Omar El Awar is a high school senior with a trailblazing dream list and a clear strategy to change perceptions across the globe. His page, Inspiring Egyptians, is not only the work of an innate young journalist, but also a platform to impact the world.
Floating across social media and making waves across 15,400 people, the Inspiring Egyptians project shares the stories of passionate Egyptians who’ve championed their way to success through hardship and pain. But the mastermind behind the initiative is not a team of incisive journalists, an educational strategist, nor a rising entrepreneur: it's a 17-year-old high school student.
Armed with a restless dream list and convinced about the ripple effect that an inspirational story can have, Omar El Awar is setting out to impact youth by doing something everyone would love to do: meeting every single person he has ever admired, be it celebrities like Asser Yassin or astronauts like Mohammed Sallam.
The project, once just the reverie of an idealistic child, swiftly became a full-fledged strategy that involves education, media, and entrepreneurs. In a talk with CairoScene, the young changemaker explains how his project could capsize the stereotype of Egyptians and Arabs around the world, and why he thinks the real impact will be led bottom-up.
Why did you start Inspiring Egyptians?
Last year, I was in a competition at Georgetown University with people from different countries. And every time I introduced myself as Egyptian, they were shocked because their idea of Egypt was related to terrorism and deserts. They didn’t know I have Facebook; they didn’t know I play tennis. In August, I reached my threshold of irritation about how Arab stereotypes are being spread around the world, so I decided to do something and shed a light on the inspiring and successful people. I created a Facebook page called Inspiring Egyptians and started using my father's connections. I just send them a standard message on Facebook and contacted them to meet for an interview. People were very interested, so we started meeting.
I never imaged I would reach people like Amr Waked. I would like to play a big role in falsifying stereotypes about Egyptians and Arabs, and to help Egyptian youth who don’t know what to do when they grow up, or who are passionate about certain fields but lack mentorship.
I interviewed 120 people; every person I meet inspires me. But now I realise that this page has the potential to become something big, so I started formulating a strategy and a mission. It will not just be interviews; I will start developing a team and it will become big.
What’s the strategy about?
I’m currently targeting Egyptians, but I want to extend it to the Arab world because the stereotype that exists concerns all Arabs. My goal is not to go around the world and tell people that Egyptians are not terrorists. I want to focus on Egypt and create huge impact in our youth to stimulate economic growth. That’s how the globe will notice us in four or five years; I will not go around saying “these people are inspiring;” the impact will come from Egypt.
And how will you trigger this impact?
I really believe that everybody across the globe has a talent inside. Everybody is good at something; it’s just that the educational system that caters for certain things. It’s based on memorising things and putting them down on a test. But everybody has they're own thing they're good.
You said you used your father’s connections. Who is he?
My father is my mentor. He used to be a restaurant business owner – GM of KFC in Egypt. He was really good in Egypt, but he found his passion in teaching and coaching. After the revolution, his company went bankrupt and it was amazing how he handled it together with his career shift. Now, as a life coach, he is one of the most passionate people I know.
Do you think you would dedicate your life to Inspiring Egyptians?
I believe I could. For many people, it is just a Facebook page where there are interviews, but I have a much bigger vision for it. My main vision is helping impact youth and the educational system. I have visited public schools and gone around, and it is terrible that many people my age go to school and don't learn. There are 70 kids in a classroom who are only memorising things that they don’t understand. One of them could invent a robot; one of them could be a soccer player; one of them could be an artist. But it’s just our culture.
In our culture, to be smart, you have to be a doctor or engineer. If a kid says “I want to sing,” or “I want to be a soccer player,” he will be shut up. That’s not a career. That ideology in our culture should change. I want to make it my life goal to impact the educational system.
How do you choose the people you interview?
Everybody on this earth has something that is inspiring, but there is a bit of intuition in my criteria. I don’t want someone who is in a high position. I’m looking for someone who has been through a hard journey because, in the end, I am looking for role models for youth. Someone who shifted careers, like Asser Yassin, who graduated from engineering at the AUC and then became an actor. He discovered his passion during his last year in university, and even though many people discouraged him, he continued with his passion.
Dr. Sheriff Hakki could be a role model for many Egyptians because many think that in order to be successful you need to go study abroad. He studied in Qasr El Ainy hospital and worked really hard for really low pay until he was invited to be a surgeon at the Imperial College London, where he became the youngest person there to teach. Many people are sick of the education here. He is proof that you can be successful anywhere in the world.
You must have heard great stories. Is there any particularly inspiring phrase that stuck with you?
Someone told me: “Without risk, you can never get the maximum out of this life.” I really love this quote because many people like to play it safe, but the great people took risks.
You said you want to study entrepreneurship. Do you think you can turn Inspiring Egyptians into a business?
Yes. I would call it a social enterprise; I am planning to get sponsors and offer services like mentorships. I don’t like people who tell me that, because it is for good, it shouldn’t make profit. To me, at the end, my utmost objective is to achieve my mission. I know at the end of the path there will be a business, but I am not doing it for the money; the aim is to achieve my mission.
Was there an experience that sparked your idea?
In our culture, they measure wisdom by age. It really irritates me to see how people treat youth. They are the future; they are those who have potential, and to see them being treated with arrogance motivated me every day to change the world. Steve Jobs said: “Because the ones who are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do.” I wake up to his quote every day. I want to break the boundaries of this culture.
Original photography by @Mo4Network's #Mo4Productions.
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb.