FACES OF THE ECONOMY: Zeina Saab
There are 1.4 million workers in Lebanon – this is the story of one of them.
By T.K. Maloy
There is an old story – a man walks the beach every day after high tide and it is always left littered with many stranded Starfish. One day he encounters a young woman walking toward him methodically throwing each fish back into the water. He asks her, "you are very kind young lady, but what can it matter, there are too many of these poor creatures stranded?" She picks up the Starfish lying between them and throws it back into the sea, saying with a smile, "I hope it mattered to that one."
BEIRUT – Zeina Saab, 29-year-old founder of the evolving Nawaya Network, works, in a sense at helping Starfish, with her growing NGO pairing underprivileged Lebanese youth with mentors who assist at helping them develop their strengths.
Zeina Saab could probably command a high salary as an energetic international consultant anywhere in the world, is not going that route. Instead she is working almost around-the-clock to build a non-profit mentorship network in Lebanon.
Though Nawaya is organized on the simple principle of doing good, there is a great deal of data that shows this kind of positive intervention in young people's lives, can have an inestimable effect on the greater economy.
Miss Saab, a Lebanese American, holds a master's degree in Urban Planning and International Development; has done work stints in the Levant for both the United Nations and US AID, and though could probably command a high salary as an energetic international consultant anywhere in the world, is not going that route. Instead she is working almost around-the-clock to build a non-profit mentorship network in Lebanon.
All because of a lingering thought of "what could be" if a helping hand was held out to the various young people in search of mentorship that she encountered during her UN/AID work.
Recounting her inspiration, Saab said she kept coming across talented young people in poor areas of the country - both rural and urban – and began to ruminate on what kind of organization could be started that would work specifically matching promising youth with resources, training and perhaps ultimately, mentors. Big brothers and sisters...
To that end she began to slowly build her own NGO – the Nawaya Network – over a year ago, which had its formal launch on May 22, when the network unveiled a sophisticated Web interface that could help match younger Lebanese with specific mentors.
Volunteers began signing up and working in the year-and-a-half trial period before the formal launch, mostly my word of mouth.
Deflecting attention from herself, Saab notes that the real force behind the network are the mentor-volunteers, who, "are artists, doctors, athletes, entrepreneurs, performers, educators, and business persons."
Though having previous work in development, when opting to start her NGO, Saab determined that she needed a crash course in other disciplines and undertook training in social medial communication though a SMEX course; a documentary film making workshop with the Netherlands Institute and for the business end of things, a course with Amideast.
With little experience, Saab produced and directed "Meet Me Halfway" a documentary of Nawaya's 2011 pilot project. The documentary follows four underprivileged youth in Lebanon facing challenges in learning to develop the skills to realize their respective dreams.
One of the documentary's most endearing figures is Ahmed who wants to learn basketball but at first cannot even sink a basket. "Hoops" a Beirut sports academy offers him free lessons and attendance. In a moving scene, he is watched playing by his family, including his father, a disabled pottery maker, who is brought to tears by his son's new found success.
Saab has been constructing much of her business plan on her grandmother's kitchen table, where she resides and networking 24/7 in order to formally launch the Nawaya Network this year. Though starting small it may well change the lives of many underprivileged and under-noticed Lebanese youth markedly for the better as it expands.
"I really want to encourage – Lebanese expatriates in particular – to give back, to go beyond their comfort zone, and not return each summer just for the parties," Saab said.
"(And) To befriend, mentor younger people, regardless of politics or sectarian background."
With a winning smile, easy-going conversational style, and relaxed manner – albeit with a burning desire to help others – Zeina Saab doesn't strike and an observer as the sort of person who is anti-fun. And, though having done development work for the UN and AID in Lebanon and seen the reality of life while many her age were hanging at the Sky Bar, she isn't a smug technocrat – instead, from her work, she gained inspiration.
Recounting her initial inspiration in 2009, Saab describes meeting many hardworking, underprivileged Lebanese who are "invisible" to more well-off Levantine residents.
It was while working in the Bekaa Valley, Saab was to be left with a haunting impression of "what could be" when she met Nadine, a 13-year-old aspiring fashion designer. The teenager shared beautiful sketches and designs on paper, but there were no educational or mentorship resources that could help her up the learning curve.
"She had all the passion and potential to become a fashion designer," said Saab of what was to become an important encounter. "But she lived too distant from any educational resources and couldn't afford the classes."
What could this young lady become if she was given access to professional training, Zeina Saab asked herself?
A year later, while consulting for the United Nations in New York, Saab began putting together a proposal for what would become the nascent version of Nawaya several years later.
Nawaya's May 22 formal launch
Prior to Nawaya's May 22 formal launch, Saab has been going full steam in meeting with donors, experienced advisers, other NGOS, establishing a robust, interactive, online resource (for matching trainers with trainees), and most importantly methodically going about the business of identifying young persons in search of various mentorship -- educational, athletic, or professional training.
During the soft-launch phase of the network in 2011/2012, Nawaya has already been working with scores of teens who were looking for a big brother or sister, as it were, to teach them some of the important ropes of life.
On the networking front she has had a number of fundraiser events, including one at AUB that netted nearly $10,000 and another one recently in Dubai for Lebanese expatriates, and while in the States last year she forged a relationship between Nawaya and the MIT/Harvard Arab Club; and the NYC Lebanese Club.
Asked if she has any regrets not earning the type of high salary that her professional peers often earn -- particularly those working in consulting -- she concedes "Of course, I think about that," but then adds with emphasis, "I find my work meaningful (in all senses of the word). Life is too short not to do something that you want to do, which in this case is help young Lebanese find their potential."
Saab concedes that during those moments when Lebanon seems too chaotic, to unstable, and plagued by corruption, dysfunction and conflict, she has moments of doubt – "When Lebanon is witnessing violence it's hard to stay on track, and not get discouraged." But her dark moments are bolstered by her faith in how much good can be done.
The problems of Lebanon, are simply "reality checks," Saab said.
"I have never been more convinced," she said with emphasis. And Saab believes that many other share this simple faith in giving a helping hand.
Talking about building network of donors and mentors, Saab said,"that people want to be inspired – to know that they are doing something good, and that their money and time is going to a good cause."
"When Lebanon is witnessing violence it's hard to stay on track, and not get discouraged." But her dark moments are bolstered by her faith in how much good can be done.
For her, the economic issue is a simple one "If all of these children continue to live in the margins, then all of society will suffer."
One of the network's greatest success stories is Nadine, now all of 18, who is currently taking formal fashion design training in Beirut.
While Saab's network cannot help all those children who desire mentorship to help reach a cherished goal; each of those that Nawaya and its mentors can help add to one less person who is invisible and can hold their head up with pride in their skills, talents and dreams.
To view "Meet Me Halfway" click here:
To find out more about the Nawaya Network, turn your browser here: