Slain US ambassador to Libya’s legacy lives on in youth initiative

Stevens Initiative honours ambassador killed in attack on compound in Benghazi in 2012

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Ten years after Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, was killed in an attack on a compound in Benghazi, his legacy lives on through the Stevens Initiative, a project that brings together young people from across the US, the Middle East and North Africa.

The attack, instigated by members of the militant group Ansar Al Sharia, left four Americans dead. The incident shocked the world and had long-lasting effects on US politics and policies in the Middle East.

As the anniversary of the attack approaches, Stevens's family have chosen not to focus on his death but on the qualities that made him such a beloved figure and to continue his legacy by helping young people learn about the world around them.

From an early age, Stevens loved meeting new people and diving headfirst into new cultures.

“He was an adventurer,” said his sister, Anne Stevens. “My mother used to say he had sand in his shoes.”

It was on a high school trip to Spain that made him want to set off on a life of travel and purpose.

“He came back fluent in Spanish,” Ms Stevens remembered fondly. “He went to Bilbao and spent the summer on the beach, having a great time making paella and drinking wine and making friends and that just gave him a taste for how fun it can be out in the world and learning about an entirely new culture.”

After graduating from the University of California-Berkeley in 1982, he joined the Peace Corps and spent three years teaching in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, igniting a lifelong love of the Middle East, where he would spend much of his professional career in the US Foreign Service.

The Stevens Initiative uses technology to increase people-to-people exchange between youths in the US and the Middle East and North Africa. Photo: The Stevens Initiative

His family has spent much of the past decade trying to help foster his love of travel, cultures and people in others.

“I would like the world to see him as an example of how important it is to enter into foreign places, foreign cultures, with people you don't know, with people you might not understand with wide eyes, with interest, listening, enjoying and having the full expectation that this is going to be a new a new world for us that this is going to be beneficial and this is going to be fun,” Ms Stevens told The National.

In 2015, Ms Stevens helped launch the Stevens Initiative, which brings together young people from around the US and across the Mena to help build common understanding.

The project, which has received funding from the US government as well as the governments of the UAE and Morocco and the Bezos Foundation, is part of the Aspen Institute.

The initiative operates in 17 countries across the region, including in the UAE, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt.

It facilitates virtual exchanges through which young people are able to use “everyday technology”, including videoconferencing applications such as Zoom and Skype, to connect with other youths to learn first-hand about each other's cultures.

“He believed in building common understanding with people, forming friendships and relationships with people who were different, and from a different culture and from different places,” said Christine Shiau, executive director of the Stevens Initiative.

Ms Shiau estimates that, by the end of 2023, the initiative will have affected more than 70,000 people, including 3,000 in the UAE.

The initiative also aims to help young people find employment by fostering an understanding and appreciation for the world around them.

“In order for them be successful in whatever step they want to take, whether we're talking about young people in high school, or young people who are finishing up university, they will probably need to have these really important intercultural competencies, communication perspective taking, understanding different perspectives,” Ms Shiau told The National.

Every now and then, Ms Stevens finds herself wondering what her brother would think of the initiative that bears his name and carries on his legacy of adventure and cultural exploration.

“He would be delighted in what we've accomplished, knowing that we're connecting young people in the US to young people in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, all over the world and he would be so happy that we're creating an experience for young people that have brought so much satisfaction and enrichment to his own life,” she said with a smile.

Updated: September 12, 2022, 3:04 PM
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