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Life on the Edge: Hassan and the Graduates
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Life on the Edge: Hassan and the Graduates
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Hassan has a degree in business, but he doesn't commute to an office every day. His place of work is a farm 200 kilometers from Cairo. And it isn't even land in the fertile Nile Delta. Strangely, it seems, Hassan has chosen to farm in the desert.
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Segment 1

VOICEOVER
Hassan is giving orders again. He’s telling the hired hand how to lay the irrigation pipes. Hag Saad has worked in agriculture all his life, like his family before him. But Hassan? Well, he is a little new to all this.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
I can’t say I’m a farmer. Originally I was not a farmer. Farmers have experience I just don’t have.
VOICEOVER
Hassan’s no weekend farmer, no city boy turned landowner. He’s one of a new breed. His story is the solution to one of globalization’s greatest dilemmas. Or is it?
TITLE
Hassan and the Graduates
VOICEOVER
Back home, you might think Hassan was a simple man. He lives with his new wife and children in a modest two-room home. Yet he lives a life that his old friends might envy. When he goes back to his place in the city, well, he likes to show off a little.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
My neighbors back there in the city envy me and can only dream of what I have now. I took some apricots from here and gave them to my neighbors. They asked me where I got them. I told them from my land in the desert. They wanted to get land too but now they can’t because it is very expensive. So they can only dream of having land.
VOICEOVER
Hassan is a university graduate. His degree is in business. But he doesn’t commute to an office every day. His place of work is a farm 200 kilometers from Cairo. And it isn’t even land in the fertile Nile Delta. Strangely, it seems, Hassan has chosen to farm in the desert. And he doesn’t always get it quite right.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
I know I’m late planting but there is nothing I can do. Actually there are some benefits in delaying. When you plough the field, it is exposed to sunshine, which sterilizes the soil and kills fungus and bad microbes.
VOICEOVER
The next morning, a bus ride. Today Hassan is being trained in the most basic art of all round here: irrigation. The instructor talks about conserving water, of vital importance in a country that’s almost all desert.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
I have been flooding the whole field, but today I learned how to give water to just the green areas. So while usually I give several liters per acre, here they told us to water according to the size of the green area and the size of the plants.
VOICEOVER
Hassan lives in Al Yashaa, in what looks like a normal village. But take a closer look. These are not the farmers they appear to be. The truth is, it’s not just Hassan. Almost all the men and many of the women in the village are graduates. And it’s not just here. Throughout the desert east and west of Cairo dozens of villages are made up of thousands of graduates who’ve come to farm. Many without any farming experience at all.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
We had no idea what we were doing. Any little problem became a puzzle for us.
VOICEOVER
Desert? Without electricity or water? No idea of how to farm? What are Hassan and the graduates doing here? Cairo is where Hassan came from. Few capital cities better represent the modern globalized metropolis. Its cafes are teeming with young people. They make up a massive percentage of Cairo’s population, as they now do throughout the Middle East, where two in three people are under the age of 25. In Egypt, many are the newly educated children of poor families, pouring out of universities and vocational schools.
DINA EL MOFTY [INJAZ Education Organization]
Hundreds of thousands are graduating every year from the education system and from vocational schools, and over seven hundred thousand jobs have to be created every year to meet the intake of these graduates.
VOICEOVER
Young people, like twenty-five-year-old Tareq, are the people in danger of being seen as liabilities by the government.
TAREQ NABIL
What I earn now is barely enough to meet my minimal personal needs. I can’t begin to think about taking steps like marriage, or moving into my own apartment, not at all.
VOICEOVER
Tareq’s plight could have been Hassan’s. He is, in fact, a land surveyor. But after years of trying to find work, he now takes whatever low paid job he can find. His fate, the one Hassan avoided.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
I had a good salary, a comfortable job. But when China started to export things to Egypt our industry became less competitive and my income started to decrease once again. So I began to think maybe agriculture was a better option for me than business.
VOICEOVER
It was 20 years ago in Cairo that Hassan’s life changed. He was just reading a newspaper.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
A national newspaper announced that the government was trying to solve the unemployment problem for young graduates and there were several options. One was to take out a government loan and start a business; another was to get a car. But I didn’t like the loan or the car. I preferred the third option: to buy some cheap farmland that you repaid over thirty years.
VOICEOVER
And so today Hassan in his fields is the product of a remarkable and largely unnoticed historic experiment. A whole colony of graduates like him, nearly 40,000 over two decades, have headed into the Egyptian desert. Here they became farmers and put behind them the notion of a government job.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
When I took possession of the land, I drove my wife to the spot. My wife looked out of the window from the car and said, “Where is the land? I can only see the sky connected to the desert.” I said, “This is it.” Well, she refused to even get out of the car!
MAN 1 [School headmaster]
Before the school was built, it was just desert. There wasn’t any life here. It was an empty place. After the graduates came, life blossomed. Today the students come to the school and make friendships, all the parents know each other too, and the village has become strong.
VOICEOVER
Hassan has had some financial success selling his apricots and mangos. Now he wants to plant these grape vines. He’s waiting for a tractor to arrive to dig trenches.
ABDELHAMID ABDOULI [International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)]
There have also been improvements to livestock. People now have milk for their children and they can sell the surplus. All of these things generated economic growth in the desert communities.
VOICEOVER
Despite these successes, the government has decided not to renew its long-sighted experiment on helping graduates back to the land. That is unless they have agriculture degrees and are willing to join forces with larger investors. So this fairy tale is over, at least for most new entrants.
MOHAMED GOMAA [Head of Land Reclamation, Ministry of Agriculture]
What we found was that out of all those graduates who were lucky enough to get the land, those who had agricultural backgrounds were more successful as farmers than the others. What we plan in the future is to make sure that all graduates who take part have a background in agriculture.
VOICEOVER
Some may say that’s a pity. At last Hassan is starting to get the hang of things. Especially now the long promised tractor finally arrived. In a village where eight in ten are graduates, this social experiment has amounted to a successful community.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
Living in this village with the graduates is special. We were almost all the same age when we received the land. The graduates who stayed faced the same problems and when they had difficulties, they supported each other. So now it’s like a big family here.
VOICEOVER
All of this activity only makes Hassan’s decision to give up a career in business and toil in the desert sound that much smarter. Even so, Hassan still doesn’t call himself a farmer.
HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN
I cannot say I am a farmer. Farmers have experience on the land. I don’t have that. My experience mainly comes from the training I have had, so now I can help other people too.
VOICEOVER
Maybe the government never intended it quite this way. But it seems Hassan and the graduates may have got lucky after all. They’ve made money on their investment and helped others too. As for the millions of other graduates who can’t find stable jobs in the global economy, they may yet have to wait for their own fairy tale.