By Christina Klassen
“Youth engagement.” This compelling but vaguely defined term drew me to apply for the LERRN Youth Engagement research placement in Lebanon in the summer of 2019. I submitted my application more out of a curiosity to understand why the local team in Lebanon had chosen this as an area of research priority than out of any of my own clear ideas of what a research project on youth engagement in Lebanon should look like. My background reading told me that youth engagement is what results “when young people are involved in responsible, challenging actions to create positive social change” (1), and that it requires involving youth in decision making and planning for issues that affect their lives and the lives of others. I had spent just under a year in Lebanon prior to my experience with LERRN, and it seemed to me that it would be challenging to study this kind of engagement in a country where, although people are often politically vocal and care deeply about their country, corruption is rampant, political power is restricted to an elite few, and initiatives promoting active citizenship receive little to no support from the governing bodies.
While in Lebanon with LERRN, I had the opportunity to speak with people who have a personal, vested interest in the issue of youth engagement: refugee and Lebanese youth, heads of activist organizations, and leaders of nonprofits that seek to support young people in Lebanon. A common theme that came out in these interviews was, indeed, the sense that any formal policy on promotion of youth engagement is experienced on the ground as little more than lip service to real notions of involving youth in active citizenship.
This is especially unfortunate given that meaningful youth engagement can be a protective factor for some symptoms of mental illness (2) and helps youth develop a sense of agency. Particularly in cases where people are facing multiple stressors, as is the case for many refugees in Lebanon, having a sense of personal control can help individuals manage stress and promote wellbeing (3, 4). When those desiring to be active citizens have few opportunities to engage with the decisions affecting their lives, wellbeing can suffer.
Facilitators and Challenges to Engagement
Some of the key stakeholders I interviewed worked for organizations with a youth-specific focus, others with a more general mandate that is open to youth (a demographic group that is loosely defined by organizations, ranging from the early teenage years to mid-30s). With regard to refugees, organizations more focused on influencing public policy did not specifically seek out refugee youth for involvement in their projects, though some nevertheless ended up involving refugee individuals in their programming, since their work impacted on these communities.
In my interviews, I found it especially interesting to learn about what factors stakeholders saw as promoting youth engagement. Among others, interviewees described how having access to mayors and municipal governments was important for allowing decisions to be made. The ability of the mayor to make decisions, his/her receptiveness to input, and the municipal council’s homogeneity were all important factors in allowing youth to make their voices heard. I also saw how some organizations focused on building the capacity of youth and training them to contribute socially, for example, through initiatives aiming to influence government policy and through training as citizen reporters. One particularly passionate activist spoke of how young people’s willingness to commit to long term engagement through slow activism was crucial to doing the work of sustainable change.
This last point highlights one of the key challenges in refugee youth engagement in particular. When asked about how any of their projects sought to engage refugee young people, many interviewees replied by emphasizing how the transience of most Syrian refugee community members made it hard to engage them in long term change initiatives; members of the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon, being more permanent, were more likely than Syrian youth to be targeted for projects specifically on youth engagement. Others shared how their perception of refugees’ inability to influence government policy was another reason why they were less likely to recruit refugee youth for such initiatives. What’s more, one leader stated that “refugees feel that they have more to lose than to win if they voice their concerns”, reflecting the precarious status of most refugees in Lebanon. In a country where even the longstanding Palestinian refugee community has limited rights (5), more recently arrived Syrian and other refugees barely stand a chance at asking to have their voices heard.
More generally, for both national and refugee youth, interviewees described how NGOs often stepped in to provide public services where the government was absent and failing in its duties. However, when NGOs lacked skilled staff, stakeholders shared how this could lead to a lack of vision to inspire youth towards engagement. Insufficient needs assessments and evaluations of interventions were also seen as challenges to creating meaningful projects to engage young people. Overall, insufficient funding contributed to precarious or non-existent sustainability for even effective initiatives promoting youth advocacy. A further challenge described was that funding from international donors was often tied to a desire to create political change in Lebanon that suited the foreign powers’ own interests. Overwhelmingly, a key challenge to youth engagement was the sense among youth that their voices and investment would not make a difference and would not reach the political elites’ ears in a way that could actually create change.
