Introduction

The “digital” nature of communication in today’s world makes innovative ideas and information theoretically accessible to all corners of the world. Youth in the Arab World, however, often lack effective access to the digital world: they are rarely exposed to new and creative information and are often discouraged from contributing their own innovative ideas in any setting. Ranwa seeks to systemically change the way youth in the Arab region engage in the opportunities available in the current globalized, digital world. Ranwa’s idea is to developthe critical thinking skills of Arab youth by providing an environment where they can elaborate on their own ideas that are reflective of their culture, identity and hopes, through the use of advanced digital technologies. She established theArab Digital Expression Campsas a tool to achieve these objectives.

Ranwa’s idea introduces Arab youth to the limitless boundaries of the digital world, providing them with the tools, skills, opportunities and environment to begin formulating the meaningful ideas instrumental in social change. Ranwa’s idea is to empower Arab youth with two vital skills: critical thinking and digital know-how. Her goal is to introduce Arab youth to the immense possibilities of the digital world in a manner that will encourage free and critical expression.

Ranwa’s idea is achieved through her camps in three ways. First, youth are exposed to and trained in the latest state-of-the-art digital technology. Second, Ranwa has adopted participatory techniques that foster youth’s self-confidence, enhances their belief in their abilities and demonstrates that their opinions and contribution matter. Third, coaching by groups of experts and youth-led community-related projects after the camps ensures the continuity of an enabling environment for these young adults that provides incentives for free and critical thinking, initiative and entrepreneurial spirit.

Ranwa’s camps offer youth a number of on-the-job training modules and workshops on open-source software and other related advanced technology. The aim is to provide the youth with the necessary skills, information and know-how to enable them to participate actively as producers of technology, rather than merely passive consumers. Through a participatory training approach, youth learn of their own agency in the continuous evolution of technology: they have the potential to affect and contribute to technology.

Ranwa’s second approach is to work on the youths’ abilities and confidence as young future leaders. She has developed a number of workshops and techniques where by the youth are given the confidence and opportunities to practice freedom of expression. Teams of Arab experts with extensive experience in producing critical works of expression have worked with her to develop the camps’ curriculum, programs and strategy of implementation. These experts also work as mentors and coach the groups of youth after the camps and in their communities. For the duration of the camps sessions and, afterward, in the participants’ communities, these mentors conduct debate and discussion experiments and sessions.

The underlying belief is that uninhibited expression helps to develop necessary leadership and intellectual skills by teaching youth that their opinions and feelings are valid and potentially valuable to society. Encouraging youth to express these opinions and feelings increases their self-confidence, their willingness to express openly, and their tendency to think freely, as individual thought is accepted, valued, and even rewarded. The result is a group of youth participants who possess the confidence to question their realities and the mental flexibility needed to conceive creative solutions to perceived challenges.

The “digital” nature of communication in today’s world makes idea and information sharing accessible to almost all. In an era of vast technological advances and a huge rise in satellite broadcasting, citizens have ceased to be mere receivers of information, but have become contributors to the world of information. Complete access to the digital world, however, is not available to everyone. According to a UN Human Development Report, the Arab region is at the “lower ranges” of the “digital divide”. The “digital divide” refers to the gap between those people with effective access to digital and information technology in the world and those without. The Arab World, as a whole, does not have effective access to the digital world due to numerous political and social constraints. By effective access, we mean access that not only exposes people to new and creative information, but also encourages people to contribute original and constructive ideas. Ranwa’s idea will provide Arab youth – particularly youth living in countries with very little capacity for creative expression – with the skills to use the digital world to learn, grow and participate positively in society.

The concern nowadays is not only with the lack of technological skills of many Arab children but rather the way in which they use technology. In the Arab World, it becomes an issue of the types of information people, including youth, are exposed to (still little content is available in local languages for younger generations, particularly in the Arab region), and their ability to critically express themselves as individuals and as members of a group, at the local and regional level. Most youth in this region are never taught to value their creative ideas. Digital media is a tremendous opportunity for people to learn, grow, and participate in the societies in which they live. Most Arab youth do not fully understand the realm of capabilities and opportunities that exist in the digital world: collaborative platforms such as Wikipedia or YouTube, weblogs and citizen journalism websites are examples of what the digital world can offer. Ranwa believes that the digital world should not become a critical forum of idea sharing for the economic elite, but rather encourage and include ideas from throughout the world.

