YSEALI Alumnus Continues to Help Those in Need: COVID-19 in the Philippines by Nicholas Hampton, Multimedia Project Specialist, UConn Global Affairs
YSEALI alumnus and founder of AccessiWheels disability service in Quezon City, Philippines Miggy Bautista is doing his part to get people with disabilities where they need to be during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Boutista received the $500 grant from UConn that all YSEALI participants have the chance to apply for by formally submitting their business proposals. He will be using the funds to build a food based add on to his business employing people with disabilities.
His company, Accessi Wheels, enables people with mobility problems by connecting customers to trained drivers with accessible vehicles, and they’re continuing their efforts through the virus.
“We salute the brave and good hearted Partner Volunteer Drivers who are on Frontline and service to our regular hospital patients this #COVID19 situation!” posted Accessi Wheels on Facebook.
“During the suspension of public transportation as part of the Enhanced Community Quarantine to address #COVID19, Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative alumnus and AccessiWheels Founder Miggy Bautista are helping patients get to their regular medical appointments, such as dialysis and therapy, by connecting them to a network of volunteer drivers with personal vehicles,” the Embassy said on their Facebook page.
At the core of any visit to a true 24-hour city lies one very important question: To sleep or not to sleep?
When the sun goes down, these cities show their other side. Gone are the office workers, delivery trucks and kilometre-long traffic jams – night-time is when these cities spring to life with bars, restaurants, clubs, museums and galleries.
Recently, I visited perhaps the most famous 24-hour-city, the city that never sleeps: New York. Being considered somewhat of a sleep addict by my family, I assumed all would be usual and my reputation would get through unscathed. But by the end of my two days in the Big Apple I had only slept for six hours.
That’s not because I was drinking huge cups of Starbucks’ coffee (in the US they sell a 916 millilitre cup of coffee), it’s because sometime soon after arriving, my circadian rhythm switched settings from Yangon to New York. I simply forgot to sleep.
At night New York lights up. Most of the high-rise buildings in New York City are, on average, more than 38 floors high with the highest being the 104-floor One World Trade Center. At New York’s beating heart, Manhattan Island, these luminescent canyons of steel and concrete go as far as the eye can see.
While not being a terribly confusing city to navigate, I felt the best way to get one’s bearings would be to see it from up from high. Good thing New York’s not short on tall buildings. I decided to head to the tallest building in the city, the Trade Centre, but when I arrived I was shocked to see that hundreds of other people had the same idea.
The strangest thing about New York is how crowded it is. During the day, Yangon is crowded. But at night-time, many parts of the city look like a ghost town. Not New York. You’ll see almost as many people out during the day as you will at night. It means, even though you’re in a foreign city, you’ll never feel alone. It’s always very easy to find someone to start up a conversation with. People are always eager to find out where you come from and what your story is.
But this time I decided that rather than wait for hours in line I would move on to another attraction. The world famous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) gives free admission after 4pm.
It seems, people in New York, like in Yangon, love free stuff. I have never seen the kinds of crowds I saw that evening at MoMA. Thousands of visitors on every single floor. MoMA boasts some of humanity’s greatest artistic works, but I can tell you half a Warhol’s not nearly as good as a whole one. With all the clicking of shoes reverberating off the shiny wooden floor, those iconic dripping clocks from Dali’s ‘Persistence of Memory’ took on a more literal meaning. Under normal circumstances, one could spend more than a few hours meandering through MoMA. But with the crowds it felt more like I was waiting for a bus on Mahabandoola Street after work.
Thankfully the other great thing about New York is its food stands. Unlike in Yangon where people always find a place to sit, be it on a trishaw or a small plastic stool, New Yorkers don’t sit. They eat their food quickly, usually standing and with one hand. While the ubiquitous New York pizza slice can be purchased from street stands and corner stores for as little as US$2 at anytime, day or night, I was shocked to see the popularity of Middle Eastern-style cuisine.
There are halal street food stands all throughout the city selling trays of sliced beef and chicken with rice, salad and sauces. The spiced meat has a similar flavour profile to Burmese curry — so naturally this was my meal of choice. The kebab is universally adored but who would’ve thought that New Yorkers loved their biryani or danbauk so much? There were always 5 to 10 people crowded around these stands munching down plates of the spiced rice. Someone needs to tell Nilar biryani to seriously consider expansion into the Big Apple.
