Headquarters Staff

Simona Ceci : Co-President

Simona Ceci


Simona Ceci has served as Co-President of the Near East Foundation (NEF) since 2022, providing overall leadership for NEF in partnership with her colleague John Ashby. Simona joined NEF in 2013, and prior to rising to Co-President served as Senior Vice President of Global Operations. She has an extensive and diverse background in international operations management, government relations and legal affairs, holding key roles in the public and private sector before joining NEF. This experience combined with her time spent living and working in the field has contributed to supporting NEF’s growth over the past decade, including leading NEF’s expansion into new geographies (i.e., Syria, Iraq, South Sudan) and supporting the design and operationalization of innovative programs in complex settings. And while Simona takes great pride in her work, she considers her highest achievement being the proud mother of her two children.

John Ashby : Co-President

John Ashby


John Ashby has served as Co-President of the Near East foundation (NEF) since 2022, providing overall leadership for NEF in partnership with his colleague Simona Ceci. Mr. Ashby joined NEF in 2012, and prior to rising to Co-President served as Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. His leadership in finance, organizational development, and strategic planning helped to shepherd NEF into a period of strategic growth and a position of long-term financial sustainability. Prior to joining NEF, Mr. Ashby worked in the private sector where he held leadership positions in business development and finance for an international manufacturing company with headquarters in Central New York, and as Managing Director for a privately held company in Bristol, England. He holds an MBA from SUNY Oswego, a CAS in Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, and a BSME from the Rochester Institute of Technology. John resides in Syracuse, NY and cherishes time and adventures with his wife and two adult-aged children.

Rabih Yazbeck : Vice President of Programs

Rabih Yazbeck

Vice President of Programs

Rabih has over 25 years of international development experience in the Middle East, Africa, and Caucasus with expertise in program design, strategic planning, donor engagement, revenue and resource mobilization, learning capture and program management in complex and fragile settings. Prior to rejoining NEF in 2012, he worked for NEF's Regional Offices in Cairo and Amman, where he worked on multi-million dollar social and economic development programs in six countries in the Middle East. Rabih also was the Executive Director of HCI Middle East region where he was responsible for developing and managing over 70 innovative, quick-impact interventions to address socio-economic issues in post-conflict zones. Rabih holds a B.Sc. in civil engineering with specialization in public work from the Lebanese University; a M.Sc. in IT for E-commerce with focus on rural development from Sussex University, UK; and, a M.A. in Social Entrepreneurship from Goldsmiths University of London. A native of Lebanon, he is now based in London.

Justin Pritchard : Associate Vice President of Finance

Justin Pritchard

Associate Vice President of Finance

Justin oversees the accounting functions of the organization by monitoring and assessing the internal controls of the Foundation. In his role he supports the Chief Financial Officer in implementing effective accounting systems and processes as well as helping in facilitating policy formulation to enhance financial integrity for the organization at the global level. Prior to joining the Near East Foundation, Justin worked as a Senior Auditor at Dannible & McKee and as an Audit Associate at Fust Charles Chambers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Accounting and a Master in Business Administration from the State of New York College at Oswego, School of Business. Justin is a Certified Public Accountant and a Member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and of the New York State Society of Public Accountants.

Lezlie Blaski : Director Human Resources

Lezlie Blaski

Director Human Resources

Lezlie oversees NEF's US and international-based human resources to ensure the its organizational capabilities continue to support a diverse workforce capable of meeting the evolving needs of the organization. She has more than 20 years of experience in human resources management, strategic planning and organizational development across public, private and non-profit sectors. Lezlie holds a bachelor's degree in organizational leadership and received an MBA, specializing in entrepreneurship, from the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. Lezlie is a Certified Senior Professional in Human Resources.

