Back in Zaatari Refugee Camp

I’m back in #zaatari refugee camp, where #MeWeSyria began 4 years ago with just 1 camera and twenty-five refugee youth. Today, the refugee youth-led program has reached more than 700 refugee youth across 8 cities in 3 countries.

This week, I am in the camp with my partner and friend, neuroscientist Michael Niconchuk, co-creating youth spaces for healing, communication, and community building through my #MeWeSyria methodology.

You and me may see only concrete walls and barbed wire. But these Syrian refugee youth see a call to build spaces for healing & changemaking in the harshest of places.

This week we will be engaging with 12 of our refugee youth replication teams from Questscope on further co-creation, capacity-building, and improving the overall localization of the program. We will tackle concepts of media literacy, self-care, brain science and communications, and our mental health and psychosocial support pedagogy.

The replication teams will target 144-180 refugee youth, ages 15–25, over the course of 6 months.

 

Honored and happy to co-create w/ these heroes.

 

It’s on

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This week, world leaders and NGOs are convening in NY for the United Nations General Assembly. There will be a lot of talk on refugees and an echo chamber of governments and organizations repeating catchy quotes about what the world needs to do to improve education access, and the need to better serve youth, refugees, and migrants. On the one hand, it’s a moment to really focus the international community’s attention on pressing challenges. On the other hand, it’s also a chance for nations and organizations to promote themselves for trying to do what they should already be doing: advancing the health and wellbeing of people and planet. While the party happens in NY, Me/We is digging deep in designing and planning for HOW to build youth-led spaces for healing, empathy and problem solving.

 

So much has transpired since our last update on June, when we presented on #MeWeSyria at the Innovative Solutions Conference in Istanbul, Turkey with Ashoka Turkey. ‘What?’ you ask? Check out the snap-shot of updates below…

Codesigning new healing tactics and basic neuroscience into Me/We Storytelling program 

“He/She who controls the narrative has power. He/She who controls the amygdala controls #empathy.’ It’s been a really enlightening and fast-paced few days with my #MeWeSyria ally and partner @mikeniconchuk (humanitarian, neuroscience and empathy expert). Mike has been with refugees for many years and was in Zaatari refugee camp during the pilot of #MeWeSyria. Fast forward to today, we are refining and enhancing my #MeWeSyria storytelling program by building in experiential exercises and collaborative opportunities for peer to peer healing, empathy, and creative enterprise through #storytelling. Since 2013, Syrians from Questscope NGO in Zaatari refugee camp and Darb Syr NGO in Gaziantep, Turkey continue to bravely and selflessly replicate the program for Syrian teens. Mike and I are engaging in a little creative destruction to identify  ways to improve the program further for refugee replicators. These young refugees are doing important work for youth development and peace. Stay tuned for more updates on this end.  #MeWeSyria.

A note from refugees in Gaziantep

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Above is a letter from Syrian youth living as #refugees in #Turkey. These brave youth from #Syria are replicating and adapting my #MeWeSyria #storytelling for #changemakers program. In this report, they share in their own words how it has been going.

“We experienced that human needs can be discovered and feelings can be expressed through storytelling and #MeWeSyria let us really, for the first time, connect with what is inside of us. This plays a role to have resilience in our lives, gives us the tools of changing and gives us the hope and desire to continue changing when we are using empathy and problem-solving strategies.”–Darb Syr NGO / #MeWeSyria replicator 

I will be expanding and refining the program further in #Turkey, #Lebanon, and #Jordan over the next 6 months with #DarbSyr #Questscope #AshokaYouthVenture #Germany #Syria. Thanks for sending Hadi! Love to the wonderful Syrian teams in #Turkey and #Jordan!

Phase III funds secured! 

