By Marc-Antoine Pelaez
It is rather customary to say that a simple encounter can change the course of your life. Nothing holds more true for Zeina Saab. In 2009, the Lebanese-American took her first humanitarian journey with USAID to the isolated Lebanese village of Chmestar. There, in a maze of alleyways, she met Nadeen Ghosn. The unabashed 14-year-old spontaneously presented Zeina with a collection of her drawings. What Saab saw were not clumsy children’s pictures, but a series of elaborate dress sketches that would easily be at home in a sewing atelier. Nadeen, however, had never even learned the basics of fashion design.
Zeina was blown away. Upon returning home, the young woman with an Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from MIT, had one idea in mind: to help Nadeen. “When I met her, I knew that she could one day become the next great fashion designer. Nadeen, however, had no support. Without means or resources, her talent would never be cultivated”, says Saab, now 33 years old.
The idea continued to germinate in Zeina’s mind until 2012, when she founded “The Nawaya Project”, an innovative NGO that helps marginalised youth develop their talent so that they can integrate into the workforce.
During the three years following her initial meeting with Nadeen, Zeina took the necessary steps to launch the “Talent Program”, in which she and the 10 members of the Nawaya team connect youth from underprivileged backgrounds with mentors and professionals. There have been over 300 beneficiaries since the beginning of the project, their main objective: to develop and cultivate their passions and talents in various fields, such as design, music, athletics, writing, performing arts and even coding and robotics. Though she is currently focused on Lebanon, Zeina Saab has her sights on growth. “We want to expand our platform to the entire Middle East. If it works, we will create a globally connected community engaged in the development and empowerment of disenfranchised youth around the world”, she says with conviction.
During the Nawaya Network’s first year, Zeina did everything necessary to enrol Nadeen Ghosn, the program’s first beneficiary, into CAMM Fashion Academy, one of the best fashion schools in Lebanon. Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, Nadeen was able to raise $15,000 for the full three-year program. “By accepting me into Nawaya, Zeina gave me the opportunity to take part in prestigious fashion workshops. Thanks to the Talent Program, I was taught and formed by renowned fashion professionals. I had the opportunity to learn how to create jewellery, clothes, handbags and so much more”, Nadeen enthusiastically explains. Today the young woman is independent. She works full-time at Atelier C. in Beirut, and dreams of creating her own clothing line in a few years.
To maintain her NGO, Zeina Saab relies on sponsors as well as regional and international partners, which include Patchi Chocolates, Global Fund for Children, King Abdullah Fund for Development and UNICEF. Nawaya’s website also hosts an online donation platform. “Anonymous donations represent the majority of our funding. We also organize events for the general public and for investors from across the country. This program engages a lot of people since it primarily targets Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians”, explains Maria Achkar, Head of Communications at Nawaya.
Today, Nawaya has a new headliner project, “Impact Lab”, funded by UNICEF, which aims to help young unemployed Lebanese enter the workforce. Youth are selected from across the country thanks to a series of organised meet-ups. “Participants should be between 18 and 26 years old and must be able to read and write. Otherwise the program would be difficult to implement”, explains the founder. The program organizes meetings and offers mentorship workshops. “We spend a week helping them develop creative and innovative solutions to the problems their communities face. The most viable ideas are then submitted to entrepreneurs, who contribute to the development and financing of the projects, up to $2,000 for the most interesting”, Saab adds. Ultimately, the youth-developed projects must become profitable, so that they are able to take their lives into their own hands. This is the heart of the Nawaya project.