Other similar efforts by CSOs and intergovernmental organizations exist, but no effort has been implemented at the regional level nor have there been programs specifically geared towards Arab youth. Additionally, no other program embodies the goal of initiating a cultural shift in the way all individuals in the Arab world critically contribute to global information and their own society. For example, the UNDP, in partnership with the Egyptian government, created the Smart School Network (SSN) to provide IT training to children and youth in schools. This initiative in no way promotes free expression or critical thinking, rather it provides youth with an opportunity to learn the basic skills of using IT equipment. Additionally, there are in existence CSOs working on issues similar to Ranwa’s: the Contrast Project is located in Palestine and Plan operates all over the world. These organizations encourage youth expression through the digital world, but as an outlet for their frustration about violations of their human rights rather than the elaboration of original ideas. These organizations use the works produced by youth to draw attention to violations in their countries, as well as an advocacy tool. Ranwa’s goal is not to merely showcase the existence of their rights and highlight circumstances of violations but rather to also encourage the consumption and production of all types of knowledge by youth through exposure to the fluid boundaries of expression in the digital world.

Ranwa created a global platform where Arab youth can freely express their ideas and generate information through a variety of outlets, encouraging critical thought about any issue. Ranwa’s camps include multiple elements that combine to create a large social, cultural, artistic and technological network that will continue to grow. As the Arab world continues to fall further behind in terms of meaningful information contribution, Ranwa’s Arab Digital Expression Camps bridge this critical digital divide.

Ranwa’s idea was inspired by a major non-profit initiative for Arab youth development, the Arab Computer Camps. The Arab Computer Camps operated between 1984 and1994 and had three main objectives: first, the exposure of Arab youth to new technology; second, removal of inhibitions towards technology; and third, teaching basic programming skills in a fun and creative way. Upon meeting many of the alumni from these camps, Ranwa was amazed at the powerful impact of such a project helped to direct the career paths of thousands of youth.Ranwa appreciated the camp environment and decided to revive this concept, but in a new direction and with completely different goals.

 

Ranwa’s initiative is also based on the idea of a residential program that generates high-impact learning, but her Arab Digital Expression Camps foster creativity and critical thinking rather than merely providing skills training. This leap, from skills to creative and critical thought processes, is what marks Ranwa’s idea as innovative, exciting and new.

 

Ranwa has always been cognizant of the critical thinking gap that exists in the Arab world, particularly since embarking on a career path as a journalist. Between November 2005 and February 2006, Ranwa began meeting with her friends and peers to discuss their own experiences and ideas regarding expression in the Arab world. She solicited the ideas of writers, cartoonists, film directors, various artists, professors and political activists, all of whom provided insight about a core problem in the Arab world: youth are not provided a forum for free and critical expression in today’s digital world. Ranwa decided that she wanted to rectify this problem and believes that these discussions were invaluable to the initial development of her camp program. After developing a proposal, Ranwa presented her initial idea for the Arab Digital Expression Camps to board members of Team Engineering and Management Consultants, a training consultancy firm based in Cairo, Egypt, and the same company that developed the Arab Computer Camps. She received funding to travel to Beirut to continue researching the freedom of expression among Arab youth and their access to the digital world.

 

In February 2006, Ranwa worked with 20 experts from the digital media, education and free expression fields in a two-day brainstorming workshop. The aim of the workshop was to develop the original concept of the Arab Digital Expression Camps, as well as discuss models of how the camps would work.  After the workshop, Ranwa continued working to gain insight into problems in the region and the support of additional expression experts. In January 2007, Ranwa organized a second workshop that brought together many of the same experts to discuss, write and finalize the goals and details of the camp programs. These experts became the curriculum developers for the camps: they designed programs focused on training youth to independently and collaboratively produce digital programming.