Jennifer Abdella : Director of Climate Resilient Development

Jennifer Abdella

Director of Climate Resilient Development

Ms. Abdella provides strategic and technical leadership in global strategy development, program design, and partnership building related to climate change, the environment, sustainable agriculture and natural resources management. Prior to joining NEF in 2014, Ms. Abdella practiced environmental law with the Washington D.C. based firm Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., where she worked with US- and internationally-based private sector and local government clients.  She holds a JD from Vermont Law School, an MS in resource ecology and management from the University of Michigan, and a BS in environmental policy and planning from the University of Michigan.

Jennica Bramble : Director of Grants and Contracts

Jennica Bramble

Director of Grants and Contracts

Jennica has over a decade of experience working in the international development and nonprofit sectors. In her current position, she provides guidance and expertise in grants and contracts management for NEF's diverse portfolio of projects. Prior to joining NEF, she held various roles in compliance, program implementation, and policy development for USAID in Washington, DC and offices overseas. Jennica holds an MPA from New York University and a BA in International Studies from American University.

Jami Fancher : Director of Partnerships and Philanthropy

Jami Fancher

Director of Partnerships and Philanthropy

Jami manages donor engagement with individuals, foundations and companies looking to make a lasting impact on the Near East Foundation's beneficiary communities. She joined NEF with over 8 years of successful fundraising experience leading growth and innovation in nonprofit organizations. In her role as NEF's director of partnerships and philanthropy, Jami works with a variety of donors to steward their philanthropy toward fueling organizational impact, innovation, and growth. Jami holds a B.A. in public affairs with a specialization track in nonprofit management and a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies at The Ohio State University.

Jum Lux : Senior Accountant

Jum Lux

Senior Accountant

Ms. Lux works with the CFO and VP of Operations to support NEF's financial management and accounting systems. She joined  NEF in 2012 and brings to her work more 15 years of financial management and accounting experience. Prior to joining NEF, she was associate director of the finance and accounting department of Thailand's largest local non-government organization, the Population and Community Development Association. In this capacity she managed 8 staff members and serviced multiple development programs funded by a broad array of international donors. Ms. Lux is a native of Bangkok, Thailand and received her BS in Accounting and Finance from Ramkhanhaeng University.

Jonathan Peters :  Program Manager

Jonathan Peters

Program Manager

Jonathan coordinates Program support and development across Caucuses, Middle East and the Sahel. Working closely with institutional donors and field teams, he supports the design and implementation of private sector, civil society, and stabilization programs, and has led the design and roll-out of project management tools and guidance across country operations. Prior to joining NEF UK, Jonathan managed policy research and innovation initiatives at UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States, working closely with private sector, government, and UN agencies in response to the Syria crisis. He also previously managed governance and economic growth programming across the Middle East for Global Partners Governance and FHI 360. Jonathan holds a BA in Politics and Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, a MSc in Development Studies from London School of Economics, and was a 2015 CBRL Arabic Scholar.

Amy Kruse : Marketing and Communications Manager

Amy Kruse

Marketing and Communications Manager

Amy is responsible for managing the marketing and communications for the Near East Foundation, helping to amplify awareness of the organization’s initiatives and programs to a global audience. She joined NEF in 2022 after holding various marketing and communications roles in higher education, politics and public radio. Amy has a bachelor’s degree in English from Le Moyne College and a master’s degree in communications from the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University.

Laurie Hartman : Executive Assistant

Laurie Hartman

Executive Assistant

Laurie works collaboratively with NEF co-presidents and headquarters staff to support the day-to-day administrative and operational functions of the organization. She also provides support to NEF's board of directors in the US, UK and Belgium, as well as several board committees. Laurie has more than twenty years of experience organizing, managing and adjusting to the ever-changing complexities of an administrative office. Prior to joining NEF, Laurie spent over 13 years as the assistant to the president at SUNY Polytechnic Institute.

James Murray : Senior Program Officer

James Murray

Senior Program Officer

James provides multifaceted support for NEF's programs, focusing primarily on monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) and project management. Prior to joining NEF, he undertook an internship with the United Nations Development Program in Geneva, Switzerland where he supported the implementation and management of public health grants to combat AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. James holds a B.A. in French language from St. John Fisher College as well as an M.A. in International Relations from Syracuse University, with Certificates of Advanced Study in Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Conflict Resolution.

