For Ron Bruder, the horrors of 9/11 served as a pivot point into active philanthropy. A real estate developer who calls New York City his hometown, he was particularly interested in tackling the social conditions in the Muslim world that foment support for such violent radicalism--specifically, the lack of jobs. After consulting Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, Bruder concluded that the people most resentful of the U.S. were those who were educated but lacked employment. The time he had spent doing business in Northern Ireland confirmed Bruder's notion that the path to peace and democracy lay not in military intervention or political overhaul but in gainful employment for the people. Jobs, he believed, would produce a middle class; jobs would buttress faltering economies; and jobs would give young people hope, income and something to do other than succumb to extremist dogma.
But jobs are scarce and growing scarcer in Arab countries. The region already faces 15% unemployment, and 90 million new jobs will be needed by 2020 to accommodate the swell of young workers, according to the World Bank. When Bruder, 59, met with employers who operate in the region, however, they complained of posts left unfilled for lack of skilled professionals. "They had all these university graduates who had no clue how to hold meetings or run spreadsheets or even how to dress at an office," he says. So he formulated a deceptively simple-sounding plan: his Education for Employment Foundation would get regional companies to guarantee jobs, then train candidates for the specific tasks needed. Founded in 2002, the group has launched programs in Gaza, Jordan and Morocco over the past year and has placed about 85% of its 160 graduates thus far in full-time posts.
From the outset, the program in Gaza, begun in 2006, was the most ambitious--and the one with the most potential for impact. The unemployed in that war-battered wedge of Palestine is by some counts 70% of the adult population. Mohammad Naja, a management consultant who runs the foundation's program there, says university students "learn theory, not practical application." To address this gap, foundation students undergo a crash course in business English, then a mini-M.B.A. boot camp devised by the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business that places them in real-life business situations in which, for instance, accounting graduates perform simulated audits.
Even those skills are unlikely to yield jobs in Gaza's crushed economy, so graduates are instead promised posts in nearby countries with Consolidated Contractors Co., an Athens-based multinational that is among the largest builders in the Middle East. The program appealed instantly to CCC director Samer Khoury when he was approached by his friend Telhami on behalf of the foundation. "Eventually," says Khoury, a Palestinian who resides in Athens, "this new generation of skilled workers will return" to build the economy from within, but for now, their remittances from abroad are invaluable. So far, CCC has placed all of the graduates of the Gaza program in its offices in Dubai or the United Arab Emirates and intends to hire all of the 16 currently enrolled in the six-month course.
Rami Alshaikh, 24, learned of the program as he was finishing his accounting degree last year at the Islamic University of Gaza, also home to the foundation. He watched the unsuccessful job hunts of countless friends and feared that he wouldn't be able to find work. Having lost his father a few years ago to surgical complications, he has six siblings and a mother to support, so he enrolled in the Education for Employment program after graduation and promptly landed an accountant job for CCC in the U.A.E. He sends at least a third of his $1,500 monthly paycheck home, with plenty remaining to provide for the woman who recently became his bride--as well as to make the required 10% tithe to the foundation.
Bruder's rather lofty goal is to replicate Alshaikh's experience across the region by expanding the program into a dozen countries, training and placing up to 50,000 young people in jobs in five years' time. But what he really wants is for the idea to replicate itself. "Nothing would make me happier than governments banding together to make job creation in the region a priority," he says. And perhaps nothing else can make the region a more secure place.