Fairouz Omar is introducing a professional psychological counseling system for teenagers in the Egyptian government schools. Her model of preventive guidance is interactive and intended for all children.
Fairouz is revolutionizing the counseling system in Egypt to secure the emotional health of Egyptian youth and prepare them to be active and positive adults. Once school children are encouraged to express themselves, learn about and accept their emotions and build skills of self-control, she believes teachers will be able to teach better, parents better able to communicate and children allowed to focus on learning and succeeding in their own lives.
To accomplish this, Fairouz has adopted a three part module that includes fostering in-school counselors’ skills, promoting their authority and status in the educational system and improving their relationship and ties to students and their families. First, she focuses on counselors, by building their capacity through training and raising awareness about the importance of their role in improving students’ emotional health. She then focuses on parents and school administration, teaching them about the role of counselors for healthy kids as well as troubled ones. Lastly, Fairouz works with youth, instilling respect for counselors.
A core program component is the encouragement for students to channel their anger, frustrations, barriers to success into developing solutions and mobilizing for action. Fairouz’s program Qalb Kabir (Arabic for “Big Heart”) thus prepares young people to make choices and demand their rights in a non-violent and positive way. Youth develop their own code of conduct and build self confidence, while also having support systems in place to help them focus on their goals and resist risky behaviors such as drug use and crime.
Today, 60 percent of the Arab World’s population is under 30 years old. In Egypt alone youth make up 25 percent of the population. In Egyptian rural areas, only 10 percent of children are enrolled in schools and half of those between the ages of 15 to 24 are unemployed. Even when kids do go to school, for many middle-class youth in Egypt, the education they receive is minimal and youth tend to drop out to take on low-paid jobs. As a result, youth fall in the traps of delinquency, drug addiction, and prostitution.
Although the government currently spends roughly 3.5 percent of GDP on education, improving the system requires more than reforming existing institutions, but also reforming curriculums and training school teachers and counselors. A government decree in Egypt imposed the employment of two psychological counselors in all public schools defining their mandate to know students’ needs, capabilities, talents and providing them with moral support and assistance in times of crisis. Unfortunately, counselors have not been able to directly affect students’ attitudes as they mostly do administrative work. In fact, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Education, their problem-resolving techniques involve solving the issue at hand and evaluating students’ capacities and talents without instilling development skills or encouraging self-reliance in problem solving.
While some counseling services do exist in Egypt, they are targeted at specific groups with special problems, and adopt curative approaches using off-the-shelf tools and programs that are seldom tailored to Egyptian culture and social norms. Counseling services extended to individuals suffering mental illnesses or traumas are often offered at prohibitive prices, as counseling is provided by physicians. In cases where services are extended to the general public, this is often done following a crisis-management approach (as with depression or suicide attempts) and the services rely on volunteers who receive minimal training. Very few organizations focus on self-development, yet when they do, it often comes from a human resource management perspective as opposed to life-coaching. In all existing approaches, the role of counselor is seldom considered.
Fairouz is working in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Education to operationalize the dormant in-school psychological counseling system through a pioneering capacity-building program for in-school counselors. Contrary to counseling that is offered to deviant students, troublemakers, or individuals suffering mental health problems, Fairouz is integrating the notion of counseling for healthy individuals into Egyptian mainstream culture.
Qalb Kabir was founded in 2004 for Fairouz to formally provide services within a large community development organization of the Helwan governorate. Her program targets 13 to 16 year olds and has proven successful as students who had been through her program scored higher on standardized exams. After realizing though that her initial strategy of training her own counselors could not meet demand, she decided that to change the system and tap into the existing mandate to professionalize school counselors. Leveraging her success she went straight to the national Minister and signed a protocol at the highest level which allows her into any governorate in the country.
Fairouz strengthens the skills of in-school counselors by training them on the tools and methods of Person-Centered Therapy (PCT) as adapted to Egyptian culture. PCT, one of the most widely used models in mental health and psychotherapy, involves showing genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard toward a client. Based on these elements the therapist creates a supportive, non-judgmental environment in which the client is encouraged to reach their full potential. Fairouz simultaneously improves the lives of school personnel by restoring their self confidence as she redefines their currently ambiguous roles as counselors and works on increasing school, students’ and parents’ recognition for their roles.
Ultimately both schools and parents become more receptive to counseling and concepts of improving lives through dealing positively with emotions. Fairouz works on changing the existing notion of psychological counseling as a foreign-imposed fad by adapting counseling tools and methodologies to the norms of the Egyptian society and weaving cultural values into modern counseling techniques. Examples of Fairouz’s approach include intertwining stories from the local culture into her sessions and organizing group therapy sessions that do not require young people to unveil their innermost secrets, but rather act on the premise that privacy should be respected: A core part of Egyptian culture.
To date Fairouz has covered Helwan governorate which includes a total of 60 preparatory and secondary schools where the counseling system was implemented but not functional until her intervention. Fairouz has rehabilitated and trained all 95 counselors recruited by the Ministry of Education and implemented a counselors’ on–the-job-training and coaching program in seven pilot schools. Fairouz implements her program with her previously-trained staff of Big Heart.
Prior Fairouz’s initiative, school counselors received occasional training in the form of lectures that were generally too abstract or too technical. Thus, school counselors were drawn to Fairouz’s training which is simple and provides them with practical applications for class.
Aware that counseling is not always understood or accepted in Egyptian society, Fairouz engaged students’ parents to ensure their support at home as well as in school, and to avoid sending conflicting messages. To this end, Fairouz implemented a training program for parents to clarify the goals and values of her intervention with their children. The program was successful; especially when children and parents became closer. Parents learned to replace traditional or coercive parenting styles with more effective methods of communication.
In parallel to the in-school program, Qalb Kabir offers a one-year self-discovery program open to individuals and to members of other citizen organizations who can apply Fairouz’s simplified techniques and methods of counseling within their own constituencies. The program will create a class of activists who can spread the model. Today, 60 percent of the young people who have attended the Qalb Kabir training are active volunteers.
Fairouz’s training programs are now documented in manuals which facilitate replication in public schools all over Egypt. Fairouz plans to train future counselors during their undergraduate studies in education and psychology.
Fairouz realized the importance of a positive environment for youth’s emotional health when she moved from a private Catholic school where students were treated as equals to a public school where students were neglected and treated with disrespect. As she underwent this transition she found herself becoming quieter and less self-assured. Struggling to remain emotionally healthy within a hostile environment, Fairouz realized that if a person is resilient they will survive under any circumstances, but if a person is weak they will remain vulnerable.
As Fairouz finished high school and moved to medical school, she chose a less demanding specialization so she could dedicate her free time to community work. After spending one year as a life-coach in a school in her neighborhood, Fairouz took part in online counseling on two websites and provided counseling on a television program. Interacting with youth and listening to their problems made Fairouz realize that social deviance was the dominant characteristic among them. To address this problem, Fairouz decided to work through public schools.
All throughout Fairouz’s professional career, the ethical values and patience that her father instilled kept her focused on her goal and dedicated to her purpose. Her work with patients’ suffering of psychological illnesses taught her to be compassionate and to forgive human weakness.
Fairouz now lives with her husband and her four children who are very proud of her and supportive of her efforts.