Lebanese-American Gives Back, Interview with Zeina Saab


View trailer here.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a young diaspora members who is making a difference in her country of heritage. Zeina Saab is the 28-year-old Lebanese-American founder of The Nawaya Network. Educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California-San Diego, she spoke with me about her decision to reverse Lebanon’s “brain drain” and move back to Beirut to start a nonprofit organization that empowers underprivileged and at-risk Lebanese youth by connecting them to financial, educational, and material resources.

You are invited to meet Zeina in person next week. On June 12, she will be in Washington, DC to screen Meet Me Halfway, a new documentary film that follows the lives of four underprivileged youth in Lebanon as they struggle to pursue their passions despite very limited resources. Watch the film’s trailer above.

 

Zeina, what inspired you to start The Nawaya Network?

Several experiences in my life led me to start this NGO.  My first experience was in 2006 after having traveled to Cartago, Costa Rica during spring break to help refurbish a poor school.  We spent nine days painting the school walls, planting flowers, and playing with the kids.  But I left feeling dissatisfied as I knew that our impact would be short-lived.  How exactly, had we changed their lives?  When I went back to college, I found out about an NGO in New York City that connects poor schools to classes in the developed world via the Internet.  Immediately, I looked into whether this could work for the school.  After a few months of research and proposal writing, I was able to secure $30,000 for the school.  Two years later, the school had a new center with fourteen new computers. This experience changed me.  It was at that point that I realized that I loved to connect and re-direct resources to those in need.  But, I had no idea how I would be able to create an organization out of it until a few years later.

In 2009, I was consulting for USAID in Lebanon, when I came across a thirteen-year-old girl in a poor, isolated village. She showed me her beautiful drawings of dresses, and this stunned me, as she had developed these skills entirely on her own.  I began to think, what could become of her had she had the right resources around her?  She had so much passion and potential to be a fashion designer, but simply lived too far away from everything, and was too poor to afford classes.

I began to think of how I could connect her with a fashion design company where she could be further inspired and gain proper skills.  I tried hard to help her – but things fell through.  I began to think seriously about starting an organization dedicated to providing resources to promising youth in need (as I continued to meet poor youth with a lot of potential) and less than one year later, while consulting for the UN in New York, I started to put together a proposal for what would soon become The Nawaya Network.

 

What do you hope The Nawaya Network achieves?

I have high hopes for this NGO.  At the very least, I hope that it will bring greater awareness to the hidden potential of underprivileged youth.  I hope that people will begin to see the poor as individuals who can really be productive citizens, and who can really go places if just given the opportunity.  There are so many stories of individuals who were living on the streets or on the brink of poverty, when suddenly someone discovered them and they ended up making it far in life.  But these success stories happen randomly and not often enough.  Too many poor people die anonymously, and I am certain so many of them could have changed our world for the better if they just had the opportunity.

Beyond raising awareness, I hope to empower countless underprivileged youth around Lebanon, by connecting them with resources that will help them develop their skills and interests.  Without these resources, many of them would have few opportunities to develop their passions and potential, and thus could end up either living on the streets, getting involved in drugs, robbery, or even killing to survive.  All of society is affected by this, and the difficult economic situation for much of the poor in Lebanon will only increase these unfortunate incidents that often end in tragedy.  So in the long-run, I hope this NGO will contribute to creating artists, athletes, musicians, poets, writers, actors, and designers (to name a few) — individuals who will make a positive impact in society and who in turn will become leaders and inspiring role models to others around them.

Ultimately, the goal is to expand beyond Lebanon and replicate this model in other countries because potential exists in every corner of the earth and in the least likely places. We will learn from our experience here and establish partners abroad who believe in our model and in this cause.

 

How can people interested in supporting The Nawaya Network lend a hand?

At this point, we are working hard to raise funds to support our NGO.  We are an entirely grassroots organization and have been working on fundraising amongst the community since we do not yet have an extensive track record and have not yet launched.  Any suggestions on possible grant opportunities or corporate sponsorships would be most welcome.

However, individuals can support this NGO in many other ways as well.  We are looking to establish partnerships with local NGOs who work with underprivileged youth.  We are also hoping to connect with creative or athletic institutes which might be able to offer resources to our youth.  We are building our database of volunteers, mentors, and trainers as well so that as soon as our online platform is launched at the end of the year, we are able to begin connecting them with youth.  The platform will make it easy for anyone who is abroad to support our initiative – that is the beauty of this NGO, and we look forward to sharing it with the local and international community!

Finally, I have several friends in the US interested in holding film screenings of our film and fundraisers for the NGO – so anyone with an interest in supporting us from abroad is welcome to do this.  I am also happy to call in via Skype and lead a discussion and answer any questions on this initiative with the audience after the screening. [She can be reached via email at contact@nawaya.org].

 

Having grown up in the United States, was it a difficult decision to move to Lebanon?  Why or why not?

To be honest, I always had in mind to move back to Lebanon at some point and work towards bettering the country. Since I had made up my mind about moving back, I would say it wasn’t a difficult decision for me, especially since we would spend our summers here.

I had also spent a year studying at the American University of Beirut as an exchange student in 2004, so this certainly helped me adjust and adapt to life here.  I moved back to Lebanon in 2008, and then again in 2011 after spending a year in New York.  While I live in Beirut now, I have a very strong connection to the US and visit very frequently, which is certainly a blessing.

I’m sure things would be very different if I didn’t have the option to return to the US every now and then.  As happy as I am living in Lebanon, I do miss life and the people United States, especially in my hometown of Redlands, California, in San Diego and Boston—where I studied, and in New York—where I used to work.

 

Can tell me about your Lebanese diaspora story?

