The culture of volunteering is essential in the Middle East (ME), as it is in any civilization, and should be at the center of social practice at the regional level. Yet, should one take a closer look, it becomes evident that volunteerism has not been as active in the ME as it should. In the past, within Middle Eastern constructs of volunteerism and culture, Arab youth, and Arab women in particular, have faced many obstacles to engagement within their society. Many Arab young females were unable to volunteer, being restricted by their families, who were concerned for their safety or fearful of people’s judgment. Such a lack of opportunity for youth, combined with an increasing number of youth in the region who are seeking to participate in their societies, has resulted in increasing social tensions.
Within this context, my past and current involvement in volunteerism was molded. Among the most significant experiences has been in Jordan when I joined the Middle East Expedition Project (MEXP). MEXP is an innovative program designed to encourage volunteerism and to mobilize young people to help their societies in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. The project aims to engage young people through volunteerism and local community action by mobilizing community volunteers (mainly young men and women from the target areas, aged 16 to 30 years). The initial strategy was to take a bus filled with 100 creative, curious and enthusiastic young people from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Denmark and travel throughout the ME for three weeks in the summer of 2010 for the purpose of conducting projects they have designed with the local communities they meet on the way.
My participation in MEXP involves helping the participants develop their projects. One tremendous opportunity was working with MEXP’s International Workshop (IW). I had the chance to meet all the regional teams in order to support them as they developed their projects. As the coordinator, I sought to ensure that these participants were aware of the meaning of volunteerism and its connection with the core elements of MEXP: creative civic engagement, youth-to-youth dialogue and cultural exchange, and female participation. I was surprised and thrilled to find that most of the national participants were female. These young women inspired me, as they demonstrated their commitment to enact the four pillars of MEXP and their readiness to support their communities. While facilitating my session in the IW, I was also able to encourage and observe the development of support networks, as students were introduced to one another and worked together as a team. Such interaction among these groups created a strong sense of trust, commitment, and responsibility, which I believe are vital elements for empowering them to become active members in civil society organizations and their respective communities.
Embedded in the MEXP participants’ narratives as volunteers and as members of their communities are MEXP’s core values of cultural integration, youth engagement, and decision making. As an Arab woman, I foresee that MEXP will contribute to an understanding that acknowledges the vital role of young people in making decisions, building partnerships, increasing gender equality, and building their own capacity as humanitarian actors to deal with issues that concern them and the society at large.
Gazing my eyes over MEXP, I am able to catch a future vision that promotes youth volunteerism, primarily through empowering decision making. It also enhances the culture of youth civic engagement and strengthens their capacity to enact change.