Monday, May 14, 2007


What I said to the expats - almost

Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you for this opportunity to brief you on the Massar project.  My name is Robin Cole-Hamilton, Director of Massar.  I will be speaking in English, which I hope will not be too much of an inconvenience.  Printed copies of this speech translated into Arabic are available.

In a process of large-scale change such as Syria is undertaking, there are many components that have to work together.  Strategies, structures and systems all have to be put in place.  When change is a national process, such things are usually the responsibility of government.

However, strategies, structures and systems are not by themselves enough to make change happen, to make it succeed and to make it sustainable.  For this other things are needed, which recognise that change depends on human, social and cultural factors.  Programmes are needed that develop new outlooks and capabilities, that enable people not just to survive change, but to thrive in it and take advantage of it.  Investment has to be made in human capital – which I need hardly tell you has for decades been one of Syria’s most significant exports.

Government will be involved in these areas too, most notably in the shape of formal education.  But it is an area where non-governmental organisations can and do play an important role.

It is here that Massar exists.  Massar is a Syrian non-governmental, not-for-profit initiative.  It forms part of the Syria Trust for Development under the patronage of Her Excellency Mrs Al Assad.  The aim of Massar is to engage young people in Syria between the ages of 5 and 15 – all six million of them – in new ways of thinking.  To equip them with learning skills, abilities and insights that will be a resource for life.  It will encourage young people to be creative, to think critically, to be involved in society and to take responsibility for building the future.  In a broad sense Massar is a citizenship project, investing in and empowering Syria’s richest natural resource – its young people.

To do this Massar is creating a range of non-formal learning experiences, through which young people can travel at their own pace and in their own way.  They can learn about themselves and the worlds they live in – the natural and physical world, societies and cultures, the world of technology and products. These learning journeys are designed to be hands-on, fun, and social.  They are all knowledge-based – one cannot gain understanding without knowledge – but the journeys of exploration within Massar always lead to issues, choices and implications.  For example, the subject of genetically-modified food might start from knowledge about DNA, but in Massar young people might also explore and discuss crops and farming, the global food industry, diet and health, advertising, environmental impact and much more.  Massar will be a source of answers, but its more important function is to stimulate questions and the desire to find out.

To reach six million people across the whole country – this is a genuinely national project, accessible to all – is a challenge that we can only meet by using a variety of delivery channels.  So Massar will consist of: a website that launches in September this year, a major discovery centre in Damascus which will open in 2010, smaller centres in every governorate – the first opens in Lattakia in July this year – television programmes, publications and learning products.  We will use national and local papers and magazines to reach audiences as well. 

And we started this whole national initiative by creating a package of activities that could tour the country.  In under two years we have toured to 49 venues across the length and breadth of Syria, and over 53,000 young people have attended.  1.5% of them have been special needs groups.  Younger children get a show about the senses, storytelling and an “archaeological dig”.  Teenagers engage in a debate about human rights and issues that matter to them, and working in teams they put together a short video clip and a newspaper front page.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive from the young people themselves, parents and teachers.  There are many stories of children suddenly made aware of the history that can lie beneath their feet and keen to explore it.  For the teenagers, this is often the first time they have had the chance to have a serious discussion about the world they will soon enter as adults.  To quote one young boy: “I wish my parents could have been here to see that I have opinions”. Parents find their children energised and enquiring.  One mother who had brought two of her children one morning was so keen to bring the third in the evening that she made her husband close his shop in order to mind the other children. Teachers ask how they too can acquire the ability to animate and control a group of children that our facilitators – the Green Team – possess.

I should note here that although Massar is non-governmental, it is working closely with the Ministry of Education to ensure that our content and that of the new curriculum are not disconnected, and to develop formal and non-formal learning collaboratively.

In Lattakia this summer we will open the first regional centre with an interactive exhibition about music.  This will cover the science of sound, Syria’s musical tradition, instruments, recording and the music industry.  Visitors will be able to make and record their own piece of music – a ringtone perhaps, or something more serious.  Again, it’s engaging and fun, but with a serious purpose.

