ChangemakHER steps Up to Lead Change

Amira El Masry, one of the winners of the Young ChangemakHERs Transformative Journey and Competition, has been working to scale her initiative Ohana in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ohana leverages art to cultivate a culture of empathy and tackle bullying toward refugee children among youth in Egyptian society. Read this article to learn more about Amira's initiative and how she has been pivoting her work in the current moment to reach youth in her community.

The global health crisis that has erupted over the past several months has upended communities around the world, disrupting individual livelihoods and destabilizing economies. Yet, more than ever before, Ashoka has seen its community of changemakers rising to the occasion, leveraging their creative vision and entrepreneurial abilities to carve new spaces and frameworks for impact.

Ashoka Arab World’s most recent cohort of Youth Venturers, winners of the Young ChangemakHERS Transformative Journey and Competition, faced the unexpected challenge of bringing their pilot initiatives to scale in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite numerous obstacles and uncertainties, they’ve kept up their changemaking energy, remaining committed to uplifting their communities.

Amira El Masry, founder of Ohana, saw her work with youth in Alexandria, Egypt completely stalled at the beginning of March with the onset of restrictions on large gatherings and transportation. “We had to suspend all our offline activities, and as we work with refugee children who already face a lot of social and economic difficulties, we were not able to communicate with them online because they don't have internet access,” Amira said. “But we’re working on finding solutions to offer financial support so that they can access the internet and check what we post on our page, from tutorials and activities to competitions.”

Amira’s initiative Ohana leverages art to cultivate a culture of empathy and appreciation of diversity among youth in Egyptian society and tackle bullying toward refugee children in her community.  

Drawing on her passion for drawing and painting, Amira started her work in 2019, seeing an opportunity to put an end to discrimination and violence toward the refugee community in Alexandra by building a community of refugee and Egyptian youth through art workshops. Ohana aims to offer a safe space for refugee and Egyptian children to learn and grow together and express themselves through play, dance, theatre, drawing, and painting. 

When limitations on in-person gatherings were put in place and a curfew was set in March, Amira quickly changed course, identifying new ways to reach youth in her community. “I started to make use of social media, using Facebook to raise awareness about the bullying and discrimination that kids face,” she explained. “We even launched interactive activities, including a drawing competition to encourage kids to make art at home.”

Through Ohana’s art competition, Amira and her team aimed to strengthen connections with the youth community in Alexandria and continue motivating children to express themselves through art. She used Ohana’s Facebook page as a platform to share the children’s work with the public and raise awareness of her vision for change.

Beyond her continued efforts to engage youth, Amira has also taken the current moment as an opportunity to strengthen her team’s abilities. “We organized online training as a team around facilitation skills, peace building, and dialogue to build our capacities during quarantine,” she said.

As Egypt begins to lift restrictions, Amira and her team are preparing to ease safely into their work and draw on their learnings from the past period. “The main challenge we're facing is the inability to communicate with children online and the poor internet connection in our neighborhoods,” she said. “In the next period after COVID-19, we will create new rules, such as working with a smaller number of kids in each workplace and in a larger space. We’re also planning to give them health tips to protect themselves.”

Now the leader of a visionary team and fast-growing initiative, Amira’s changemaking journey started at an even younger age. “My journey with civil society and community service started when I went to the college and discovered that there is a lot more to life,” Amira remembered. “I'm not created only to live for myself. I realized that I have a role and responsibility toward my society. Then, I tried to find my passion.”

After volunteering for CARE International in an educational program targeting immigrants and refugees and a women’s rights project, Amira discovered that passion. “Children who already face social and economic hardships need to feel supported, welcomed, and loved,” she explained. “The children we’re working with have witnessed hard events – poverty, famine, wars – and they’ve also faced violence and bullying, both domestically and outside of the home. They need love and motivation to overcome these hardships and become the people they want to be in the future.”                                

Despite the barriers she and her team have had to overcome in the past period, Amira has remained resolute and committed to creating change. Reflecting on what she would say to aspiring change leaders, Amira said, “I advise them to always be optimistic and motivated – to look for opportunities and not wait for them to come their way. I also advise them to think deeply about the problem they want to tackle to build creative solutions.”