Growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Aya Yousef at first struggled to claim her right to an education. But her tough beginnings ignited her passion for having a positive impact on all those around her. Aya knew she would not be able to afford to go to university, so she worked hard to obtain a scholarship (AGFE, Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education). Once she reached her goal and was accepted to the prestigious American University of Beirut, her parents’ health worsened and the economic crisis in Lebanon placed additional financial pressure on the family. Aya found the situation overwhelming, but persevered. She used her scholarship stipend, intended for transport and learning materials, to pay for household expenses.
These challenging circumstances inspired Aya’s mission to make education accessible to all students. At school, she made sure her classmates were aware of the scholarship opportunities that were available to them, and helped them apply to university. She volunteered in schools to guide future graduates through the university application process and tell them about different scholarships, and has so far reached 300 students.
Aya also started a coding club at school, where she introduced more than 20 students to new technologies. She has since taken part in hackathons all over the world, and mentored other young people on the use of technology for social good. She is a member of the UNDP’s Youth Leadership Programme, where she helps develop entrepreneurship ideas to advance the Sustainable Development Goals. She also works with the UNDP-4YFN (‘4 years from now’) mentorship programme. This has given her the opportunity to exchange ideas with changemakers from all over the world, and especially in Syria. After the devastating Beirut explosion in August 2020, Aya volunteered for seven months working on drawings that would serve to rebuild and rehabilitate parts of the city that had been destroyed. She also helped Locate Victims Beirut, translating names and information on more than 250 people who went missing after the explosion.
If she wins, Aya would invest half the prize money in creating a skills and knowledge sharing hub in her refugee camp. Some of the funds would go to improving outdoor spaces for children to play in, as well as investing in equipment to create free software tutorials for high school and university students. At the core of all of these projects is Aya’s long-held belief that “innovation comes only from readily and seamlessly sharing information rather than hoarding it.”