Day 5 (June 27) – Al Majmoua, AUB, Youth Shadow Government

Day 5 was another one of our more substantive days. In the morning, we met Youssef Fawaz, the Executive Director of Al Majmoua, an NGO based out of Lebanon that helps individuals with their microfinancing needs. I was not really all that aware of microfinancing prior to this meeting, the idea of giving people small loans to be paid off in a short amount of time. They fill in the gaps where commercial banks won’t, often giving loans to start businesses or help with small home repairs.

Much of what Al Majmoua finances is what Fawaz called “hidden businesses.” Started primarily by women, these are jobs done from within the home–seamstresses, hairdressers, food production. In fact, the organization was started in 1998 to solely help women. This was expanded to men in 2001, again primarily for smaller businesses and home repairs. Today, they have 32,000 clients otherwise unable to be helped by formal banking.

Al Majmoua is one of 20 such NGOs in Lebanon, which is surprisingly high for a country of only 4 million. In addition, there is no government-wide credit bureau, so there have been problems of people overborrowing, or using one loan from one NGO to pay a loan from another. Yet he did share many success stories. Al Majmoua only has a 1% rate of nonrepayment, which is incredibly high.

After that, we took a tour of the American University of Beirut. The campus is gorgeous, and I would love to return and walk for hours (when it’s not 100 degrees outside). We had a tour guide from the student body who took us around showing us the many buildings and giving us the history of the university. The oldest hall on campus had actually been bombed by the Israelis during one of the many wars but has since been rebuilt.

We stopped at the AUB bookstore during the visit, and I was able to pick up a few presents for people back home. We also went to the archaeological museum on campus–the only one left in Lebanon that was untouched by mortars. The collection is stunning. My dear friend Tyler would have loved all of the intact amphorae (including handles) on display. The museum has pieces dating back to the neolithic period, with nearly 60% of the pieces coming from Baalbek–we’ll get to Baalbek in a few posts.

The afternoon was a little rough, as a few of us had gotten quite a bit of sun at AUB. We went to Kababji for lunch, a higher-end kebab restaurant where we were able to sample many different types of kebab sandwiches. After a little bit of a drive, we ended up at the offices of the newspaper An-Nahar, an Arabic language newspaper dating back to 1933. An-Nahar has been very involved with the creation of the Youth Shadow Government in 2006. Of the 200-500 applications received, between 8 and 20 youth ages 20-27 are chosen. These young adults are assigned a ministry of parliament to shadow for one year. They learn the policy, write reports, meet with ministers, and try to lobby for issues important to the youth. For instance, a Beirut-wide recycling initiative was adopted because of youth involvement. These young adults do all of this work on their own time and often go into public positions after they finish the program.

After some free time back at the hotel, we went out for dinner at a kind of laid back Lebanese fusion restaurant. I had a crab sandwich wrap that was so good. Crab is a little different here, a little more firm like lobster. The best was the dessert:

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Yup, that’s a fresh, thin pita spread with warm Nutella and crushed hazelnuts, and topped with chopped up bananas.

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