Ruwwad: How One Community Overcame the Middle East Education Crisis
I already knew the Ruwwad story intimately.
The vision was formed by Fadi Ghandour, the founder and now chairman of the largest logistics company in the Middle East and Africa, Aramex. As early as 2005, he told me about a youth center he was planning to build in a refugee camp in Amman.
Fadi knew the demographics as well as anyone: over half of Jordan’s population, like much of the Middle East, is under the age of fifteen, and a large percentage of them lived in the marginalized communities. “They really have no vision of what opportunities might be available to them,” he explained. “They think this is all they have, or maybe expect government to just give them basics to survive. Their education programs, even vocational training, were utterly inadequate at best.”
He believed, then and now, that government alone would not solve the challenges quickly enough, but that real public and private partnership, led by the local communities themselves, could change these dynamics sustainably.
More importantly, Fadi holds that the role of the private sector is not simply to maximize profits but to invest in their societies where their well-being and future are inextricably tied. Knowledge, networks, skills, expertise, and entrepreneurial mindset are the resources all communities need as much as cash.
Ruwwad would not be a school, or a health clinic, or an after-school program—though it would have components of all these. It would be a hub, run by the community, to help its youth and families take ownership of their own challenges and opportunities. That sense of civic engagement and ownership—the same ownership that an entrepreneur experiences in her or his idea—would provide the foundation to build skills and knowledge not taught in their educational institutions. But there would be no handouts. The first and last rule would be that everyone who came to Ruwwad must give back in any way they could to build the center’s relevance to the community. Businesses could contribute money, books, training, and computers. Professionals could teach job skills. And residents could give whatever they had in terms of time and labor. The goal was to empower local people to find local solutions to local challenges.
And it has changed everything for the people who have engaged and help build it.
Around the corner from the local public school—a gritty, barbed-wire-protected, drab and walled structure covered in graffiti—was something completely different. Ruwwad is housed in a small, freshly painted and immaculate building that has become a hub for the Jabal Natheef community. The services it has made available—from free English and IT classes to health care to legal advice to basic jobs skills like career training and résumé writing—are outstanding. There is an extensive library of children’s and adolescent’s books in Arabic and English; mothers with young children and teens come after school to enhance their reading skills. There are a dozen internet-enabled computers where kids can learn basic programming, do homework, and find games and entertainment from around the world. The essence of Ruwwad, however, is not its physical space and services, but its environment of inspiration and empowerment.
Samar Dudin, who is now regional director and head of programs at Ruwwad, joined in 2005 as a volunteer who founded their youth dialogue platform and would be pleased to hear this reaction. She is a remarkable woman who projects a serene but determined sense of purpose. She has been an educator, theater director, and community organizer throughout her long career in Amman, and has brought her entire rich background to bear in creating unique programs of community empowerment and youth development at Ruwwad.
If she made nothing else clear to me it is that education starts when young people have a sense of ownership and purpose, that they can address their individual and community needs. “We start early on,” she told me, “In creating a platform for citizenship-building that continuously challenges the mainstream values of nepotism versus meritocracy; leadership by lineage versus leadership by volunteerism and community service; human and women’s rights versus traditional practices that disempower women and individuals. This is the most critical education paradigm in Ruwwad. It disrupts the traditional conservatism through a consistent, continuous, and intentional process. It creates a safe space for nonconformist, alternative thinking and respect for diversity and good traditional values.” She believes it not only nurtures kids finding their own authentic, open voice but really partners with youth to be at the center, at the foundation, of their broader education journey.
Programs at Ruwwad pay special attention to two elements.
The first is a sense of ownership demonstrated through community-driven campaigns. These initiatives focus on critical social issues like literacy and physical abuse of children, and employ psycho-social support methods to inspire creative action. Every youth and participating family is expected to volunteer at Ruwwad, and last year alone they aggregated over 31,000 hours of volunteer time.
The second is embedded in a remarkable program called Dardashat—weekly sessions every Saturday from noon until 2:00 pm where young people are encouraged to explore their notion of self, relationships, rights and citizenship, and career and life goals. “The sessions are usually run in a workshop style,” she explains, “and we will bring in once a month a speaker on current affairs, entrepreneurship, or some question the youth are exploring. The discussions can be explosive, but the key theme that emerges is acceptance and celebrating diversity and pluralisms as a foundational value.”
I don’t speak Arabic, but didn’t need to in order to see the power of these gatherings. In a large room used for art classes during the week, dozens of teens arrive and break into groups of seven or eight and are given a scenario of people facing conflict. It can be as simple as how a young man addresses a woman, or a bullying situation, or a fight with a parent or teacher. The goal, though, is less to solve the scenario than to hone the skills to stop, listen, ratify another’s perspective, and work together. The girls all wore headscarves, and the boys looked like the usual cocky adolescents. But once the session started, it was a room of self-confident equals.
One participant nodded when I shared my description. “In the first days, everyone is fighting, talking over each other, not trying to understand each other,” he laughs. “Samar, and eventually other people who work at Ruwwad (often people from the community who are trained) build norms in listening, not jumping at your first reaction, seeing things from another’s perspectives. This is great in our society. This is a kind of education that strengthens traditional academic solutions. The kids are developing skills and outlooks they never do in schools. It makes them more employable. It makes them leaders in society.”
One of Ruwwad’s many dedicated team members told me that she believes that sessions like these, along with art, music, and even acting, give these kids a voice they are not raised to believe they have. The issues of race, religion, and abuse are particularly intense in the close quarters of the neighborhood, and the seemingly simple act of building trusted environments where teens have a voice is crucial to convincing them that they can build futures for themselves.
In only seven years, the numbers are impressive. In East Amman alone, Ruwwad touches the lives of more than 75,000 people. Their school outreach program has enlisted 1,500 primary school children in its literacy efforts. Mothers, teachers and youth in the community established a “Six Minutes” reading campaign to encourage regular short public readings that have touched over 5,000 people at over 6,600 events. Over 700 teens have received college scholarships. Ruwwad is now expanding to other towns in Jordan as well as some of the poorer areas of Budrus (Palestine), Cairo, and Tripoli (Lebanon).
In 2012 they launched the Ruwwad Micro-Venture Fund specifically as a platform to encourage entrepreneurial initiatives. The fund’s role is to support communities in translating their ideas into profitable business and create employment opportunities while addressing local needs. Micro and small ventures will benefit from financial and non-financial services through equity investment, as well as strategic added value services that are critical for such success—basic financial knowledge, marketing and sales in addition to access to networks and other markets. Fadi added, “We aim to provide communities with the ingredients to economic empowerment: access to knowledge, skills, capital, and networks to start and/or grow sustainable businesses.”
According to Fadi, solutions only work when the people create and own them. “If there is any clear lesson from the Arab Awakening it is that people want to have a voice and want to solve local problems. This is about the guy who says, ‘I’m going to solve the problem of garbage in our street.’ Not big huge sexy development projects, but plenty of smaller guys who will think for themselves and act with their own hands.”
Christopher M. Schroeder is a leading US internet entrepreneur and venture investor. His book, Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East, is the first to explore tech-based entrepreneurship in the region. He can be followed at He can be followed @cmschroed.
Excerpt from Startup Rising by Christopher M. Schroeder. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.