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Video of the Week: Administrator Shah Discusses Humanitarian Crisis in Syria

On the heels of his return from a refugee camp in Turkey, Dr. Shah did a live interview on Friday, December 7th with Al Jazeera English about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Dr. Shah stressed the importance of international support for those affected by the crisis, which is why the U.S. has committed more than $200 million for displace people inside and outside of Syria.  He also noted that humanitarian efforts are reaching about 1.5 million people with food, 400,000 families with winterization materials, 22,000 people with surgeries.

Engaging with Arab Americans on Syria

On Friday, September 28, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah traveled to the Arab American National Museum in Michigan to meet with a group of Arab American leaders and tour the museum. The Smithsonian Institution-affiliated museum, which chronicles the contributions of Arab Americans to the United States and the world, is the first and only one of its kind. It is located in Dearborn, the city with the largest percentage of Arab Americans in America, and is a project of Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), the largest Arab American social service organization in the United States.

At the roundtable, Administrator Shah, moderator Hassan Jaber, the executive director of ACCESS, and Arab American community and organizational leaders discussed USAID’s work in the Middle East, in particular in support of the people of Syria, and how diaspora and immigrant communities can be engaged.

The event came just as Secretary Clinton was hosting a Friends of Syria meeting in New York and announcing nearly $30 million in additional humanitarian assistance to help those affected by the conflict in Syria.

One participant told Dr. Shah that as a child in Syria, he had seen the distribution of bags of food with USAID’s logo of clasped hands and that this had left a permanent imprint on him – it made him realize that the United States cared about him and the people around him. What, he wanted to know, was USAID doing now in the midst of the crisis in Syria?

The United States, in partnership with the international community, is tirelessly working to provide aid to the innocent children, women, and men affected by this conflict. We are delivering more than $130 million in humanitarian assistance to help more than 975,000 people inside Syria and the nearly 300,000 who have fled to the safety of neighboring countries. We are the largest provider of food aid to those affected by the crisis, and we are providing medical supplies and medical care in some of the hardest-hit cities in Syria. Due to ongoing violence and access restrictions, humanitarian partner organizations and their courageous staff are not yet able to reach everyone in need, but we continue to work to expand our aid networks to overcome these hurdles and provide additional humanitarian assistance for those affected by the crisis.

The meeting was a good opportunity for Dr. Shah to discuss his experiences on his recent visit to Za’aatri refugee camp near the Syria-Jordan border and his conversations with Syrians, young and old, who have sought refuge at the camp.

Equally important was the chance for Dr. Shah and USAID staff to learn from the people in the room, many of whom have family and friends in Syria. They shared their understanding of the situation on the ground, discussed what they are doing to help, and identified needs that might be addressed by the U.S. Government. They wanted to talk not only about the here and now but to engage also on a post-Assad era.

This meeting is part of an ongoing dialogue to deepen our partnerships with immigrant and diaspora community members to help the Syrian people.

Visit our website for additional information about what the United States is doing to help the people of Syria.

Photo of the Week: USAID in Yemen

Yemeni school girls wave the Yemen flag last autumn after USAID efforts helped return children to classes following the 2011 Yemen uprising. Photo Credit: USAID

This week, Administrator Shah is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for the Yemen Donor Conference. Learn about the work USAID is already doing in Yemen.

Empowering Yemeni Youth

My home town – Aden, Yemen – has been engulfed by a series of crises over the past year that have negatively affected my people. We are not used to seeing young people carrying guns and showing so little tolerance for one another. Sadly, this is now the norm.

My concern for my community drew me to service, and in 2009 I established the Leaders Community Services Association in Aden along with several other young people. Our mission is to support our community and find ways to engage young people.

For nearly three years we have partnered in this mission with USAID and, in that time, I have come to believe that our commitments and our objectives are parallel. We both see the need for an integrated approach to addressing the many challenges faced by young Yemenis.  We must address these challenges strategically, and understand the root causes of my society’s struggles: unemployment, the large number of young people without job, and the fragmentation of traditional societal structures.

Early last year I joined a USAID workshop focused on developing life skills.  It opened my eyes to how much more can be done to empower and motivate young people to become active in their communities and got me thinking of different ways of bringing about community change.

