Creating new visions in the Middle East

Esra'a Al Shafei
Posted March 30, 2014 from Bahrain

Moved as a young child by the disrespectful and inhumane treatment of migrant workers that I witnessed in Bahrain, I kept in my heart a deep sense of outrage and injustice. Increasingly frustrated by the one-dimensional portrayal throughout media of other ethnicities and faiths, a portrayal virtually unanswered because of censorship and state control of media in the region, I took to my keyboard to answer with my own voice. I found access to the internet to be a breath of fresh air due to its limitless possibilities. Shortly after exploring the web, I felt we had huge potential in this region to advance the types of platforms we were exposed to and to connect our thoughts and aspirations in new and interactive ways.

In 2006, I launched Mideast Youth (, an organization which creates platforms and web applications that amplify diverse and progressive voices advocating for change in the Middle East and North Africa using digital media. We place a specific focus on access to information, free speech and minority rights. We are dedicated to providing powerful content delivered with cutting edge and accessible design, making sure that the message of social change isn’t just told, but also heard.

Mideast Youth started out as a group blog shared by hundreds of authors representing different faiths, sects, ethnicities and political beliefs in the MENA region. The idea was to celebrate our differences and respectfully challenge each other in an effort to correct the misconceptions that often resulted from state-sponsored propaganda region-wide and lack of access to information.

Gradually, the idea started to expand as more and more people joined the discourse. The conversations that the platform enabled resulted in a lot of ideas for campaigns around causes that revolved around issues that were unpopular or too controversial for mainstream advocacy. Those issues include the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf, the plight of ethnic and religious minorities in the region who still face historical persecution, as well as the ongoing struggles of LGBT communities. Supporting social justice causes is difficult enough on its own, but for marginalized voices, their message for social change is often ignored.

By focusing on creating tools and building communities, Mideast Youth contributes to a system of empowerment that can fight oppression no matter what form it takes. Because of this philosophy we branched out to launch several platforms focused on building alliances that protect human rights for some of the most vulnerable communities of the Middle East. Examples of our work includes:

The Alliance for Kurdish Rights (, a network of Arab and Kurdish activists dedicated to mobilize public opinion, collect information and disseminate knowledge about human rights abuses against the Kurdish people throughout the Middle East., which has become the primary resource on migrant worker rights in the Gulf, connecting distressed workers with organizations or individuals on the ground and spotlights specific situations to crowdsource calls for government intervention. The platform includes a research center featuring original content, including policy analysis and proposals as well as case studies and documentation of migrant worker conditions and abuses. The site also contains a sourced statistic-based databank of infographics on issues ranging from wages to on-site deaths, used to benchmark the state of migrant rights throughout the region. The centre also features op-eds submitted by academics, activists, and local citizens. It has been frequently referenced in both local and international media outlets including The Economist, Washington Post, New York Times, Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, and more. The site is available in English, Arabic, and Bangla.

For 3 years between 2006 and 2009, Mideast Youth offered free hosting and design to dozens of nonprofit organizations in the region in need of technical assistance and training to advance their work. We also launched advocacy campaigns on the rights of Baha'is in the Muslim world (, the Bedoon (stateless community of Kuwait), Assyrians, amongst others.

In 2010, Mideast Youth launched, which was founded on the belief that access to information is the cornerstone of social change and the advancement of global human rights. Despite the growing importance of the web as a space for transparency and accessibility, internet noise and shifting media focus often contribute to a loss of prominence and monitoring of critical global issues. (CV) addresses these problems by collecting and curating media regarding ongoing or underreported social movements and storing them in organized archives for future research and reference. CV’s content includes images, first-hand reports, and citizen videos, creating a range of resources unavailable elsewhere. CV then builds educational tools to facilitate "at-a-glance" awareness of social justice issues, including interactive infographics to showcase statistics, and timelines to lend background and context to these movements and human rights violations. Our vision at CrowdVoice is to further global human rights by providing the resources for informed dialogue and action. CrowdVoice is currently censored in Bahrain, my home country.

Mideast Youth also launched, the largest platform for underground musicians in the Middle East and North Africa who use music as a tool for social change. Music is a powerful medium for self-expression and engagement, and an important way to foster constructive discourse about social and political issues. Mideast Tunes is a full-fledged service with a variety of features, including "listening rooms" where new users could discover new music together. It also includes iOS and Android mobile apps to strengthen outreach efforts. We secured partnerships with various press agencies and radio stations such as Radio Netherlands Worldwide and Radio Monte Carlo in order to highlight the story of these musicians on a global level, and ensure their message is heard by as many people as possible. To date, Mideast Tunes now has over 1,100 bands.

In 2011, we realized that many of our LGBT authors felt isolated and had issues finding a support network. During that year, we launched, a bilingual tool for LGBT youth in the Middle East that leverages game mechanics to facilitate high-quality interactions. With its unique functionality, members have a fun and easy way to share their stories, request advice, and filter individuals voted mostly "helpful" in terms of finding support. These functions make it easier for users to interact with individuals who can relate or help with specific issues. Ahwaa aims to be used in countries where LGBT individuals are severely unrepresented as a community, and face not only systematic oppression, but also discrimination, marginalization, and legal ramifications. It has also launched in Bulgaria with the assistance of local LGBT organizations:

Today, Ahwaa has reached many LGBT individuals seeking support and has over 4,500 members.