The website which launches its first phase in September is intended as a discussion forum, a place where projects can be shown, a source of ideas, knowledge and links to other good websites.  As a place to meet and chat, I hope it will welcome young people from around the world, and build links between young Syrians here and elsewhere.

This leads me to the discovery centre in Damascus, sitting within a redevelopment of the Old International Fairground site.  Those of you who have visited a science centre in your home countries will have an idea of what the centre will be like, but Massar’s subject matter will be much wider than science.  The centre will be full of hands-on exhibits dealing with a wide range of subjects, from Syria’s cultural heritage to space exploration, from computing to glass-blowing, from animated cartoons to anthills.  There will also be demonstration and experiment laboratories, a television studio, debating chambers, internet facilities, a library, theatre spaces, crafts and new media workshops.  It will be a hive of activity.  Designed to welcome booked school groups in the mornings and families in the afternoons, evenings and weekends, the centre will have the capacity for 500,000 people a year. 

We now have the first designs for the discovery centre building and the 16-hectare public park that will surround it.  The architects, selected through international competition, are Danish and have shown a rare sensitivity to Syria’s architectural heritage, the position and context of the site, and the richness of local materials, building techniques and crafts.  Their design takes as its inspiration the Damascus rose, and creates a building which is planted on a solid base, using the black and white stone that is such a strong visual reference point here.  Above this base, the “petals” open out to create a flowing sequence of spaces, routes and views, all clad in light surfaces, possibly punctured to produce shafts of light, possibly covered in shimmering mosaic, possibly latticed.

Unconventional though it may look, the building has been plotted against a very strong functional brief, recognising that above all a discovery centre of this sort has to work inside for its visitors and for its staff.  This cannot be just a piece of trophy architecture.

This building is not massive; it occupies less than 8% of the total site, but its visual presence is extremely distinctive and strong.  It will also make a significant environmental statement.  It will use natural heating and cooling techniques, recycle its water, and incorporate a variety of alternative power sources.  The building itself will be very much part of the Massar message, and it will be world-class in its concept and implementation.

The park around it will be landscaped to provide a public space for all.  Below ground will be a large new car park. There will be restaurants and cafes. The importance of the site’s two rivers will be re-emphasised.  Links will be formed with the university campus to the south, the opera house to the west, and the national museum to the east.  What will emerge will be a new cultural strip running from Omayyad Square to the Old City.

Around the world, nations are investing in projects such as this for purely economic reasons: discovery centres enrich the offering to tourists; strengthen the case for inward investment and company relocation; create new businesses; and stimulate the local economy.  But I would like to think that this scheme can also contribute to Syria something more valuable – in terms of the development of human capital – and less tangible – in terms of an enhanced quality of life and sense of common identity.

Throughout the whole Massar project, the aim is to create something that not only looks and feels truly Syrian, but builds local capacity so that from 2010 onwards Syria can take the project onwards without depending on outsiders like me.  Local architects, engineers and designers will be involved in all aspect of the project, but in some cases we are looking for more than the local market can deliver.  From web design to project management; from activity evaluation to exhibit manufacture, Massar is introducing a range of professional disciplines that are relatively rare or non-existent in Syria.  In some cases we can and will train people from scratch.  In other cases, these skills may exist within the Syrian community overseas.  We will be publishing lists of specific skills we are seeking, and I hope that I can look to the expatriate community to spread the word, and help us find the best Syrian people wherever they are.

Ladies and gentlemen, this project is not just an idea.  It is happening.  I need hardly tell you that this it will cost a lot of money to complete.  The discovery centre is estimated at $35 million for the building work alone – at Syrian prices.  It is conventional, in a speech like this, about a project like this, to an audience like this, to ask for commitments of financial support.  I don’t intend to do that, though of course they will be very welcome.

Today I will only say that I believe the Massar project represents a milestone on Syria’s journey from its rich past towards its future.  Those associated with it will have done something important for this country’s young people.  Within the discovery centre and on the Massar website we will be honouring those individuals and trusts who have made significant financial contributions, and I can say that the name of one person at this conference is already on that list.  Should the expatriates decide to support Massar, I believe it will send out the strongest possible signal of their commitment to this nation’s future, and express vividly the common bond that unites Syrians worldwide.

Thank you.


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