UNITED NATIONS -- The young delegates filed into the UN General Assembly hall with the world's weightiest issues on their minds: poverty, peace, climate change, health care and gender equality, among others.
East Meadow native Ayyan Zubair, also known as Delegate 179, said he knew instantly when he arrived Wednesday at the three-day conference, called Youth Assembly at the United Nations, that he had found his mission.
"It's just fascinating," said Zubair, an East Meadow High School graduate who is headed to Stony Brook University to major in biomedical engineering and economics in the fall.
He said he was energized by the exchange of ideas by hundreds of young people ranging in age from 16 to 28 from all over the world. The conference, in its 14th year, focused on picking up where the UN's poverty-eradicating Millennium Development Goals -- a 15-year global project that expires at the end of the year -- will leave off.
Zubair may be something of a diplomatic prodigy. At only 18, he has formed Pakistanis 4 Social Change through his mosque at the Long Island Muslim Society in East Meadow, and he is also launching a nongovernmental organization, Hugs for Pakistan, dedicated to fighting illiteracy and empowering women, girls and youth.
"One day I hope to make a real difference in Pakistan," he said.
Other delegates and participants said the event helped convince them that they could all have an impact on the world.
"If I could put it in two words, it would be 'youth empowerment,' " said Benjamin J. Schafer, 18, of Buffalo, who plans to major in government when he enters Harvard in the fall. "Having the tenacity to go out and follow your dreams and realize that you can make a difference and you're not too small to do that."
Hadia Sheerazi, of Forest Hills, a graduate of St. John's University and graduate student at Columbia's Earth Institute, also attended a UN Youth Assembly in February.
"Now we've taken on the challenge of the next 15 years of the Sustainable Development Goals," she said. "It's so important for us as young people not only to pay attention to what's happening but to also be involved . . . I think, for me, the most interesting experience was to see the other side of what I'm usually told. You're usually told the UN is too much bureaucracy, it's too big, it's a failed experiment."
Since 2002, the Youth Assembly conference has been organized by the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation, a Greenwich, Connecticut, nonprofit group that describes itself as an "organization that promotes reconciliation, and peace-building through cultural exchange."
The delegates get to mingle with real diplomats, such as the ambassadors from missions to the UN, or the representatives of UN agencies, such as UNICEF and UNESCO.
Zubair said that despite the locale, an ornate chamber that hosts the world's most critical decision-makers, the young delegates display a humility that he finds comforting.
"Everyone here is interested in pursuing a career in diplomacy or something to do with helping people," he said of the participants. "And no one thinks they're better than anyone else. Everyone thinks that they can help."