Mideast Youth has also experimented with new engagement and learning techniques using innovative design. In 2012, we launched a web and iPad-exclusive app, “Making of a Century" ( The application visually goes through 100 years of social movements and deepens understanding of these movements by correlating historical revolutionaries. It is continuously updated to include new figures and uprisings, based largely on user feedback. The majority of this feedback came from teachers using this application in history and social studies classes at schools.

Mideast Youth aims to continue to amplify voices for change around the world by creating platforms with an emphasis on freedom of speech and access to information. MEY will continue to serve underrepresented communities and disenfranchised minorities by prominently highlighting their struggles in a quest for education and justice.

In this increasingly connected age, advocates are afforded a larger audience than ever before. Mideast Youth hopes to provide the best venues to connect with that audience by tailoring platforms specifically to the needs of a changing global population, while preserving the ideals of openness, transparency, and accountability.

Mideast Youth and its primary activities are led entirely by women, our way of marking our presence clear through significant contributions in our societies.

WWW: Women Weave the Web

Comments 8

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Mary S
Mar 30, 2014
Mar 30, 2014

Hi Esra'a

What a wonderful collection of sites - you really are making the most of technology!

I am wondering if you have been in contact with Myrna in the Philippines? She is a former migrant worker who now runs an outsourcing company, and has set up a website to help protect the rights of Filipino migrant workers. You might be able to learn from each other.

She has written her story across several posts. is the final part, which gives most information about the rights work she does. The site is


Mar 30, 2014
Mar 30, 2014

Dear Esra'a - Your story really communicates the power that women, sensitive to the equal importance of diverse voices in your region, can implement through digital tools to alleviate the injustice people feel when they endure it alone. Thank you so much for sharing and helping those of us in the west see beyond the media representation of culture in the middle east.


muhorakeye esperance
May 03, 2014
May 03, 2014

Cher Esra'a - Votre histoire communique réellement grâce à des outils numériques pour soulage le gent la nouvelle technologie chez les femmes peuvent prendre un pas inexplicable grâce a ces outils. pouvoir que les femmes, sensibles à l'importance égale de la diversité des voix dans votre région, peuvent mettre en œuvre les gens de l'injustice se sentent quand ils endurent seul. Merci beaucoup de partager et d'aider le femme de votre région continuer et courage

May 05, 2014
May 05, 2014

Dear Esra'a, Thank you for taking the time to write and tell the story of how, from your desire to have vices heard you create and grew these tools and build such incredible community. To see that your information has become a go to place for information for major media as well as given a place for those without a voice to record their knowledge. I am so fortunate to have been assigned your piece as a listener and highly recommend it as one World Pulse uses to illustrate the existing success of the internet. Your statement at the end regarding it being completely the result of women taking action is powerful. I am curious as to how you were able to secure funding and how far is your reach in tterms of ccountries participating? Thank you, sincerely, Karen

Terry Mullins
May 06, 2014
May 06, 2014

Dear Esra'a - what an incredible story you have shared with our community. You epitomize exactly the "success" story we want the world to know about. I loved your words "I found access to the internet to be a breath of fresh air due to its limitless possibilities" because it is so TRUE! The freedom and limitless possibilities of the internet are there for anyone with internet access...which we unfortunately know is one of the challenges for so many women around the globe.

I love that you created Mideast Youth and applaud your mission ("We are dedicated to providing powerful content delivered with cutting edge and accessible design, making sure that the message of social change isn’t just told, but also heard") and I wish you continued success. I look forward to seeing the "Making of a Century" app as I expect I will learn much.

Thank you for the work you are doing and for taking the time to write such a detailed, thoughtful post. Please know your voice was heard!

In love and peace,

Terry Mullins

May 07, 2014
May 07, 2014

Hello, Esra'a Al Shafei.

Mideast Youth is accomplishing so much! It was a joy to read about the breadth and depth of your programs. I was especially intrigued by the work you are doing to connect LBGT individuals- a population that is in danger, and can be dangerous to support. I wonder if your staff is concerned for their wellbeing in offering such controversial and important services. I also wonder if you have discovered ways to support each other and keep each other safe while working in this field of underrepresentation and alienation. I am inspired to read about your services and would love to hear quotes and comments from the populations that you work with. Thank you for sharing.

Here's to connection! Cole

May 12, 2014
May 12, 2014

I admire your blog and how many people it has reached from different parts of the world, as well as different views! I am truly inspired by your story because I have wanted to create a blog for some time and I haven't done it as of yet out of fear of rejection. But reading about Mideast Youth makes me feel that I should not fear anything, just write it and then followers and participants will come. You give me faith! :-)

May 17, 2014
May 17, 2014

Dear Esra'a I really enjoyed reading your post and navigating on your blog . Amazing job that you have done fighting for human rights in the Middle East. I love the fact that "music" has been use as tool of social change. I can see your vision and non stop courage and as a result it has grown enormously in a very positive way. You inspire me to do something in my Country. Gratitude for your positiveness and for been a connector for changing peoples lives. Kepp it up! The sky is the limit.

Best, MariaAle