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A Scholarship That Follows Its Recipients Home

This fall, the Open Society Scholarship Programs welcomed its first Civil Society Leadership Awards (CSLA) scholars. These fully funded master’s degree awards are open to applicants in a range of countries who exhibit a balance of academic and professional excellence, and a commitment to leading positive social change in their home communities.

We spoke to three of the recipients. Born and raised in Syria, Ihsan is pursuing a master’s degree in international health policy and management at Brandeis University. Ghinwa, also from Syria, is working toward a master’s degree in coexistence and conflict at Brandeis. And Lemlem, who hails from Ethiopia, is studying law and government at American University. As these are countries where civil society is constrained, we’ve omitted their last names for their security.

Syria is a country embroiled in conflict. What does civil society look like there, and how has it changed over time? 

Ihsan: Civil society has been activated during the conflict. On one side, many national and international organizations are active in Syria and provide humanitarian relief for displaced people and refugees. On the local level, however, I remember when people started to escape from clashes in Aleppo and were displaced in schools and public parks.

At that time, so many people—especially young people living in safe areas—became volunteers. In the beginning it was messy, but after few days, this work became more organized. 

Tell us about your background prior to your scholarship.

Ihsan: During the conflict, I became a member of the Mobadiroon Network, which focuses on youth capacity building. This network organized workshops around the country to train young people how to be active citizens and design initiatives to solve local problems.

At the international level, I'm one of the founders and the first national coordinator of Arab Youth Climate Movement in Syria. During my studies at Brandeis, I’ll still keep up some duties, and keep in contact with local NGO members back in Syria.

Why is higher education important to the development of civil society in your home country?

Ihsan: I believe that community development can be attained by educated, trained, and open-minded people. It is essential that activists get the opportunity to improve their skills with evidence-based research techniques.

How does your master’s study fit into your future plans?

Ihsan: I am particularly interested in developing Syria’s healthcare system. For me, experts in health policy will play a key role in finding solutions to health problems across the country. The international health policy and management master’s program will give me the opportunity to be educated and trained to work in Syria with international organizations such as the World Health Organization.

What are some key features of civil society in Syria, and how has the civil war affected it? 

Ghinwa: For me, the only “real” civil society is the community-based youth groups that were formed or became active in response to the war. These groups were strained by a high demand for relief work at the start of the war, and now they are aiming for more long-term goals such as building and promoting coexistence in society.

Despite the lack of training and funds, civil society activists and volunteers involved with these groups did a lot to provide physical, emotional, and psychological relief to Syrians most in need. This immediate relief work aided the affected population in towns and villages that were sieged or shelled. What I really hope is that all those individual initiatives could be combined into one effective network that would evolve into properly functioning civil society institutions.

Why is higher education important to the development of civil society in Syria?

Ghinwa: Syrians do not have many options at present, but education gives us hope and the means for us to carve another way out of the civil war. Hope is what young people lack at the moment, and I believe education will give them hope that there is a solution that does not require violence, a way that includes building a country that is inclusive and just to all, protected by laws and not arms. 

How does your master’s study fit into your future plans?

Ghinwa: My concern is that many different civil society groups are doing great work in Syria, but lack coordination. I hope that I will be able to utilize my theoretical and practical experience to liaise between different civil society actors working in or for Syria.

I plan on starting from the grassroots level by training young men and women who have individual initiatives to connect them with potential resources. Through this, they’ll have the means to evolve into a fully functioning foundation for future civil institutions.

What does civil society look like in your home country?

Lemlem: The change of government in 1991 and the enactment of a constitution that recognizes freedom of association and other requisite liberties saw the number of local and international civil society organizations operating in Ethiopia increase. 

In 2009, however, the government adopted the Charities and Societies Proclamation, a law that restricted organizations that receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources from engaging in human rights and advocacy activities. As a result, the work of many civil society organizations was curtailed, and some organizations are fighting for survival.

What is your professional background?

Lemlem: Prior to starting my scholarship, I worked with a pan-African child-rights organization on legal and policy reform for children across Africa. I also worked closely with the Ethiopian Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs on different research and legal and policy reform initiatives.

How does your master’s study fit into your future plans?

Lemlem: I aspire to use my degree to contribute to the development of the Ethiopian legal system. To this end, I aim to continue my teaching career and to work on the rule of law and access to justice. I believe the college-educated generation of my age has a unique place to ensure a better future for Ethiopia. It is a generation that was not in the wars.

Change requires optimism, determination, and knowledge. The education and opportunity given to me equally belongs to the girl in rural Ethiopia who is probably brighter than me.

In addition, my CSLA scholarship is a trust in my ability and a huge investment not only for me, but for all that I may reach. 

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