 

One of the main aims of the curriculum is the creation of a generation of Arabs with the critical thinking skills necessary to becoming meaningful consumers and producers of information.  Another curricular aim is to instill confidence among youth that they are capable of critical expression and that their ideas are valuable. Ranwa’s camps empower youth with the confidence and skills that enable them to continue taking initiative after the camps and begin formulating their own substantial societal contributions. She seeks to educate and train youth on the possibilities of information consumption and production that exist in the digital world. The program uses Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), a program that allows every individual to tailor the software to their individual needs. Additionally, every modification is electronic and can be accessed via the internet so that all users become beneficiaries. This software is available in both English and Arabic, and operates on older systems so that it can become a tool for the people and not exclusively for the economic elite.

Campers live together and participate in daily workshops that train them to produce innovative and critical digital projects. The workshops are typically divided into an interactive outdoor session followed by time spent in the lab. Additionally, all campers take part in five Web 2.0 workshops which teach digital media as a form of community interaction and communication through game-like activities and discussions.

Web 2.0 aims to explore some of the technical properties of the internet and their social consequences with key concepts including:

  • The peer-to-peer aspect of the internet.  Specifically related to collaborative platforms, each person connected to the internet is equal to all other contributors.
  • The internet is an open network where everyone possesses the ability to introduce new applications and technologies.
  • The richness of the web is built around user-generated content.
  • The internet is a network of people and information, not computers.
  • The internet is a communal space.

The camp attracts both economically affluent and economically disadvantaged youth. In its advertising, the camp program targets youth whose families are capable of affording the cost of the camp independently. By paying the full tuition of the camp, wealthier campers cover their own tuition while simultaneously covering the tuition of the comparatively economically disadvantaged participants, as well as additional expenses incurred by their travel and accommodation. In addition, Ranwa works with an advisory committee and local and regional partner CSOs to select additional economically disadvantaged youth within each target community. These participants bear none of the travel, accommodation or camp costs.

The camps are staffed with trainers who are selected from a large pool of university applicants. The students selected are also trained to act as mentors to the young campers. Efforts are made to select trainers from similar communities as the campers in hopes that these trainers will continue to provide support for youth after the camps as mentors. The trainers are formally trained in the concepts and specifics of the program by the network of curriculum-developing experts before each camp session begins. The experts also supervise the implementation of the camp program. Additionally, Ranwa is currently working to create partnerships with local and regional CSOs that will continue to provide support for youth expression following the completion of the camps. She invites members of CSOs throughout the region to participate in her training sessions and camps

Upon completion of the camps, campers exhibit their digital projects on an online platform. Team Engineering and Management Consultants and the Arab Society for Training and Management Development (ARSTD) have partnered with the Arab Digital Expression Camps” to create a site, www.arabdigitalexpression.net , where campers create an individual profile and display their work, exchange ideas, and practice critical expression. Additionally each camper is given a CD equipped with the Open Source operating system and various other software programs as well as a 1 gigabyte memory stick (flash drive). This allows campers to continue to express and challenge themselves, even if they do not own their own computer. Ranwa is currently working to create partnerships with local and regional CSOs that will continue to provide support a youth expression following the completion of the camps.

In July 2007, Ranwa organized a six-day workshop for 20 children from the Zilzal area of Mokattam, Cairo, Egypt, in partnership with Alwan wa Awatar, a well established children’s CSO. Ranwa wanted to test the idea of encouraging artistic expression among children in the Arab world, so she organized a workshop that mirrored the workshops held during the camps. The children were trained on video and music live mixing by Tarek Atoui, a Lebanese musician and programmer, and Hisham Jaber, a Lebanese theatre and film director, using an innovative technique for collaborative music and video mixing with joysticks. At the conclusion of the workshops, the children performed a live audio-visual concert for their family members. This workshop gave the children the confidence to freely express themselves, while developing their critical thinking skills. The children were trained in music and video expression and were then provided a forum to independently determine how to use these skills.