Rachel Bass : Program Officer

Rachel Bass

Program Officer

Rachel works closely with NEF field teams to provide program backstopping support and coordination for diverse sectoral programs in Armenia, Lebanon and Sudan. She joined NEF as an intern in 2014 and became a permanent staff member in 2016, bringing more than 10 years of experience in administration and coordination, staff training and development, and process improvement to the position. In 2015, Rachel received the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship to study Arabic in the Sultanate of Oman, and the following summer she studied intensive Arabic at the University of Jordan in Amman. Rachel holds a B.A. in international relations from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University with concentrations in international political economy and human geography, and a minor in modern standard Arabic.


Louise Martin : Program Officer

Louise Martin

Program Officer

Louise works with field teams in Morocco, Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan to provide coordination and backstopping support for Near East Foundation programs. Prior to joining NEF, Louise worked for Think Equal, a global initiative that seeks to mitigate discrimination and violence through systems change in education, including in refugee contexts. Louise is bi-lingual (English/French) and holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from King’s College London and a master’s degree in religion in global politics from SOAS University.

Sarah Stortz : Awards and Compliance Officer

Sarah Stortz

Awards and Compliance Officer

Sarah supports headquarter and field teams to ensure compliance with all regulatory and contractual requirements in each phase of NEF's awards. Prior to joining NEF, Sarah held various roles at USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (now the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance), supporting disaster relief in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Syria. She holds a M.A. in Conflict, Security, & Development from King's College London and a B.A. in International Affairs with a minor in Semitic Languages and Culture from the George Washington University.

Dr. Charles Benjamin : Senior Advisor

Dr. Charles Benjamin

Senior Advisor

Charlie provides strategic support to NEF’s leadership, with a specific focus on capacity, systems and tools for program development and resource mobilization to accelerate innovation and growth. Previously, Charlie served as president and CEO of NEF from 2010 to 2022. He has more than 30 years of experience in international development, with extensive experience in livelihoods and natural resource management in the Middle East, North Africa and West Africa. He began his affiliation with NEF in 1993 as Country Director in Morocco. Before joining NEF, he spent several years in Morocco as a Fulbright Scholar and as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After leaving Morocco, Charlie was senior manager for International Resources Group, an international development consulting firm based in Washington DC, and a professor of international environment issues at Williams College. He holds a Ph.D. in Natural Resources and Environment from the University of Michigan, with a dissertation on livelihoods, natural resources and policy change in Mali.

International Leadership

Arpine Baghdoyan : Country Director, Armenia

Arpine Baghdoyan

Country Director, Armenia

Ms. Baghdoyan joined the Near East Foundation as Armenia Country Director in 2013. Prior to joining NEF, Ms. Baghdoyan worked as Project Coordinator at the Gegharkunik Chamber of Commerce, Anti-Corruption Center. Ms. Baghdoyan has received numerous recognitions for her work against corruption in the public sector, including the prestigious Certificate of Appreciation for Public Activity awarded by the US Ambassador in Armenia and the Certificate of Appreciation for Fighting Corruption awarded by the Prosecutor General of Armenia to honorable citizens. Ms. Baghdoyan holds a master degree in Economics from Gavar State University in Gavar.

Maha Shadid : Country Representative, Jordan

Maha Shadid

Country Representative, Jordan

Dr. Maha Shadid has managed national and community-based development, empowerment, and civic programming in the areas of health, protection, education, gender-based violence, community-based rehabilitation, emergencies, and capacity building for NGOs and CBOs. 

Dr. Shadid has over 5 years of experience working on and contributing to emergency programming in Jordan with ADRA International, Save the Children, and UNICEF during the first and second Gulf Crises. In addition to working for NEF and other international organizations, she has partnered with national NGOs, local authorities and ministries, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNFPA, and USAID-funded projects. She has extensive professional development experience in private sector partnerships, management, strategic thinking, planning and leadership, gender, youth, and human rights-based programming.

