UN summit gives student ideas on rebuilding his native Syria

The Ninth Annual UN Youth Assembly, held in New York, was attended by some of the most active young members of society from all over the world.

August 17, 2011, Abu Dhabi UAE:
Zaid Al Rayes was one of the 15 students sponsored to attend the annual UN Assembly.A student at the American University of Sharjah he talks about the experience as a life changing moment. Whle in New York he attended his first protest and said for the first time in his life he "felt like a truly free man".

Lee Hoagland/The National
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DUBAI // The Sharjah student Zaid Al Rayes has heard first-hand accounts of the Arab Spring from youths in affected countries - and of their dreams for building better societies from the turmoil.

Mr Al Rayes, 21, a student at the American University of Sharjah, has just returned from New York as the only person chosen from the UAE for the Ninth Annual UN Youth Assembly.

"I was the youngest, and fortunate to hear about the experiences of those who have been part of the Arab Spring," said the student, who hails from Syria.

Delegates from the Arab world came from the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia and Algeria.

Mr Al Rayes heard about the clashes at Tahrir Square in Egypt, the role of social media in mobilising young people and social work in the Palestinian territories.

"I spoke about the message of Syrian youth and their role in current events in the country," he said.

Mr Al Rayes, who is completing a mechanical engineering degree, has been a regular at regional conferences, including the Youth Cafe in Beirut and the Fifth Youth Meeting in Alexandria, Egypt.

But his first fully international conference made him realise his place in society.

"The conference brought us together to exchange our experiences and build new relationships to develop our nations," Mr Al Rayes said.

He believes constructive dialogue among citizens and governments is the basis for peace and development.

"Only this, in the long term, will bring stability."

Among the major influences on Mr Al Rayes were the thoughts of Karim Ahmed Kasim, 31, from Egypt. Also a part of the sponsored delegation, Mr Kasim has been at the forefront of seeking rights and a democratic society in his country.

"We were at the assembly for two reasons: firstly, to talk about how youth is changing the face of the Arab region and our aspirations; and then to work together and build a network of young Arabs for different initiatives to achieve the UN goals," Mr Kasim said.

He said Egypt was coming out of its shocking experience of dictatorship and now it was "almost like giving birth to a new nation".

"But when [the president Hosni] Mubarak stepped down, I was not jumping with joy because I was thinking of the coming months. The issue is to create a new free Egypt," Mr Kasim said.

He said there was no longer any room for clashes and violence, and that the push for change required patience.

"What we need now is more representation of empowered young people who can contribute to the education and knowledge required to take the country forward," Mr Kasim said.

"A few days ago a young woman was tried by the military and everybody was upset about it.

"I said we should work to defend her if she has not done anything wrong, but if she has then we support a fair trial in front of a civilian court.

"But we have to be peaceful because nothing can be achieved overnight."

The 15 regional delegates were sponsored by PepsiCo - Asia, Middle East and Africa. The company's chief executive, Saad Abdul-Latif, said they "need to be encouraged to achieve their dreams".

"These young leaders are passionate and full of new ideas. Recognition of this commitment and support from the public and private sector like this one are important," Mr Abdul-Latif said.

Mr Al Rayes, the young Syrian, left New York with ideas about how to develop his own country.

"I hope in the future to help my nation to establish a real education base because that is the key to rebuilding our nation and to have a better society," he said.