Ranwa decided to continue full-force with her Arab Digital Expression Camps, and in July 2007 held a 7-day training session for the trainer/mentor staff working in the camps. There were approximately 30 trainer/mentor participants, ages 18-25, from all over the Arab world. The first 3-week camp was held August 2007 in Cairo, Egypt. There were 64 youth participants, aged 12-15, from Gaza, the West Bank and Egypt and sponsored through partnerships with Give Gaza (Gaza) and al-Harah Theatre (West Bank). The children were trained in digital sound and music, print and digital design, and attended numerous extra-curricular activities. This inaugural camp was funded by ARSTD, Give Gaza, ABB and individual donors.

The August 2007 camp proved to be a success on several levels. The comprehensive, rich and diverse program developed for digital expression achieved its goals: children produced works of critical expression using different media tools that reflected their aspirations, desires and fears. They uploaded their work onto the community portal and shared ideas and comments. They spent three weeks having fun while building lasting friendships and relationships with colleagues, trainers and supervisors.

Assessments of the camp experiences have shown that the skills learned will have a rich and lasting effect on most of the participants. Three campers from the West Bank began contributing to their local newspaper, while two of the campers from Gaza produced films which they uploaded onto the internet. Several others have created artistic designs reflecting their personal situation as well as the tension taking place in their region (West Bank, Gaza and Cairo). Many of these youth come from conflict areas, and the camp not only provided them the technical skills, but also the critical thinking tools and confidence to find meaningful and constructive outlets for their ideas. Two other children created and organized a newspaper at their school and run it successfully. The trainers/mentors, having established strong relationships with their young campers, continue to follow-up and provide support in all of their endeavors. But the effects of the camps were not limited to the campers. Several of the trainers/mentors have begun their own intitiatives after their inspirational camp experiences. For example, some of the trainers organized their own individual expression workshops for youth and a Lebanese digital video trainer collaborated with an Egyptian filmmaker to shoot a short feature film in Siwa, Egypt. Such follow-on activities will be an important component of Ranwa’s program.

After the success of the August 2007 camp, Ranwa decided to take steps to ensure sustainability of the Arab Digital Expression Camps. She solicited the support of a media and internet technology development professional to help in analyzing the strategy and structure of the summer camps. This partnership has provided Ranwa with additional contacts in funding agencies and generated ideas for different opportunities. Ranwa has additionally decided to include the Arab Digitial Expression Camp project under the umbrella of the ARSTD organization which will increase access to funding, one of her main obstacles.

In the next 5 years, Ranwa will organize between four and six camps each year with approximately 80-96 youth per camp. She also plans on organizing up to eight local workshops annually, partnering with local CSOs in various Arab countries. These workshops are designed to benefit approximately 200 people each time. Additionally, Ranwa is working to develop partnerships with CSOs in other Arab countries. The idea behind these partnerships is for each CSO to be trained in the models and concepts of the camp, take the knowledge back to their area of operation and disseminate the information through their youth population. This will help ensure greater societal impact and help create a cultural shift in critical thinking, which is critical for sustainability of Ranwa’s programs. Additionally, Ranwa is investigating the possibility of conducting workshops in CSOs throughout the region.

Ranwa’s goal is to institutionalize her model of alternative digital education into educational systems throughout the region. Given the nature of education, Ranwa believes it is necessary to change the system of learning into one that promotes creativity, individuality and critical thinking. She wants to include the curriculum of the camps in schools so that all youth are encouraged and trained in critical expression through digital mediums. She is investigating introducing her model into ICT programs in schools. Currently, Ranwa is in the early stages of developing a plan of wide-spread implementation of her model, but she is working to solicit ideas from teachers, professors and CSOs working in similar fields; she envisions having a comprehensive plan in the next 3-5 years. Her long term plan includes influencing governmental policies at a regional level. The growing community-based network created through both the summer camps and local workshops, in addition to the ever-growing network of education professionals connected with different Arab education ministries and concerned educational organizations will slowly, but surely, influence policies. Furthermore, the online community portal (which includes features similar to those of YouTube, Facebook, and Wikipedia) will bring together thousands of users to share their works of expression.

