Reaching for the seemingly unreachable, a group of youth with their eyes set on the future decided to harness the power of art to reshape and influence the community. Helm Elnoor (The Dream of Light), launched in 2012, is an art initiative under the auspices of the Middle East Foundation for Research and Development (MEFRD), an NGO registered at the Ministry of Solidarity. The idea is the brainchild of Essam Fayez, the director of the Media and Arts department at MEFRD, along with a group of friends who volunteered in the art training camps he conducted. The initiative advocates maturity, ownership of decision, hard work and cooperation to fulfil one’s dream, and helps others to attain theirs by collaborating to bring about positive, influential transformation.
“In 2012, it was a difficult time, the country was passing through serious political changes, and the strenuous, enthusiastic, youthful spirit prevailed. But there was also a spirit of public frustration. We decided that at this dark time, we are in most need of light,” Fayez says.
Fayez and his friends utilized their skills and connections to design a program that would graduate unique artists in various art fields. Today, Helm Elnoor has created a longer program that, not only discovers talented youth, but helps them develop on the artistic, social and psychological level so they are equipped to succeed locally and internationally.
Helm Elnoor’s team is a diverse pool of geographically-spread volunteers from different age groups and backgrounds. “They are all dreamers . . . [have] goals for their lives, and are trying to achieve them, who accept challenges on any level and face them. That was the most important condition,” says Fayez, who himself has overcome challenges to follow his dream. Fayez graduated from the Faculty of Commerce, but went on to train as a director, actor and acting trainer, holding workshops across Egypt and in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, Helm Elnoor is quick to reassure trainees that becoming an artist does not mean leaving their lives behind and neglecting their studies. Instead, they encourage studying and art side by side, assuring that even if one does not eventually choose to be a full-time artist, serving the local and global community through another profession is as commendable.
The team spent the first six months preparing themselves and seeking the counsel of experts in multiple art fields; including conductor Nayer Nagui, novelist Sahar Elmougy and influential civil society figure Yasser Gerab, director of Rawab Theatre at the Townhouse Gallery.
At first glance, Helm Elnoor may resemble many other nonprofit art initiative and training programs in Egypt and the region. “I would like to believe that we are not different, but complementary. We support others working in the field and focus on the human aspect. . . . We have two pillars for the initiative: one is art training, the other is personality development, which was the basis for the program’s design,” Fayez explains.
A dream is born
Helm Elnoor program started in October 2015 and was implemented in three phases. First was the Art Camp held in Alexandria, training 64 participants in nine different art fields under the supervision of renowned professionals including Nagui, Maggie Morgan, Reda Shawky and Mariam Naoum, among others. Phase two was comprised of workshops where trainees dealt with real-life situations and gained hands-on experience. The outcomes of these workshops were presented in two graduation celebrations in March 2016, attended by the families and friends of the youth, trainers and public and media figures.
An initial challenge was to bring all the busy trainers together and constantly motivate them by keeping the vision clear. They generously sacrificed their time, “which equals money, to invest in a group of youth. . . . This was exhausting, and we could not get them to meet; we had 13 principal trainers and others assisting them. It never happened.” Bigger sacrifices were made to meet the trainers individually according to their schedules. Fayez recalls meeting with some starting midnight to 3am, whereas others preferred to meet at 7am before they went to work. Working with volunteers, who are not full-timers, was another stretch, having to tailor schedules to suit their availability while maintaining the balance of responsibilities and roles.
Unlike many other initiatives, Helm Elnoor does not offer a free training program. According to Fayez, trainees need to feel they shared the cost and at the same time find it affordable. Additionally, the dream’s success necessitates visibility in order to produce viable social transformation by connecting with the community. The Helm Elnoor team communicated with governmental offices and entities in the governorates, not for funding, but to urge trainees to collaborate with them.
“Although it took us four months to issue permits from the Ministry of Education to hold events in schools in one governorate, we persisted in cooperating with the ministry, knowing that the security condition was difficult. Later, they realized we were serious about it, they started encouraging us to continue. We insisted on holding an event at the cultural palace of Assiut by cooperating with the governorate office. In Minya, we held our opening ceremony at the Minya Theatre,” Fayez says.
