By Zennia Paganini
One of the challenges for public diplomacy officers who must work outside of their host countries due to conflict and crises is walking those “last 3 feet” when it is hard to find an audience at the end of them. In the case of the Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU)—located in Saudi Arabia since Embassy Sana’a closed in 2015 due to the conflict—the public affairs section (PAS) looked to the Yemeni youth diaspora to find and forge connections inside Yemen. Many youth temporarily live and work in Saudi Arabia, maintaining ties with family and friends by traveling back and forth for brief visits to their country. YAU harnessed this dynamic population’s potential, envisioning them as envoys who could traverse borders to help reach out to a Yemeni population anxious to maintain U.S.-Yemen people-to-people ties.
In the fall of 2019, PAS designed an outreach initiative focused on 28 Riyadh-based youth—journalists, activists, news anchors, and aspiring writers—who were living “mobile lives.” The group was diverse, with members from different regions of Yemen, ranging in age from their teens to their mid-thirties, about 40 percent of which were women. PAS engaged the youth through the framework of civil society youth activism, dubbing the initiative “MAP: Make a Place for Yemeni Youth”—a three-phased program comprising focus group work, a symposium, and interactive workshops. The overarching aim was to reach out to and through the diaspora youth, forming and facilitating a network of peers and multipliers to work on strengthening civil society in as many of the 22 Yemeni governorates as possible. This outreach also aims at empowering youth to join in peace-building efforts at a grassroots level.
Getting MAP started required a whole-of-mission effort. In late 2019, various YAU officers hosted focus groups in their houses. With the public affairs officer moderating discussions, the focus group started with three key questions that helped the audience map purpose to resources: what are the top 10 priorities for Yemeni youth?; which local youth-led organizations in your governorate are working to improve Yemenis’ lives?; and how can the YAU link common priorities and youth-led efforts inside Yemen to help Yemeni communities improve life for Yemenis? Gathering in diplomats’ houses provided safe places for the focus groups to convene and explore possibly sensitive topics. Conversations touched on political entanglements and influences; inequalities between sexes, governorates, and tribes; and the Houthis’ human rights abuses.
Across the board, “peace and an end to the war” emerged as the youths’ number one priority. They democratically elected group leaders during the sessions then left with the follow-on tasks of meeting again independently to fulfill a variety of tasks. They planned to build data-maps to identify organizations conducting youth outreach in Yemen, to brainstorm how to create coalition among the organizations, to draft mission statements for their groups, and to agree on deliverables in the form of proposals on educational/cultural projects in Yemen that would give youth vocational opportunities and involve them in their communities. Overall, their focus would remain on the wider goal of promoting peace through community stability.
In March 2020, the MAP initiative continued into its second phase when YAU hosted a day-long symposium in Riyadh. The program focused on training the youth to think more deeply about their evolving projects and how to engage with civil society and international organizations effectively. Ambassador Christopher Henzel opened the event, highlighting the positive contribution young leaders can make to forge a political solution to Yemen’s conflict. The symposium featured interactive discussions with a variety of speakers from within YAU and, virtually, from Egypt and the United States. A young grantee external to the group who had just won a public diplomacy (PD) grant to train young filmmakers in Yemen’s Hadhramaut also presented at the symposium. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) worked with YAU to secure one of their experts from the U.S. Speakers Program, Arab-American activist Zainab al Suwaij, to serve as the keynote speaker via Zoom. She spoke to the youth about how to meaningfully address needs in their communities.
The youth groups also took the floor to present their projects, which included video storytelling on the lives of ordinary Yemenis, computer literacy training, empowering women through cottage industry skills, and educating children about environmental topics. This phase of the MAP initiative rendered a clear overall group leader—a female journalist-activist who took the microphone to deliver a speech on behalf of the group to thank the ambassador for his support for the program and to clarify the group’s goals.
In its third phase, MAP became entirely virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing in June and July via Zoom. PAS staff delivered weekly workshops on proposal writing skills and preparing the youth to submit proposals for possible funding through PAS PD grants and also for international organization grants. Energized, the participants became increasingly active on social media and took to Twitter to express their enthusiasm about the initiative, tagging Embassy Yemen and creating the hashtag #MAPYemen. The de facto group leader tweeted the project was a “pioneer initiative in support of new youth leaders who believe in and strive to achieve peace.” The topic was trending in Yemen’s social media circles the next day. Some of the youth had also written to their home newspapers, and at least five local periodicals inside Yemen featured the story of the youth’s participation in the initiative.
A year into the YAU’s youth initiative and empowered by the impetus of their training and with a newfound group voice and identity, the youth group attracted the attention of the ambassadors of other countries, as well as Yemen’s minister of youth and sports. The youth met with them all to explain their desire to be involved in the political process and to insist on the importance of youth voices in Yemen’s future. The traditional and social media coverage that ensued showed that the group had identified themselves as “#MAPYemen,” and the moniker was repeated across headlines and in newscasts.
During July and August 2020, the youths’ training line-up featured ECA-sponsored workshops with U.S. speaker experts on entrepreneurship models, youth and women’s empowerment, and how to engage with international organizations. YAU has helped Yemeni youth—long marginalized on the seniority-based Yemeni political scene—to impact their communities by empowering civil society organizations on the ground and gaining agency to advocate for themselves. This tangible PD outcome is a Yemeni youth group that acts as a force multiplier to help YAU inform, engage, and influence audiences and narratives inside Yemen—helping PD officers walk those last 3 feet.
Zennia Paganini is the public affairs officer in the Yemen Affairs Unit.