The number of refugees is at its highest-ever level, at more than 20 million worldwide.
The Syrian civil war is the biggest source of refugees today, and neighboring countries Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey bear much of the brunt. Syrian refugees now represent roughly 20% of Lebanon’s population, which has put enormous strains on the small country.
At Harvard Arab Weekend’s “Innovation in Times of Crisis” panel on November 11, humanitarian groups, financial organizations, and radio journalists discussed their innovative solutions to ease the plight of Syria’s refugees.
Here are some of their ideas:
Social integration through job creation
Although refugees are often assumed to live in camps, about 90% of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon live in cities alongside citizens of these countries. Many refugees living in urban areas are unable to find work or receive aid, and have difficulty integrating in the host communities.
The solution? “The best vehicle [for social integration] is job creation,” said Franck Bousquet, the World Bank’s Director of Regional Programs and Partnership in the Middle East and North Africa.
The World Bank has partnered with the United Nations and Islamic Development Bank Group to launch the MENA Concessional Financing Facility (CFF), an innovative financing initiative creating opportunities for refugees in their host countries by offering soft loans at attractive rates for the borrowing country.
The CFF approved the first two projects totaling over $340 million in July 2016. These will provide work permits to 130,000 Syrian refugees. The CFF’s goal is to raise over $1 billion in grants for Jordan and Lebanon in the next five years to support health, education, infrastructure, and job creation programs for refugees. This will help the two countries to address the challenges posed by the large influx of Syrian refugees, and integrate them into local communities.
Tailoring aid to needs
Another panelist, Lina Attar, the CEO and founder of the Karam Foundation, emphasized the disparities in refugees’ needs based on where they live. Aid is not always administered efficiently in conflict zones: some communities are over-served and given resources they do not need. As a result, Attar said, aid agencies must “pay attention to where you are working and who you are working with.”
The Karam Foundation delivers “Smart Aid” programs customized to meet the local population’s needs in a sustainable manner. To maximize impact, its projects are proposed by the local communities themselves – an approach Attar calls “co-authoring” – under the logic that refugees know their own needs best.
After receiving the proposals, the Karam Foundation team discusses, evaluates, and decides on which to pursue. This has led to practical projects like a vegetable garden in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. The camp has been besieged by the Syrian military, and many of its residents have starved as a result. The vegetable garden project has allowed refugees at the camp to grow their own food.
The Karam Foundation also works to provide teenagers with opportunities to use technology, learn languages, and engage with mentors to help them build a future and connect them with employers abroad. “Giving a future and hope to refugee children and family is a lifeline that changes their lives,” said Attar.
WiFi is the new water
For many refugees, WiFi has become just as important as food and water. Smartphones and WiFi hotspots offer a lifeline to those who risk their lives on a perilous journey, and help them communicate with friends and family abroad. Many Syrian refugees are technologically savvy, and it is not unusual for them to carry one or two cell phones and four SIM cards in addition to their documents in their bags.
The Syrian refugee crisis has spurred aid groups to explore innovative solutions using technology, often with funding from the private sector. “Refugees are not second-grade citizens, why do we give them second-grade products?” said Rosa Akbari, an advisor at Mercy Corps.
Mercy Corps partnered with Google and other organizations to develop www.refugee.info, a multilingual website intended for refugees crossing into Europe. It contains information on legal services, transit routes, and seeking asylum, among other topics, to provide information to refugees and dispel rumors during their journeys.
Advocacy through the airwaves
Honey Al Sayed, a Syrian refugee living in the US, is the former host of the popular radio program “Good Morning Syria.” Al Sayed, who has been called the “Oprah of Syria,” has interviewed politicians, diplomats, celebrities, and other prominent figures in Syria.
Al Sayed noted that poets and artists were among the first to be detained in the Syria conflict, and among the first to flee the country for fear of prosecution. Yet the media and arts have flourished during the conflict: according to Al Sayed, over 100 media outlets have emerged in Syria in the past six years, and more than 300,000 videos have been uploaded to YouTube from the country. These are important outlets for Syrians to express themselves, tell stories and document injustice.
She described seeking asylum in the US as a humiliating and difficult process. Al Sayed recalled the immigration officer telling her: “You seem like you were somebody at home. Well, you’re nobody here.” But she said she “did everything in my might to be somebody,” and was awarded a full scholarship to a master’s program in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Al Sayed is committed to innovative solutions that harness the power of the creative arts to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis. She co-founded an online radio station, SouriaLi, in 2012 and is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She frequently speaks at events organized by think tanks and universities across the US in an attempt to change public opinion on refugees through her own inspiring story.
“Refugees have been dehumanized and demonized by the international rhetoric,” she said, “and we need to humanize the data behind refugees and the Syrian conflict.”