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The Pontiff Speaks to a Digital Flock

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President Obama has spoken to YouTube stars to get his message out, so why not the head of the Roman Catholic Church? On May 29, Pope Francis met with 11 young YouTube stars in Vatican City, with the goal of advising them on how to use their platforms to become role models for tolerance, empathy, and education. The YouTubers included Matthew Patrick (6.7 million subscribers), Dulce Candy (2.1 million subscribers), and Hayla Ghazal (1.6 million subscribers). In all, they share nearly 30 million subscribers. They came from all around the globe for the meeting, representing the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Australia, Africa, and Israel.

This techno-religio dialogue took place during the sixth Scholas World Congress. The international organization Scholas Occurrentes, which is led by the pope, brings together people in technology, arts, and sports to create a culture of peace. It works with more than 430,000 schools in 190 countries. According to José María del Corral, the organization's president, the purpose of the meeting was to build understanding. "Our main goal in bringing together such a different group of young people, as well as inviting them to continue using their influence in a positive way, is for them to build communities that understand the different perspectives and ideas that exist." The pope, he says, believes that freedom of speech and the multiplicity of opinions online can help build respect for diversity and bring people together.

Streaming Media was curious what this meeting meant for the YouTubers, so we tracked down one of them for an interview. Originally from Syria, Hayla Ghazal now lives in Dubai, where she offers a blend of comedy and beauty videos on her YouTube channel.

"Being there and meeting all the different people from different parts of the world and different religions and seeing all this positive energy and how everyone just loved everyone, that was enough energy to make me come back with a positive mindset," says Ghazal. Through entertainment, she hopes to have an impact on the culture for women in the Middle East and throughout the world. She was previously named a Change Ambassador for gender equality through a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the United Nations and YouTube.

The meeting occurred because the organizers believe YouTube is a powerful platform for sharing messages, she says, and wanted to use it to build understanding among diverse communities. YouTube creators know the value of their platform in creating conversations, and they were happy to use their channels to get the pope's message out.

The actual meeting was the highlight of a 3-day event. After the YouTube creators flew in, they had a workshop with each other where they connected as a group. They also met teens who are part of the Scholas community, hearing their stories. "It was so touching to see how a lot of them were talking about how before joining Scholas, they felt lost, they didn't feel like they belonged anywhere. A lot of them were bullied in school," Ghazal remembers. "They all came in with their own story."

Meeting her fellow creators and talking with Scholas members was as memorable for Ghazal as the papal visit. The journey was all about community. "It was also a great way for all of us to get to know each other much more, and that made us all feel like we had something in common," Ghazal says. “We all obviously want to feel like we belong somewhere, so what are the different things we've all faced before?"

Planning for the Pope Francis meeting was an important part of the event. The YouTubers learned how to behave during the meeting. They also created questions that they would ask him. Each YouTube creator was allowed one question.

“We were all so scared!" Ghazal says. “We were so nervous and excited, it was a roller coaster of emotions for everyone, especially when we were all seated and ready to go and we were just waiting for that announcement or someone to let us know that the pope is coming. Just a mix of emotions, everyone was excited, nervous. We had our questions written in a paper in front of us because we were too scared [we would] forget the questions at the moment we see the pope."

Those nerves also brought the group closer, she remembers. When it came time for the meeting, she needed to play it cool. “We were so nervous, but then we had to pretend like we were fine!" she says.

Given her one chance, Ghazal asked a question about religious tolerance. “It was about how can we promote tolerance and respect and understanding and empathy among all religions considering what we see in the media today," Ghazal says. "His answer was that we all believe in the same God, so we shouldn't see us [as] separated. So that was really, I mean, it was amazing for me. It's the truth! And it was amazing, really."

Meeting with the pope shows what a surprising YouTube journey Ghazal has been on. She first started her YouTube channel because she wanted to be a TV producer, but the Middle East isn't a hospitable place for women in the media. Some don't like females to work in media, she says, because they perceive the industry as impure. She turned to YouTube as an alternative because she was denied work she feels passionate about.

At first, Ghazal didn't know what she wanted to talk about on YouTube, but simply speaking on-camera was important to her. In the beginning, she spoke about fashion and beauty. She didn't love these topics but did love being on camera.

As Ghazal evolved her channel, she learned what mattered most to her.

"Recently, I found what I want to do on my channel, and it's really just to spread the message  of positivity," Ghazal says. “As you see your channel grow, you know you have [a] responsibility to have a strong message in every video. So my channel is basically focused on using comedy to highlight things and habits that are present in our society, and to change them, and social change is already happening. I highlight a lot of things like girl empowerment."

Comedy is the best method of communication for Ghazal. It's important to speak a language people understand, she says. By wrapping a message in humor, she finds viewers are more receptive. Even when her point is critical, people are accepting.

"They laugh because I'm using comedy, but they know this means there is something that needs to change. And so this is really how I've been using my channel to kind of lead the social change," Ghazal says. "By having this opportunity, it's really to shed some light on a lot of the things that people maybe just need a reminder of. We all know that we all believe in the same God, but then do we remember that? You know what I mean? It was amazing to use that, to have this experience, and also to share a message, something as a reminder for all of us to just remember we should love each other, spread positivity. It's not about competing against each other; it's not about hating each other. So really just spreading positivity."

For Ghazal, the papal visit came along at the right time. She'd been feeling pressured in her work and needed something to revive her. Meeting her fellow creators and joining in that community was a powerful tonic. It gave her a burst of energy and enthusiasm for the power of YouTube. The people around Ghazal in Dubai don't really get her YouTube career. While her family's friends know that she has a channel, they aren't aware of the opportunities that come to a successful channel creator. They certainly don't think of it as a career.

"I remember when I graduated from university, I'm meeting up with a lot of my family friends. They were like, 'You know, we hope you find a job soon, now that you've graduated from university.' And it was funny because they know that I have the YouTube channel, but then they don't see that as something that actually is a career, something that you get income from. So at the same time, having the opportunity with the pope was something people didn't understand. They were like, 'Wait, what? Did you get that opportunity from your YouTube channel?'"

She did, and despite their religious and cultural differences, she found real inspiration in the pope's words. Through her channel, she's been able to share that inspiration with others, and, hopefully, make the world a little more kind.

"It was really an amazing, exceptional experience, and I definitely would not forget any bit of it," Ghazal says. “It was amazing. I came back to Dubai with so much positive energy and so much love."

The pope's words found a home with 11 YouTube creators and, through them, reached several million more.

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