Lebanese social entrepreneur in Forbes 30 Under 30

Minkara founded Empowerment Through Integration to support visually impaired children.

Image used for illustrative purpose. Dealers trade on the Lebanese stock market in Bemo Bank in Beirut May 23, 2008.

Image used for illustrative purpose. Dealers trade on the Lebanese stock market in Bemo Bank in Beirut May 23, 2008.

REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi

21 January 2017

BEIRUT: Sara Minkara explained that her life took an unexpected turn in 2011 when she turned a university project into a social organization that led to her being included in Forbes magazine’s 2017 30 Under 30, social entrepreneurs list. The 27-year-old was born and raised in the United States by Lebanese parents from Tripoli.

Minkara founded Empowerment Through Integration to support visually impaired children. She herself is legally blind.

Minkara is one of three Lebanese nationals listed in this year’s Forbes magazine 30 Under 30. She was recognized for her social projects in Lebanon in the social enterprise section, a sector-specific subset category of the magazine’s much-coveted list of young innovators.

The list was announced on Jan. 3.

“When I was seven I lost my vision and at that time, as a blind kid, there were technical challenges,” Minkara, who was born in the suburbs of D.C. and raised in Boston, told The Daily Star.

“But because I had a support system from my parents, my teachers and community, I was able to pursue a very integrated life and pursue my dreams. I never thought because I was blind I couldn’t do anything.”

The Minkara family was keen on maintaining connections to their roots and regularly visited Lebanon’s Tripoli in the summers.

The trips for Minkara posed a challenge, but gave her an insight into the difficulties that people with disabilities face in Lebanon.

“That’s when I thought that my blindness was something wrong because of a stigma, a narrative and how society perceives someone with a disability [in Lebanon]. I thought I was a burden on society,” she said, talking about her visits. “You hear the words like ‘Allah Yshfeke’ [May God heal you] or ‘ya haram’ [expressing pity], but those are the basics,” Minkara said.

She explained how there is often no support from Lebanese society for those with disabilities, and how many doubt whether people with disabilities can finish their education or even get married.

She said she was resolute to not allow this to have an impact on her – mainly because she was confident, and wasn’t living in this environment full time.

“There are things that make you feel like you have no potential, that you can do nothing and that you have no value,” Minkara said. “And I used to think that if I heard this every day of my life then I wouldn’t have been able to pursue what I did.”

Founding ETI came as a response to the stigma and misconceptions that Minkara sees surrounding visually impaired people.

Having majored in mathematics and economics at the Wellesley College, Massachusetts, Minkara finished her graduate degree in public policy at the nearby Harvard Kennedy School.

During her sophomore year in 2009, Minkara traveled to Lebanon as part of a college project, where she established a one-month summer camp in Tripoli bringing 39 sighted and visually impaired children together.

Since then, she has taken on a mission to tackle the stigma and other negative ideas around blindness and visual impairment.

“I had no plans ever to start a nonprofit, but then I did this project one summer with a friend where we brought together blind and sighted kids and focused on integration,” Minkara said.

“And I saw the value of this and how it impacted the kids from both ends, this is when I felt that this is where my heart lies and this is how ETI got founded, from one project.”

The importance of ETI is that it focuses on the concept of bringing visually impaired and sighted people together, she said.

Minkara also highlighted the need to combat the “charity narrative” that surrounds disability, and the idea that people with certain conditions have no potential. ETIaddresses this through a series of programs that focus on both the empowerment and integration of children, and on how they can lead their lives despite their disabilities.

The organization offers a Life Skill Program, Camp Rafiqi and a Social Project Program. The overall programs target children between seven and 18 years of age.

In the Life Skill Program, visually impaired children are taught how to use tools and how to carry out routine tasks in order to be more independent. At Camp Rafiqi, which is usually a two-week summer program, visually impaired and sighted children are brought together at a recreational camp, while the Social Project Program requires the children to carry out a community service project.

ETI also offers seminars to keep parents involved.

“The ultimate and big mission is to change the narrative surrounding disability, from a charity perspective to a value-based perceptive, and getting society at large to believe that there is value in the including everyone, the person with the disability and the person without a disability,” Minkara said.

“The person with a disability and someone that is blind and visually impaired, because of the existing narrative, a lot of them feel like they don’t have value. So we need to address the stigma on their level and then we need to address it on the society level, and get society to believe that you are actually losing a lot by not integrating people with disability.”

Making it to the Forbes list will allow the ETI team to better reach their goals, an optimistic Minkara added. “It has been a blessing for ETI,” she said. “I think it will open a lot of doors.”

© Copyright The Daily Star 2017.