STATE DEPARTMENT —
A Tunisian woman who pushed past a culture of low expectations in her hometown and a Gaza man who uses social media to help Palestinians tell their stories to the world are among this year's recipients of the Emerging Young Leaders Awards.
The awards, presented April 20 by the U.S. State Department, recognize young people from around the globe for their initiatives to improve conditions in their communities.
Among the 10 recipients is Ahlem Nasraoui, a Tunisian woman who has started a program to confront terrorism and extremism, and who has launched several initiatives designed to train women. She made these strides against great odds.
"In my hometown, where I come from, nobody is expecting that you are a leader or that you can be one," said Nasraoui, who grew up in the country's Kasserine region.
Nasraoui remains a hopeful and steadfast advocate for cultural transformation.
"As a young person, nothing can define you — the place, or birth or race," she said. "Stand up to be a change-maker."
Gaza native Basel Almadhoun is being recognized for organizing TEDx social media talks in Gaza that have helped Palestinians in isolated regions share their stories with the world.
The TEDx Program "is designed to help communities, organizations and individuals to spark conversation and connection through local TED-like experiences."
Almadhoun says his passion for the spoken word grew out of his experience as a high school exchange student in the U.S. state of Oregon, where he developed a love for debate.
He started a small debate club when he returned to the Gaza Strip, and eventually turned to social media as an effective platform.
"In Gaza, we have so many people with great stories that want to be heard outside, but [because of] the border closure, the conflict that is happening, and the many things that are affecting all of these people, they cannot come out of the Gaza Strip and meet people outside," he said.
The other recipients are from Afghanistan, France, Georgia, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Malta and Myanmar.
"They represent the power of young people to launch grass-roots initiatives to improve their communities," said Evan Ryan, the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.
"Whether they are working to promote interfaith dialogue, entrepreneurship, social justice, civic engagement — these young leaders are jump-starting the change the world needs now," she said in a ceremony honoring the recipients.
In addition to visiting Washington, the honorees will travel to cities across the U.S. where they will participate in professional meetings and meet their American counterparts.
Later, they will reconvene in Washington, D.C., to share experiences and explore ways they can collaborate on future projects.
Asha Hassan, from Kenya
Hassan, an ethnic Somali, has developed youth-led groups spearheading dialogue and reconciliation among ethnic clans in her home region of Kenya.
"We have to love each other and we have to be together to share the ideas," she said. "We have to respect each other's religion."
Hassan teaches children the value of life and warns them of the dangers of joining extremist groups and being used to cause conflict in a community.
Ahmad Shakib Mohsanyar, from Afghanistan
Mohsanyar founded the social media campaign "Afghanistan Needs You" in an effort to counter the idea that youth need to leave Afghanistan for a better life.
"Afghanistan has changed a lot since 2001, and the youth should stay in the country and help their future or to make their future," he said.
His social media campaign received 26,500 "likes" in its first seven months. He works as a job placement specialist and serves as president of a professional network that promotes universal education, entrepreneurship and civil society engagement.
Hillary Briffa, from Malta, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in London
Briffa is Malta's youth ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), where she helped lead a campaign against violent extremism at an OSCE human rights conference last year.
She has focused on youth issues ranging from gaining access to health care and education to countering online hate speech, and she led after-school courses on conflict resolution.
Jessel Recinos Fernandez, from Honduras
Fernandez was raised in Cofradía, a suburb of San Pedro Sula, a Honduran city that has been called "the murder capital of the world."
Soon after joining a gang, he was shot. Calling that a turning point, he founded Skate Brothers, a club that offers various activities for at-risk youth to help them avoid gangs.
Samuel Grzybowski, from France, founded Coexister youth interfaith organization
Grzybowski founded Coexister, France's leading youth interfaith organization, while he was still in high school.
The group has 19 chapters in France, Belgium and Switzerland, and its members' use of the hashtag #NousSommesUnis (We are united) was the most retweeted French hashtag after the terror attacks on Paris last November.
Nino Nanitashvili, 23, from Georgia, head of communications at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University
Nanitashvili uses evolving technologies to promote peace-building and development. She founded the Google Developer Group, Georgia's first technology-oriented professional community, and leads the Women Techmakers Community in Tbilisi, an initiative supported by Google.
"Confidence-building is all about people and it takes every young person, it takes every individual to get involved in this process," she said.
She is a mentor for tech startups and social entrepreneurs in Georgia, and has spoken about technology-driven civic initiatives at Google headquarters, the parliament of Georgia, and TEDxYouth Tbilisi.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi, from Myanmar, coordinator of Burma's National Youth Congress and the National Youth Network
Thinzar Shunlei Yi focuses on youth development and dialogue and helped organize the ASEAN Youth Forum. She held a highly successful U.N. International Youth Day event that reached thousands of young people and raised awareness on mental health issues.
She is an active member of the Ambassador's Youth Council at U.S. Embassy Rangoon, which advises the ambassador on youth perspectives and needs in Burma.
Zulfirman Rahyantel, from Indonesia, currently a student at Patimmura University in Ambon
Rahyantel has organized discussions on the issues of grief, resentment and hatred in Ambon, a city that has experienced 10 years of inter-religious violence.
"We have to love each other and we have to be together and we have to share ideas," he said. "We have to respect each other's religion."
He was a facilitator for the Indonesia Interfaith Youth Pilgrimage project, in which youth from across the country gathered at a camp to learn about each other's religion and to visit each other's places of worship.