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Saudi Arabia reaches out to New York in a testament of youth

New Yorkers are fond of the fact that their city has earned more nicknames than probably any other city in the world. The “city that never sleeps” truly lives up to its name in September, as thousands of people descend on it for a host of events, the most notable of which is the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.
And while the General Assembly starts this week, the Big Apple — another New York City nickname — played host last week to a special gathering of youth leaders from all around the globe to mark the start of the season when New York becomes the “world’s second home” for a few weeks.
The MiSK Foundation, the philanthropic non-profit organization established by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the UN Development Fund jointly organized a youth forum on Sept. 15 called “Promoting Tolerance for Peace and Sustainable Development: A Dialogue with Youth.” The day-long event was extremely well organized, informative and inspirational.
It is a rare conference indeed that can keep an audience’s attention for a full day, and have hundreds of people in their seats on a late Friday afternoon. The MiSK/UNDP forum managed that with ease. For over eight hours, the organizers put together panels that sought to bring awareness about a host of issues that impact the lives of young people around the globe. The panelists did not shy away from asking difficult questions but also inspired plenty of hope. The speakers tackled the myriad challenges facing youth from different angles. The stigmas confronting refugees was a recurring theme and provided for some of the day’s most memorable moments. There was Ilwad Elman, a former refugee from Somalia who lost her peace activist father to the violence in the country at a young age and fled, only to return with her mother to help to continue her father’s legacy. A young Iraqi writer by the name of Ahmed Bader — also a refugee — spoke with the eloquence of someone twice his age.
He and a collaborator, a Syrian artist named Hamed Fayez, had the entire audience listening to their every word as they spoke passionately about how they wanted to erase some of the stigmas that still surround refugees. The forum even dedicated a section in the venue to showcase the artwork of Hamed, which is composed of suitcases that dramatically show the destruction of his beloved Syria.

MiSK Foundation and UN Development Fund promote tolerance and peace in day-long forum.

Fahad Nazer

There is no doubt that the young speakers — and audience — were the stars of the event. All of them brought incredible insights, a fresh perspective and an infectious enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the organizers also made sure to remind the audience that young people have many lessons to learn from their predecessors, many of whom serve as role models.
There was Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who reminded everyone why New York City was the perfect venue for the forum. At some point he even joked that New Yorkers speak 60 different languages and that he knew all of them. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright charmed the entire room with her stories about the challenge and pride of being the first female secretary of state. She also cautioned the audience about the current state of news and information and said a healthy dose of skepticism was necessary in today’s media environment. Not to be outdone, famed philosopher and inspirational speaker Deepak Chopra had his signature words of wisdom for the crowd, which he left with a simple but powerful thought: “Words can either heal or inflame.”
The day’s most moving moment came when the Saudi writer Kowthar Al-Arbash spoke courageously about the heroism of her son Mohammed, who gave his life to prevent a terrorist from entering a mosque in Dammam to conduct a suicide attack. Al-Arbash reminded the audience that victims of terrorism are not just numbers on a statistics sheet or headlines in a newscast. They are real people whose death brings unspeakable pain to their loved ones. Arbash ended her remarks on a positive note, adding that she found solace in the fact that those who sought to spread hatred and division have failed in their project to divide people along religious or sectarian lines.
The UN General Assembly will no doubt attract much media attention over the next week, as leaders from nearly 200 member states tell the world about their priorities, concerns and achievements. The MiSK/UNDP forum also raised awareness about global problems such as unemployment, poverty, gender inequality and extremism of various forms. It was also a reminder that with some support, people can overcome their circumstances, no matter how dire.
It was confirmation that, in the end, people around the world want the same things: To live in peace, dignity and prosperity. I left the MiSK/UNPP youth forum more hopeful than ever about the future of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and the entire human race.

Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs,
Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.