When a massive explosion rocked the Port of Beirut, young Lebanese engineer Aya Mouallem knew she had to help, using the skills and networks she’d built through All Girls Code, a tech mentorship program she co-founded.
Mouallem, currently a graduate student and Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University, was in Beirut at the time and she says her whole room was shaking from the explosion and she was terrified.
But within a matter of hours, tech-savvy young people from across the country had mobilized, creating or repurposing communities/platforms like August 4th Beirut resource guide, the Beirut Crisis Shelter map and Rebuild Beirut.
“As youth, particularly those of us familiar with coding, engineering, and the digital world, we were able to build complete platforms mapping disaster zones, displaying available shelters, and continuously updating databases of missing persons in virtually no time,” Mouallem said,
“These tech-based initiatives were super helpful in speeding up the relief process in comparison to the traditional methods adopted by the government,” she said.
Mouallem began to work with Locate Victims Beirut, a volunteer-led initiative that developed an extensive database of known dead, missing victims and especially details to guide their families to their whereabouts.
“I volunteered with this initiative directly after the explosion – I led the efforts to recruit volunteers and restructure the team to handle database, social media, and outreach tasks efficiently,” she said.
Mouallem says the initiative is now using its social media presence to highlight the experiences of the survivors who need help. On her part, she also later helped distribute aid to trustworthy initiatives on the ground after her friends in the Lebanese diaspora raised funds overseas.
A Tech-led Recovery
Mouallem says the only sector of the economy that has been able to make it with minimal damage throughout the current Lebanese economic crisis is the tech sector.
“I’m very grateful for the existence of tech companies capable of surviving through this crisis, I’m a firm believer in the fact that Lebanon’s economy can be greatly saved if we adopt a digital economy,” she said, “Tech companies have been able to work remotely, capture international clients, and preserve (and even create) job opportunities for thousands of citizens.”
Mouallem’s belief in the transformative opportunities of tech predates the Beirut explosion by many years: in 2017 she co-founded All Girls Code after a chance encounter with her friend Maya Moussa during her first year of undergraduate studies at the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon.
“We ended up spending our lunch break exchanging several stories on implicit discrimination against females in our major, and we discussed the impact of societal expectations on the enrolment of females in STEM majors in Lebanon, based on the stories and experiences we’ve heard from the few fellow females studying computer engineering,” she said.
“That’s how we decided to run a summer camp to encourage young girls to try STEM hands-on before they apply to university,” she said, “We wanted to give them the chance to explore STEM in a supportive, empowering environment before deciding on what major to pursue.”
The summer camp was a success, so All Girls Code was born and now the community initiative, fully run by volunteers, provides young girls with hands-on tech training, immersive STEM programs, and year-round mentorship, all for free. We’re based in Lebanon but have welcomed attendees from more than ten countries so far from across the Middle East and North Africa.
“We’ve hosted more than 500 young girls so far, and around 90% of our alumni who are now at university are studying STEM fields,” she said, “All Girls Code provides support and mentorship, aside from the technical programs, before, during, and even after university, and we focus on empowering young girls to pursue STEM at university and beyond in their professional paths.”
Mouallem is also a 2018 alumna of the Women Deliver Young Leaders Program.
In the latest cohort, there are 300 young people , including 49 people from 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Women Deliver, an NGO championing gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women has, since 2010, reached 1,000 young advocates from 148 countries.
Another Women Deliver alumna is Nicaraguan activist Natalia Norori.
She is using her skills and experience in open health data to not only measure the true impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable groups, but also aiming at some point to measure the environmental, economical, and social shockwaves that come with it.