New Yorkers don’t just eat quickly. They walk quickly and talk quickly too. You won’t get stuck behind a pair of umbrellas on a New York sidewalk. While it can be overwhelming at first for someone from a city as laid back as Yangon, the rapid speed of the city soon gets your adrenaline going. It wasn’t long before I found myself moving at a brisk walk with my eyes to the pavement only looking up to scream “Ey! I’m walkin’ ‘ere” at yellow taxis.
That taxi driver was probably an Iranian, or Punjab, or Polish; perhaps New York’s most endearing feature is its diversity. Whether you’re at the base of the Statue of Liberty or eating a slice of pizza in Uptown Manhattan, New York has the ability to feel like it could be anywhere in the world. In 48 hours I heard more languages being spoken than I could count.
My advice: if you’re in New York on a tight schedule, let the rhythm of the city pull you along. You’ll probably be surprised at how much stamina you really have. Otherwise, there’s always Starbucks.
African Student Social Entrepreneurs at UConn: The SUSI Program
January 2018, by Alexander Holmgren
“Ce programme est un rêve (this program is a dream),” says Mondher Tounsi, a law student from Kasserine, Tunisia. He is referring to the Study of the U.S. Institute, or SUSI as it has come to be known, which is funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).
Every year since 2010, students have come to UConn from across Africa to participate in the SUSI program, which engenders mutual understanding and respect between foreigners and Americans through specialty exchange programs. The State Department’s ECA has awarded UConn’s Global Training and Development Institute (GTDI) over $3.5 million in contract awards to host the SUSI program over the past 7 years. The program’s academic director, Jack Barry, explains, “for the State Department, it is really an opportune chance to bring foreigners here and expose them to the United States with a broad focus in American history and culture, allowing them to engage in a reciprocal cross-cultural exchange with American citizens.” However, the SUSI program is distinct from many others of its type for its emphasis on Social Entrepreneurship. “The main idea is to help students launch start-ups or companies that have an effect or resolves a social problem,” explains Yousra Kherkhache, an Algerian student participating in the program, “gaining money and at the same time resolving a problem.”
At UConn, all SUSI program participants enter with an innovative idea on how to tackle a social problem in their community. Over the 5-week duration of the SUSI program, these students learn the skills necessary to launch their ideas as an organization or business. “They start off with a broad idea but no details worked out,” Barry explains. Through the SUSI program, he says, the students “build the plan for their social enterprise, which starts with a couple of paragraphs to, by the time they leave, a 4-5 page business plan with a lot of ideas fully sketched out.”
For Tounsi, The SUSI program provided the skills necessary to address serious problems in his community. Tounsi’s home-city of Kasserine has an unemployment rate 20% greater than Tunisia’s national average, the highest morality rate in the entire country, and a reputation for being an extremist hotbed. “It really makes me so sad to see this,” Tounsi says, especially because of the “lack of investment” in the people of Kasserine it prompts.
Tounsi has come up with an innovative solution: the Kasserine Catalyst, a youth hub where young people may gather to watch TV, play video games, or network ideas. His goal is to give the youth of Kasserine—who Tousni describes as “future entrepreneurs who want to launch their own initiatives”—a safe venue to develop and explore productive interests. Through the Kasserine Catalyst, he hopes to help these future entrepreneurs “dive into the world of entrepreneurship,” and, ultimately, “make a better reputation for Kasserine.”
The Kasserine Catalyst recently received a grant from the European Cultural Foundation and receives donations periodically from community members in Kasserine. Tounsi credits much of this success to his participation in the SUSI program and other Department of State initiatives. “It is now that we are really comfortable with the expertise we have to delve into very serious problems in Tunisia, such as extremism,” Tounsi says on his participation in the SUSI program. “Je veux vraiment remercier le programme qui m’a beaucoup aidé (I really want to thank this program that has helped me tremendously)” he says. “I am very excited to return to Tunisia. I feel a bit different and that I have a perspective that I want to share with everyone back home.”