Ranwa’s early experiences helped her to realize her passion in becoming a social entrepreneur. When Ranwa was nine years old, her parents divorced and her father moved to Lagos, Nigeria to work as a specialized physician The following year Ranwa’s mother – an Iraqi national – was forced to leave Lebanon because of the Israeli invasion.  This forced migration left Ranwa and her siblings to be raised by their grandparents. During this time, Lebanon was engulfed by civil war and Ranwa’s family was forced to flee her village many times to take refuge from the battles.

While Ranwa was still in high school (1988-1990), Beirut continued to be engulfed by the civil war. Ranwa experienced several periods of faction fighting and general instablity that often resulted in bombings, explosions and gun battles in the streets. In fact, between 1988-1989, the war escalated to a point where schools were forced to close for several months. In 1989, after two months of no school and a growing feeling of unrest and anxiety, Ranwa moved with her older brother and younger sister to Lagos, Nigeria to live with their father. Ranwa quickly became frustrated with the educational system in Nigeria and desperately wanted to return to Beirut.The situation in Lebanon, however, remained unstable and Ranwa was unable to return before graduating from high school.

Due to the fact that most of her childhood was spent without her parents or in family relationships that were extremely difficult, Ranwa learned to value the support of her peers immensely. Ranwa’s friends provided her with moral, emotional and sometimes physical support throughout her childhood, teenage and college years, instilling within her an amazing personal strength.  The support of her friends helped to manifest Ranwa’s independent and fearless spirit, helping her realize her desire to build a better life for herself and others.

Between the ages of 19-24, Ranwa studied the work of Arab artists and journalists in Beirut, gaining more interest in this field of work. She began to highly appreciate the meaningful aspect of this type of work: the lasting social impact of art and journalism. She considers the years between the ages of 24-28 to be the defining years when she started her career as a reporter and began impacting society through her journalism while simultaneously developing her entrepreneurial spirit. Ranwa decided to report on many socially and politically sensitive issues in the region such as women’s and children’s rights, the rights of the disabled and Lebanese detainees in Israeli. Additionally, Ranwa began to volunteer with many organizations and CSOs that focused on these same issues. Ranwa continued to work as a journalist in Beirut, covering daily events as well as writing weekly analytical articles for the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper. It was during her time as a journalist in Beirut that Ranwa recognized the lack of critical thought and expression in the Arab world.

In 1998, Ranwa made the arduous trip from Beirut to Baghdad, Iraq to meet her mother for the first time in 15 years. She organized the whole trip on her own and took her younger sister with her. She credits this trip as an experience that has helped her realize not only where she comes from, but one that has also helped to renew her sense of commitment to positive social change. Ranwa believes that much of her inherent personal strength mirrors that of her mother. Ranwa’s mother insisted on remaining in her hometown and running her pharmacy in a tiny village of underprivileged residents, despite the risks to her personal safety.

In 2001, Ranwa moved to Cairo to live with her husband and began a Master’s degree in 2002 at the American University in Cairo. While enrolled at the university, she once again became involved in political issues and participated in the landmark demonstration against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. She additionally began to work with individuals and organizations focused on the rights of refugees in Egypt. Ranwa’s professional work at this time included acting as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Cairo Bureau, and the regional editor for the German news agency Deutsche Presse Agentur. Ranwa believes that her experiences in Cairo have been some of the most enriching and influential in her life.

Currently, Ranwa is working to build and expand the Arab Digital Expression Camps while simultaneously caring for her family: her husband Ali, 13-year-old step-son Nabeel and one-year-old son Nadeem. The Arab Digital Expression Camps are highly effective in stimulating and supporting creativity, critical thinking and freedom of expression amongst Arab youth through training and coaching in summer camps. Ranwa believes that participation in summer camps should not be an experience solely for the economic elite: summer camps provide youth with unique learning experiences that have been proven to be effective alternative education models for learning.

Ranwa credits her time as a journalist as the main catalyst that influenced her to want to make a cultural and systemic social change in the Arab World. She believes, however, that all of her different life experiences have contributed to the comprehensive development of the Arab Digital Expression Camps.