WRITER: Danae Mercer PHOTOGRAPHER: David Chang
In the Arab world, conflict and poverty often limits access to schooling. As a result thousands of youths are struggling to get the education they deserve. Meet Maysa Jalbout, the CEO of a billion dollar foundation vying to change all that, one student at a time.
“I’ve met hundreds of young people over the past eight years who have shared with me incredible and harrowing stories of what it meant for them to get access to education,” Maysa Jalbout, the CEO of a fairly new venture aimed at improving access to education, tells me. We are midway through a thought-provoking conversation and Jalbout – slender, with almond eyes and a warm and earnest tone – pauses.
“I’ve heard stories of families selling everything they had so that they could send their child to university, stories of kids who have to work two jobs, or study part-time and take twice as long to complete their education. I’ve heard of young people studying over candlelight, huddled in fear of shells falling over their heads. Those stories are extremely important. Those are the young people we are targeting: the young people who have an innate desire to get out of the situation they’re in and to a better place.”
The ‘we’ Jalbout refers to is the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE). Launched in July last year, this privately funded philanthropic initiative aims to provide access to learning through scholarships and other initiatives. It has a declared goal of creating opportunities for at least 15,000 promising Arab youths from underprivileged backgrounds and an initial budget of 1.15 billion USD over the next 10 years. Only last month, Al Ghurair announced a new partnership with the incredibly prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to provide an open learning programme that comes with ‘MicroMaster’s’ degrees.
At the head of this high-reaching organisation – one of the world’s largest, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – is the sincere, quietly serious Jalbout. It’s now her job to successfully navigate one of the largest privately funded philanthropic education initiatives in the world. “There are challenges, of course,” she says at one point with a smile. “What would a job be without challenges?”
The Al Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Programme will increase access to high quality education through innovative online and blended learning degrees.
Born in Lebanon and raised first in the UAE then Canada, Jalbout grew up in an environment where going to school was never questioned. “My grandmother said to my mother, and my mother to us, that the only thing we could rely on was our education. We went to Canada as refugees. My mum went to a UN refugee school, and I never really understood what that meant until I started working on refugee education myself. So when I interview young girls –and I’ve interviewed Syrian refugees, Lebanese, Palestinians, Iraqi – and their mothers tell me they would give up food before they’d give up their kid’s schooling, I know exactly what they mean. I think my grandparents would have felt the same.”
It was in Canada that Jalbout started to develop her career, working in roles at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Human Resources Development Canada. And it was there that her passion for education began. “Just seeing what could be done for young people around the world, I had this itch to come back and do that in the region.”
So, Jalbout returned to the Middle East in 2007 and joined the office of HRH Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan. By 2010, she was appointed CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation, an organisation that aims to improve opportunities for children and young people in Jordan. The Madrasati initiative, one of the projects Jalbout worked on, helped improve the infrastructure of local public schools, and the results were impressive: more than 80 companies supported the work, improving education in approximately 500 schools and reaching more than 170,000 students.
“I was so fortunate to work with Queen Rania on education. I could see she wanted to bring the best of what education could offer to the region and that was very inspiring. I’m working in this space because I believe in education passionately and because I’ve seenwhat can be done on a global level. I want Arab youths to benefit from it. “
To delve into some of the challenges facing education in the Arab world, Jalbout became a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington DC private non-profit organisation dedicated to independent research. She examined refugee education, education technology and Arab youth learning and skills. Recently, a strategy she developed to put one million refugee children in school was endorsed by Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education.
The Al Ghurair STEM Scholars Programme will send high-achieving underserved Arab students to top universities to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“We have research that proves education is a very good tool against poverty, and an enabling tool for accessing opportunities, whether they are jobs, economic empowerment or gender equality. Given we have a high percentage of young people in the region, and also unfortunately, the highest youth unemployment rate, we have a massive opportunity to use education to get us out of this challenge we are facing,” Jalbout says. “I mention conflict and refugees because 80 per cent of kids who are out of school in the region are due to conflict. It’s a huge issue.”
Jalbout breaks the education problem down into three parts. “The first issue is that there are children and young people who don’t have financial means and are having a hard time accessing education, so we need initiatives to support them. The second is quality: young people in refugee camps or in rural areas don’t have access to quality education, they might be able to attend public schools and universities but those might not be the best. And third, some students who are currently in university are leaving school without the necessary skills required to enter the market.” Thus, the problems are in access, quality and low levels of skills. “We’re finding there are very few initiatives that directly address these challenges.”
As CEO of the AGFE, a role she took on in October of last year, Jalbout plans to lead the initiative to target those specific issues. “That’s exactly what the scholarship fund [set up via a generous contribution by Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Ghurair, a prominent UAE businessman and founder of Mashreqbank] is addressing. We’re trying to make the best quality education available to young people who need it financially, and we go beyond that.”
With a goal of reaching 15,000 students (“still only a drop in the bucket,” Jalbout notes), the AGFE has started working across partners and education institutions to find the best way to reach the greatest number of underserved Arab and Emirati youth in the region. “And that’s not easy,” Jalbout says. “That’s why the newly launched open-learning programme is so crucial.” This initiative, titled the ‘Al Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Program’, allows high-achieving Arab youth to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) online. It’s designed to specifically target those students who may not be able to travel or to forgo employment to access high quality education. Now through the internet, they can study anywhere in the world, and receive quality accredited degrees.
The Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum with Abdullah Al Ghurair at the official launch event of the AGFE, held on April 20th at the Zayed University in Dubai.
As for the scholarships AGFE makes available, the demand has been massive. From April 20th, when the programme was announced, to May 15th, Jalbout estimates around 10,000 applications have come in.
“It’s a competitive process and there are only so many we can support, but it’s very challenging. These are people. They have stories, they have aspirations, ambitions, responsibilities. And the stories they’re sharing with us can be gut wrenching. But at the same time, extremely inspiring… That’s why the programme is so critical.”
The job is consuming. Jalbout knew it would be. When I ask about balance she laughs. “I don’t have much, to be frank. We’re in the start-up phase, and I, well…” A pause and she shrugs. “I work long hours, my team works long hours, sometimes from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. There are different time zones and the process is continuous.” After our chat, Jalbout will be heading off to North America to visit upwards of six universities in 10 days. “It’s gruelling, but we feel a sense of urgency. We’re trying to establish an institution, trying to set a precedent for philanthropy and education, and we want to do things right.”
Behind Jalbout’s relentless drive is the inspiration she gets from real stories of students struggling and fighting for education. “Two years ago, I was interviewing a young Syrian woman in Lebanon who was telling me about her family drowning at sea. They were trying to get to Greece. When I asked her if, with the knowledge of their deaths, she was still going to attempt it, she hesitated for a moment, and then said ‘yes’. She said it was the only way she could get to Norway and complete her education. If a young woman can have that kind of resilience, surely with my position, with my privilege, I could fight for her.”