Professional Fellows Program Alumni come Together for Beirut

Mahmoud Abd Elmageed and Omar Assaf met through the Department of State’s Professional Fellows Program in the fall of 2019, where they shared an apartment becoming close friends and ultimately business partners. These two entrepreneurs are an inspirational example of how Professional Fellows Program alumni can integrate the skills developed during the Program into their work  at home and make a positive impact on their communities. 

In addition to co-founding Pwema, a web maintenance startup, and MobiTrip, a mobile food ordering application, among other merits, Omar Assaf is cofounder and Executive Director of SHiFT Social Innovation Hub. SHiFt is a nonprofit social enterprise headquartered in Tripoli, Lebanon. Their vision is to empower marginalized communities in disenfranchised and conflict-ridden areas through entrepreneurship and novelty. SHiFT’s goal for these communities is to become self-sufficient, peaceful and flourishing localities. 

Mahmoud Abd Elmageed is cofounder and organizer of Have a Dream. Have a Dream coordinates cultural exchanges, adventure and exploration opportunities, and volunteer programs outside of Egypt. Over 550 volunteers have traveled with the organization to over 30 countries. Not only does Mahmoud’s organization take young people on breathtaking backpacking trips through Asia, Africa, and Europe, but also they host and outsource programs to offer formal education such as teaching English to kids in underserved areas. Have a Dream focuses on organizing and mobilizing volunteers who specialize in a broad range of expertise, from psychologists to architects. 

Mahmoud planned to travel from Egypt to visit Omar in Lebanon on August 3, 2020, but due to the country’s increased COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, he decided to stay home. Fatefully, on August 4, 2020, tragedy struck when an explosion occurred at Beirut’s Port. The blast, caused by ammonium nitrate, explosives, and jugs of kerosene stored in a storage hangar at Beirut’s port, devastated homes and businesses for miles. The explosion killed more than 190 people – some of whom were unable to be recovered from the rubble – injured thousands and caused billions of dollars in damage to the city.

Mahmoud says he “wanted to go; [wanted] to do something there,” so he talked to Omar and other volunteers, who agreed to help. Mahmoud’s organization, based  in Egypt, responded to the crisis by sending 20 Egyptian volunteers to Lebanon to clear rubble and offer support and assistance to families and businesses. Mahmoud and others volunteered with SHiFT based in Tripoli, Lebanon. After only a few days, Mahmoud wanted to share SHiFT’s work with the citizens of Beirut, so he posted to Facebook. He didn’t expect thousands of people to reach out saying they wanted to offer their services to help the community. He and Omar organized a program for volunteers called Together for Beirut and received over 200 applications. 

Together for Beirut’s volunteers consist of psychologists to offer emotional support after trauma, engineers to help plan and rebuild homes and shops that had been destroyed, and field workers who offered to help businesses apply for future financial assistance in rebuilding and reopening. According to Omar, the response from the Lebanese people has been overwhelmingly positive, saying, “they know that there are people standing with them, that are there for them.” With a recent fire at the same site, they are focused on keeping their volunteers safe and figuring out how to best help those affected. In the month since the explosion, Together for Beirut has directly assisted over 300 affected individuals, families and businesses, and organized multiple more teams of 20 volunteers to assist the community throughout the next several months. Mahmoud says his goal is to create a sustainable program for volunteers in Lebanon. He says they will continue with their work until they feel that the Lebanese people can continue with their lives. Omar says he hopes to develop a community kitchen and coworking space so that the community can get back to work and be provided with resources. Together for Beirut has made immeasurable contributions to the recovering community, and Mahmoud and Omar continue to bolster, support and encourage their communities, especially the youth through their enterprises.

The Professional Fellows Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by Legacy International.