YaLa Young Leaders! – YALA

Last week I did something that I’ve never done before. Excited, and a little bit apprehensive, I downloaded one of the coolest apps I’ve ever seen (granted I’m not a huge app user) and entered the virtual world of an online conference.

The app, called Shaker, turned me into a little female icon (I had a skirt) and I could see myself standing in what looked like a city square, complete with trees, billboards, posters and, best of all, tables bedecked with chess boards.

Little groups of people (other icons) congregated and chatted  away. I had the option of joining the conversation, approaching a loner or buying someone a drink (always a buck to be made). It was so cool that I immediately e-vited my husband who thought I had gone mad as this app, as it turned out, is used mostly by teens as a pick up platform. None-the –less, here I was witnessing it used as a platform for something completely different:  A two day, online conference to talk, discuss and tease out issues relating to peace in the Middle East.  Astonished as I was by the strangeness of  it all,  I was (apparenntly) just one of 12 000 other participants! And although such luminaries as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres, did not actually appear as icons on Shaker, they had submitted  pre-recorded speeches  to  be accessed at the conference.

The initiative, Yala Young Leaders, must be fully experienced in all its glory via facebook in order to truly be understood. The word “yala” is Arabic for “Get a move on!” and has become part of every day Hebrew. In essence, YaLa Young Leaders, is a Facebook group. With now over 60 000 members or facebook “likes,” mostly across the Arab world and Israel, Yala facilitates constant chatter on a myriad of issues relating to the Middle East. But the key to YaLa that sets it apart from other platforms engaging folks in this arena is YaLa’s demographic and outlook: the folks on YaLa are young adults,  who have a vision of a shared future that reaches beyond cultures, and across borders. For now, that vision is experienced virtually, but the dream is to transplant it from the walls and apps of facebook and bring into the tangible world.

YaLa calls  themselves the broadest and fastest-growing Middle East peace movement today. According to their published principals: “The movement focuses on dialogue and engagement as a means to securing a safe, productive, and peaceful region, capitalizing on the catalyzing power of social networks, media and technology.A good way to describe the tone and kind of talk that is going on is to use a comment that I’ve lifted from the facebook page:

YaLa is not a “debate group”. We aren’t here to prove who’s right or wrong. We know who’s right – WE ARE. 😛 And we’re right because we want a different Middle East, where there is equality, freedom, an end to violence and persecution, human and civil rights FOR ALL.

 So, if you have an “axe to grind” or need to do some “prove-I’m-right” exercises, take them elsewhere. This is a different conversation.”

And for those who do indeed have an axe to grind, YaLa co-ordinators are monitoring their page 24-7 to ensure that no invective, provocative or inflammatory comments are published. One might wonder what is left to be said when dealing with the Middle East, but apparently a whole lot judging by the number of visitors and comments.

YaLa has spun out from a group of young leaders from the Peres Centre for Peace in Israel together with their Palestinian counterparts. When I visited some of the YaLa co-ordinators in the Peres Centre building in Jaffa I had an insight into the inspiration and vision underlying the idea. The centre is housed in a spectacularly modern building overlooking the ancient and mixed city of Jaffo, and the beautiful blue sea. The mixed glass and concrete building is dripping in symbolism that reflects the complexity and weight of the current situation on the one hand, and hope and future on the other. Although the objective and aim of YaLa was to harness the same kind of energy as the Arab Spring, I’m not sure that their success in engaging so many voices was quite anticipated.

But the conference was just one method of getting disparate groups of people to engage with each other and to build a greater understanding amongst each other. In fact, Yala members have spontaneously created other platforms for co-operation  –  a virtual photo gallery, music studios and even an online gaming initiative which allows players to co-operatively “build the Middle East”.  Probably the most exciting plan though is to create a Young Leaders academy, which would partner with leading educational institutes to offer youth in the region excellent online courses and mentorship in fields such as government, economics and business. If this were to materialise, imagine the tremendous potential for networking opportunities to build economic regional partnerships. It could open up all sorts of windows that just cannot exist in the current configuration of the real world, plagued as it is with distrust and geographical obstacles.

Peres’s pre-recorded speech he stated, “You live in a new age, where you can communicate freely, without censorship, without prejudices, without hatred, over all borders, all distances and all subjects. We don’t have to repeat the past.” – he went as far as implying that the social technology YaLa employed could re-energize peace negotiations.

Who knows if such an organization will really gain the traction that it needs to actually influence current leaders, but, for me, that’s not really the point. The very fact that over 60 000 young adults from across the region are engaging in a mature and sensible conversation is in itself a minor miracle. (I can barely get 2 people from my own family to have a sensible discussion about the topic). For many, this is the first time that Israelis and Arabs from the region are able to talk openly and honestly without all sorts of social pressures. In fact, for many Arabs from the region, it’s the first time they are able to talk to Israelis! And notwithstanding being turned into an icon in a skirt – I’d like to give it the support it deserves. So Yala young leaders… and at the very least, join the facebook page.

PS. Breaking News:  Today, YaLa has just been the first not-for-profit to present at Seedcamp Tel Aviv,  – Congratulations!

7 Responses to “YaLa Young Leaders! – YALA”
  1. robin klein says:

    where can I see the YaLa presentation at Seedcamp?

  2. YaLa is the best of the best =)

  3. Ahmed Meligy says:

    YaLa is my WORLD & FAMILY :))))
    PEACE Rules!!

  4. Wael says:

    Wow it’s amazing group in Facebook I can’t imagine during my life that I will have that nice chatting and speaking with out fear we sharing our idea . But yala really must organize trip to Israel and make chose group each one from different country in middle east and stay for one week together and sharing ideas and I will be in media that will be very active I hope I can be in that trip because I have ideas for sharing about peace thanks for yalla

  5. chess media says:

    YaLa is my WORLD & FAMILY

  6. Avi Israel says:

    Vote for Yala ! almost 100,000 members !

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