JEZZINE: Throughout Lebanon, young people are being lured from the peripheries to lucrative opportunities in the capital or the prosperous Gulf, but in south Lebanon’s Jezzine, a bold initiative is offering graduates employment right in their own hometown. About 30 kilometers east of the port city of Sidon, Jezzine is tucked into the mountains, surrounded by lush greenery. Through ecotourism, its natural environment has been an economic asset and a source of livelihood for the district’s residents.
But the phenomenon of brain drain and lack of government support has prevented the town and its environs from making the most of its educated youth and rich wildlife.
On a hill overlooking Jezzine’s quaint downtown, a youth-led community space and business incubator called Jezzine Hub has established itself in an old coffee shop destroyed during the Civil War that was left to ruin.
Now renovated, it maintains its old Lebanese architectural style with its own adjacent green space.
The hub was launched in July 2016 as a multi-faceted organization for young people. Funding is provided by the European Union and the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Oxfam, the Lebanese NGO Development for People and Nature Association, the Jezzine municipality, and the Union of Municipalities of Jezzine also collaborate to support the Hub’s projects.
“I was volunteering with [DPNA] when we came across the initial proposal to start a youth community project in Jezzine,” 20-year-old Hiba Antoun told The Daily Star.
“Being from Jezzine, I was immediately excited. The proposal covered youth-led entrepreneurship and youth-led community building.
“We started to run meetings with local community members, collecting input on how to integrate youth and their thoughts on creating this community space.”
A college student at Beirut’s Haigazian University at the time, Antoun was on the verge of deciding her future. Rather than seeking work abroad, Antoun is now employed in her hometown as the Hub’s leader.
She is one of five young employees who manage the space, create bi-monthly programs, and facilitate the growth of startups and small businesses proposed by young locals.
While the Hub’s five employees may not be experts in starting businesses, the Hub has partnered with Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club to provide professional support.
“The Hub is a place for people to come work and host meetings and workshops. We’ve had several sessions on college applications, scholarship applications, and SAT exam prep. But we also work with startups that we have helped fund.”
At Jezzine Hub’s launch nearly two years ago, a budget was set aside to facilitate the launch of four projects pertaining to social entrepreneurship and economic development in Jezzine. At least one of the team members of each project was required to be from the town.
Two ongoing and successful initiatives from the first round are Pometto and Jezzine Bikes. Pometto is a small health food company making chips out of locally grown apples, now available in several health stores across the country and sold online from their website.
Jezzine Bikes, created by 28-year-old Cherine Bou Rached, has encouraged further ecotourism in the town through exploration of its historic sites and other sightseeing spots.
Rached rents out about 20 fine-tuned bikes, providing maps with highlighted route suggestions.
“We’ve had a lot of visitors from all over Lebanon [such as] people taking small vacations from Tripoli or Beirut. But there are also many people from Jezzine who rent bikes for fun,” Rached told The Daily Star.
“We’re only open during the warmer months, because it’s not something that can be maintained in the winter.”
With only two other employees, the business is small, she admits.
Nevertheless, it provides her with an income from spring until the fall.
In the off-season, Rached is a stay-at-home mother for her two young children.
After graduating from the Lebanese University campus in Metn’s Fanar, Rached struggled to find work. It seemed evident that there would be little to no opportunities in Jezzine or nearby.
“Apart from the Gulf countries, most people from Jezzine look for jobs in Sidon and Beirut. But still, it’s not easy at all,” she said.
But with funding due to end soon for Jezzine Hub, Antoun and her colleagues have been working closely with the mayor to discuss plans for financial support and self-sustainability so they can support more projects like Pometto and Jezzine Bikes.
“We count on Jezzine Hub a lot,” Jezzine Mayor Khalil Harfouche told The Daily Star. “It’s an important part of the community, bringing people together. And for the municipality, our first objective for the Hub is to attract youth from surrounding villages to become involved with social development.”
The second objective, he explained, is to launch small businesses in the area.
“As of now, we’ve held a lot of [programs] covering many topics, but we’re really trying to bring in more people. The number of committed and active youth is still a bit low at the moment but there is opportunity to grow.”
Harfouche acknowledges that the startups growing out of Jezzine Hub at the moment are still modest in size, but it is in his interest, he says, to continue the support and promote growth for the future.
“As the Hub leader, I can’t really think about moving to Beirut or abroad to look for work.
“It’s my responsibility to stay in Jezzine and in a way be an example.
“We can create employment, especially in the field of social development,” Antoun said.