Wesam Alkrad, a young agriculture engineer, fled from Syria in the early years of the war. He describes how he and others like him are struggling to survive in their host country of Jordan, with “no hope to go back home.”
Wesam has a university degree, yet he describes how difficult it is to meet basic needs by “working in all fields day and night outside my area of study and in work I have never done before.” From baking bread to construction work, Wesam has taken any opportunity that can help him cover Jordan’s high living costs and support his family each month. His struggle is a common one in the Syrian community here, with 93% of Syrian refugees living below the poverty line, trying to survive in a labor market rife with restrictions and risks.
Wesam participated in one of the first community consultations held by the Mahali Lab in September 2017, where a group of Syrians shared the challenges and aspirations of their daily lives here in Jordan. The obstacles that emerged from those conversations turned into the framework for Mahali’s design challenges— an initiative to recruit grassroots changemakers to design new solutions to the unsolved problems that plague their communities. The first challenge resonated with Wesam’s own experience:
How might we enable vulnerable households to predictably meet their basic needs, in a way that doesn’t expose them to risk?
During the application process to identify our problem solvers, Wesam applied in the final hours before the application period closed. After making it through the first screening of 873 applications, the second round of in-person interviews and testing, and the third round of a five-day design bootcamp, Wesam became one of Mahali’s first design sprint participants.
When asked what made him apply, Wesam answered, “I liked the idea of solving my problem and the problem of others, helping to secure a financial income, getting out of my shell, opening up new fields in the labor market, and encouraging me to use my talent properly.”
Wesam and his team have been working for the past seven weeks to develop a solution to this critical challenge during the design sprint. With full-time support from a human-centered designer, a researcher, a lab manager that connects them to various networks and opportunities, and a coach, the team has gone through the process of identifying and understanding the problem they are solving, generating ideas to solutions, testing their solutions with the community and different stakeholders, and pitching regularly to a panel of experts from different backgrounds. They feel that they are very close to developing a solution that will make a difference, and they are excited to see change that happens through their work.
Why Social Innovation?
Humanitarian response efforts are targeting enormous, complex social problems with decreasing resources and increasing expectations to produce evidence of results. As global contexts continue to change, humanitarian actors will have no choice but to adapt with it. Meanwhile, the people that are living with the problems that humanitarian response seeks to address are the most underutilized resource in designing the solutions to address them. Refugees are solving their own problems on a daily basis, with creativity and ingenuity, and an ability to adapt to a constantly shifting political, legal, and social environment. However, they just lack the resources, the support, and the networks needed to amplify and scale those solutions. Putting them in the lead and leveraging the vast resources and networks available to us as humanitarian actors is the key to developing new, relevant, and adaptable solutions.