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Excited to announce I secured phase 3 partnership between my program #MeWeSyria and the German government. It was a small idea I had that many people and organizations didn’t take seriously years ago, except this woman from the German govt (Christiane Hullmann). She and her team believed in #MeWeSyria. They opened the door when I knocked. Since then, we have together activated multiple youth hubs for creative enterprise, empathy, changemaking and #storytelling with brave and talented Syrian teachers and volunteers in #Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and in #Gaziantep Turkey. Don’t let anyone tell you ‘No’ if you really believe in something. Everyone can do something. And the preservation and progress of our world requires all of us to step into our changemaker journeys, especially for Syria today and Kashmir. I’ll be expanding our program in this new phase with my Syrian friends and partners in #Lebanon, #Turkey, #Syria and #Jordan over the next 6 months. Teams of dedicated young Syrians are every day battling darkness and equipping youth with hope, education and social support through this program and others. We must support these people. Our world needs them. The world fails Syria, but Syria’s youth will not fail our world. Lots of work left to do and improvements to make. I’ll be reaching out to my friends for funding support. Stay tuned. Honored to keep working and co-creating with Turkish, Syrian and Jordanian teams: #YouthVenture #Questscope #DarbSyr.

#MeWeSyria series for UNHCR Innovation

I am excited to announce that I will be doing a series for UNHCR Innovation on approaches for disrupting status quo youth engagements in education and social development. The first article in this series with UNHCR Innovation shares some insights and recommendations from my recent training-of-trianers session for the #MeWeSyria/ Youth Venture program running with Questscope at the UNFPA/Questscope Youth Center in Zaatari refugee camp, as well as #MeWeSyria’s activation in Turkey with Darb Sy.

An excerpt is provided below. Read the full article on UNHCR Innovation, here.

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“We sat on a bench under the sun conversing amidst sounds of young boys playing soccer and kids running to their next classes.

This is seemingly a normal interaction that could be anywhere, like Central Park in New York for instance. But this was not a normal setting by any means. The bench we were chatting on was in a refugee camp. This was not a park with trees and grass and birds. This was Zaatari camp, where we are surrounded by tents and trailers enclosed by concrete walls and barbed wire. For 5 years now, Syrian families have taken refuge from a civil war that has metastasized across the region and claimed more than 200,000 lives.

The kids we hear were playing on a makeshift patch of turf, where there used be only rocks and dust. The Questscope NGO and UNFPA have managed to bring in a small patch of color to this otherwise binary landscape of grey and brown.

The person I am sitting with is one of the young  trainees I have been engaging while running the Ashoka Youth Venture’s #MeWeSyria program . But he is no ordinary teenage kid. He is a young Syrian who is raising his brother on his own and has his parents and siblings separated in numerous countries as a result of war. As a teenager, in one lifetime he has to play father, mother, and sibling for his younger brother…..”

Recommendations:

A resilient peace and the future development of Syria depends on all of us collaborating as a team of teams towards valuing and supporting Syria’s young change makers today by flipping status quo approaches to youth refugee engagement. Status quo systems enabled the persistence of the war in Syria as we know it today. Let’s together flip systems to raise up, not contain, Syria’s young changemakers. This will require us to apply the following approaches in our youth engagements:

  • Experiential programs that disrupt internal barriers to self-expression, critical thinking, creativity, and pluralism
  • Peer-to-peer learning that self-replicates culture tipping towards: team of teams, fluid leadership, empathy and creative problem-solving
  • Opportunities for young people to step into their own story and tackle the ‘whys’ instead of the ‘what’ and ‘hows’
  • Replication templates that allow for co-creation with community leaders, youth mentors and teachers for localization and relevancy

#MeWeSyria has been made possible thanks in large part to support from the German Mission to the United Nations.

Updates: Scaling up in Zaatari Refugee Camp

IMG_7073After introducing #MeWeSyria to refugees in Turkey in January, in February I returned to where #MeWeSyria first launched with refugees back in 2014: Zaatari refugee camp with the Questscope NGO. Since 2014, the program has planted the seed for changemaking and peer to peer communication, critical thinking, creativity and self expression.

Returning to the camp, I saw more babies accompanying siblings playing in the dirt alleys in between tents and trailers. With the war now entering its fifth year, more and more children are being born in the refugee camp and the hope and optimism so crucial for survival and stability seems to be waning for some–understandably. The world continues to fail the people of Syria.

On my first day back in the camp, it became clear that confusion and mistrust had developed among some of the Syrian refugee trainees and myself. In an unstable, unpredictable and mentally taxing environment like the Zaatari refugee camp, time and distance can sometimes allow fiction to become reality. Some of the past trainees had misinterpreted what the program’s goals are, while others felt exploited. In such a sensitive situation, it was important to refresh spaces for listening, trust building and changemaking.

