x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

'It is my duty to return home': Arab Spring graduates

They may have never lived in their native countries but many graduates feel compelled to help rebuild them. The pressure will be great on this generation as they mould a new Arab world.

DUBAI // As they embark on their adult lives, a new generation of Arab graduates will be stepping into a very different world this year.

After six months of violence and reform across the region, many young people feel increasingly drawn to their home countries, eager to be part of the rebuilding process.

Nermeen Ismail's dreams changed radically when Egypt's revolution changed her country. The mass communications student, who will soon graduate from UAE University, has lived in the Emirates with her parents for 20 years. She knows little of her home country, only visiting during summer holidays.

It is time to return, says the 21-year-old woman. "I want to live the revolution. I want to be with my country, my people. I want to see the changes that happen now."

Her dream is to be a news anchor. While she knows life will be tougher in Egypt - she will need to find a job, for one thing - she is relishing returning to her family and friends. "The UAE is more comfortable, you can make anything here. Egypt has many problems, poverty, low wages.

"But I've been here 20 years now and the revolution has changed everything. People have more confidence now that Mubarak's oppression has ended. They feel they changed everything in Egypt and better things will come."

Muhammad Azaddin Khalifa, 22, will soon graduate with a master's in strategic human resource management from the University of Wollongong, Dubai. He has been in the UAE since 2001 but has never lived in his native Libya. His family left in search of educational opportunities for his father, a lecturer at the University of Sharjah.

Libya, he says, had no good postgraduate opportunities. "Even once my father got his PhD, the pay was bad and there was so much corruption."

Since the Libyan uprising started, their family have begun to wonder whether the country might have a future for them.

"The whole problem is Qaddafi leaving. After that, I'm not sure how it will develop, but I'm cautiously optimistic. We'd like to go back," he adds.

Amna Gargain, 22, was born in the UAE and raised in the Emirates and in the UK, but still feels a duty to return to Libya to help rebuild it. She will soon graduate from UAE University after completing a bachelor's degree in architectural engineering and says she hopes to use her skills to help with Libya's reconstruction.

"I want to play a part in my country as it changes and there will be a lot of redevelopment," she says.

"There will be better opportunities, more freedoms. I never wanted to live there before - there was nothing there, no education, health, no jobs. Now, I feel we can all make a difference."

Odeh Hoshan, 22, will soon graduate from Al Hosn University in Abu Dhabi with a bachelor's degree in business administration.

The young Syrian had been planning to begin his professional life in the UAE, but now plans to go back home after completing his master's degree next year.

"I want to do something to help me, my family and my country," he says. He also believes his family's property business may have a better future. "Tourists will come back to Syria and people will invest in it again.

"It's my duty to go back now, for my family and my country."

Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a lecturer in political science at UAE University, says it is natural that major political change should cause these young men and women to feel drawn back to countries they have never lived in.

"They should be proud of the fact they will find their countries freer in every sense than it was just six months ago. It's a time for them to enjoy the freedom and the moment."

But there will be great pressure on this generation to mould their countries into better places. "The Arab world of 2040 will be made by this generation. It's a big responsibility. It's almost entirely up to this generation whether that's going to be a better or worse place."

For some, the political troubles have not brought more security.

Fatima al Zawqari says she now fears returning to her native Yemen, saying the uprisings have made the country very unsafe.

"I used to spend every Ramadan there," says the finance student, who has just graduated from the American University of Dubai. "But now it is not safe to even go out. The universities have even closed and it will be a long time before things become more stable."

With her family in Saudi Arabia, she must now find a job by the end of August before her student visa expires.

"There are a lot of opportunities in Dubai, but there is a lot of competition. It's not easy, especially for a Yemeni, and especially a single woman under 25."