Dalia Elgharib, an Egyptian student in business administration, likewise feels differently after her participation in the program that she describes as instrumental to the development of her project, Haya. “We have a severe problem with education in Egypt,” she says, “many Egyptian children are illiterate, and our schools are some of the lowest when scored for quality [of] education.” Elgharib attributes this problem to teachers, who in Egypt “are not trained how to interact with kids.”
Elgharib’s project strives to fill this skill gap through an incubation program for teachers that trains them on childhood developmental psychology, leadership, and interactive teaching methods over a 2-3 month period. She named her project Haya, which in Arabic means ‘let’s go,’ to inspire motivation—within herself as well as teachers. Elgharib identifies the largest obstacle to her project as persuading teachers to enroll in the program. Due to a low wage, Elgharib explains, most teachers host private classes to supplement their income, which makes them less likely to attend programs such as Haya. However, as a social entrepreneur, Elgharib recognizes the problem oftentimes encompasses the solution. Teachers compete with one another to attract students to these private tutoring sessions. Elgharib plans to incentivize teachers to enroll in Haya by marketing the program as an opportunity for teachers to draw more students to their private tutoring sessions.
Kherkhache, the Algerian student, took something different from the SUSI program than either Tousni or Elgharib: hope. “Not any country would do this,” she says, funding students to effect societal change in their communities. “I’m really grateful for this chance,” which will help her address a serious problem in her community: food contamination. Algeria lacks stringent food regulations, she explains, which result in high levels of food contamination for people in Algeria, particularly students. Kherkhache conducted a study and found that 235 people in the beginning of 2017 ingested contaminated food provided by their university. Unsure of what food may be contaminated, students are unsure of what is safe to eat.
But they won’t be for much longer. Kherkhache has developed an innovative solution to mitigate students’ ingestion of contaminated foods in the form of her for-profit SUSI project, Otlob Sihhi, which is Arabic for ‘Order Healthy.’ The project offers students a list of restaurants that are close, affordable, and, most importantly, regulated for food contamination. It also contract workers to deliver food from these restaurants via bicycle.
Fatima-Azzahra Benfares from Rabbat, Morocco, says the SUSI program for her is all about meeting other social entrepreneurs from North Africa. “The inspiration you get from the other people here, that is the most important for me,” she shares. According to her, only about a fourth of Moroccan women have jobs, oftentimes as fruit vendors in poor neighborhoods. These women, Benfares states, “are harassed for ten hours a day to get 6-10 dollars.” Not far from these women, students in richer areas would pay ten times that for fresh fruit, Benfares says. Taken together, she sees a unique opportunity to empower these women as entrepreneurs.
She started a franchise named Laymouna that contracts these women to sell their fruit to college students. Last year, Laymouna had its first test run as Benfares and a few entrepreneurs opened a fruit-stand on her university’s campus for a week; they sold-out everyday within four hours. “Believe it or not, people like fruit,” Benfares jokes. But despite its success, running Laymouna is not easy work. “What keeps me going is having an impact on these ladies,” who are able to nearly triple their income through participation in Laymouna, Benfares says. She shares the story of Raddiba, a fruit vendor who, like many others in Morocco, planned to marry a richer man for financial support. This changed soon after she joined Laymouna as an entrepreneur. “two months after working with us, she turned down his marriage proposal,” Benfares shares excitedly, “she feels empowered and wants to break that cycle.” Through the SUSI program Benfares hopes to expand Laymouna and empower more women like Raddiba.
Tousni, Elgharib, Kherkhache, and Benfares left the United States in August, but they continue to benefit from their participation in the SUSI program through the ECA’s International Exchange Alumni Program (https://alumni.state.gov/). This program permits them to apply for a three-year grant to further build the project they developed while at UConn. The impact is huge. GTDI Director Roy Pietro, who has served as the Principal Investigator for the SUSI program since its inception, elaborates, “the SUSI program supports the university’s academic vision of ‘promoting sustainable development and a happy, healthy, and inclusive society both locally and globally, based on intercultural understanding and recognition of the transnational nature of the challenges and opportunities we face.’ Meanwhile, the grant funding has allowed us to provide the SUSI entrepreneurs approximately $85,000 in mini-grants for over 150 social change projects in local communities throughout Africa.” The passion, efforts, and rewards of this year’s SUSI program alumni are sure to change the world, allowing UConn to expand its land grant mission beyond our national borders and young leaders from across Africa to help effect change in their communities.