Arab Conference at Harvard sheds light on refugees, art and influence in the Middle East

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Salma El-Yassir speaks of Palestinian youth and refugee issues in Lebanon and the region at the Arab Conference at Harvard on Friday. (Twitter photo)
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Aerial view of Harvard campus featuring Eliot House Clock Tower along Charles River, Cambridge, Boston. (Shutterstock)
Updated 07 April 2019

Arab Conference at Harvard sheds light on refugees, art and influence in the Middle East

  • A Harvard conference gathers thought leaders from the Mideast and the diaspora to discuss the region’s pressing issues
  • The conference is intended to empower Arabs in their homeland to continue to work toward a better future

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts: The venue could not have been more “Ivy League” America, but the topics under discussion, and the thought leaders discussing them, could not have been more Arab.

The Arab Conference at Harvard, the largest Arab conference in North America, hosted by one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, began on Friday.

“This conference is actually very timely,” Amin Awad, director of the Middle East and North Africa bureau at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Arab News.

Amin Awad. (Supplied)

“It’s very important, and I think we should have more of this, because it illustrates that solutions can be found in discussion around issues of concern to youth today in the Arab world in regards to political, military and security elements … the whole massive movement of people, the phenomenon of these radicalized groups, which is really at the heart of the youth’s future.”

As the three-day “(Re)Imagining Home” conference began, Awad took part in a discussion on Arab refugees with Middle East analyst Ibrahim Al-Assil, Director General of the Institute for Palestine Studies Salma El-Yassir, and the communication and youth development specialist at Education Above All, Hani Shehada.

“Millions of refugees are found in the Middle East in terms of internal displacement, 40 percent of the total number of 70 million displaced globally,” Awad said.

“Those who left home as internally displaced refugees, from Syria let’s say, in 2011 when they were babies, today they are 8 (years old) and don’t have any sense of belonging to any area,” he added. 

“Those who left at 8, today they’re 16. You can imagine moving from 8 to 16 with no education. Or if they left at 12 they’re 20 today. A lot of them lost a big part of their childhood, very important and formative years.”

Shaden Khallaf, a senior policy adviser at the UNHCR, chillingly summarized the refugee situation in terms of debate and discussion: “When it comes to talking about the movement of people, we’ve never been as polarized as we are today.”

Shaden Khalaf. (Supplied)

A discussion on social media and influence, held before a packed room of students, considered how platforms such as Twitter and Instagram had replaced traditional media and allowed individuals to present themselves and their stories to the world.

Speakers Hadia Ghaleb, Karen Wazen, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin and Amy Mowafi urged the audience to “tell your stories.” Shihab-Eldin told students, who crowded around him afterwards: “Change is happening.”

Social media is allowing the Arab story, such as in Palestine and Syria, to come to Americans, who “are hearing more and more from us,” he said. “We’re changing people’s perceptions over time.”

Ghaleb, a marketing expert from Dubai and CEO of Ghaleb Production House, said social media had attracted many Arabs and was changing the traditional methods of marketing, presenting Arab culture in a different, more impactful way.

Amy Mowafi

Mowafi, a communications activist from Egypt and CEO of the MO4 Network, said: “Social media is our greatest weapon to tell our story and change our narrative.”

Leading speakers at the event include American University of Beirut President Fadlo Khuri, and property tycoons Mohamad Hadid and Mohamed Morshedy.

Other panelists include Emirati Middle East art expert Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, Mashrou’ Leila frontman Hamed Sinno, BuildPalestine CEO Besan Abu-Joudeh and UN Commissioner Alaa Murabit. 

Adel El-Adawy, a professor at the American University in Cairo, told Arab News: “It’s very interesting times in our region, so to see different people from the Arab community who are living abroad coming together — experts from various fields such as governance, health care and so on — to give their input on what’s going in the region, is fascinating.”

There will be discussions on refugees and human rights, influence and governance, and health care.

Dina Masri (Supplied)

“The theme ‘(Re)Imagining Home’ speaks to every Arab,” the conference co-chair, Dina Masri, told Arab News. “It speaks to the Arab in their homeland trying to imagine a better future, the Arab-American who is working through questions of identity in their new home, and pushes both the Arabs in their homeland and the diaspora to discuss what home means to the millions of displaced Arab refugees in the region,” she said. “The conference is intended to empower Arabs in their homeland to continue to work toward a better future, as well as foster a sense of responsibility to the region in those who are part of the diaspora,” she added.

