Can a Syrian Internship Initiative Solve Youth Unemployment?

The issue dominating every conversation on the table in the Middle East today is omnipresent enough to have a band named after it: Job Creation. It’s well-known that unemployment looms at around 10-11% across the region, according to the World Bank, and that a near 75 million jobs will need to be created by 2020 just to maintain this less-than-ideal level. Many have pointed to entrepreneurship and education for employment as the local solutions, in narratives now well-worn.

But one element that has perhaps not been discussed enough is internships. While historically internship have not been common in the Arab World, they may just kill two birds with one stone, connecting youth to opportunities leading to paid jobs, and drawing a pool of low cost potential talent to budding companies.

So why aren’t internships a bigger part of the conversation? One Syrian non-profit, fursa.me, is hoping to boost the role of unpaid work. Fursa.me, meaning “chance” in Arabic, is an internship connection platform launched this September, developed by Moe Ghashim and Hichame Assi of Syrian e-commerce company 7arake.com. A  deceptively simple Arabic-only site, fursa.me aims to boost business and join jobs with seekers for free.

However, traffic has been low since the site launched, despite a lack of competition. Demand in the region for internships seems to continue to trickle. While universities such as AUB may work to connect students with internships before graduating, it seems fursa.me still has their work cut out for them when it comes to educating the general market about the value of seeking internships, as founder Hichame Assi attested. If it succeeds, however, the site may bring about a sea change in youth employment in the region.

What inspired you to create fursa.me?

Hichame Assi: As the revolution in Syria progressed and the economy began to stagnate, we witnessed many small companies suffering from a lack of business, regardless of their political allegiance, and having to lay off staff or fold. We heard of similar issues in other MENA countries as well. And throughout the region there remains a significant problem with youth employment and upward mobility.

We realized we might not be influential enough to directly create jobs, but we thought that internships might be able to alleviate both problems; many of the roles being made redundant could potentially be performed by university students for low or no cost.  This would help keep businesses afloat in tough times, and would give youth an opportunity to get real-world experience to help them up the career ladder. 

Why internships alone?

We looked around and there was no dedicated site or platform for internships in MENA. There are actually quite a few internship opportunities out there already, more than we anticipated actually, but they are fragmented and floating all over the ether. Tadarrab.com were the pioneers in MENA, but I believe they were too far ahead of the curve and a bit too early for the market. 

Who are your competitors? How do you plan to compete with larger job sites that offer internship listings?

I don't believe we have any direct competitors, as we differentiate ourselves by being completely free. We are a non-profit, social-oriented project developed by us at 7arake.com and managed by a great and creative intern of ours. Any competition out there is healthy, however, if it helps create more jobs for youth.

What kind of traffic and how many listings have you seen since you launched?

Gaining momentum is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem; we need content to capture an audience, and yet we need an audience to create the content.

Since launch, we’ve only had a few listings, so to increase the pace, we have pivoted the model slightly; we’ve started seeding the content ourselves for the time being. Traffic is low but steady, and it will improve as we grow and build rapport with various companies. 

Who is your immediate market? Is the market ready for an internship platform?

While we have Syrian DNA in our business and team, this project is by no means isolated to Syria. We believe the time is ripe for internship in the entire MENA region. If you look 2, 5 and 10 years ahead at the expected number of jobs that have to be created in MENA to cope with population growth, then there is no better time to start this. The early adopters are likely to be web savvy university students, but hopefully it'll expand beyond that. 

Was it difficult to develop this under the current conditions in Syria?

Yes! We have had to struggle with numerous internet disruptions by the government, and ironically the sanctions by the US, which are aimed at the government, end up hurting us just as much. We are lucky that a couple of us have second lives in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and are able to use certain profiles or payment methods in those countries to overcome most barriers.

How do you think the market for internships is evolving?

Currently, it’s progressing very slowly and it's mainly limited to large multinational companies or social enterprises based in the Gulf, Jordan and Egypt. We plan to eventually work with universities and educational institutions as well to help help their students connect to opportunities. We'd like to help it evolve so that startups and SMEs are much more involved in this eco-system.

What can startups gain from fursa.me?

We're hoping that startups will see the value of internships. We love the concept of 'Startup Volunteers' that Nakhweh recently launched, and think internships can be just as effective if not more so. We think that Fursa.me can help accelerate the launching of more startups by helping them execute their business plans more effectively.

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