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Conversation with Abir El Assaad

A Lebanese couple works to save their country’s next generation by teaching them to value life and respect one another’s differences

By Cindy Mindell

 

Abir El Assaad

Abir El Assaad

Ahmad and Abir El Assaad have a bird’s-eye view, literally and figuratively, of the Islamist crisis in their native Lebanon. And instead of just watching their country continue to succumb to militant extremists, they are proving what can happen when committed individuals refuse to bow to an unhealthy status quo.

The El Assaads, who are married, are co-founders of Saving the Next Generation (SNG), a secular, non-sectarian foundation that works with underserved Lebanese young people to eliminate extremism. SNG’s mission promotes a culture of life, liberty, peace, and opportunity by encouraging and fostering young people through education, diversity, and human values while inspiring acceptance of and respect for each other’s differences.

From the SNG weekend camp high in the mountains overlooking Beirut, or from the top of an affordable-housing apartment building Ahmad built in southern Lebanon, SNG and its 14-member staff work to build a different Lebanon by equipping the current generation with the tools and exposure to promote a vibrant, progressive government.

In the U.S., the El Assaads have been working since 2013 with Greenwich resident Marvin Berenblum, a member of Greenwich Reform Synagogue who will speak there with the couple on Sunday, May 18. Berenblum is CEO of National Executive Service Corps (NESC), a non-profit organization that provides consultant services to non-profits, tapping former corporate executives to offer their skills and expertise pro bono.

The three will be joined by an SNG college-scholarship recipient.

Ahmad El Assaad

Ahmad El Assaad

Ahmad El Assaad earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Utah and completed post-graduate studies in Amsterdam. He spent 16 years in Europe working with free trade and commerce before returning to Lebanon in 2003 to launch Pride Invests, S.A.L., a real estate development company that also builds affordable housing in southern Lebanon. The following year, he formed the Lebanese Option Party as an alternative to more radical and extremist political groups.

Abir El Assaad completed undergraduate studies at the American University of Beirut and a law degree at the Lebanese University Law School/Filière francophone in collaboration with the Panthéon-Assas University in Paris. After practicing law in Beirut for six years, she served as lead counsel of Al Mawarid Bank and earned an Executive MBA degree from l’École Supérieure des Affaires in Beirut, in collaboration with the ESCP Europe Business School.

Two years ago, the El Assaads approached NESC for help in developing their idea for SNG. Berenblum served as consultant on the foundation’s five-year strategic plan.

“I became so enamored of the El Assaads and inspired by their mission that I carried on with them on other projects,” he says, including new fundraising efforts in the U.S. “They are two extraordinary people of courage, determination, and conviction. They have seen the menace of the extremists offering a threat to stability and progress not only in Lebanon but within the region and the world. It’s a derivative of violence, hatred, and instability on a global basis, and the El Assaads feel very strongly about creating a countervailing influence.”

Their mission was inspired by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the demonstrations throughout the Arab world sparked in 2010 and known collectively as the “Arab Spring.” The El Assaads founded SNG in 2011, as hopes in the West dimmed for a democratic revolution in the Middle East. Instead, radical movements are growing and prove a tangible global threat. SNG works to challenge these movements, not militarily, but by neutralizing the propaganda and excuses on which they feed, creating an environment in which it is impossible for extremism to exist. The organization seeks to break the cycle of hatred, internecine conflict, political extremism, and religious intolerance that plagues the Middle East.

Working with youth primarily in southern Lebanon, where the militant Hezbollah group and political party has significant influence over an impoverished population, SNG works to provide options to the status quo through fun-packed weekend camps and educational day trips within Lebanon, and scholarships to leading universities, both regionally and internationally.

“Hezbollah exploits the situation in southern Lebanon and the children learn to hate non-believers and become martyrs through self-destruction,” Berenblum says. “They learn a very narrow point of view and are not exposed to the world at large but rather to Hezbollah disinformation. In providing a countervailing influence, the El Assaads have committed to teaching human values and respect of people despite their backgrounds, and to expose kids to a much broader perspective of what the world is all about.”

So far, SNG has provided some 1,500 children with weekend excursions to the camp in the mountains overlooking Beirut, and $1 million in university scholarships to 125 students, including two attending New York-area schools.