“We hope that through this conference, our attendees will meet others who are understanding of their identity struggles, and who will push them to do better for our part of the world.”

‘Sand mafias’ threaten Morocco’s coastline

Updated 15 min 13 sec ago

‘Sand mafias’ threaten Morocco’s coastline

  • Unscrupulous construction contractors illegally stripping beaches of sand
  • Beaches and rivers are heavily exploited across the planet, legally and illegally, according to UNEP

MOHAMMEDIA: Beneath an apartment block that looms over Monica beach in the western coastal city of Mohammedia, a sole sand dune has escaped the clutches of Morocco’s insatiable construction contractors.

Here, like elsewhere across the North African tourist magnet, sand has been stolen to help feed an industry that is growing at full tilt.

A report last month by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the global over-exploitation of this resource accuses “sand mafias” of destroying Morocco’s beaches and over-urbanizing its coastline.

“The dunes have disappeared along the entire city’s coastline,” lamented environmental activist Jawad, referring to Mohammedia, on the Atlantic between Rabat and Casablanca.

The 33-year-old environmental activist leads Anpel, a local NGO dedicated to coastal protection.

“At this rate, we’ll soon only have rocks” left, chipped in Adnane, a member of the same group.

More than half the sand consumed each year by Morocco’s construction industry — some 10 million cubic meters (350 million cubic feet) — is extracted illegally, according to UNEP.

“The looters come in the middle of the night, mainly in the low season,” said a local resident in front of his grand home on the Monica seafront.

“But they do it less often now because the area is full of people. In any case, there is nothing more to take,” added the affable forty-something.

Sand accounts for four-fifths of the makeup of concrete and — after water — is the world’s second most consumed resource.


Beaches and rivers are heavily exploited across the planet, legally and illegally, according to UNEP.

In Morocco, “sand is often removed from beaches to build hotels, roads and other tourism-related infrastructure,” according to UNEP. Beaches are therefore shrinking, resulting in coastal erosion.

“Continued construction is likely to lead to... destruction of the main natural attraction for visitors — beaches themselves,” the report warned.

Theft of sand from beaches or coastal dunes in Morocco is punishable by five years in prison.

Siphoned away by donkey, delivery bike and large trucks, the beaches are being stripped from north to south, along a coastline that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic.


Siphoned away by donkey, delivery bike and large trucks, the beaches are being stripped from north to south, along a coastline that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic.

“On some beaches, the sand has nearly disappeared” in parts of the north, said an ecological activist in Tangiers. “There has been enormous pressure on the beaches of Tangiers because of real estate projects,” he said.

To the south, the UNEP report noted, “sand smugglers have transformed a large beach into a rocky landscape” between Safi and Essaouira. Activist Jawad points to “small scale looting, like here in Mohammedia.”

But “then there is the intensive and structured trafficking by organized networks, operating with the complicity of some officials.”

While the sand mafias operate as smugglers, “key personalities — lawmakers or retired soldiers — hand out permits allowing them to over-exploit deposits, without respect for quotas,” he added.

A licensed sand dredger spoke of “a very organized mafia that pays no taxes” selling sand that is “neither washed nor desalinated,” and falls short of basic building regulations.

These mafia outfits have “protection at all levels... they pay nothing at all because they do everything in cash,” this operator added, on condition of anonymity.

“A lot of money is laundered through this trade.”

A simple smartphone helps visualize the extent of the disaster.

Via a Google Earth map, activist Adnane showed a razed coastal forest, where dunes have given way to a lunar landscape, some 200 km south of Casablanca.

Eyes fixed on the screen, he carefully scrutinized each parcel of land.

“Here, near Safi, they have taken the sand over (a stretch of) seven kilometers. It was an area exploited by a retired general, but there is nothing left to take,” he alleged.

Adnane pointed to another area — exploited, he said, by a politician who had a permit for “an area of two hectares.”

But instead, he “took kilometers” of sand.

Environmental protection was earmarked as a priority by Morocco, in a grandiose statement after the country hosted the 2016 COP22 international climate conference.

Asked by AFP about measures to fight uncontrolled sand extraction, secretary of state for energy Nezha El Ouafi pointed to “a national coastal protection plan (that) is in the process of being validated.”

The plan promises “evaluation mechanisms, with protection programs and (a) high status,” she said.

Meanwhile, environmental activists are pleading against the “head in the sand approach” over the scale of coastal devastation.