Youth has its say,

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - MINA AL-ORAIBI

Be­fore the start of a busy week at the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly, stu­dents, youth ac­tivists and of­fi­cials met in New York on Friday to brain­storm ways to counter ex­trem­ism, fos­ter more in­clu­sive so­ci­eties, de­velop sus­tain­able ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments and tackle chal­lenges fac­ing refugees.

Or­gan­ised by the Misk Foun­da­tion, the phil­an­thropic foun­da­tion founded by Saudi crown prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, and the United Na­tions devel­op­ment pro­gramme (UNDP), the event fo­cused on de­liv­er­ing devel­op­ment goals by 2030.

Fahd Hami­daddin, se­nior ad­viser with Misk, said in his open­ing ad­dress that the aim was to “dis­cover, de­velop and em­power Saudi and Arab youth to be ac­tive par­tic­i­pants in the global knowl­edge econ­omy”, as part of a wider ef­fort to en­gage in global is­sues that af­fect them and their peers.

At­ten­dees spoke of dreams and chal­lenges for the com­ing gen­er­a­tion. They came from more than 60 coun­tries, with a large pres­ence of Arab youth, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dents of Arab stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tions at Columbia and Har­vard.

Ad­dress­ing the morn­ing ses­sion, Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Phi­lan­thropies and three-term mayor of New York City, had a clear mes­sage – mil­len­ni­als were largely “met­ro­pol­i­tans”, who lived in ur­ban areas at­tract­ing the best tal­ent but who also had a re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure a bet­ter fu­ture. Mr Bloomberg called for cities to work to­gether to come up with so­lu­tions based on “met­ro­pol­i­tan val­ues” of “in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity”.

It was a high-pow­ered and high-en­ergy fo­rum. Stu­dents from Al Ahsa re­gion in Saudi Ara­bia rubbed shoul­ders with Ce­cilia Sarkozy, the ex-wife of the for­mer French pres­i­dent, while well known Saudi fig­ures like Princess Reema bint Ban­dar and Badr Al Asaker, the sec­re­tary gen­eral of Misk, at­tended the day-long event. In a sign of the times, at­ten­dees were in­structed to down­load the event’s app in­stead of be­ing given printed sched­ules, and business card ex­changes were barely seen as “friend­ing” on Face­book was deemed the best way to con­nect.

For­mer US sec­re­tary of state Madeleine Al­bright, UNDP ad­min­is­tra­tor Achim Steiner and UN as­sis­tant sec­re­tary gen­eral Mourad Wahba also spoke, al­though the stage was given mainly to younger high achiev­ers. Un­like at many youth fo­rums, the 20 young speak­ers at the Misk-UNDP event ad­dressed key chal­lenges fac­ing the world, from the need for more in­clu­sive so­ci­eties to cli­mate change, rather than “youth is­sues”.

One of the main points stressed was that vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism cut across com­mu­ni­ties around the world, from Kawthar Al Abrash, a prom­i­nent Saudi writer whose son was killed while try­ing to stop a ter­ror­ist at­tack, to 19-year-old Iraqi Ahmed Badr, who fled to the US af­ter his fam­ily home in Bagh­dad was bombed.

Misk, through this fo­rum and its ac­tiv­i­ties in Saudi Ara­bia and abroad, says it is seek­ing to “pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive” to ex­trem­ist nar­ra­tives and pro­pa­ganda, rather than fo­cus on sim­ply coun­ter­ing it.

A few hours af­ter the tube at­tack at Par­sons Green in Lon­don, the 400 par­tic­i­pants took a pledge to counter ex­trem­ism. Led by Bjorn Ih­ler, a sur­vivor of the at­tack on Utoyo Is­land in Nor­way in 2011, declar­ing loudly: “I pledge to be ex­tremely to­gether.”

Nicola Benyahia, whose 19-year-old son Rasheed joined ISIL and died in Syria, was one of the speak­ers. She told The Na­tional there was need for those with “a gut feel­ing to come for­ward; the ear­lier we tackle it, the less dif­fi­cult it is to stop rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion. We need early in­ter­ven­tion.”

A ther­a­pist who works with 14 to 25-year-olds, Ms Benyahia set up the Fam­i­lies for Life foun­da­tion and of­fers coun­selling for fam­i­lies go­ing through the “de­rad­i­cal­is­ing pro­cesses and also griev­ing”.

She spoke of a gap that needs to be filled, be­tween state ef­forts to counter ex­trem­ism and the fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties of ex­trem­ists. “There is a miss­ing mid­dle, where fam­i­lies even if they are con­cerned, there is no safe place for them to speak about it openly … so they seek me out,” she said.

Ex­plain­ing her de­ci­sion to speak pub­licly about her son join­ing ISIL, Ms Ben­hayia spoke of her four daugh­ters.

“I didn’t want my daugh­ters to be im­pacted by shame. I grew up with shame with an al­co­holic mother and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, and I know how paralysing and dif­fi­cult it can be. Noth­ing will re­place my son but I wanted them to live on.”

A few hours af­ter the tube at­tack in Lon­don, the 400 par­tic­i­pants took a pledge to counter ex­trem­ism

Misk Foun­da­tion

Arwa Da­mon, left, of CNN, with aerospace en­gi­neer Mishaal Ashemimry at the Misk-UNDP youth fo­rum

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