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From growing up in a camp to being named 2021 Top 50 Global Student leader. The story of Aya Yousef

Aya - it’s such an honor to meet you. Please tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Aya Yousef, a 4th year architecture student at the American University of Beirut. I am passionate about Social Change and Social Activism. This year, I was named a Top 50 finalist for the 2021 Global student prize. I am Palestinian, but I grew up at the Burj el Barajne camp in Lebanon. I’m currently embarking on a Self - finding, Self-independence journey - trying to make sense of the world around me, take risks, and take care of myself - whether that’s emotionally, mentally or financially. ”

Thank you for sharing that with us. Could you tell us a little bit about your time and experience as a Millennium Fellow?

I was a Class of 2019 Millennium Fellow at AUB. I’ve always credited this experience as one of my first genuine opportunities to connect and network with International peers who were passionate about the same things I was. At the time, our university was the only campus selected in Lebanon - so there was that added pride. My whole cohort was very motivated, all of them eager to give back as much as they could within the short time that they’d been given. In hindsight, I would say the most important part of the Fellowship was this opportunity to connect, network and interact with thousands of other young people across the world. Sometimes networking is not even connecting 1:1 - it’s in hearing their perspectives in a breakout room, reading about their project ideas, and being motivated by that shared, familiar, hunger for change. You start to think more expansively about local challenges, and in a sense you learn a bit about yourself from this shared space. After graduation I started to build upon these personal skills and, I think, made myself an even more holistic person. So there certainly was a shift during and after the Fellowship - whether that’s psychologically or purely in terms of self improvement and up-skilling."

That’s wonderful to hear. Can you tell us a bit about the SDG you focused on and your Millennium Fellowship Project?

“Certainly, I led a project called “Pales-Tech” with another Millennium Fellow - Hany anan - who was also Palestinian. We both understood the pains and the hardships our people were going through, and how unfairly lack of resources and little exposure to opportunities was condemning young Palesitininians to lives of averageness. We both had found a way to escape this cycle but many others couldn't. We had to give back to our community. And so by focusing on the underprivileged youth and children in the camps, we provided technical training in the use of tech tools, such as wordpress. The point for us was to make young Palestinians realize that we can use technology to solve many problems in our lives and our societies. We hosted a series of workshops in different palesitnian camps in lebanon, and the final presentations were done at the American University of Beirut.”

How did your experiences growing up shape you to want a life in Social Impact?

It’s sad that society demands exceptionalism from us so we can live decent, average lives.

“I was born in Burj-El-Barajneh, a refugee camp for Palestinians in Lebanon. Throughout my whole journey growing up, constantly shifting from one school to the other, I got to experience first hand what it was like to truly lack. Truly undignifying. In high school it dawned on me how fundamentally unequal this societal setup was. Though I excelled in my studies, for a long time I could not find any opportunities to further my education. This makes you wonder - what is wrong with us? And how can we work to bridge the gap? Though I’d eventually end up receiving 3 scholarships at some of the best universities in Lebanon - these observations stuck with me. In the end, I did get scholarships, but I’d also put in great personal effort. In a sense, I was the subject of a lucky break that many other kids around me simply couldn’t dream about getting. It’s sad that society demands exceptionalism from us so we can live decent, average lives. Many children and young people don’t know that opportunities even exist, and even those that do are conditioned to believe opportunity belongs to others. Because I ended up experiencing this big, beautiful world, I always wanted to show the kids that a big beautiful world does exist, and it is within their reaches. I joined the outreach team for my school scholarship, and I also partnered with 2 other change makers to co-found “ToRead”, an online education program linking High School students with educational institutions and providing information about potential scholarships. I will never stop looking for better - for my people, and for all oppressed people around the world.

That is humbling to hear. Are there any other projects you’ve been working on recently?

‘My family and friends have always known me as a multitasker. Since I graduated from the fellowship I've involved myself in many different projects. After the Beirut blast, we volunteered with social groups to help plan the recovery by surveying, analyzing and studying some buildings damaged by the explosion, and creating a series of architectural drawings that, hopefully, benefitted renovation efforts. One of the buildings we worked on has now been fully reconstructed. We also worked with a local NGO, D4C (Design For Communities) focusing on food insecurity by working on a rooftop gardening architectural design that would maximize planting and production, whether on rooftops, balconies, or even open spaces. I also worked on an augmented reality course with a young enterprise called Shabab Lab, where we prepared courses for high school students, teaching the basics of Augmented reality and how it can be used for social innovation.

Incredible! Can you tell us a little bit about your nomination ins this year’s Global Student prize?

“Totally incredible! I’m still speechless. When we do the work we do, it is mostly because we genuinely care about our communities - so we sacrifice time and energy to try make things better, without the expectation of an accolade, or even an affirmation. But sometimes that spotlight is important, if not for anything else, just as a reminder that what you’ve been doing matters, that it’s touching real lives and impacting real people. For me, the nomination was incredibly humbling. At that moment I felt that every minute we’d spent doing work for the benefit of others had been worth it. I think more importantly,I’m also happy that young people can look at us and think, it can be done.

Lastly, any advice to young Leaders around the world?

“I would say get involved! It’s easy and convenient to sit in silence and avoid responsibility. But we can’t afford to do that. Stand up and be counted. Interact with people. Let yourself become a true member of your community. And remember you can always play a part, no matter how small.


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