Introduction

Hisham provides young adults with more and better volunteer and job opportunities, allowing them to develop technical and leadership skills early on, pursue rewarding careers, and contribute to social and economic advances.

Through the volunteer matching effort he has begun, Hisham equips young adults with relevant skills and work experiences early on, helping them demonstrate to themselves and then to employers and other established professionals that they, Eygpt’s young people, are a valuable social and economic asset.  The tools Hisham has strung together to give structure and focus to volunteer opportunities help people in their twenties and early thirties search for what they love to do, find it through experimentation and apprenticeship, and pursue it with energy, joy, and confidence—either as professionals or volunteers.  His efforts also set a fresh and positive tone for volunteerism, and show businesses and citizen organizations that a volunteer workforce can contribute in enormously valuable ways. To ensure that his efforts reach across Egypt and beyond, Hisham works with employers, citizen groups, young people, and ministry-level officials to append his work to existing youth centers throughout the country.  While his focus is on young adults, the fundamental change he seeks is a shift in how people of all ages conceptualize their jobs and their roles in society, a shift from pursuing a career just because it earns money to doing something that inspires passion and allows contribution to a healthy citizenry through excellence, professionalism, and innovation.

Of Egypt’s total population, roughly half—thirty-five to forty million—are under age twenty-five. The unemployment rate among this group is double that of the twenty-five-and-older demographic. In the current political and social environment, which does not forecast economic growth, this group represents an enormous untapped resource; yet the government and many older Egyptians view anyone under thirty as a “time bomb” and link young people to social unrest. Reactionaries, loafers, fundamentalists—the perceptions of this group are negative and contribute to the problems young adults face as they struggle to secure a livelihood and strive for a sense of direction and purpose.

Egyptian society does not set up young people to achieve. The perception that young adults lack the temperament and preparation to conceive ideas, design and implement solutions, and manage projects means that young people lack opportunities to learn to handle responsibility, to learn to lead. Volunteer opportunities could offer exactly the preparation and set of experiences that young adults need; however, volunteerism is not well-developed and most volunteer opportunities lack structure. Real chances for leadership, mentorship, and exploration are few, and failed, unstructured internships reinforce the entrenched notion that volunteers—and especially young volunteers—are too unskilled and too unmotivated to be useful.

There are myriad government-run and citizen-led programs for young people in Egypt, but the premise is that this group needs help, reformation, and aid. No efforts are led by young people: they rarely serve on the Boards of Directors, nor contribute in any great measure to program design and implementation. According to Hisham, who at thirty-four is still a young adult, the starting point of existing programs—reflected in tone and offerings—is all wrong. The challenge now is giving young people the kinds of skills and “professional” volunteer opportunities they need to learn, achieve, and grow into valuable members of the workforce and of society.

Showing everyone that he is serious about young people, Hisham helps individuals gain skills and validation and a sense of contribution. He calls attention first and foremost to their potential for society-wide contribution. To clear up any confusion that youth volunteerism is a fluffy, insubstantial aim, benefiting only a volunteer here and there, he speaks the language of economics, of matching supply and demand, of yield in monetary terms. Forty million young women and men contributing two hours per week and paid minimally at one Egyptian pound per hour means significant gains for the national economy: the yield, he calculates, is a 3,480,000,000-Egyptian pound boost to the gross national product. These figures, and the perspective shift that underlies them, cast young people in a completely new light: as an invaluable resource to be cultivated and harnessed as part of a solution to the country’s economic and social ills.

And cultivating and harnessing talent, Hisham believes, is best achieved by giving young people skills, learning opportunities, and responsibilities early on. Volunteerism sets in motion a process of committing to oneself and to society and to building skills through experimentation in various settings and fields. After being a volunteer, Hisham believes, young people have the freedom of choice, and skills and experiences to guide their choices. To give structure and focus to volunteer opportunities, making them valuable and productive, Hisham works through his Egyptian Volunteer Center, a national effort he formed in 2000 to match young volunteers with hosting organizations and businesses.