Although I’m a first-generation American, my great-grandfather was on one of the ships that sailed to Ellis Island around 1900.  He received his American citizenship and spent several years working in the U.S. before returning to Lebanon.

I was born in Beirut in 1984 during the civil war.  It’s actually quite strange for me to say this, as I have no recollection of the war whatsoever.  In 1987, although there was calm in Beirut, my parents decided to take a break and move to the US for a couple of years.  My father—who is a physician—accepted a job offer in the US, where he had done his specialty training.  Our family ended up staying for 25 years, and my parents and brother are still there today.

We first moved to Joplin, Missouri, a small town in the Mid-West.  We spent three years there.  It was a difficult transition for my parents, as Joplin is very different from the hustle and bustle of Beirut, and where we were constantly surrounded by family and friends.  The sudden shift to Joplin was thus a big challenge, particularly for my mother who had to stay home with me and my two-year-old brother while my father was at work.

My brother and I only knew Arabic at that point, and this limited our ability to interact with and communicate with others.  It was heartbreaking for my parents to see us only speaking and playing with each other.  The challenges didn’t last long however, as we soon enrolled in daycare and kindergarten, I found my first best friend—Shannon—while my parents befriended some wonderful families whom we are still in touch with today.

Although we only spent three years in Joplin and never went back to visit, the town holds a very dear place in our hearts. Our hearts broke when the tornado devastated Joplin last year, and we scrambled to support our friends there who were affected by the disaster; it felt as though a piece of our history had been erased.

In 1990, my family moved to Redlands, California– a place that I dearly call my hometown.  Redlands is where I became the person I am today.  I went to school in Redlands, built solid friendships, developed my personality, and formed my interests.

 

How did your learn about your Lebanese cultural heritage?

Every summer since 1991, my parents would take us to Lebanon for two months.  We were able to develop close connections with our relatives, learn more about the country and our culture, and strengthen our Arabic language.  Having raised us in the US and taken us to Lebanon every summer – this was a priceless investment that my parents chose to make – and one which clearly shaped me and my life goals.

Of course, cultural differences posed certain challenges. My brother and I were not always allowed to do the same things as our friends.  One time my first grade teacher told my mother that she recommended we stop speaking Arabic at home as this was affecting my ability to catch up with my classmates.  My mother said “over my dead body,” and she worked ten times harder to make sure I spoke both languages fluently.  I can say with absolute certainty that had I not learned Arabic, I would not have had such a strong connection to Lebanon and probably would not have moved back here in recent years.

 

Do you think that being a member of the Lebanese diaspora has helped you be an effective community leader in Beirut?  Why or why not?

Most certainly.  I feel so fortunate and blessed that I had the opportunity to grow up in the U.S. where I received an excellent education and learned so many important values, including the importance of community service and giving back to society.

I had the opportunity to form new clubs on campus, to lead teams, and to be creative and think outside the box – thus gaining important leadership skills which I use till this day.  High school was a defining point in my life; the opportunities I received there as a teenager really helped shape me.  I joined the speech and debate team as a freshman and traveled around California and the U.S. giving speeches on topics that I was passionate about.  At the age of just fourteen, I was already learning the skills to be an effective speaker and learning how to inspire others to rally around a cause.  Being on the team helped instill me with self-confidence and essential public speaking skills.

While such opportunities certainly exist here in Lebanon, I recall that my cousins here (who went to one of the best private schools in the country) said that they were amazed by the extra-curricular activities and opportunities we received in the US.

Furthermore, because I grew up in a diverse community—I had friends from Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Haitian backgrounds, among others—I learned to respect diversity in all its forms from a very young age.  Since Lebanon is known for its diversity in religion—seventeen different sects, to be precise—one primary motivation for starting The Nawaya Network is to encourage youth from different backgrounds to interact with each other based on common passions rather than on religious affiliation.  Many youth in Lebanon grow up in homogeneous communities without having formed friendships with people from a different religion, and this often creates stereotypes and tension between the sects.  Coming from the US, I know then how important it is to expose youth to diversity starting at a very early age.

 

What advice would you offer to other Americans who want to give back to their country of heritage?

I would say it is extremely important to know the your motherland’s language.  Without speaking their language, it will be very difficult to connect with the people, and as a result, it will be challenging to form a bond and build a foundation of trust.  Many may view you suspiciously, may label you as being too good for them, or as one who is completely disconnected from their culture and who doesn’t understand them well.

I would also say that it is helpful to visit every now and then to remain connected with the issues of the country.  It is of course helpful to read up on the news from a distance, but traveling to your motherland and interacting with the people is really critical.  You’ll get a first-hand account of their daily lives, their problems, and their frustrations.  The scope will be large and there will be so many issues to tackle, but really listening to their concerns and their stories will help you figure out what you can possibly help with.

I remember back in 2009, I met a man who came from a very poor and isolated village that lacked water.  Once he found out I was an American, he begged me to  connect him with a grant opportunity from the US government to help bring water to his village.  I first told him that there was nothing I could do to help him as I didn’t know whom to contact or how.  He continued to talk to me, explaining the situation and how they barely had any running water and how their crops were suffering.

I began to think, could I actually help this man?  I finally promised him that I would do what I could to bring attention to this issue.  And so, I began researching and speaking with people until I learned of an organization in the US that assists in the socio-economic development of Lebanon.  I arranged a meeting to see whether the village would qualify for funding, and while the plan didn’t work out, this experience taught me that I had the skills and passion to connect those in need with the right resources.  As a result, I became convinced that this would be my ultimate goal.

Keep in mind what skills you have that could help the people of your motherland and be creative and innovative in your approach.  But it is essential that whatever you end up doing – you are passionate about it.  Because it will take a lot of work and energy, and it will not happen overnight.  Make sure this is something you believe in and something that will fulfill you.