Young Tech Leaders Fellow Spotlights

Young Tech Leaders of the Middle East is a competitively selected technology leadership program and community for conflict-affected and refugee youth from the Middle East. The program aims to empower youth to become effective leaders in technology by equipping them with leadership skills and a human-centered design approach to problem-solving. Get to know some of the fellows below.

Spotlight 1: Omar Mahir

1. Tell us about yourself.
My name is Omar Mahir. I am 24 years old, from Iraq, Baghdad. I graduated from The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani in 2019 with a degree in Information Technology and a minor in Business Administration.
I've always been interested in both Business and Technology which is why my degree was a combination of both. I also consider my job to be a combination of both. I'm currently working as a Business Process Automation Developer at Earthlink Telecommunications.

2. Why did you want to participate in YTL?
I noticed that most of the time when people are working on a project or a solution for a certain problem, they look at what they are working on from their point of view and sometimes ignore the user's point of view.
For example, if a developer is working on some app, they will mainly focus on the technical side and how perfect they can make it, ignoring the fact that even if the solution is “technically perfect,” it might not be ideal in the real world. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to join YTL—I wanted to be better at crafting solutions that are useful for the users and meet their needs. After all, technology is all about the people I also wanted to join because I believed that this is a place where I can meet great people and build a great community, and I was correct. One thing I recently noticed about myself is that I tend to be more creative when I'm around people. After finishing the program, I am now more aware of many different problems that our communities are facing, and I feel inspired to work on these problems. Finally, I was curious about the different workshops this program offered. To be specific, I was really curious about the Communication, Critical Thinking, and Public Speaking workshops.

3. What is an issue in your community that you care a lot about?
There are several issues in my community that I deeply care about. The first issue is mental health. A lot of people around me are suffering from different mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Most of these people can't seek help from family or friends because most of the time their depression or anxiety won't be taken seriously. Professional therapists are not so common here; even if you go to a therapist, society will label you as “crazy.” That's why we need a lot of awareness about mental health. The second issue is transportation. This is an issue I suffer from a lot. In Baghdad, there are no trains or metros; people who don't have their own car rely on buses and taxis. The problem is that buses are old, not comfortable, and slow, and taxis are very expensive.

4. Tell us about the human-centered design (HCD) project you created.
For the HCD project, my team and I decided to go with the second issue I mentioned, transportation. We wanted to work on this issue because we all are facing it every day when we are trying to go to work or school. As mentioned above, buses are affordable but unreliable, and taxis are expensive. We wanted to create a solution that combines the affordability of buses with the comfort and speed of taxis, and that's how we came up with Pekawa. Pekawa is a ride sharing app that connects car owners with riders. Pekawa lets you book rides to wherever you want to go along with people who share the same destination. This way you can split the cost and get to your destination faster. Pekawa also provides an additional source of income for people who own cars if they're willing to be the drivers at Pekawa. Some of the challenges we faced and the concerns our users had were regarding the security of the ride, the timing and whether picking up several people would take a lot of time, and payment methods. All these issues were tackled by Pekawa.

5. What was your favorite part of the program?
My favorite part was the presentation day. I was introduced to different problems that were tackled by creative solutions by the other teams. I liked the social nights as well because I got to chat with the other participants in this program and get to know them better. I also enjoyed the Human Centered Design (HCD) sessions. Meltem Naz (the HCD instructor) made the sessions fun and interactive. Meltem also talked about her work and how it consisted of problem-solving, analyzing user behavior, and uncovering patterns and trends, and this excited me and made me more interested in product design and UX research.

6. Who was the most memorable speaker and why?
Rusty Gaillard was my favorite. Rusty conducted a workshop on Public Speaking, a subject that I deeply care about. Rusty started with a story about himself which was very engaging, and it was a story that I relate to a lot. Rusty also gave us a lot of useful tips on how to keep our audience engaged, how to overcome our fear when we're talking to a group of people, and how to structure our speech/presentation.

7. What is the most valuable lesson/takeaway from the program?
For me, I felt like I was living in a bubble. We all are living in a bubble that is our town, society, work…etc. It is very important to break out of this bubble and see how other people are thinking and what they are working on. During the program, I was introduced to different people and their different projects and how they started them. Without this program, there is a high probability that I would have never known about these people and their projects. Now I am more aware of the problems that people are trying to solve. My takeaway is that I am more determined to seek new experiences like this program to get to know more people and see what they're working on, and what opportunities or careers or problems are out there that I can work on or help with.

8. What do you hope to do after the program ends?
The short-term plan is to try and apply what I learned from the HCD sessions and the workshops to my professional and personal life. This program gave me the push I needed, and now I'm going to work on becoming better at everything that I have learned here.

9. Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
Life doesn't always go as we plan; however, we still need some kind of vision to orient our actions. In 10 years, I want to have my own business. Since I'm a sports enthusiast, I want my business to be a sports shop that supplies all your needs to enjoy your favorite sport. The mission of my business will be promoting healthy activities in my community.

10. What's a fun fact about yourself that not many people know?
I like motorcycles (cruisers especially) although I never had one. I hope one day I get to buy one!

Spotlight 2: Maryam Mohammed

Hello, my name's Maryam Mohammed. I'm 23 from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I'll be graduating in June 2022 as a software engineer. I've always been interested in learning foreign languages and also app development.
I participated in YTL because I see it as the best program for getting to know more experienced people in the tech community and for improving my leadership skills. One of the biggest issues that we've been facing in Iraq is that women are not welcomed in the tech community. Technology is universally used.
Technology is gender-blind. Times are changing where traditional roles of women are being challenged and for the better.
Computer science isn’t just a place for males, and women shouldn’t be left behind in the most innovative period of the century. Another side is that many companies still think their hiring policies are fair, and work environments are just fine for women.
Yet the numbers show we’re losing women at an alarming rate. So we need to work on building a stronger community of practice, specifically supporting women in technology in higher education. Our team’s project focused on solving transportation problems in Iraq.
We made an application called "Saferni" which means “make me travel,” where we can provide a database of all the buses and mini buses in each city. When somebody wants to go from one place to another, they can open the app, choose the kind of transportation they want, and check the prices and availability so that they can travel comfortably and easily.
Using busses instead of cars will help the environment become less polluted because each bus can take 55 cars off the road, reducing congestion, saving fuel, and significantly cutting emissions.
My favorite part of the program was the human-centered design curriculum, as well as the public speaking workshop led by Rusty Gaillard, which helped me a lot to overcome my speech problems and become more confident. The most memorable part was when Marcello Bonatto [the founder of Re:Coded] mentioned how his family gave everything for him and his brother to have a great education. This part specifically made me quite emotional—it reminded me of my father and how much he struggled to give us a better life than the one he had, and how he's giving back all of his great experience to young people who can't afford a great source of education.
The most valuable lesson that I learned from this program is that we must be imaginative and try things that might not work because after all, if we give it a shot, it might work one day! Also, this program tries to send a very important message that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can always be the greatest.
My hope is to achieve all of my goals starting from the first one which is offering free language and coding courses to young people in my country and help them to find better jobs. In 10 years, I hope to be running a lot of charities to stop poverty around the world. Finally, a fun fact about me is that I turn off the lights at night and use candles instead.

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