I started thinking of new ways my association could target larger audiences. We turned to USAID’s Engaging Youth for a Stable Yemen program, and together we held a festival promoting peace and understanding in my community. With USAID’s help, we organized an event which encouraged youth to use their time wisely and discouraged them from carrying arms. We encouraged participation by hosting a concert featuring hip-hop and rap acts, and documentary films emphasizing constructive options for youth. The festival was the first of its kind in Aden and my peers loved it. My team learned that Aden youth are ready to engage and volunteer to benefit their community.

I was motivated by our success and USAID’s help pulling the event together to develop my skills as a community activist further. With USAID support, I pursued a three-month internship with the Creative People’s Solution Institute. I am now working with the Institute to help run training sessions on resolving community conflicts and disputes, which could reach more than 6,000 local youth.

Recently, I received a U.S. government grant to help 400 youth at the University of Aden’s schools of medicine, engineering, education, and arts become involved in their communities. Participants will receive life skills training, and will be asked to develop and implement ideas to improve their educational experience.

I am passionate about making improvements in my community, helping its members better understand each other, and creating a healthy environment for dialogue and tolerance. It is a labor of love that USAID and the American people are helping me to pursue.

Areej Haider is a 26-year-old community activist in Aden. She is a student at the University of Aden School of Medicine. Areej obtained a Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) fellowship in 2005 which launched her as a community activist. She is a founder and head of the Leaders Community Services LCP Association.

Expanding Access to Quality Education and Improved Health Care in the West Bank’s “Area C”

I recently had the opportunity to visit a construction site in Jalazone, just outside of Ramallah in the West Bank, where the U.S. Government is partnering with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in cooperation with Palestinian and Israeli officials, to build a school that will provide a safe and vastly improved learning environment for more than 1,100 girls.

Once completed, the school will provide an enhanced learning environment for more than 1,100 girls. Photo Credit: Lubna Rifi

Jalazone is located in what is known as “Area C,” an area that comprises approximately 60 percent of the West Bank and is under Israeli administrative and security control, in accordance with the terms of the Oslo Accords. The expansion work on the Jalazone School, which includes building 23 new modern classrooms, science labs, vocational training rooms, and all the facilities of a functioning school, is part of U.S. efforts, underway for some time, working closely with the Palestinian Authority and Israeli officials, to improve access to essential services for Palestinians living in “Area C.”

While visiting the construction site, UNRWA’s West Bank Field Director Felipe Sanchez and I spoke with the Principal at the school, Sana Bayyari. She explained how much she and her students and teachers are looking forward to moving from the current school’s overcrowded and run-down classrooms to what will effectively be a fully renovated school by March 2013. These renovations will significantly improve the educational environment at the school, originally built in the 1950s. Principal Bayyari also noted that they are especially excited that they will no longer have to attend school in double shifts as they have been doing for years to accommodate all of the students.

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Ensuring Iraqi Communities Benefit from Local Oil Wealth

When you arrive in Basra in southern Iraq for the first time, all you are able to see is desert and the occasional smoke plumes from the oil fields. The city of Basra has a storied history that ranges from a possible site for the Garden of Eden to being the hometown of Sinbad the sailor, but years of civil unrest have turned it into a gray and melancholy place. At least on the surface. When you look closely, you will see that the city is full of life. Children are everywhere-they run and play, laughing and shrieking in family parks that have recently popped up around the city.  The busiest of all is a newly completed family park in Al Nashwa, a working class neighborhood of Basra.  The beautiful, green park, opened a few months ago- complete with tricycles and benches- has brought a splash of color and hope to the children and families of this hardscrabble district. As day stretches into night, the warm natural light fades and is replaced by the cool light of overhead solar lamps.  Children boast of their clean playground, families linger, chatting and relaxing —comfortable in the safety of the well-illuminated grounds.

The solar-lit park is the product of a partnership between an international oil company and the local community in Al Nashwa.  But it wouldn’t be what it is today without USAID’s efforts training a local community action group that wanted to do more in its community.

Representatives from an oil company and Al Nashwa community preside over the opening ceremony for the family park and solar lighting installation. Photo Credit: Mercy Corps

The company had originally proposed the installing solar street lighting to benefit pedestrians and drivers. However, in the course of engaging with the community and the USAID-trained community action group, another more pressing need was identified: creating a safe place for children and families to spend time.  Working together, the community was able to prioritize their needs and present the project to the potential donor.

