By the Open Hands Initiative team
Imagine if we could bring American and international youth together to collaborate on projects that raise awareness about common social issues faced by people all over the world. That is exactly what we do at the Open Hands Initiative (OHI), a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 by American businessman and philanthropist, Jay T. Snyder. We create platforms for exchange that emphasize our common values rather than our differences, building a reservoir of goodwill and understanding that we hope can withstand even the most fundamental policy differences.
The Open Hands Initiative’s mission is to support people-to-people diplomacy by creating cross-cultural dialogue and building global friendships through exchanges between American and international youth. By focusing on our similarities and areas of commonality, we not only try to open young people’s eyes to new cultures, but also help to forge new solutions to tackle global challenges.
We work within three areas of concentration – Media and Democracy; Culture and Creativity; and Disability and Accessibility. Through each of these focuses we have conducted projects in Syria and Egypt, with plans to expand our programs throughout the Middle East and the greater Muslim and Arab world.
It is our mission to promote the rights of persons with disabilities. In pursuit of this goal, we designed an exchange program between 26 American and Syrian youth advocates with disabilities.
The “Youth Ability Summit,” held in Damascus in 2010, served as a platform to share stories, culture and ideas on how to promote the rights of people with disabilities around the world. During the Summit, youth worked closely with disability rights experts and Liquid Comics to create an original superhero. The result was one that reflected their cultural values as well as the challenges of living with a disability. Today, the “Silver Scorpion” is the first ever cross-cultural superhero with a disability; he represents the power of cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration.
The “Silver Scorpion” is the brainchild of the youth who collaborated during the Summit, and it tells the story of a Muslim boy named Bashir who loses his legs in a landmine accident and later gains the powerful ability to bend metal with his mind. This comic is an innovative approach to people-to-people diplomacy, turning a group of extraordinary young people with disabilities into unlikely diplomats. It encourages understanding, dialogue and tolerance not just for persons with disabilities, but also for people from different cultures around the world.
OHI’s Chairman and Founder, Jay Snyder, calls the Silver Scorpion project an “innovative approach towards bridging the gap between Americans and the Muslim world.” He also emphasizes the fact that this type of people-to-people diplomacy is increasingly valuable today. “The collaboration and understanding between regular citizens of the United States and Syria is ever more pressing today during these times of unrest.”
Since the Youth Ability Summit and the publication of the “Silver Scorpion,” the Open Hands Initiative has been distributing the comic book across the United States and the Muslim world. It has reached the hands of more than 30,000 Americans, 12,000 Egyptians and soon several thousand Lebanese and Syrian youth, teachers and disability experts. The comic book will also be used in classrooms in Egypt and Syria as a method of teaching about the rights and inclusion of persons with disability in schools.
To further the reach of the “Silver Scorpion,” the Open Hands Initiative is partnering with Liquid Comic and MTV Voices to launch an animated Web series based off of the comic book story created by the Syrian and American youth. This four-part series is available online in three languages across Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia on MTV’s global websites.
In addition to the creation of the “Silver Scorpion,” the Youth Ability Summit also hosted a three-day writing workshop which produced the first cross-cultural guidebook for implementing the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This manual was authored jointly by disability experts from Syria and America. The manual entitled “Ensuring Rights in Development,” focuses specifically on the development of rights for persons with disabilities in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. Our intention is that activists, community leaders, professionals, policy makers, volunteers, nonprofit organizations and people with and without disabilities will use this manual to not only learn, but also to increase awareness and further reforms towards inclusion and development. The “Ensuring Rights in Development” manual can be found on the Open Hands Initiative website, along with a digital version of the Silver Scorpion.
For more information about the Open Hands Initiative, please visit http://www.openhandsinitiative.org/.