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New Friends

September 1, 2010

Toma Grigoryan was four years old when her family came to Syracuse as refugees, fleeing the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict of the late ’80s and early ’90s. That history and heritage in Armenia “is such a part of who I am,” she says. “I’ve always been aware of the past and what happened to us.” So when Grigoryan completed a BA in political science at SU last spring and began looking around for internships, she was surprised to discover a U.S.-based development organization called the Near East Foundation (NEF) that had worked in Armenia as long ago as 1915. She was even more surprised to learn that the foundation was relocating its headquarters to the SU campus.

“During the time of the Armenian genocide, NEF was very involved and helped to save a lot of lives,” Grigoryan says. “It was exciting to learn about that.” This fall she started an internship with NEF, focusing on the foundation’s current work in Armenia — such as one program initiated in 2008 that helps rural entrepreneurs fund and grow new enterprises in farming, livestock, and aquaculture.

Sitting in his new office in Crouse-Hinds Hall, NEF president Charlie Benjamin explains that the foundation was originally created in response to the mass killing and deportation of Armenians during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. NEF left Armenia in 1927 — tossed out by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin — not to return until 2004. However, in the interim the organization shifted its focus from relief to development work, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. “We aim to help the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in this part of the world take control of their lives and build the futures they envision for themselves,” Benjamin says.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what’s going on in this geographic area.”

Charlie Benjamin

President, Near East Foundation

NEF operates field offices in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Mali, and Sudan, and was based in New York City until a search for a university partner brought the foundation to Syracuse. SU, with deep ties to the Middle East dating back to the 1940s, proved to be “a perfect fit in terms of values and orientation,” Benjamin says. “We felt that by affiliating with a university, not only could we engage the creative energy of an academic community — faculty and students — but we could provide an opportunity for them to learn about doing development work and also about the people with whom we work. We work at a grassroots level. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what’s going on in this geographic area, and this is a chance to bring home the reality of what life is like and what people are concerned about.”

A number of current and former  students are already contributing to NEF’s grassroots projects. Sarah Peterson, who did a capstone project on strategic planning with the foundation as part of her Maxwell MPA/IR degree, joined NEF this fall as a full-time program officer; one of her projects works with youth in slums on the outskirts of Casablanca, bolstering their employment and leadership skills.

Joanna Palmer, an MPA student who previously researched Islamic terrorist networks for a Washington-area think tank, now works with NEF on program management and communications. She describes a long-running NEF program in Sudan that in 2002 built a health clinic in the al-Rabwa refugee settlement outside Khartoum. The clinic, she says, “now offers basic care — including diagnoses, primary care, laboratory testing, growth monitoring, vaccinations, and pharmaceutical distribution — and reproductive health services to more than 2,000 people monthly. We’re just about to hand responsibility for it over to a local nonprofit, which is exactly our goal for all our projects: to have them run, ultimately, by their beneficiaries.”

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program, says that getting involved with these types of programs is a “golden opportunity” for faculty members and students to apply theoretical knowledge to on-the-ground challenges. “To my knowledge, no other Middle Eastern studies program in the country can claim to have a major development organization like NEF right on its campus,” says Boroujerdi, who recently joined the NEF board. “Faculty members interested in such fields as agricultural economics, girls’ education, rural poverty, and postwar reconstruction can now use NEF’s field offices in the Middle East and North Africa as social laboratories. You can’t beat that.”

At this writing, NEF is seeking students or recent graduates to visit field sites in Morocco, Jordan, and Mali, and these kinds of opportunities will only grow as NEF and SU co-develop larger-scale projects. “This partnership accords us greater heft in development circles,” notes Boroujerdi. “This will enable us to seek outside grants that neither SU nor NEF would have been able to secure on its own.”

Even at this early stage of the partnership, the infusion of ideas and enthusiasm from the SU community is making an impact on the foundation, says Benjamin: “There’s a lot of energy in this area. It’s great to be in a place where there is so much excitement about the type of work that we do.”

By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

This article appeared in the fall 2010 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2010 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. 

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