By Lamia Lahrech, YES 2005-2006, Algeria
In July 2005, I was selected as one of the Algerian youth who went on a one year exchange to the U.S. as part of the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. I went to a land I did not know, lived with a host family who I had little prior knowledge about, and experienced a culture very different than my own. A year later, I came back home to Algeria and left behind people I had come to call family, lifelong friendships and a second home in the United States, but most importantly, I came back a stronger woman full of dreams and plans for her future and the future of her community.
A year after I came back, I created a volunteering group called “Les Roses de l’Espoir” (Roses of Hope), which is now a non-profit organization that uses education as a tool for community development and aims to encourage civic engagement among youth. Development work in the education sector has become my passion. I want to bring the creativity, colors and diversity of learning I experienced in the USA to the people and children of my own country. I believe that education in Algeria still follows a traditional path that limits the spirit of creativity and students’ engagement. When I see our schools and students, I see a shadow of sadness and hopelessness cast on their walls and faces. However, the potential for community engagement and the hunger for change is strong in my community, and that is one of the aspects that helped me complete my project.
Education for Algeria was a project I developed after my participation in the Transformative Leadership Training (TLT) program, which was presented by the Salam Institute and sponsored by American Councils for International Education. My project aims to better the infrastructure and capacity of Algerian elementary schools located in remote areas surrounding Blida, Algeria. Blida is known as "The City of Roses" and is located in northern Algeria. It is the fifth largest city in Algeria and is surrounded by rural areas. We worked with Ahmed Renja Elementary School to implement the project. We planned the project for eight months, and divided the tasks between four team leaders. From March 2-4, 2015, each team reonovated a different part of the school. Forty volunteers came in support of this project, including active youth, parents of the students, school staff, and students who were invited to participate who were between 6 to 12 years old. We wanted the project to be owned by the community and the presence of these volunteers reinforced the achievement of this aim.
The renovation work was divided into four parts: the library, the mural, the garden and the entrance. The youngest volunteers worked on using recycled materials to create the garden. They made planters out of car wheels and garden boxes out of old wooden doors. Giving the young volunteers this task taught them responsibility, creativity and leadership. The older volunteers worked together to do construction work and to create the mural, which taught them teamwork skills and the importance of doing community service. The team leaders also benefited because they developed their leadership skills. All of these new skills helped prepare the participants for the workshop we held for them a month later.
On April 14, 2015, we organized a workshop for the students and the school staff, which included the following six sessions:
- Two storytelling sessions that taught the art of reading and storytelling to teachers
- A gardening session that developed the participants' awareness about the environment.
- A session on photography to help develop the creativity of young students. (These students took photos of all of the other sessions and presented them at the end of the day.)
- Two art and recycling sessions that encouraged creativity and awareness towards recycling.
Students spent time in each workshop and their energy was intense and full of creativity. The workshops were conducted in an experiential learning method. In addition to the topics presented in the sessions, the students also learned responsibility, volunterism, teamwork and leadership.
The direct beneficiaries of the project were the pupils and the school staff. Our project was done during spring vacation. I returned to Ahmed Renja Elementary School to see the kids’ faces after returning to school from their break. When they left the school it was colorless, and when they came back they saw it full of color. Their smiles, the glow in their faces and their joyful screams was our reward for the project. We have heard feedback from the parents, teachers, students and community about how the atmosphere we have created changed their spirits and encouraged them to work better for the school. Here are some quotes that we received:
You not only changed the daily life of our pupils but ours too. - Teacher at Ahmed Renja Elementary School
God Bless ‘Les roses de l’espoir’. - Boualem (parent of one of the pupils).
Thank you for allowing me to be part of the change. I had the chance to give back to my community and I’m proud of the work that we have done. - Abdelmadjid (a volunteer on the project).
Now I come running to the school every morning because it is beautiful and I love it. – Amine (a pupil of Ahmed Renja Elementary School, aged 10 years old).
Hearing all the positive feedback made us proud and inspired us to want to give more. We have already been contacted by five other primary schools, asking us to implement the same project in their institutions. My hope is to have a greater impact and implement the project in all 70 elementary schools in my state. I would love for the project to encourage the community to take the lead in projects like this. This is just the beginning; change is on the way!
The project was an idea that was stuck in my mind for the last two years. Without my participation in the TLT in Rabat, Morroco and the help of the YES program, I would not have been able to make it a reality so quickly. I would like to thank the YES program for their continued encouragement and guidance. I would like to thank Sahar Taman at American Councils for International Education for her generosity and constructive orientation; the Salam Institute, and especially my coach Tarek Maassarani, Project Director of the Salam Institute, for his advice, genuine feedback and kindness toward me. I would also like to thank my TLT group for their joy in sharing; and finally my team, “Les Roses de l’Espoir,” for “walking the talk” with me.
(Lamia was hosted in Milford, New Hampshire 2005-2006. Her placement organization was AMIDEAST.)