“The El Assaads are very ambitious; they want to scale the program up to 50,000 kids across the Middle East,” Berenblum says. “To do that, they need to find strategic partners, primarily in the U.S. – people who can understand the significance of SNG and what it means to world peace.”

As a consultant and organization representative to some U.S. audiences, Berenblum says that he has discussed collaborative efforts with the New York-based Seeds of Peace and the Anti-Defamation League, where Berenblum serves as a national commissioner.

Abir El Assaad spoke with the Ledger about Saving the Next Generation’s precarious yet critical mission.

 

Q: How did SNG come about: its concept and content, leadership and staff, and funding?

A: The concept of SNG came out from searching for a way to confront the rising radical movements that are taking control of the majority of the underserved children in this part of the world. We found out that the only reasons allowing such radical movements to grow are poverty and lack of education. These are the main factors that the radical movements feed on to become stronger as time goes on. And in order to face these fundamentalist movements and organizations, and save the children from their claws, the solution has to be civil; a solution that aims to spread a philosophy that values life in opposition to the philosophy of death that is promoted by the extremist and the fundamentalist organizations; a solution that believes in the next generation and gives these children an alternative opportunity to live their lives as any kid throughout the world, and a chance to pursue their higher education in one of the best universities in Lebanon and abroad.

Until now, SNG has been solely funded by my husband, SNG chairman Ahmad El Assaad. However, in order to grow, SNG must surely have other sources of funding. This is why we set up SNG as a foundation in the U.S., based in New York, in order to seek donations from the American society (foundations or private donors). We already have 501(c)3 tax-exempt status and we will have our first fundraising gala dinner on May 21 at the Yale Club in New York.

SNG is now operating in Lebanon only. However, our aim is to expand to all the countries in the Middle East that have extremist and fundamentalist movements.

 

Q: How do the young people who participate in programs use what they learn when they return to their schools and communities?

A: We choose young people from different regions, religions, and sects. This will enable them to experience the pluralism and variety of their country, to mix and interact with others, and to value the philosophy of life through all the fantastic activities we are offering. However, all of these kids come from very poor families.

They learn from SNG how to value life and how to accept one another despite their religious or sectarian differences. When these kids return to their schools and communities, they speak about their wonderful experience to their friends, their classmates, and their relatives as if they had been to Mars. Their peers become excited as well to join SNG. We see many friendships between kids of different religions, which lead to friendships between their parents. When the number of kids who are affiliated with us in a certain village or town grows, their parents become less fearful of the fundamentalist parties who are using all the means possible to keep their kids from joining SNG.

 

Q: What are the challenges you encounter? Is there opposition to your moderate mission statement from less moderate political or social forces?

A: We know that the fundamentalist groups are totalitarian; they have no respect for any other thinking. The threat and oppression these groups are exerting on SNG kids, and especially on their parents, to force them to quit and leave SNG is our main challenge.

This fear made SNG lose some of its kids at the beginning. However, with time and perseverance, parents and children are starting to break the fear barrier and are becoming immune to the different means of oppression and threat they are experiencing from these groups. They know that SNG is the only solution to ensure a better life for their children.

 

Q: Do you have a relationship with and/or endorsement from the Lebanese government?

A: No, we don’t, and this is because we all know that the Lebanese government at the present time is ruled by these fanatical groups; therefore, it is impossible to have support from the Lebanese government.

 

Q: Is there any possibility for SNG to bring together youth from Israel and Lebanon?

A: For the time being, there is no possibility to bring children from Israel because Israel is officially in a state of war with Lebanon. However, we hope that this will change over time and that peace will come to the Middle East. That way, kids in this part of the world will also realize that they are all alike; they all have the same needs and they all laugh and cry at the same things.

 

To learn more: savingnextgeneration.org.

 

“Fighting Extremism in the Middle East Region” with Ahmad and Abir El Assaad, founders, Saving the Next Generation; Mostapha Gharib, SNG scholarship student in the U.S.; and Marv Berenblum, consultant to SNG: Sunday, May 18, 9:30-11:30 a.m., Greenwich Reform Synagogue Religious School, 257 Stanwich Road (The Stanwich School), Greenwich. Reservations are required: call (203) 629-0018.

 

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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