What started as a tough first day back in Zaatari ended five days later with resolve, inspiration and innovation. We together worked through mistakes and enabled a space where failure provided the fuel for stronger and meaningful changemaker impact. Now the #MeWeSyria is stronger and the Syrian replicators are clear on goals and methodologies. 

In order to rebuild trust and design a way forward, I sat with the previous years’ trainees to listen, listen, listen and then present my side of where some break downs happened. I gained much insight as to what the refugee leaders needed to make the program more consistent and impactful.

Pictured below is a list of ideas and demands the refugee trainees decided they needed for carrying out the project successfully. I am now building in their ideas and concerns into a renewed action plan for replicating the #MeWeSyria changemaker youth engagements so that it continues to be taught consistently and more effectively at the UNFPA Youth Center in the Questscope Caravan.

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Another take-away was that too much emphasis was being put on filming and the equipment. This was a clear misunderstanding guided by traditional education programs’ emphasis on outputs and deliverables–with little focus given to emotional intelligence.

In actuality, the making of a storytelling product is not the aim of the Me/We program. Media and equipment are secondary.  Emphasis of the MeWe program is on activating– in the refugee youth– the discovery of their inner changemakers while equipping youth with the mental tools and hard skills for stepping into their story and contributing a verse of positive changemaking  in the theater of our world.

In the following days, I worked with the refugee teachers to deep-dive into concepts of social innovation, changemaking, old world versus new world, building team of teams, fluid leadership and the importance of youth-led communication. Most crucial to this process was making sure the trainees had the space and support to localize and put into context these complex concepts so that there was local ownership of the issues and program. Pictured below: #MeWeSyria replicators co-lead a training session where we explored story-arcs and identifying target audiences.

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I also took ample time to introduce key Me/We exercises that provide an experiential classroom for exercising critical thinking, working in team of teams, express emotion and ideas, and pluralism. One of the main exercises is the writing and video blogging exercises for the youth to identify and express the power of their ‘why’. This is a part of the program where many internal shifts take place for the participants. It pushes critical thinking and fosters spaces of self expression and empathy that is peer-to peer led. Often times we are forced to memorize, repeat and act without any thought as to ‘why’. In a world where society prioritizes ‘the hows’ and ‘the what’, the question of why is a powerful starting point for activating a changemaker journey. Pictures below, a young Syrian participant dives into critical thinking and writing his personal ‘why’.

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After first exploring the power of their ‘why’, trainees then run through video blogging their thoughts and ideas on Mac Air laptops I donated. Ideating and writing are only part of the equation. Pushing the record button becomes much more than a computer click. It becomes an exercise in actively eroding internal barriers and fears for expressing ideas. Pushing down on the button becomes an act of changeamaking launched through creativity and self expression. These vlogging exercises reinforce the importance for changemakers to connect their hearts, with their minds and their breath. (See picture above.)

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By facilitating an experiential process for changemaker discoveries and communication, we established a stronger layer of trust, co-creation and deeper changemaker understanding in Zaatari camp with Questscope. These youth mentors will now team up to continue offering the #MeWeSyria program to young refugees in the camp.

On the final day, we handed out certificates and finalized a co-designed action plan in which the Syrian teachers and youth mentors of Questscope will complete facilitating 6 storytelling for changemaker sessions for at least 60 young Syrian refugees (boys and girls), over the next 12 months. They will also organize cinema nights showcasing the changemaker storytelling ideas and messages of the youth. (Pictured below, certificates handed out to Questscope trainees inside the refugee camp.)

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Incentivization is key, especially when considering the diplomas, certificates and histories of millions of Syrians has been lost in the fog of war. Providing documentation of how far we have come and ensuring that MeWe students and trainees have certificates is no small matter.

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The friction and frustration we encountered on the first day transformed as we harnessed it as positive energy needed to break walls and enhance spaces for youth-led changemaking in the darkest of places. More exciting things to come from our brave changemakers inside Zaatari refugee camp. Stay tuned!

**Powered by ….

Ashoka’s Youth Venture | Germany | Questscope 

#MeWeSyria in Huffington Post

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Syria’s youth are the solution, not the problem. My latest for the Huffington Post

Following the tragic ISIS-led carnage in Paris and Beirut, we now hear the cacophony of political opportunism and fear in which some politicians in the U.S. are actively working against America’s support of refugees, specifically Muslim refugees.

