Tunisia last weekend played host to the annual conference of the “MEPI Student Leaders Programme” for the year 2016, held for the first time in Tunisia, with the participation of 120 students from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region, including 15 Tunisian students.
In his remarks, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Rubinstein said “We believe in youth capacities here in Tunisia and in the MENA Region, adding that the “MEPI programme is highly essential for us to encourage youth to engage in civil society and to support their projects that will most likely bring solutions to problems facing their communities.”
Since 2004, the “MEPI Student Leaders Programme” has been offering every year to 120 undergraduate students working in the civil society of their country a six-week stay in the United States in six of its prestigious universities.
“We financially support all projects related to the MEPI Programme whether through conferences or workshops such as this one which is highly important to evaluate these projects and also participate in their future projects,” Rubinstein added.
Tunisian students participating in the “MEPI Student Leaders Programme” for the year 2016 have different backgrounds (English, French, engineering, marketing) and come from the Manouba University, the Ibn Charaf Institute of Human Sciences, the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences 9 April, the Tunis Bussiness School, IHEC Carthage, the Higher Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology of Sousse and the private college of engineering and technology “Esprit.”
Some of the MEPI students have received financial support for their projects and some are currently working on it.
Tunisian ONS Hammami, a MEPI student was presented with a certificate of Appreciation from the U.S. Ambassador for promoting the programme using her social network skills.
Speaking to TAP reporter, MEPI student Khalid Alkenaa from Saudi Arabia said: “Before I travelled I was a person who thinks a lot and have a lot of dreams but I never thought to take an action, I really thought of them as wishes and goals.”
“The moment I went there, the inspiration I got and the training I received made me believe that I have to make all these thoughts applicable to the community … when I came back, it converted me from a person who thinks to a person who takes actions,” he added.
His project consists in a web platform that provides general knowledge in Arabic in three forms: audible, visual and written. Every month a new field will be comprehensively discussed through podcast, infographics and articles. He received support from his professors in Saudi Arabia.
Haythem Dellai, a MEPI Student from Tunisia talking about his project: Tunisian Tourism Booster “TTB” said it aims to promote tourism in the interior regions of Tunisia and precisely Beja to create social and economic dynamism.
Dellai said this will create job opportunities and help Tunisian youth to be productive citizens and reduce recruitment by terrorists.
“It’s not about travelling to the US, It’s really about the perspective we have gained and the activities we have been doing… even if we had the means to go travel we wouldn’t have lived the same experience, it was a wakeup call for all not to settle with less than what we want,” he stressed.
Minister of Youth and Sports Majdouline Cherni, who attended the event, said her department will provide support to local MEPI student leaders.
“It’s almost certain that Arab countries, especially the ones who faced transitional democracy need programmes of such that help improve youth’s soft skills so that they will engage in the civil and political grounds…” she pointed out.
She added that: ”The Ministry of Youth and Sports of Tunisia calls for supporting these young leaders’ projects and this is an open invitation, especially that the department is currently working on developing Youth’s soft skills.”
Talking about MEPI students and their projects, Kevin Kecskes, Associate Professor, Division of public Administration, Portland state university said: “I am absolutely certain that these projects will have a positive impact.”
I have been doing this programme for five years as the Portland state university director so I have had about 100 or so MEPI participant, student leaders like Safwen (Tunisian MEPI Student) here and I have gotten to know about 550, 570 and so MEPI over the 5 years, he added.
Kecskes was appreciative of the Tunisian students’ skills, going as far as to say: “I will tell you that this is the truth, year after year after year some of our most sophisticated, most advanced, most committed and most intelligent MEPI student leaders for reasons I do not understand come from Tunisia, this is the absolute truth.”
The same view is shared by Barbara Tint Professor of Conflict Resolution and peacebuilding From Portland University, who said “We have Tunisians every year and they have always been amazing students, very motivated, very smart and very expansive in their thinking.
I think that the Tunisian society at least compared to some of the other countries we worked with, has more of an open perspective on some of the issues that we face and their English is brilliant.
Talking about the MENA region, Christopher Shirley, Director of DC Programmes and Business Development, said everybody in the media thinks the region is in turmoil but the students prove otherwise.”
“These students are among the most energetic, enthusiastic positive young people I have ever worked with from anywhere in the world and what we have been trying to do with them in the United States is to give them tools and ideas and skills to improve in their communities and what we see today is how they have applied these skills to really make this part of the world a much better place.”
I think every year the projects get better and better, he emphasised.
On the closing conference in Tunis, he said: “we have been working for 3 days right now and it has been a great experience and I must say it is probably the most successful conference we have ever had.”
The U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is a U.S. State Department programme that supports organisations and individuals in their efforts to promote political, economic, and social reform in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Through these partnerships, MEPI helps build the capacity of those that serve as the region’s most successful agents of change – local civil society and business leaders, activists, scholars, students, and lawmakers.