In the side streets in cities and towns you find them – street lamps casting pools of light in the night on young men, sitting, standing, smoking. Perhaps there are more smartphones alongside the cigarette packs, but otherwise the scene has changed little in the 32 years I have been in the Middle East.

Some have been able to get off the street corner and can be found sitting in the Internet cafés staring at the bluish light of their monitor screens chatting through Facebook and Google.

Whether it’s light coming from outside on the street corner or in the cafes, two things have changed radically for today’s youth in the Middle East: the numbers and the needs.

First, the numbers. There are more youth in the Middle East than ever before, and a higher percentage of them in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world. This is the youngest place on earth. Unparalleled resource? Or unparalleled threat?

Second, the needs. Four years ago it was estimated that 100 million jobs would be required in the next decade for these young people to become employed, not to be left standing on street and peering into brightly lit windows where those who have incomes have opportunities to find better jobs, get better information, stay connected and move ahead.

One other major thing has changed around this picture: war and civil strife. I have lived in Beirut, Aleppo, Damascus and Amman, and the devastation of Syria and the effects on that country and its neighbours numbs my mind and tears at my emotions.

It’s almost an impossible dream to create 100 million jobs. Now with infrastructure destroyed, education disrupted, lives snuffed out – even the small pools of light are gone. There is little left except to stand in the dark and talk. But this time, no jokes.

How will young people find their way back to pools of light that beckon them towards a future? For sure, they are the unparalleled resource. We are the threat. Can we change?  If we can, we will have to think and act differently than we did when this crisis started.

Author: Curt Rhodes is Founder and International Director of Questscope. He is a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year for MENA 2011.

A group of boys sitting by the side of the road REUTERS/Nour Kelze