AMIDEAST celebrates 50 years
NGO has expanded work from education to activities including female empowerment
BEIRUT: When AMIDEAST established its first office, in West Beirut in 1968, its staffers likely did not anticipate that 50 years later the NGO would have touched the lives of some 33,000 Lebanese.
Initially established as a cultural and educational liaison between the United States and the Middle East, the American NGO found itself helping young Lebanese students escape the Civil War for American universities after the Lebanese conflict broke out in 1975.
While many other foreign groups left the country in the years that followed, the organization chose instead to open a second office, in East Beirut, to increase its accessibility to students across a divided city and country.
To date, in addition to helping students navigate the American higher education process, AMIDEAST has secured over $20,000,000 in scholarships and financial aid for over 113 underprivileged students.
As AMIDEAST celebrates its 50th anniversary, Barbara Batlouni, the NGO’s Lebanon director, and Wafa Saab, a member of its advisory board, spoke with The Daily Star about the organization’s growth over the decades.
Both expressed pride in helping families that lack financial resources to realize the dream of higher education for their children.
But Batoulni and Saab also explained that while AMIDEAST’s educational initiatives are what it is perhaps best known for, the organization does far more.
Today it helps empower women through entrepreneurship programs, bolsters the quality of English classes in rural areas and teaches university students skills that will enhance their marketability in the workforce.
Take Lana Halabi, a co-owner of Halabi Bookshop – an independent family-run bookstore in Beirut’s AlTariq al-Jadideh – and one of AMIDEAST’s beneficiaries.
Halabi, who quit her job to open the small business in a shop formerly owned by her father, received a full scholarship funded by AMIDEAST during Alt City’s 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Week.
The money enabled her to participate in workshops to help her start her business.
“While my background is in business, the program helped me sum up everything I needed to know before starting the bookshop,” Halabi says.
“What was positive was having this weekly class with great mentors. The networking in turn was beneficial for me and the bookshop.”
Halabi Bookshop breathes life into a working-class neighborhood known by many for its occasional instability. It hosts a variety of events that are open to the community, including storytelling events for young people.
Saab says that for every person AMIDEAST is able to benefit, the organization hopes that person is able to have some effect on their personal circles.
“What we hope for is for students who benefit from any of our programs to come back with the experience they have gained and use it to benefit the communities around them.”
Halabi is not the only beneficiary to pay forward to the local community some of what she gained from working with AMIDEAST.
In 2003, as part of the first cohort of the AMIDEAST-sponsored Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program, then-15-year-old Ahmad Ilani from south Lebanon’s Sidon moved to a small town near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He lived for a year with an American family and attended high school as an exchange student.
Ilani says his experience abroad was an informative part of his youth and continues to play a large role in his adult life.
“There were many differences between the people [in Wisconsin] and those from [Sidon],” he says.
“People there were more involved with their city and community. For example, the school, its activities and events, had a big impact on the greater community.”
Ilani played on sports teams and took part in extracurricular clubs hosted by the school. He recalled how quickly it was possible to engage with the larger community and how leadership skills were valued in community building.
Now a pharmacy owner in Bqosta, a small town not far from Sidon, he leads a recycling initiative that teaches community members to sort waste from the source and properly dispose of it. He says one of the driving forces behind the initiative, called “Bqosta Goes Green,” was the cultural attitude he adopted while abroad.
“It’s had a really positive impact, and now there are joint plans in surrounding cities to spread awareness,” he says.
AMIDEAST has even awarded a grant to “Bqosta Goes Green.”
For Batlouni and Saab, AMIDEAST’s ripple effects on beneficiaries like Halabi and Ilani are testaments to the belief that by helping one person, the NGO can create wider change. –
AMIDEAST’s educational initiatives are what the NGO is perhaps best known for.