Mariam Mohammad, graduate student at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, has always had a passion for leadership and feels the Aspire Leaders Program pushed her to think outside the box. As a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon, Mohammad feels impacted by the social issues surrounding her and wants to take action that impacts refugees and street children.
“Not only have I seen hardships for the refugees, but I’ve noticed the struggles of the Lebanese people – extreme poverty, a lack of jobs, [and] children working instead of going to school,” she explained.
Before applying for the Aspire Leaders Program, previously Crossroads Emerging Leaders Program, she started an initiative, Alam w Mahay, which supports street children in Lebanon. Many of these children are children of refugees who lack formal education and other opportunities.
Alam w Mahay, which translates to “pencil and eraser,” began when Mohammad noticed these children possess no literacy skills. These words are the informal ways of saying “pencil and eraser” and represent the fundamental tools of education.
“They can’t read, they can’t write, and that is unacceptable because education is our human right,” Mohammad explained.
The process of starting this initiative required patience and perseverance.
“They were violent and unfriendly because no one had ever treated them with generosity and kindness,” she said.
She gained their trust and began to invite them to a classroom environment. In this setting, she saw these children learn to play and explore. They did not feel threatened or pressured to beg and steal to survive.
With the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, this project took a new form. Mohammad and her team decided to teach them more about health literacy.
The access to resources such as soap, running water, and masks remained a barrier.
“Something I learned while at Aspire was how to leverage community access,” Mohammad said. “I learned how to collaborate with universities and NGOs that would provide space or materials.”
She has hired some volunteers and gained great partners that provide funding and resources to help further this initiative.
Aspire Leaders Program Impacts Innovation
Mohammad feels the program checked all of her boxes.
“I grew both personally and professionally and built a huge network,” she said. “We all bonded because we had a thirst for change.”
As someone who was already making a difference in her community through her initiative that impacts refugees and street children, she felt the Aspire Leaders Program helped her develop greater goals.
“The classes, the interactions with professors, the feedback, public speaking, and active communication – we got to take all of that and apply it to our home context, and I’m still doing that now,” she said.
Mohammad connected with emerging leaders around the world, including an Aspire alumnus in Nigeria. They continue to partner to mentor others who have the drive to be a community leader.
She hopes to continue her mentoring and educational work with children. With her public health graduate degree, Mohammad thinks innovatively about how youth can drive public health interventions.
As she pursues many projects, Mohammad makes sure to find time for herself to decompress. She finds one hour every day to see friends, take a walk, or paint.
Her success, motivation, and ability to innovate blossomed after the Aspire Leaders Program. She is a proud recipient of two scholarships – one to pursue an MBA from One League and another to study tropical diseases caused by poverty from the WHO – and the prestigious Diana Award.
“Without Aspire, I never would have had this gateway,” she said. “It has opened me up to a whole new world that I never thought I would be able to access.”