TEDx encourages a different kind of Wednesday in Aden

By Maggie Farrand

January 21, 2014

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The event took place on a Wednesday – a day typically associated with civil disobedience in Aden, a port city in the south of Yemen. But on this particular Wednesday, December 11, hundreds found their seats in the conference room of Aden’s Mercure Hotel and listened instead to speakers who have the ideas and passion to better their community and country.

The audience of 300 had gathered for the inaugural TEDx event in Aden, an independent offshoot of the now-famous talks on “ideas worth spreading,” launched by nonprofit TED more than 25 years ago in California.

More than 4,000 TEDx events have taken place in 126 countries since the first event in 2009.

TEDx expanded to Aden this year thanks to support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Creative Associates International’s Community Livelihoods Project (CLP), which reduces instability in some of Yemen’s most difficult areas through community-based initiatives and services like job creation, economic growth opportunities and basic healthcare and education. CLP is funded by USAID.

With a team of motivated youth at the helm, the event hoped to inspire and empower the youth of Aden. The organizers – who were all young people themselves – saw the event as a way to form a network of progressive youth committed to finding solutions to pressing problems in today’s Yemen.

As they listened to 18-minute presentations from 12 speakers, those in attendance were not disappointed.

“The atmosphere on December 11, when TEDx was held, was festive and hopeful,” said Mohamed Alabsi, CLP’s Senior Transition Officer, who attended the event.

Sharing stories of reality and hope

Hope is precious in a place like Aden. Outside the Mercure Hotel, the city is plagued by violence. Southern separatist militants regularly barricade streets, hold strikes and clash with police. Wednesdays and Saturdays often portend violence.

South Yemen’s union with North Yemen in 1990 marked the country’s first political union in centuries. But tensions were never quite eased, and a civil war broke out in 1994. Still today, militant groups in the south call for secession and the re-establishment of an independent southern state.

But inside the Mercure hotel during the TEDx event, speakers presented creative and hopeful messages about what they could do to better the situation in Aden, and Yemen as a whole.

Asmahan Al-Alas, a university professor, shared her passion for the preservation of a city’s identity. She has overseen several restoration projects in her hometown, including the rehabilitation of the city’s minaret, and written several books on Aden’s cultural heritage. Speaking from her heart, Al-Alas told the audience that she is torn for her city; she fears it’s losing its true identity, with its image and reputation clouded by violence and unrest.

A geologist by trade, Ma’arouf Oqbah spoke of the negative environmental effects from unplanned construction, leading to degradation of Yemen’s resources and potentially accelerating the occurrence of natural disasters.

English teacher Noha Sultan showed how education and pleasure are not always mutually exclusive; in fact, learning, she says, even in a formal institution, can be fun and enjoyable. Her motto? “Be yourself, be special.”

In addition to the presentations, the organizers arranged special performances that included songs and dances. The entire event was broadcast on local TV and streamed live online.

A new perspective in 18 minutes

When Arafat Hashim walked on stage, participants weren’t sure what to expect. They were especially confused to see that unlike the other presenters, Hashim was not alone. He was joined by friend and sign language interpreter, Iman. As Hashim started his presentation, using the only language he knows, Iman translated Hashim’s message to the audience.

Hashim has been deaf his whole life. In front of the 300 audience members, he signed about the struggles he faced growing up deaf in Yemen. He spoke about how challenging it was for him to get an education in a country that did not care about the deaf, and recalled wanting to give up.

Instead, he persevered, finishing first in his class in all grades and ultimately contributing to the creation of the first sign language dictionary in Yemen. And finally he became confident enough to speak out on behalf of others just like him.

“In the end, I say to every disgruntled and school dropout who claims that there is no hope for the country; I am deaf and I was able to achieve my dream so surely you can too,” Hashim said.

With just 18 minutes to present, as per TEDx rules, Hashim was an inspiring addition to the motivational group of presenters, who set a high bar for events like this to come and placed renewed focus on the positive, the joyful and the possible in Aden.

As one audience member said happily, “This is the Aden that we know.”