This successful partnership between an oil company and the Al Nashwa community has inspired further collaboration in Basra on significant infrastructure projects, such as road expansion and crosswalks.

USAID’s Community Action Program is the model being used to ensure community participation in the processes that shape projects sponsored by the international oil companies and the local government. Since 2003, the program has worked with Iraqi communities to assist them in identifying and prioritizing their needs while promoting improved engagement with local governments and other stakeholders.

In Al Zubair, initial discussions between an international oil company and the USAID-trained local community action group identified unemployed widows as a priority for the community.  The company agreed to fund a sewing cooperative that would give training and equipment to 15 disadvantaged local women.  The project suits needs all around:  not only can the company save time and money by having company uniforms produced locally, but the women can earn income and gain valuable sewing, embroidery, and business management skills.  In the coming months, the Al Zubair sewing cooperative hopes to find new clients with the growing oil industry in Basra.

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USAID Helps Palestinian Olive Farmers Improve Harvests of “Liquid Gold”

During my recent visit to Jenin, in the northern West Bank, I had the chance to visit the Canaan Fair Trade Company. With USAID assistance, Canaan is helping Palestinian growers increase their yields and tap into the rapidly growing global market in organic, fair trade products. The projects I saw showed how relatively modest investments can pay huge dividends for rural communities.

Assistant Administrator Mara Rudman sampling Palestinian delicacies while visiting Canaan Fair Trade. Credit: Ghassan Al 'Jamal, USAID/WestBank/Gaza

Growers in the hills and valleys around Jenin have been making healthy organic cold-pressed olive oil and other local delicacies for centuries. But frequent droughts and growing practices that did not always most effectively conserve an unreliable water supply, combined with a limited local market for their products, have made it extremely challenging for growers to realize substantial profits from their hard work.

By bringing together local growers to raise standards, improve packaging, and market their goods jointly under the Canaan Fair Trade brand, Canaan has helped growers to reap greater rewards from their products while producing more sustainable results and conserving the resources used in doing so. Word of their successes spread quickly and today Canaan sources its agricultural food products from a network of 49 cooperatives, providing incomes for more than 1,700 farming families belonging to the Palestine Fair Trade Association.

A machine in the Canaan Fair Trade facility affixes labels reading “Delicacies from the Land of Milk and Honey.” Photo Credit: Canaan Fair Trade

With USAID’s support, Canaan has been able to find new markets by preparing for and participating in the 2010 and 2011 Fancy Food Shows in the United States. These shows are the largest specialty food fairs in North America. Canaan’s management told me during my visit that their products are proving so popular in North America and Europe that the company is looking to expand further. To assist Canaan in this, we also have been able to partner with them on initiatives to help growers increase their yields.

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On the Road Again: USAID’s Mobile Medical Teams Resume Serving Yemen’s Marginalized People

During my recent visit to Yemen I had the opportunity to view many of the ways in which USAID is supporting development in the country. I was particularly impressed by USAID’s successful effort to provide local communities with basic medical services.

Assistant Administrator Rudman inaugurates an MMT van, marking the resumption of the MMT program. Photo Credit: USAID

Yemen faces many challenges, but few are as daunting as providing medical care to its displaced and marginalized populations. Currently, just a quarter of rural Yemenis have access to medical care.

One way in which USAID has assisted Yemen in responding to this challenge is by developing mobile medical teams (MMTs), clinics on wheels that travel regularly to marginalized communities. USAID launched the first of its 15 MMTs in the remote governorate of Marib in February 2011.

The MMTs struggled to operate during the civil disturbances of the past year and had limited opportunities to visit local communities. But now they are back on the road. I had the pleasure of joining one such team on a sunny February morning.

It did not take long for a huge crowd to form around the MMT van when it rolled into a gray and dusty Sana’a neighborhood in the district of Sawan. A flurry of excited activity accompanied the arrival of the USAID MMT van. It was clear that these MMTs constitute a critical lifeline for many already at-risk Yemenis. The fully equipped MMT offers basic primary care, maternal and child care, diagnosis, immunization, and medications—all for free—to needy and marginalized people. On this day, however, I was told that the reappearance of the MMT vehicles after weeks without them created even more of a stir.

After a short ceremony marking the resumption of the MMT program, local men, women, and children lined up to receive basic medical services, including blood pressure readings, vaccinations for the young, and medication for the sick. I was impressed both by the warm welcome the community offered and the efficiency and effectiveness the medical team displayed.

