Elevating youth voices on the Syrian conflict
As a director, producer, and musician, Marco Ayoubi usually stays behind the scenes. Originally from Damascus, the young Syrian was forced to leave his country to escape the ongoing conflict and make a new life in Istanbul. This April, Marco decided to speak out through Munathara, an organization that promotes the voices of youth, women, and marginalized communities in the Arab public sphere through social media and TV.
Through online video competitions, Munathara poses topics that stimulate diverging opinions in order to crowdsource perspectives and encourage factually substantiated discourse. Then it brings competition winners together for live, internationally televised debates and presentations. The initiative was created to meet young people’s growing desire to participate in politics and governance in the Middle East. IREX has supported two Syria-focused debates with Munathara through the Justice & Dignity for the Middle East & North Africa program.
Empowering youth through opportunities in the public sphere
When Munathara announced its latest competition, which prompted participants to finish the sentence, “There will be no solution to the Syrian crisis unless…,” Marco’s friends encouraged him to take part. He subsequently posted a winning video that received over 2,000 votes.
“Munathara is a platform, a way to make a meaningful contribution to public opinion,” said Ayoubi. “It’s open and impartial. Everyone is free to say anything they want, [to] make any argument they see fit. It’s empowering me to capture the attention of millions of people watching on TV and millions more following on social media.”
The Syria solutions debate offered a rare opportunity for disconnected voices, especially Arab youth and refugees. Public opinion leaders are seldom in touch with the on-the-ground realities of war and humanitarian crises, and their views rarely reflect the struggles of marginalized populations. Through outreach workshops, Munathara targeted Syrians inside and outside of the country, including those who may not have frequent internet access.
With more than 100 million Arab youth between the ages of 15 and 29, young people make up more than 30% of the region’s population. Sadly, there are few opportunities for youth to participate in the public sphere despite their demographic importance. Munathara is working to change this.
Promoting sustainable solutions to conflict
Before the live event, six winners underwent a two-day training on critical thinking, public speaking, and interacting with TV cameras and a live audience. A major objective was to help participants focus on solutions, rather than just describing the conflict and damage.
Given the emotions and experiences at hand, this was not an easy task. “The impact of the preshow training was critical,” Ayoubi said. “We as Syrians are dealing with an overwhelming amount of emotion. We still have family inside the country and friends who have been killed in the conflict. We’ve fled from our homes and our country is still at war to this day. We want a solution, but naturally it’s difficult to put one forth without describing the situation and the emotional trauma we’ve endured. The training taught us to take advantage of every second we had on screen, to address real issues, and do away with unnecessary descriptions and lamentations in order to focus on solutions.”
During his time on screen, Ayoubi proposed an online platform where Syrians and other stakeholders all over the world can publish and discuss their ideas for resolving the conflict. In his view, there will be no solution without input from those who have been displaced and thus removed from the center of the discussion on Syria. He argued that crowdsourcing would be much more effective than the elite, exclusive peace talks which have until now proved ineffective.
Munathara makes it possible for young people like Ayoubi, who would otherwise be excluded from influencing public opinion, to turn their grief and experiences into realistic, inclusive, and just solutions for Syria and the rest of the Arab world.
The Munathara Initiative is a partner under the Justice & Dignity for the Middle East & North Africa program, implemented by IREX. Munathara works to support a free and open public sphere in the region. Since its founding in 2011, Munathara has implemented more than 20 live televised debate events and trained more than 8,000 youth in 11 countries in the MENA region.