Today’s protests in Lebanon
As I write this post, Lebanon is in the midst of protests that, beginning on October 17, 2019, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 28. As we witness the events continuing to unfold around Lebanon, we are faced with a very clear form of engagement, perhaps engagement at its rawest form: protest. This summer, I heard many Lebanese friends and colleagues express a sense of powerlessness that they and other young people in the country have felt as they struggled with, among other issues, the sweeping unemployment in the region, leaving many people unemployed or working for unstable pay in jobs outside of their fields, some even after obtaining multiple university degrees in desperate bids to be employable. Now, with these protests, what some are calling a revolution, there is a sense of hope, the kind of hope that comes when you have the chance, especially as a young person, to finally feel that you have some say in the decisions that shape your life.
As LERRN continues its partnerships with the Centre for Lebanese Studies at the Lebanese American University and other community partners, it will be interesting to see the effects of these protests on stakeholders’ on-the-ground experience and perception of youth engagement in Lebanon. For refugee Syrian and Palestinian young people, the protests have created mixed experiences (6), with some young people feeling empowered and united with Lebanese citizens against government corruption and others feeling threatened. Some Lebanese citizens see decreasing the number of refugees its strained infrastructure is currently supporting as a necessary step towards economic prosperity, while others feel that, with good governance and proper management of public funds, Lebanon could better support both refugees and its own citizens. A leader of a youth-focused community organization that I interviewed this summer expressed the importance of diversity in youth engagement initiatives, saying that bridges need to be built between communities, regardless of religious sect and refugee/national status, so that they can express and work to address their concerns together. Following a summer of intense government crackdowns on undocumented Syrians and other non-Lebanese individuals in a bid to force refugees to return home (7), it remains to be seen how public sentiment and future government policies will promote or prohibit engaging refugee youth and the building of such bridges.
One of the community activists I spoke with this summer said, “spontaneous mass protests, without leaders (…) break up as quickly as they form even though [they are] very powerful and inspire a lot of youth … on the short term. (…) but then [youth realize] it’s not lasting (…) so either they organize politically properly or they go back to their daily lives”. Time will tell whether the results of this revolution will be a slightly modified return to the status quo, with a few political elite setting the direction for lives in Lebanon, or whether a new government will do more than draft policy for show, and give a chance to youth, whether Lebanese or refugee, to be meaningfully, sustainably engaged and have a say in creating a positive future in Lebanon for themselves and the generations to come.
- ACT for Youth. (Last updated 2019). What is youth engagement, really? Retrieved from http://actforyouth.net/youth_development/engagement/.
- Armstrong, L. L., & Manion, I. G. (2015). Meaningful youth engagement as a protective factor for youth suicidal ideation. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 25(1), 20-27.
- Taylor, S. E. (2010). Mechanisms linking early life stress to adult health outcomes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(19), 8507-8512.
- Allen, J., & Allen, M. (2016). The social determinants of health, empowerment, and participation. Oxford textbook of creative arts, health, and wellbeing, international perspectives on practice, policy, and research, 27-32.
- Vohra, A. (14 December 2018). Palestinians in Lebanon reflect on ‘fading dream’ of return. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/palestinians-lebanon-reflect-fading-dream-return-181213082728356.html
- Alwani, G. (24 October 2019). Lebanon protests also bring Syrians, Palestinians out onto the streets. Retrieved from https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/palestinians-syrians-participate-in-lebanon-protests.html
- El Deeb, S. (20 June 2019). In Lebanon, Syrian refugees face new pressure to go home. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/0a77b3506e6d4c12a877ef059fdc4f4a