The United Lebanon Youth Project will be honored later this month at the 18th annual Khalil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” Awards Gala in Washington D.C. for its groundbreaking work providing educational services and support to marginalized and disadvantaged young people. The Arab American Institute will recognize the organization with its Award for Institutional Excellence for ULYP’s services to underserved communities in Lebanon and its efforts to bring together and empower disparate groups through education programs.
Founder Melek al-Nimer had been working in refugee camps for 25 years when she founded the organization in 2010.
“I established ULYP because [to that point] whatever you did in the camps stayed in the camps – there was this invisible wall around the camps,” Nimer told The Daily Star in an interview at ULYP Hamra offices.
“We decided that what we need to do is get the people that we work with, get the beneficiaries out of the camps to participate in our programs, and bring them together with beneficiaries from other marginalized communities,” she added.
Nimer was one of 12 women presented with the “2015 Women Who Make a Difference Award” by the International Women’s Forum. In addition to her work with ULYP she is the founder and president of the Lebanese chapter of the IWF.
ULYP now operates a wide range of programs serving the Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians, and Iraqis, both in refugee camps and at its 24,000 square meter campus in Debbieh, which includes facilities for music, art, sports, and IT. The organization runs 10-12 educational programs a year on everything from environmentalism to gender based violence, reaching some 3,000 people.
“The concept is that every child, woman, and youth in Lebanon and in the world has the right to access education – quality education – so that they can have a better life and succeed in their life. So what we would like to do is make sure everyone has access to quality programs,” said Director Nicole Eid Abu Haidar.
She emphasized that the ULYP’s initiatives were designed to bridge the deep divisions in Lebanese society.
“This whole thing that we are different – it has to be changed. We are different? That’s good,” said Abu Haidar. “Diversity is not a cause to discriminate it is a cause to celebrate. We do our programs to help all underprivileged people integrate better in the community through education. We use education for social development.”
Each year the organization’s Bridge Program targets 150 top high school students from Lebanese public schools and UNRWA secondary institutions to receive college and SAT preparatory courses and assistance on their applications.
They are then matched with donors for scholarships and financial aid secured by ULYP.
The program permits these students to attend top Lebanese universities whose costs would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive, including the American University in Beirut, the Lebanese American University, and The Beirut Arab University.
The program currently has 300 students enrolled at these universities, and a further 75 overseas.
“Our students used to say AUB was a dream, now it’s an option,” said Abu Haidar.
ULYP continues its support after graduation, helping students pursue further education and employment in Lebanon and abroad.
Palestinians are prohibited from working in 30 industries in Lebanon, and face problems obtaining visas to work or study abroad. ULYP provides assistance on both fronts.
“My long term plan is to empty the camps,” Nimer said. She contends that education is the only way to alleviate the generational poverty that afflicts Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps and challenge negative stereotypes about the community abroad.
“Sometimes we are asked if this is not a brain drain ... but our students have absolutely nothing to come back to. So instead of having disenchanted doctors sitting in Burj al-Barajneh where eventually someone will put a gun in their hands, I would much rather have successful doctors and engineers that represent the community outside, which will change the perception of the western world.”
Nimer believes that providing Palestinians with access to Lebanon’s premier schools, and their subsequent migration into top professions, can help seed the Palestinian community with the capital to promote a greater transformation.
“You pull one kid out, you send him to AUB, he graduates, gets a decent job, has private health insurance – he’s not going to go and benefit from the health services that UNRWA provides, he’s not going to queue outside their offices to receive dry milk and rice and lentils, and eventually he’s going to pull his family out, he’s going to send his brother to university. I think it’s going to take a long time but this is the idea,” she said.
The organization plans to continue to expand and increase its reach with more mobile services.
“I would like to put ULYP on wheels, so that we are not only doing our programs on our camps or in Beirut but we are going out, empowering other centers around the country to do what we do,” Abu Haidar later added.
The group hopes to position itself as a regional model for using education for social development and integration, and hopes to one day establish an endowment to help fund its services.
Many of these services prove transformative to their beneficiaries. Nimer and Abu Haidar contend that at present, for many in Lebanon, education is the only valid proactive way out.