By Emily Ardell
It looks just like any other road in Egypt, at least to the naked eye. It’s dry and dusty, littered with a few bits of garbage and hosting a lone donkey cart pulling a trailer of sun-scorched watermelons. But 24-year-old Noha Samy beams proudly as she shares the story of this road and why it is so important to her.
Noha participates in the Egyptian Youth Take Action Project (EYTAP) being implemented by Catholic Relief Services and its partners the Egyptian Red Crescent Society and the YMCA, working with more than 1,000 youth in nine of the poorest regions in Egypt. These young people identify key issues in their communities and develop small projects to help solve these problems. Young people take charge of designing and implementing each project, and in the process become leaders for positive change in their communities. The idea is very simple, but the impact is truly awe-inspiring.
“This road used to be like a dump,” Noha says. “There were mountains of garbage because people didn’t know where else to leave it. It smelled horrible. There were no streetlights and people who had to travel on this road were being assaulted all the time.”
Noha and her fellow youth leaders decided to create a plan and take action. They got support from the local government authorities and used project funds to clean up the garbage, install streetlights, plant trees, paint the curbs, install dumpsters, and establish community teams that are now responsible for monitoring the cleanliness and safety of the road and for watering the trees.
“Now people feel safe walking down this road at night, even with their kids. The community members are very interested in preserving its cleanliness and safety,” Noha says, smiling and gesturing to the robed community leaders standing nearby. “They volunteer to take turns watering the plants, and they work with the rest of the community to make sure people leave their garbage in the dumpsters. There is still some littering, but you should have seen it before. There were mountains of garbage! It looks much better now,” she says with understated pride.
Despite her modesty, it’s certain that Noha and her fellow youth leaders have much reason to take pride in their accomplishments. Eighteen community-level projects of this kind are being implemented across Egypt as part of through this CRS program, and as a result Noha and her peers are improving health, building better schools, increasing awareness about key issues, and cleaning up the streets.
But what is immediately clear about this project is that the real winners are not the community members but the young people themselves. Just as Noha tells the story of cleaning up the street, hundreds of her peers are telling similar stories, consistently and understandably proud of their leadership and what they’ve been able to do for their communities – and that they have been able to do something for their communities.
“I am proud of this project because we did it! No one else told us what to do or how to do it. We planned the activities ourselves, and because of that we got a lot of other youth in the community to participate,” Noha explained. “We really helped people with this project and that feels good. Also, in the process I learned about writing proposals and managing budgets, and now I am researching how to do more of these kinds of projects in the future.”
In response to recent events across the Arab world, people have started to pay much more attention to a phenomenon known as the “youth bulge” in the Middle East – the growing segment of the population under 30, most of whom struggle to find work due to the difficult economic environments in which they live. Although many people, in the region and abroad, worry that this youth bulge and the resulting “youth idle time” could have a negative impact on society as a whole, CRS and its partners in Egypt see it instead as an unparalleled opportunity for positive change. The EYTAP project is one of many ways CRS is investing in young people in Egypt.
As Noha talks excitedly about other ideas for community projects now being discussed by its young people, it becomes clear that this is indeed no ordinary road. It’s a powerful example of what the young people in this region can and will do to improve their communities, when given the chance.
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