A computer scientist by training, Hisham has designed a national database of all volunteer opportunities that serves as an online catalogue of internships around the country. The database relies on volunteer “employers” to electronically input information about available internships in their businesses or organizations. Users, for their part, can sort for location, required skills, duration of internship, comments and evaluations of previous interns, and other relevant details. They follow up by sending a resume and letter of interest to appropriate point persons. The Ministry of Health, for example, put in a bid for eight hundred volunteers to work on a polio vaccination project. Volunteers applied, got trained, and began immediately, offering concrete help that was gratifying to them and visible to others. To make sure volunteer assignments run according to professional standards, Hisham requires participating volunteers and internship coordinators to sign contracts. The database currently holds information for six hundred volunteers and fifty-five employers.

Hisham also sees that young people need help presenting themselves and their skills and interests in the best possible light. Through his Labor Horizons program, he offers short courses in resume writing and presentation skills that aid volunteers in securing the most appropriate internships and jobs. Program evaluations have shown important results: Hisham and his volunteer staff have reached two thousand two hundred young people, helping about half of them find jobs.

To spread his ideas and tools, Hisham works with the Ministry of Youth to convert its national network of four thousand eight hundred youth centers into active hubs for youth volunteerism and career development. Hisham has begun by working with fifty such centers in seven governorates, and has arranged for the Ministry to provide one computer each. He will furnish the database and software to support the volunteer network, as well as initial training and staff orientation. In five years, he expects to have set up at least one hundred such centers, equipping each with youth volunteer and career development programs.

In addition, Hisham will push for greater formal recognition of young people’s contribution to the Egyptian economy and society. And finally, he wants to set up formal relationships with at least twenty-seven existing citizen groups—one in each of the country’s governorates. Hisham sees that for youth development efforts to succeed, they must be led by young people. Therefore, in all his work, he draws on the expertise of young adults who participate in all levels of design and implementation and proposes as another benchmark of his work that half of the Boards of youth clubs will be young people ages twenty-four to thirty.

Hisham grew up in a poor family in Cairo. He lost his father when he was twelve but carries with him his father’s last reminder that failure is impossible. Raised by his mother, he pushed through public schools to university, learning English quickly and graduating with a degree in computer science. Always a leader, Hisham had an opportunity to travel abroad in 1991 as part of the American Embassy-sponsored International Visitors’ Program, which allowed him the chance to visit three volunteer centers in San Diego, New York City, and Washington, DC.

It wasn’t until his first volunteer “job” in 1994, though, that Hisham really found what he loved to do. Along with twelve hundred other young volunteers, he was part of the preparation team for the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo that year. He created and ran the Internet facility for the Conference; this was the first major event for which Egypt used Internet links. He describes the experience as transformative: for the first time in his life, he felt truly part of something important and good. The experience also exposed him to some of Egypt’s leading social entrepreneurs. From their example, he drew important lessons and began to see how he could put his leadership gifts and technical skills to work in creating valuable opportunities for others.

Following the conference, he and several fellow volunteers decided to set up a citizen group to carry on the youth leadership work begun at the Conference. Later, he and a few friends formed the Youth Association for Population and Development. His work with volunteerism led to a career interest in development and for a few years he worked for a national organization, then the European Union, in the fields of community development and reproductive health. The EU assignment took him to Upper Egypt, the southern part of the country and the poorest, where he designed television spots dealing with family planning and education and worked closely with the communities there. During these years, Hisham learned a great deal about development priorities throughout the Middle East, in urban and rural areas, in fields ranging from sex education to environmentalism. After leaving the job over differences in approach—he believed that his role was that of giving information and letting the individuals and couples plan, rather than dictating how many children couples should have—he continued on for a year as a volunteer, writing scripts for TV spots and offering other project support as needed.

Having had these varied educational experiences—some volunteer, some paying—Hisham decided to return to youth volunteerism as a primary focus. Internships and other early leadership opportunities had made all the difference in his life, and he saw the potential to create similar opportunities for others and through these, realize society-wide advances. As the newly-elected Chairperson of the Association in 1998, he quickly took the group’s work from one to three of Egypt’s twenty-seven governorates.