Making the Impossible Possible — Syrians Refugee Teens Building Their own Futures
Christopher M. Schroeder
A chronicle of one organization’s determination to bring hope and healing to Syrian refugees through innovative education.
In April 2015, the Karam Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, launched its fifth Innovative Education mission for displaced Syrian children and youth. Karam’s team of more than 40 international mentors worked with upward of 400 Syrian students from four schools in grades 1–12, leading workshops that included entrepreneurship, arts, language arts, sports, yoga and full dental/vision clinics and screenings.
This series of posts about our mission, in the words of the mentors, offers a glimpse of what it is like to work on the Syrian border, shares personal stories of extraordinarily talented and resilient kids and reminds us that the Syrian children are more than the world knows, more than the world lets them be. They are #NotInvisible.
The Syrian conflict has created the worst humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. Yet in the midst of despair and destruction there is hope for a brighter future. This series is dedicated to our unwavering hope in the next generation of Syrian kids. We hope the stories will inspire you to action.
The numbers are so daunting when one contemplates the movement of people in the Syria crisis that they become abstract.
Four million refugees are now spread across Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and beyond — out of a country of some 22 million. In terms of percentages of U.S. population, that is like saying that all the people in Texas and California had moved to Canada or Mexico within a few short years. Add to that, according to the United Nations, another 6 million inside Syria are without the basic necessities of life, refugees within their own borders, subjected — on top of everything else — to unspeakable violence.
When human beings become statistics, the rest of us tend to glaze over and move on. What does it mean? What can be done at that kind of scale and at the speed required?
Most refugee organizations focus on the basic crisis — food, shelter, health care, safety. But as this crisis enters its fourth year, with no clear path in sight for the refugees to return home, a chilling phrase has come to be commonly heard: that a generation — with little education and less path to an economic future — is being lost.
This also makes human beings into abstractions, but what is there to do? Assuredly being focused on immediate needs must be right; assuredly the numbers are too vast to think much of helping young people build their futures when the future is utterly uncertain?
But it is 2015. Today big problems that need scalable solutions suggest one thing to those of us who have seen its impact: the problem-solving that can come with technology.
In the United States we have become used to having much of human knowledge at our fingertips, essentially for free — together with the ability to connect, collaborate and solve problems with others who already have solved their own. As this technology becomes ubiquitous around the globe, billions of people in many countries now have access to these tools of learning, innovation and economic empowerment.
Think this is irrelevant to the Middle East? Guess which country is the largest per capita consumer of YouTube? Saudi Arabia. The largest demographic there is women, and the largest content category is education. Over in Egypt, an entrepreneur has developed Nafham — a Khan Academy platform on which people can post videos of supplemental math, reading and writing skills in Arabic accessible to anyone with connection to a computer or mobile device. In one year more than 20,000 videos have been uploaded and have had more than 30 million views.
Big problems, new tools — and, perhaps, new answers.
The Karam Foundation has been one of the leading children’s education and support nonprofits for Syria for the past three years. Supporting five refugee schools on the Syrian border, and ten schools inside Syria, Chicago-based co-founder, Lina Sergie Attar and her team knew that the kids there were hungering for more tools, better connection and a chance to find paths to the future. In addition to their programs in sports, the arts, physical wellness and holistic learning, they created the Karam Foundation Leadership Program (KLP) as a pilot project designed for Syrian refugee teens to have access to technology and mentors. Teens could now learn the basics through entrepreneurship and technological workshops with the goal to inspire and equip them to build a future for themselves. The program, launched last November with a computer center of 22 stations, includes workshops to help supplement basic education and the skills needed to create a living today and for when they return. The curriculum includes team-building; verbalizing and developing a tailored “life plan” for the future that details goals; technology; coding; basic business/entrepreneurial skills; creative therapy; physical health.
Moe Ghashim has become something of a legend in the Middle East as the founder of the new and successful e-commerce enterprise ShopGO. Syrian-born, Moe started his career back in 2003 in the United States within a small e-commerce agency. By 2007 he had developed his knowledge and took the first step toward building his own e-commerce agency. In 2012 he decided to build a platform for the Middle East and North Africa region in order to allow inexperienced merchants with no technical background to create their own online store without programming headaches or struggles. Becoming a mentor at KLP was an easy decision for him.
“Technology matters in this context for two reasons,” Moe explained to me. “First off, technology literally won me a life. All Syrians I know as émigrés or refugees have struggled to accept/integrate/adjust/adapt with the new life. It’s a life without history, a life where you have to prove yourself all over again. Because of technology, I — anyone — can speak the modern language. I’m an international resident, I’m already part of the new world. Second, because of technology I was able to start my company after a couple of months. Technology is cheap and you can reach millions easily. I can start a company, try and fail quickly without costing a fortune. If it works I build jobs for many. If not, when I’m looking for a job then that’s what everyone is looking for — a workforce with tech skills.”
On his first visit to Reyhanli, Turkey, as part of KLP, Moe was floored by the drive, curiosity and talent of the teenagers and how they took to computing and the idea of starting their own companies. He returned wanting to take the engagement to another level. He created pre-mission assessments of the best entrepreneurs over Skype before he arrived for the second KLP mission last April and developed a four-day workshop curriculum with two goals: to show the 40 teens (20 girls and 20 boys) what they needed to succeed and how they could apply their skills for their own education and for starting businesses. He ended up hiring three to ShopGO on the spot, and 14 more will join them in July. Others have subsequently found jobs online. All of the students will work from the Karam Leadership Program computer lab.
Moe laughs: “The ones who gave us a hard time the first time we visited the school turned to be shining ones. They were engaged, quick in learning and serious throughout the workshop. I learned that they all have potential if they’re introduced to the right ideas and program.” He pauses and reflects: “I went to Turkey with low expectations, thinking I will meet with angry kids who had got used to the fact they’re ‘refugees.’ The surprise was that those kids were so prepared and made sure they studied all the materials we sent them. They finished a four/five day program in two days. They were hungry to learn.”
Moustafa is one of those 14 kids.
He’s a tall, handsome young man who just completed 10th grade and is always wearing a baseball cap. He’s from Houla, a village outside Homs now known for its 2012 massacre. Moustafa lived in Houla and took computer courses in Homs since he was in fifth grade. He is brilliant and unaware of his brilliance. He taught himself five programming languages online and has designed more than 100 games. He was displaced multiple times before settling in Reyhanli, where he joined the KLP pilot in November. He took the Scratch coding course with other mentors like Moe and quickly advanced to teach Scratch to the younger children at the school. He has since been assigned to be the monitor of the Karam computer lab.
Karam co-founder Lina Sergie-Attar understands that Moustafa is a seed — as he takes hold, dozens of others will as well. Success will breed success; big things have small beginnings. She smiles in reflection: “When we first met him he was shy and when I asked him, ‘What do you want to be?’, he said, ‘A computer engineer.’ This time he was smiling confidently — he looked like a different person. I asked him again, ‘What to you want to be?’ and he said, ‘I want to go to America, to the best university and design the best games.’”
And he Whatsapp chats every day about his future with other mentors he met at KLP.
“Jobs are passports to futures,” Moe believes. “Technology is the Swedish passport. It will take these kids anywhere.”
You can read part two of the #NotInvisible Series here.