The community day and ceremonies held in governorates ahead of the camp aimed at launching the initiative and spreading the word. In addition to social media, the organization distributed leaflets at libraries and cafes, and posters in the streets and art centres to reach youth outside the centralized capital.
In Assiut, the group obtained the approval of the governorate’s office and set off to paint graffiti in the streets, covering five neighborhoods where 90 percent of the volunteers were local youth who are not part of the team. Three years later, the drawings are still gleaming on the walls. One of them was very special because it was painted on the wall of a landfill. The youth in the area found the team and the volunteers drawing in an area nearby and were excited about a similar work of art to beautify their area. Upon their request, the team moved to paint and craft graffiti drawings after the local youth had cleared the garbage.
The power of networking
Knowing that the NGO does not allocate much funds for art activities, since they are more concerned with societal projects, the team resorted to more creative ways to raise money, sharpening their communication and networking skills. They shared the vision with like-minded trainers and company owners. Trainers, who require a fortune to recruit, decided to volunteer. Company owners, surprisingly, did not pursue publicity as sponsors; they generously provided funding or tools to save money and cut cost. One company, for instance, specialized in creating websites, designed and launched the website free of charge. Another company supported financially by paying the team’s debts. They also reached out to the Ministry of Youth to request a place for one of the events at discounted rates. The team members themselves continue to contribute from their own salaries, or their allowance if they are students, and everyone has the option of a monthly commitment to contribute with “a seed.”
“People’s lives have changed. It was a surprise for me to see the trainers’ lives change. They said they felt something was different. Although the trainees’ artistic level was modest, trainers wanted to give their best, their time, they wouldn’t rest. Trainers chose to join trainees and share their food although they were offered special meals in a space dedicated for them. They would spend the whole day with the trainees and go to their rooms at bedtime only,” says Fayez of the positive spirit among the group.
Donia El-fares, a graduate of the program, is a senior at the Drama and Theater Department at Ain Shams University. She has attended many art camps, but Helm Elnoor’s was one of a kind, she says, describing how after filling in a long, detailed application and going through two interviews—technical and interpersonal to explore her background, knowledge, personal qualities, experience and ambitions—she was finally enrolled in the program, despite having very little background knowledge in film directing.
Participants were divided into groups and over the course of seven days received team-building training in the form of games and focus groups (approximately 10 hours of training per day). They enhanced their communication and interpersonal skills through interaction with one another, discussing the lessons learned on a daily basis and maintaining rapport with their trainers.
El-fares was exposed to the theoretical and also practical side of directing. Her trainers gave her a comprehensive idea of directing and what the process entails. A post-camp 10-day workshop saw teams working collaboratively, each participant in their own area of expertise, on their graduation projects. Helm Elnoor helped the team put what they learned into practice by providing equipment, tools or materials, and even transportation.
After graduation, El-fares worked with film director Tamer Adly, participating in six short films. She is now seeking opportunities to join big productions and considers herself ready to face the challenges. “I can now do it on my own, from A to Z with the right team,” she says confidently.
Helm Elnoor’s graduates also worked on a support network (which they named “Daie,” another word for light) to support each other and work on joint projects. At press time they were also preparing for their first video clip.
For Fayez, honest evaluation is the best way to ensure both success and continuity. “We evaluated the previous program, and I think this is a point of strength that we can evaluate, reasonably self-evaluate, from different points of view and different groups; we listen to trainees, trainers and ourselves. We are happy with the results, but we need to pay attention to the shortcomings,” says Fayez who admits there have been challenges along the way.
“Helm Elnoor is a tool, so we do not glorify it to the extent that we cannot stop the initiative after two years, for example. We can stop Helm Elnoor if the vision is in people’s hearts. Helm Elnoor is not a program that we keep developing and growing or even worship. We can do something different, start a new initiative; the youth themselves began something new, but the idea remains... We hope that the upcoming program involves people from the Arab nation...When we first established Helm Elnoor, we did not want it to be a local program, but a program that could serve the Arab region.”