AMIDEAST cel­e­brates 50 years

NGO has ex­panded work from ed­u­ca­tion to ac­tiv­i­ties in­clud­ing fe­male em­pow­er­ment

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON -

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.

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