(The Guardian) “I make more mezze for them than for my mother,” Isaiah, 15, points through the steam emanating from his sizzling pot of chickpeas, lime and spice, to a line of garment boutiques in down-town Amman. The vibrant souks of King Talal Street in the foreground reflect back in his hopeful eyes. They are Isaiah’s battleground for money, to feed himself and his ailing mother. The irony is not lost on him: “To feed us, I must feed others first.”
Young people are the creative lifeblood and future of the developing world. Jordan’s current Head of state, King Abdullah II, addressed his nation’s youth as “the knights of change” in his speech on the country’s 61st anniversary of independence in 2007. The words echo through the chaotic capital today, where a shrewd-faced Isaiah senses opportunity.
Each day before the Dhuhr salat, the noon prayer, he helps offload fresh carcasses for the local butchery and uses his six dinar earnings to purchase some meat and haggle expertly for Za’atar, a Middle-Eastern spice mixture. By midday he has created an assortment of sumptuous mezze dishes to sell to the wealthy clothing retailers. Though he earns enough to subsist, he walks precariously along the poverty line.
Whilst the World Bank estimates that about one billion people in the developing world will still live in extreme poverty in 2015, these regions also await a demographic ‘youth bulge’ with bated breath. For Jordan, chronic resource shortages are likely to be strained with the recent influx of Syrian refugees and increasingly burden the shoulders of youth, where approximately 55 percent of the population are aged below 25. “Without urgent measures, we risk creating a ‘lost generation’ of squandered talent and dreams,” lamented Ban Ki-moon, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, in his International Youth Day 2012 message.
Last year Isaiah’s father left Jordan to work for a construction firm in Dubai. “His payments are not enough to cover both of us anymore. I cannot go to school, I must make money,” adds Isaiah fervently. Almost one-third of the world’s children live in countries where lower secondary education is formally considered to be compulsory but where the commitment is not met, according to the UN’s educational agency’s (UNESCO) Global Education Digest 2011.
Recent global focus has been upon resourcing for universal primary education, in line with the UN’s second Millennium Development Goal. Isaiah will struggle to find well-paid formal employment having only a primary school education, especially when the number of jobseekers in Jordan already outweighs the jobs created by its economy. UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova added in the Digest that secondary education was the “minimum entitlement for equipping youth with the knowledge and skills they need to secure decent livelihoods in today’s globalised world.” Thrust into early adulthood, without schooling, Isaiah’s future balances on leveraging his natural talents.
The King’s call to integrate youth into the development process has boosted support frameworks within Jordan. Youth for the Future (Y4F) is a program of the International Youth Foundation in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development and the Jordanian government. Isaiah’s resolve is rare- often youth can become disillusioned and expel their energy disruptively. Y4F’s goal is to empower youth at-risk to realise their potential, while helping Jordanian society maximise their flair and enthusiasm.
“A million mile journey must begin with a single step,” affirms fledgling entrepreneur Mohammed, 20, interviewing for Y4F’s summer 2012 newsletter. The first step was developing life and work place skills via enrolment in the Y4F program. Following an entrepreneurship workshop he took out a 2000 Jordanian dinar loan from the ‘Youth from the Neighbourhood Loans’ project, and only a month later he could cover the regular loan payment and generate a small profit from his air-conditioning business.
“I was daydreaming one day and saw the name ‘Al Nabuti Air Conditioning’ sparkle in front of my eyes and I knew I had to start a business,” he recalled. Mohammed is one of around 900 youths who have completed the entrepreneurship training through Y4F and one of 60 to establish a business. His success story is poignant for Isaiah. The tailored network of support initiatives can enable Isaiah to transform his daily battle to sustain himself and his mother into a viable livelihood, and to grow away from the margins.
As Isaiah dares to dream, Leyla, 21, dare not dream. Despite having a modern languages diploma from community college, the gifted linguist survives on tips from guiding tourists around Amman’s various Roman ruins. “The tradition here for women is to marry early and contribute to the family as a mother and housewife. At my age, employers are too worried to hire me.” In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012, Jordan ranked 121st out of 135 countries. The Middle East and North Africa region as a whole ranked lowest on economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment. Leyla is talented like Isaiah and has the knowledge to succeed like Mohammed, but lacks a voice like most youth in the developing world.
Y4F also facilitate ‘Let’s Talk’ seminars which give Jordanian youth, including women like Leyla, the opportunity to voice their concerns in confidence. Lessons from Jordan’s Middle-Eastern neighbours, galvanised by the Arab spring, suggest that giving youth a voice and listening to them amidst economic and political strife can be a powerful weapon for change. Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that: “The time has come to integrate youth voices more meaningfully into decision-making processes at all levels.” Y4F’s personalised approach via forums such as ‘Let’s Talk’ places youth at the heart of change in their community. It provides the seeds to identify how best to harness the talents of youth like Isaiah and Leyla, considering their struggles, and empowers them to become the masters of their own future in the same vein as Mohammed.
The scent of Isaiah’s spices linger around him like a halo. Now he points from a different perspective, high up on Citadel hill overlooking Amman’s contemporary quarter. “I am the lucky one; my excellent cooking is my voice. I will own a restaurant just over there.” We need to start feeding young people’s ambition before they are unable to feed themselves.
- On being young in the Mideast (theviewfromamman.wordpress.com)
- Job Training, Loans Ease Arab Youth Unemployment (abcnews.go.com)
- Jordan: Fears of getting sucked into Syrian crisis – Arab News (arabnews.com)