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Standing with the Egyptian People at an Historical Moment

I recently returned from a trip to Cairo and Sohag, a town in rural “Upper Egypt” along the Nile. I have traveled to Egypt before, but this time my visit fell during the lead-up to the first-round of Egypt’s historic parliamentary elections and fresh tensions and unrest in Tahrir Square. The air was electric, and the mood on the street seemed both eager and anxious. And I was handed a special opportunity to hear and witness first-hand how USAID’s assistance is making an impact in two very different parts of the country – the sprawling, urban capital and the rural, agricultural region around Sohag.

The elections on November 28 drew the attention of the world. We all saw images of voters lined up in the rain, waiting to cast their ballots, seizing the promise of freedom to choose future leadership that a democratically run process offers. While in Cairo, I met with some of USAID’s partner organizations, who are working to support voter education, election monitoring and training of interested political parties to run transparent, effective campaigns.

Like elections at home, the campaign season in Egypt has involved much discussion about the need for more and better jobs. Greater economic opportunities have been a common refrain from those protesting in Tahrir Square and the many more beyond. I met with representatives from the Egyptian business community, including members of the Egyptian National Competitiveness Council, to talk about the increasingly challenging economic situation, the importance of more effective education and training for young Egyptians entering the workforce, and the ways that the U.S. can be most helpful in this arena.

In speaking with representatives of some women’s groups, including UN Women and the USAID-funded project Combating Violence against Women and Children, I learned of additional concerns facing Egyptian women even as they advocated with their brethren for economic and political reform in the new post January 25th era. For example, some who are barely managing with work outside the home now, worry that in a faltering economy, they will lose their positions, and be relegated to subsistence existence and the dependencies that ensue. Among other activities, these groups work to increase public awareness and improve services that protect and assist women and children who suffer from domestic abuse.

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USAID Peace Scholar Speaks in the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting

I have just returned to Cairo after a life-changing week I spent in New York City. During which I participated in the Clinton Global Initiative as a youth guest speaker. I spoke in a panel with President Clinton and other renowned world leaders, met with Dr. Rajiv Shah –I have to admit that his age combined with his extraordinary profile reinforced my belief that age should not be considered as a qualifying factor in any context,– engaged in inspiring conversations with global business leaders and social entrepreneurs, conducted a press interview, updated my knowledge throughout world-class thematic sessions that brought global pioneers to share ideas that are worth replication. Moreover, two days later I, along with other youth leaders from India, Australia, and the U.S. spoke in a panel moderated by Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero at the U.S. Mission to the UN.

I keep hearing 3 bells ringing inside myself since I was back to Cairo; bells that produce moving and hopeful sounds. The first bell is for commitment; a commitment to bring about a radical change to the lives of marginalized youth in Egypt. No matter how much hardiness the journey may reveal.  I will continue believing in young potentials, and expose underserved youth to enabling opportunities, that increase their access to livelihood, and their access to a life of dignity. I will continue to believe that it is their very basic right as it is my fair duty.

I believe if social entrepreneurs were able to make the case for channeling youth energies into community development, political participation, and economic development, then Egypt will pass its interim phase smoothly towards a promising future. I envision youth embracing entrepreneurial attitude, starting small businesses and mobilizing unused resources and creating jobs. I also envision youth engaged in the political life and lobbying for legislation that increases their representation at the different levels and promotes good governance. This can be achieved through sustained collaboration of a strong civil society, responsible private sector, and a transparent inclusive government.

The second bell is for capitalizing on what I have gained from the Clinton Global Initiative. First, I was able to connect with a number of heads of organizations, who represent a huge prospect for technical and financial support for the youth work I have been doing. Second, the boost of self-confidence and inspiration I gained has sharpened my aggressiveness to broaden the network of supporters, and manage a more diversified roundtable for youth development.

The third bell is for my regional role. As a USAID Peace Scholar, who have studied for one year and involved in community service in the U.S. along with other 46 youth leaders from 7 countries in the MENA region, I believe the Peace Scholarships Program should not be considered ended as the funding stopped. I will be organizing to start the Peace Scholarships Alumni Association, so we—as peace scholars—can engage in collaborative developmental efforts, and influence policy making across the region.

I believe it is just the beginning, and I see my dreams possible more than ever before.

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