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April 13, 2012

Arab Spring youth activists convene with Stanford students

The student-led initiative brought nearly 40 delegates from across North Africa, the Middle East and the United States to Stanford to swap stories and grow new ideas for change in the volatile region.

By Brooke Donald

Firyal Abdulaziz of Oman, Ali Al-Murtadha of Yemen and Rawan Da'as of Jordan talk with Dr. Lina Khatib during the lunch break on Tuesday at the AMENDS Conference. (L.A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

Undergraduates Khaled Alshawi and Elliot Stoller met on the Stanford campus in February 2011, right at the height of the Arab Spring.

Tunisia's government had already been overthrown, protesters were flooding town squares from Algeria to Jordan, Oman to Yemen. In a week, Hosni Mubarak would be forced to step down as Egypt's president after nearly three decades in power.

"We both wanted to do something," says Alshawi, a native of Bahrain. "So from that day on we met on a daily basis, and it exploded after that."

What exploded was an idea to create an organization that would bring together the young people who were part of the changes happening in the Middle East and North Africa – the protesters, activists, organizers, entrepreneurs, citizen journalists.

"We wanted them to learn from each other, to figure out how to do what they're doing better, to ensure to them a network of like-minded people and, ultimately, to empower them and amplify their voices," said Stoller, from Chicago, who spent time studying in Jordan.

Just over a year later, Alshawi and Stoller, as part of their group called AMENDS: American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford, are hosting a conference for nearly 40 young people from across the region and the United States.

The participants are attending workshops and lectures by Stanford professors, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and international leaders in government and nonprofit groups.

They also were hooked up with mentors before the summit to help them develop their ideas or create new ones.

Each conference attendee is presenting a 10-minute speech about his or her project, which will be posted online to help raise awareness of and support for the work.

"We want to create a continual platform of exposure for the delegates," says Stoller.

Earlier this week, during a lunch break of pizza and soda, the participants exchanged stories, talked about current issues and checked up on email and social networks.

Selma Maarouf, of Sale, Morocco, said her interest in the conference sprang from a desire to educate people about what is happening in her country.

"I feel like the world doesn't know enough about Morocco. We've taken to the street every week to fight for dignity and human rights," Maarouf said.

Maarouf was one of the original activists in the so-called February 20 protests that resulted in constitutional reforms and concessions by King Mohammed VI. She is now trying to start a human rights group that would incorporate art as a means to educate people about their rights.

Also seeking to use art as a method for community development is Rawan Da'as, a photographer from Jordan. Da'as created a group called Photography Skills for Little Wonders, which aims to develop critical and creative thinking skills in children through taking pictures and observing their communities.

She says the conference has been inspiring.

"Each day, I've learned something new," she said, "Meeting with such talented people opens more doors for me to explore opportunities about how I can accelerate my initiative."

Other participants include Sam Adelsberg, a Yale law student who co-founded a website that allows individuals to make small loans to entrepreneurs in Palestinian territories, and Fadi Quran, a recent Stanford graduate who is now a human rights activist and alternative energy entrepreneur in the West Bank.

Quran, who was recently arrested and briefly jailed after a protest, said the summit was an opportunity to see old friends and widen his social network.

"I think that to achieve success in the different nation-states we work in, we're going to have to network and integrate our efforts with other activists from the broader region," he said.

The 5-day conference, the first of its kind, is sponsored by the Stanford Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. It ends Saturday.

Prince Moulay Hicham ben Abdallah of Morocco, a visiting researcher at the center, said during the opening speech to delegates that the Arab Spring showed that young people once called apathetic and passive are now the vanguard of change.

"You have helped create a new transnational exchange of ideas, experiences and knowledge, and these exchanges will provide the levers and opportunities to create long-term change in your society," he said.

AMENDS co-director Meredith Wheeler, a sophomore, said that after the conference ends she hopes the organization will continue to be an incubator for the kinds of ideas and initiatives that shape the future of the Middle East.

"I hope that people take out a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to be change agents in their country of origin," she said. "And I hope that they developed the kind of network both with the people at Stanford and with the other delegates to really make their ideas a reality."



Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,

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