Q: Tell us a little bit about the Nawaya Network and why you were inspired to start the organization.
Zeina Saab (ZS): The idea came to me three years ago while I was working in Lebanon on different development projects. At one point, I came across an underprivileged girl from an isolated village who had a passion for fashion design, but lacked the tools or guidance to develop her skills. I thought, what a waste of talent and potential. If only this girl had the right resources around her she would have the chance to realize her dream and become a fashion designer. I started to wonder about all the other people like her with hidden potential who we will never know about because they live in isolated villages or are too poor to afford training and classes.
So a year and a half ago I decided to start The Nawaya Network, which is an NGO that identifies underprivileged youth who have a passion or a talent but lack the resources to develop their skills. The idea is to help these young people engage in something they are passionate about, and to help them build their skills as a way out of poverty. At the same time, this would help keep these young people away from crime, violence, and drugs, which are becoming more prevalent in Lebanon these days.
Q: There is both a direct face-to-face mentorship and online component to the network. Can you tell us a bit how these two facets of the network will complement each other and help support your work?
ZS: Our online platform is a unique way of harnessing and gathering all the resources that exist around us. The mentorship program will start online where we will advertise, for example, that a certain number of youth are looking for art or music classes. The platform would allow us to determine if there are any people interested in being mentors in that domain. This is how we recruit people – we reach our mentors by leveraging the power of social media and the Internet rather than focusing only on on-the-ground recruitment.
Part two of the program will involve more on the ground action and include interviewing, training, and orienting our volunteers to become mentors. The network, therefore, has two components that cannot work without one another and which are actually more effective side by side. At this point, we are building the mentoring program which includes developing the training program, getting experts on board, helping mentors become sensitized to social work, understanding how to approach the youths’ parents if and when there is a problem, and helping volunteers understand what issues they should be aware of – this all take place off-line, but we cannot achieve these goals without the online platform, which allows us to go beyond our personal connections and reach out to a larger network.
In addition, while the mentorship component will be exclusively local, we want to reach Lebanese living abroad as a lot of expats frequently return to Lebanon. If they would like to volunteer with us while they are here, we would be very happy to have their support. They would not be considered “mentors,” however, because the mentor relationship must last a minimum of 6 months. But we do want to open opportunities for expats to become involved which is why the online platform is so important.
Q: Why have you decided to focus on sports and arts education as a way of helping underprivileged youth in Lebanon?
ZS: At this point, we do not want to focus too much on academic tutoring because the youth are exposed to so much negative influence these days – violence, crime, war, gangs, drug use. We want to find a hook for these underprivileged youth that engages them in something they are passionate about, not something that we tell them they should learn or a curriculum they should be aware of, rather something they feel inspired to act upon, something for which they feel they have a calling. This is our approach. It is a new approach but we believe it will be very effective in helping keep kids and youth off the streets.
Q: The Nawaya Network has already started pairing some young Lebanese children with mentors. What kind of results have you seen from these early trials?
ZS: It has been extremely rewarding and has made us believe even more in this project. Within just a short period of time, we have seen results. We have a 9 year-old boy who was very shy but very bright and had a passion for basketball. We decided to help him channel his energy into this sport that he loves. Because he did not know how to play basketball, we enrolled him at a sports club, and within weeks, he had changed from a shy, reserved boy to one with more confidence. He began to exhibit so much energy on the court. He became aggressive with the ball, started to shoot it more, his eyes started to glow.
Even though he was always a bright boy, he is now number one in his class. We believe that this experience helped push him to the very front because he had more self-confidence. It is not just about improving the skill itself, but also about the impact it has on the person as a whole.
Q: How do you see the Nawaya Network developing over the next five years? What sort of global impact do you think the network can have?
ZS: In the short-run, we will focus on Lebanon, but in the long-term, I think if the online platform is successful, as we hope it will be, it can be replicated elsewhere. Ideally we want to expand to the Arab region where there is an enormous youth bulge. If this platform is successful, it can potentially help thousands of poor youth in different communities in the region. But it need not stop there – the network has the potential to go beyond the Arab world and we have hopes to open up offices in the United States as well.
In terms of global impact, we think the network will play a substantial role in youth empowerment by encouraging people to redirect resources to those in need. Once people become aware of the hidden potential in these poor areas, I think more resources will be invested there. I cannot help but think how many geniuses have lived and died in the poorest corners of the world. How many artists, musicians, and star athletes have we missed meeting, people who could have really changed our world, but because they were born in isolated areas, or poor circumstances, were deprived of this opportunity. We hope people will become more aware of these realities and that negative perceptions about the poor will start to change as a result.
Q: What are some of the things people can do now to help the Nawaya Network develop its work, and launch its online platform.
ZS:There are a few things that people can do and I will direct my suggestions for the most part to those who do not live in Lebanon. We have a film called “Meet Me Halfway” that we have produced, released and screened in various cities including London, Boston, DC, New York, Beirut, and Amman. We want to continue screening the film, and would love to have partners in various cities around the world who would be interested in holding a screening for us. I would be very happy to call in via Skype to introduce the initiative and answer any questions. This really helps in spreading the word, creating awareness, and fundraising. Anybody who wants to partner up with us in this way can get in touch with us at [email protected]
Beyond that, you can share the link to the film on Facebook, Twitter, and email using the following link.
Finally, if anybody has connections to potential media partners to help us generate more visibility, or has connections to sponsors, or knows experts in the field who could act as consultants or advisors in various domains, such as art, music, athletics, it would be very helpful if they could share their contacts with us. In particular, because we know we will come across many talented young people through our work, we would love to get expert feedback on their progress. While we do have experts at the local level, it would be great to partner up at the international level as well.