Ziad Kmeid : Country Representative, Lebanon

Ziad Kmeid

Country Representative, Lebanon

Mr. Ziad Kmeid is a professional in International Humanitarian Development with more than 15 years of experience in this field. Prior to serving as Country Representative for the Near East Foundation in Lebanon, Mr. Kmeid worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Mauritania, Yemen, and South Sudan. Holder of a bachelor’s degree in social work from Saint Joseph University (USJ) in Beirut, Mr. Kmeid started off his career in Lebanon with World Vision International, before joining the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) where he first worked with Palestinian refugee youth in one of the most volatile Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and later coordinated the DRC Emergency Response Program for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon and then in Turkey. As the head of NEF office in Lebanon today, Mr. Kmeid oversees and coordinates programs across the country related to inclusive economic development, working with both vulnerable Lebanese and refugees with a focus on women and youth.

Yacouba Dème : Country Director and Regional Program Coordinator, Mali/Senegal

Yacouba Dème

Country Director and Regional Program Coordinator, Mali/Senegal

Mr. Dème joined the Near East Foundation in 1991. He is responsible for strategic planning, program development and fundraising for programs in Mali. He oversees the implementation of NEF’s agricultural development projects, which focuses on natural resource management, rural credit, community capacity building, and information and communications. Mr. Dème has over 35 years of experience in rural development and is an internationally recognized expert in climate change adaptation and natural resource management. He is a member of the Mali delegation to the UNFCCC, leveraging his grassroots experience with rural communities to influence the highest levels of national and international policy. Mr. Dème lends his vast experience to other development initiatives, including serving as a socioeconomic specialist for the resettlement of affected populations in Mali within the framework of MCA’s (Millennium Challenge Account) Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) and as the social and environmental impact specialist for the MCC-Mali Bamako airport expansion and Alatona irrigation projects. He holds an MSc in Public Law from the National School of Administration in Bamako.

Abdelkhalk Aandam : Country Representative, Morocco

Abdelkhalk Aandam

Country Representative, Morocco

Mr. Aandam has 20 years of experience in business management and business development as well as education, local governance, sustainable development, and the management of agriculture and natural resource projects.  He has worked extensively in Morocco on civic-action for young people and mobilizing public and private partnerships on the national, regional, and local levels.

Ban Saraf : Country Director, Sudan and South Sudan

Ban Saraf

Country Director, Sudan and South Sudan

Ban joined the NEF foundation in September 2021 with over 18 years of international development experience leading USAID and other donor-funded programs in conflict, transitional, and volatile environments. Her work in the Middle East and Africa includes Burundi, Egypt, Guinea Iraq, Jordan, Somalia, and the West Bank. She holds experience in achieving project indicators and objectives through a structured team building and communication processes with project team, donors, and stakeholders; promoting sustainable development through strengthening partnerships with civil society and government actors to respond to identified community concerns. Ban holds an M.A in Advanced Arab Studies from Georgetown University and a B.A. in International Studies from George Mason University. She if fluent in both English and Arabic and proficient in French.

Mohammed A. El-Turk : Program Director, Syria

Mohammed A. El-Turk

Program Director, Syria

Mr. El-Turk has more than 18 years of nonprofit and private sector experience in multicultural, conflict, and post-conflict environments in the Middle East, including in Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. Prior to assuming the position of Program Director, he served as Deputy Chief of Party and Area Manager for NEF in Syria. Mr. El-Turk has designed, implemented, and provided leadership for several humanitarian and emergency response projects focused on livelihoods, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), national reconciliation and dialogue, disaster risk reduction, youth empowerment, civil society empowerment, the rights of people with disabilities (PWDs), protection, and conflict resolution. Mr. El-Turk holds BSc and MSc degrees in Business Administration, along with research work and publications in Private-Public Partnership (PPT), strategic partnership, Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR), and current interest in blended financing mechanisms.