Introduction

Yousry is creating a positive shift in the minds of Egyptian children and youth so that they become accepting of and tolerant towards each other. Yousry’s vision is to bring about cultural transformation and social change by engaging youth in promoting tolerance and acceptance of the otherand through bridging the gaps between social, religious and ethnic divisions in Egyptian society.

Yousry’s tolerance initiative is the first interactive classroom-based model where children and youth use the principlesof the UniversalHuman Rights Declaration, relate them to their daily life, engage their families thus spreading them to the wider community and create local initiatives to put the principles into practice. Yousry’s idea is not only unique in content by using the UniversalHuman Rights Declaration principles but also unique in the methodology he follows which relies on involving parents, students and the community at large in implementing local initiatives.

The interactive classroom model fosters empathetic behavior and creates a culture of tolerance among children at a critical age. It brings in several stakeholders to reject intolerance and the lack of empathy among community members with a specific focus on Muslims and Christians.

By transforming their mindset early on, Yousry and his 600 instructors create informed future leaders to act as advocates of tolerance and empathy in a diverse range of life situations. Using the principles of the UniversalHuman Rights Declaration gives young people a foundation for a new way of thinking and viewingthe world instead of depending solely on traditional, cultural, and misinterpreted religious ideologies.

Yousry believes that when empathy and tolerance are parts of the fabric of every child’s education, children and youth in every community will gain the skills to abolish discrimination, work across differences and build an inclusive and progressive society.

Recently in Egypt, intolerance, lack of empathy and discriminationagainst women, Christians and various minority groups has been on the rise, becoming deeply rooted in the society. The absence of information about basic human rights principles, lack of programs relating theoretical concepts of human rights to people’s daily lives and the misinterpretation of the values of tolerance in religions have escalated the problem of intolerance in Egypt.

Recent outbursts after the January 25th revolution between and within sectors of society have highlighted the extent to which a positive mind shift towards tolerance and acceptance is necessary within the country. There are currently no programs in Egypt by CSOs or others that specifically and comprehensively focus on fostering tolerance and acceptance.

In Egypt, religion continues to have a prominent presence in people’s lives, where religion-based tensions have recently resulted in acts of violence.Ignorance about the other and misinformed religious beliefs resulted in riftsand acts of hostility among community members.

Such tensions and biases do not emerge from a vacuum.  In Egypt, one of the main reasons behind this tensionis the lack of rights-based education. The education system is top-down, and restrictive, leading to an environment where creativity and innovation are penalized.  Furthermore, the current educational system does not provide objective information on other religions. Therefore, it does not create a culture of understanding between Muslims and Christians or other belief systems.

Additionally, there are no tools provided to young people to properly express their ideas of tolerance and acceptance. In the formative environment of children and youth within the family and in schools, basicrights such as self-expression and the ability to debate are often discouraged and disrespected. Barriers placed by society and censorship enforced by the government further hinder children’s self confidence and critical thinking skills.

Yousry’s initiative is a unique interactive classroom-based program that targets two age groups. The first is children from 12 to 18 and the second is young adults from 18 to 21 years old in schools, youth centers, citizenship clubs and camps. In both groups, the program teaches children and youth about tolerance, empathy, inclusion and acceptance of the other.  Since he first began in 2002over 12,600 students in 210 schools in 14 Governorates of Egypt have been reached.

With the first age group of children, Yousry brings the participants into an environment wherethey learn to be together and are given the 31 principles of the Universal Human Rights Declaration.  The 31 principles are then divided among groups of 3 to 5 children. Each group takes a particular principle home, relates it to their daily living situations and starts discussing it among their families and community members.  When children enlist the help of their parents in discussing the Human Rights principles they ensure the spread of values like empathy and tolerance into the wider community.This approach nurtures teamwork, collaboration and tolerance among children.

The children then come back to the classroom work together with the instructors and classmates; they open a debate about it, discuss challenges faced and reach a common understanding through a series of discussions and group activities.  Afterwards, each instructor, together with a group of children, tries to create a local initiative reflecting the ideas and values of that principle.

One example of a local initiative was seen when one group of students helped establish associationin collaboration with the pediatric patients and their parentsto ensure adequate and top quality care for pediatric kidney dialysis patients. This local initiative surpassed religious and cultural difference and provided health services to all children regardless of their religious beliefs in an area famous for religious strife.

After the children graduate Fromhigh School, they are subjected to receiving the same interactive methodology but at a more advanced level. These young adults, aged 18 to 21, are given the tools to help them to promote and advocate for tolerance and acceptancein addition, they are trained to become future instructors.  During the last 10 years, this advanced program produced 600 instructors.

To expand his program and its impact on society, Yousry is consolidating his current partnerships, and diversifying the scope and nature of his allies. He is continuing the training of trainers for CSOs staff, law students, school teachers and media professionals.  He is also lobbying with the Ministry of Education to include a “civil education” class in public schools which is based on Human Rights principles and values of empathy and tolerance. Finally, he is co-authoring a civic education curriculum that will be an extracurricular subject in public schools and mass communication colleges.

To institutionalize his tolerance program Yousry is currently in negotiations with Al-Azhar University and Sunday Church Schools to integrate his approach into their religion classes.

Yousry El Koumy grew up in Tanta (North of Cairo), Egypt with a hard working father and a loving mother. As a child, Yousry looked up to his father who had positive relationships with the neighborhood church and an uncle who took him along to religious meetings in mosques and with the Muslim Brotherhood. Later on, in high school, Yousry met his first Christian friend. This marked a turning point in Yousry’s life, when he realized that he had to effectively communicate and cohabitate with someone religiously different.

Because of these personal experiences, Yousry renounced conventional beliefs of rejecting diversity and decided to promote his own ideas about the benefits of tolerant thinking and the uses of dialogue amongst different sectors of society. Yousry’s commitment to promote diversity and tolerance influenced his career choices and led him to leave the more lucrative career of accounting and work in an educational CSO.  Yousry believes that education is the key to transform people’s perceptions of themselves and their lives.  He believes that by integrating concepts of tolerance through education of children and youth, we can build a more inclusive society.

Yousry regards Ashoka as a critical gateway to link him with other like-minded people who can inspire him and help him grow his initiative. Ashoka can help Yousry expand his idea to the next level, covering more governorates, reaching more beneficiaries, and implementing a civic education curriculum in public schools and universities. He seeks additional skills and networking opportunities to promote his initiative nationally and regionally. Additionally, he hopes that Ashoka will offer him more focused and effective strategies to achieving his ultimate goal of realizing a world where every person has a tolerant and accepting mindset that embraces diversity and differences.