are unemployed,” says Murad Ismael, an engineering professional from Sinjar. He’s concerned that the lack of opportunities is demoralizing young people, undermining a generation that should be out in the workforce, and helping to build a modern Iraq. “People see that nothing is changing, it’s either stagnant or getting worse, so they struggle to find hope. It’s a very depressing environment for young people.”Part of the problem, he adds, is outdated university courses that fail to prepare students for today’s job market. “They graduate to find they are still a burden on their family, who already have nothing,” he says. In April last year, he launched the Sinjar Academy, offering high-quality courses in computer programming, web development and digital media, supplemented by English language lessons. “We wanted something that fits the needs of the economy and is effective in providing employment,” says Ismael, who received an Innovation Hub grant to help cover the running costs of the academy. “If people have good skills, they will get work. The issue is not having a degree, it’s about the ability and opportunity to make the most of their lives,” he says.
Hani Aswad, Co-Working Space, Anbar
After years of conflict, new roads, shopping malls, hotels and hospitals are re-shaping urban landscapes in cities like Ramadi and Fallujah, bringing new hope to places once defined by bloody battles waged on their streets. For young people in the impoverished Iraqi province of Anbar, it’s still challenging to find work, so a growing number of university graduates are looking to create their own opportunities by launching a business. This is where Hani Aswad, a business development and entrepreneurship expert, hopes to help. “We need to begin with the basics – There are no dedicated spaces for people to meet and plan,” says Aswad, who is drawing on his experience in Baghdad’s startup scene to develop the environment for entrepreneurship in Anbar. His new space in the city of Ramadi, funded in part by an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders, will provide the critical facilities required for fledging businesses to grow. “We are dealing with a fresh community that’s ready for development,” Aswad says. “The new generation has great ideas, they just need guidance because they are launching new companies in categories of business that weren’t available in Anbar a few years ago.”
Dr. Waleed Khadrawy, Technical Skills, Egypt
Recent years have seen an economic boom in Egypt as the government pours investment into the manufacturing sector, with 1500 new factories coming online in 2021 alone. Unfortunately, the technical skills needed to run these factories are sorely lacking, forcing Egypt to import much of its industrial workforce from elsewhere. Meanwhile, Egyptians face high unemployment, despite the desperate need for more skilled labor to meet demand. Dr. Waleed Khadrawy, the general manager at Egypt’s Ministry of Petroleum and an engineering professor, is looking to close this gap and upskill Egyptian workers by providing them with the best technical training courses free of charge. “We have smart engineers, doctors, and financiers, but not technicians. Factories can’t find workers. It’s a big problem here,” Khadrawy says. His plan, beginning with an initial cohort of 500 workers, is to provide both basic and more advanced training through Italy’s Don Bosco Institute, a course that usually costs up to 3,500 Egyptian pounds. “I will make it available for free,” says Khadrawy, who has secured an Innovation Hub grant to run the project. “I have worked in public service for 20 years, and I like solving people’s problems, but this was too big to solve alone, it required a bigger project,” he adds.
Ghulam Reza Pazhwak, Awareness Brokers Foundation, Afghanistan
Many Afghan girls have been forced to relinquish their dreams of a university while the Taliban remains in power. Only a few find alternative routes, taking enormous risks to study in secret schools or take classes online, cobbling together an education behind closed doors because they can’t imagine life without learning. But in many cases, it’s no substitute for the full-time schooling they have been denied. Founder and President of the Awareness Brokers Foundation Ghulam Reza Pazhwak wanted to create an opportunity for 30 underprivileged Afghan girls to pass the English-language TOEFL exam and secure scholarships to overseas universities. “In the current situation where the level of educational and occupational restrictions for women has increased in Afghanistan, our focus is to curb these restrictions through small and short-term programs,” says Pazhwak, who has secured an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders to cover the costs of the project for four months. “By continuing this program as short-term courses over the next five years, we will create an expert and trained team of Afghans. We want them to use modern knowledge and methods to solve the problems of their society,” he says.
Zeina Saab, SE Factory, Lebanon
Soaring food prices, scarce job opportunities, and ongoing political deadlock present few prospects for Lebanese youth trying to carve out a future amid multiple crises. “First, we had the revolution, which, while a great step for our country, put our programs on hold for many weeks. Then it was Covid, economic collapse, and the Beirut port blast with the political stagnation that followed,” says Zeina Saab, co-founder of SE Factory, which runs coding boot camps in Lebanon. The focus is on providing access to training for underprivileged youth, with a 90 percent employment rate for students that complete the course. An Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders has enabled the organization to purchase 13 power banks for students working remotely across the country, allowing more young people to learn coding and benefit from the opportunities this brings, locally and abroad. “There are so many youths in the country out of work, desperate for a job, and a huge demand for coding globally, so there is a clear gap that can be filled,” Saab says.
Ranja Ali, Wedonet, Kurdistan
Having dropped out of school at 17, Ranja Ali knows the challenges young people face to carve out a career in Kurdistan. “The mindset here sets people up to fail, but if they have good advice and strong support, they can do it,” he says. To help others to achieve their goals, he has set up Wedonet, a freelance network that brings people together to provide them with skills and support. “I want to provide the client, bring the freelancer, develop the freelancer and then they can work together,” he says. The company takes a small commission for this service, but Ali is keen to expand the offering and create more opportunities for young people in Sulemaniye. “Wedonet is growing really fast, and we want to help as many people as possible,” says Ali, who is using an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders plans to provide workshops and mentorships. “I really want Suli to grow. It could be a good place for freelancers and entrepreneurs, and I want to help make that happen.”