From Manchester to Beirut: The power of education to change lives

by gareth5 min read26th Sep 2021No comments

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EducationComfort Zone Expansion (CoZE)Effective AltruismWorld Optimization
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This post is about our pilot digital literacy program in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. I am interested in the concepts of effective altruism and how to maximize the impact of the project, so any feedback about how to do this or other programs or resources would be welcome.

Most people can name one or two teachers that had a profound influence on their lives. For me, my secondary school physics teacher, Ray Davies, was one of them. Even before he became my physics teacher, he struck me as a curious, somewhat eccentric figure. Walking his 2 dogs every lunchtime around the school grounds, hobbling slightly due to a 10 metre fall whilst rock climbing. A fall that nearly killed him and left him with dozens of plates and screws in his legs after months of operations and convalescence. His occasional talks at school assembly made me sometimes question his mental state. “Thoughts on a world without friction” is one that comes immediately to mind. Some unkind souls quietly asked if he also hit his head in the fall.

Ray Davies — Photo courtesy MGS Archives

In his lessons we learned about Brownian motion and Van der Graaf generators. He managed to make what can sometimes be a dry and daunting subject into something that if not always fun, was at least interesting, and I passed my physics exams with flying colours. But it wasn’t those lessons that made him — for me — such an outstanding teacher. “Inventive planning” and “the risk factor” were 2 courses he taught as part of our final year extra-curricular optional lessons.

Inventive planning would probably be called life-skills for entrepreneurs nowadays. We learned about brain-storming techniques, imagining alternate realities, and how to change your life to get to where you want to be.

The risk factor was, unsurprisingly, about taking risks, because 1. If you don’t take at least a few big risks in your life you’ll probably regret it, and 2. If you don’t take risks, you’ll never get what you really want out of life. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to live a little bit outside of their comfort zone?

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that what I learned during those 2 courses changed the way I think and — like those smoke particles we saw in that Brownian motion experiment — has probably been nudging my life in a different, more interesting direction ever since.

So here I am, sitting in a plane on the way to Beirut. A city that has fascinated me since, as a young child, I watched news reports about kidnappings of foreign envoys during the civil war. A city whose inhabitants are currently surviving without clean water, on 4 hours of electricity a day, due to decades of corruption and political patronage that have bankrupted the nation, whilst simultaneously producing countless millionaires and billionaires. A city that was half-destroyed last year when the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion ripped the port apart, destroying large parts of the city, killing at least 218, and leaving 300,000 people homeless. A country of spiralling hyperinflation where the currency has lost up to 80% of its value in the last year, robbing people of their savings and struggling to manage when even basic needs are out of reach.

And the problems of Beirut and Lebanon are echoed across the region. A refugee population of over 50 million due to many wars and displacement throughout the middle-east. The situation for these refugees is extremely challenging — unemployment rates in refugee communities of over 60% are not unusual. Add to that the impact on the host countries. Lebanon’s crumbling infrastructure struggles to provide basic services for its citizens as its population has grown due to over 1.3 million new arrivals — a staggering 20% increase — due in part to the historical conflict in Palestine and the more recent civil war in Syria.

But despite this there are many organisations and individuals doing amazing work to help make people’s lives better. I think immediately of Gaza Sky Geeks, a tech hub and startup accelerator in Gaza who, through their education and technical support programs, have helped launch over 30 startups and generated over $400,000 USD in freelancing revenue for its former students.

I worked for a Lebanese company, Keeward, for a couple of years halfway through the last decade, and I was finally able to visit Beirut and discover this beautiful mess of a city, where you’ll hear English, French, and Arabic spoken in the same sentence. And I’ve been back many times since, my growing fascination for the region leading me to learn Arabic over the past 4 years.

Then COVID arrived. I don’t know anyone who really enjoyed the endless Zoom parties during the first lock-down. But at least it was a chance to get back in touch with old contacts. And it was during one of these catch-ups, via Skype, that a friend from Keeward casually mentioned the work of Meike Ziervogel and the Alsama school in Shatila. Meike founded Alsama 2 years ago and the school has already grown to three sites, setting up education projects, sports hubs, and social enterprises for more than 500 members of the refugee population. As I learned more about the Alsama project I immediately began wondering if there would be a way I could get involved somehow. A year and several lock-downs later and we are about to start a Digital Literacy course for 60 refugee students, thanks in no small part to the generosity of Busbud and McKinsey who have donated the used laptops that the students will be using.

Alsama/tech students on their first day

Access to education for the inhabitants of Shatila is sporadic at best. At the age of 11, most children are already three to five years behind their peers from more stable backgrounds. Alsama is changing this with English, Maths, and Arabic lessons for 500 students across their three sites. With the AlsamaTech program we aim to take this further, giving the students their first experience of using computers for practical tasks and helping them use technology to research, organize, create, and communicate online. Longer term, we hope to provide technical training to the more motivated students, giving them an opportunity to use their new-found skills to improve their economic outcomes — for themselves and their community.

I can’t hope to compete with the energy and brilliance of Ray Davies but as I prepare for the first lessons this week, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I think back to what I learned from him and hope that, in my own small way, I can have a positive influence on the lives of the students at Alsama.

The next month will be a baptism of fire. So much could go wrong. Yet with a little luck so much could go right. Yet again I find myself way out of my comfort zone but I’m excited to see what we can achieve in a few short weeks.

You can learn more and follow our progress on medium, Instagram, or LinkedIn, and it would mean so much to me if you could like or share this story, and follow our pages for updates. I promise to keep you updated as the story evolves…

(Ray Davies sadly passed away earlier this year)

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