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Stanford AMENDS: Connecting Youth Leaders from MENA and the United States

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During the spring of 2011, the spontaneous uprisings and revolutions that took place in the Arab world, otherwise known as the Arab Spring, transformed the landscape of the region. In response to the political turmoil that followed, two Stanford students -- one from Bahrain and the other from Chicago -- founded the American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS), in an effort to foster collaboration among youth leaders in the region.

Their vision was to bring together the most proactive and passionate change agents from across the Middle East, North Africa, and the United States to learn from each other, connect with global leaders and resources, and share, through TED-style talks, their ideas and initiatives. This past week, this vision came to life for the second year in a row.

As a part of the AMENDS leadership team, I was lucky enough to meet the 33 delegates selected this year from a pool of several hundred applications. The selection process was difficult, and participants were ultimately chosen based on established commitments to promoting social, political, and economic change -- in addition to an evaluation of their capacity to influence U.S.-MENA affairs. Hailing from 15 different countries around the world -- including Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Kuwait, the United States, and Israel -- each delegate had unique experiences and thought-provoking ideas to bring to the table.

Just take Samer Azar, an entrepreneur from Lebanon, passionate about discovering how businesses can shape better economies and healthier societies across the Middle East. As the Co-Founder and Chief Financial Officer of AltCity, Samer leads a mentorship program that focuses on teaching entrepreneurs business modeling and financial management. This startup incubator, similar to many here at Stanford and in the Silicon Valley, places an emphasis on social impact initiatives. AltCity's mission is to provide access to vital tools and resources startups need in order to build impactful and socially relevant startups. As of December 2012, they have hosted more than 130 events with 3000+ visitors around topics related to design, media, technology and social change.

Born and raised in Kabul, Nargis Azaryun went to a secret school during the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In February 2012, Nargis founded an NGO called the Road to Equality and Development (RED), a civil society organization that encourages Afghan youth to improve their country beyond their religious, cultural, and language differences. One of the organization's largest projects, "Appreciating the Differences," invited youth from different provinces of Afghanistan to Kabul to represent their culture by displaying their customs, food, and music. The intent of the festival was to identify a series of common values to foster relations among Afghan youth, despite their differences.

American delegate Rebecca Farnum, a 2012 Marshall Scholar, focuses her efforts on food and water security in the Middle East and North Africa. With the belief that feeding people feeds peace, Rebecca's initiative began at Michigan State University, where her senior thesis explored "Food and Water as the Middle East and North Africa's 'Coal and Steel': Regional Economic Integration and Peace Prospects." From there, she hopes to take advantage of the relationships between food, water, environmental justice, and military security to bring together vastly different political and religious ideologies to work toward mutual self-interest. Her initiative seeks to amplify the voices speaking out for cooperation around environmental resources in the realm of policy-making.

Throughout the week, delegates participated in workshops led by the Institute of Design at Stanford, as well as the Stanford Graduate School of Business. They heard from Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdullah, a consulting professor at Stanford, and former US Secretary of Defense William Perry, among others. The summit culminated with the AMENDS talks, which provide delegates the opportunity to present their initiatives.

From the ongoing war in Syria, to the ensuing refugee crisis that has displaced over one million Syrians, to the instability in Egypt -- it is no surprise that many around the world think the Middle East is doomed to fail. However, a recent survey conducted of youth in the Arab world found that an overwhelming majority are optimistic about the future of the region and believe that the "best days are ahead." And after an incredible week spent with some of the most inspiring leaders from both MENA and the United States, I can confidently say that I am optimistic as well.

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