In my work with Syrian refugee youth, there are a few discoveries that give me hope in this time of fear and confusion. READ MORE ON HUFFINGTON POST

Final workshops in Zaatari: #MeWeSyria

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Just led my final ‪#‎MeWeSyria‬ communications workshop with the boys group in ‪the #‎Zaatari‬ refugee camp w/ Questscope. Some of the youth are bummed our program is almost over, but they are buzzing with excitement and confidence in the stories, messages and films we pulled together. The‪#‎refugee‬ youth have taken brave steps in breaking mental walls for expression, communications & imagination over the last month. I am in awe of the resilience and love within these kids. I am so proud to have gotten to work with them. In total, the boys and girls groups have finished writing, directing and filming 6 short stories—each with key messages and lessons, and of course NO politics. While the politics of the world may fail their homeland, the youth of Syria will not fail our world.

#MeWeSyria exhibition at Young Eyes gallery is this Saturday, 14-22 June. I am also putting on a screening in the refugee camp on Monday. Keep these beautiful kids in your prayers. Stay tuned for more and click on #MeWeSyria on Twitter to learn more…

Update from refugee youth: Lighting a candle instead of cursing the dark

 

After three weeks of intense communications with the workshops with the Syrian refugee youth, I am happy to say that that the youth have started directed and filming their short stories. Above is a short highlight reel showing the some of the talents, smiles and hope being carried in the youth of Syria through the Me/We communications workshops.

I cannot stress how much growth and progress we have fought for in recent weeks. There is much more work ahead of us as we continue filming and crafting stories with positive messages and lessons, as conceptualized by the refugee youth. I anticipate the momentum will continue. Plans are in place to put on an exhibition of the refugees’ messages at the Young Eyes Gallery in Amman from 17-24 June. I am trying to secure permissions for the refugees to leave the camps and attend.

The youth have a deeper understanding about how important communciations is and they are realizing new avenues for self expression, critical  thinning, team work, confidence and hope. None of the workshops or stories are political or religious in nature. This project is not about sides. It is about realizing the collective humanity to which we all equally belong.

Skeptics may say this is just a cute project and no big deal. To them I paraphrase a Chinese proverb that says it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. We are empowering youth to light the candle for themselves, their communities and for our greater world.

Our world may be failing them, but they will not fail our world.

 

*Me/We has been funded by the German government and supported by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, and by the dedicated local staff and coordinators working in Zaatari refugee camp and Zarqa: Questscope and Family Guidance Awareness Center.

Zaatari workshops are hosted by the local NGO, Questscope—funded by the EU and UNESCO, OCHA. Support Questscope’s important and successful mentoring programs for refugee youth here: http://www.questscope.org. Logistical support provided by UNFPA.

Zarqa workshops are hosted by the Family Guidance Awareness Center, FGAC.

Volunteers and coordinators making Me/We a success: Manal Jbhour, Khaled Jbhour, Young Eyes Center (Khaled and Issa), Manahil and Abdur Rahman (FGAC), Nadeen and Ashraf (Questscope), Dareen (UNFPA).

Me/We workshops founded by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din (UNAOC Fellow and Fulbright Scholar alum).

Resilience and imagination

Zaatari is not a zoo. Zaatari is not a gateway for NGOs to just have something to do or to get funding. It is not a badge of honor or a cool social media post. It is a temporary home for many who do not want to be there. It is an ocean of white tents sheltering over 100,000 families from the angry sun. It is rocks and dust of a country not their own. The Syrian people here are enduring loss, a permanent state of loss. We all know that, sure. But perhaps we are desensitized to the rubble that piles each day as the world continues to fail the women and children of Syria. Even so, what is remarkable about Zaatari is not its scale…its stories of loss. What is remarkable is the resilience of the human spirit of the Syrian mothers, fathers, boys and girls and youth. I witness this each day as I continue with the communications/arts workshops for the youth.

In its third week, the workshops are now moving to the challenging phase of pulling story ideas for films that are to be directed and filmed by the youth in Zaatari. In both the boys and girls group, the concept of sharing a story idea and using the imagination to cultivate a positive end is confusing. Some were even frustrated by the exercise. “Think of an ending as you wish to it to be, not as it is expected to be,” I tell them. They struggled with this question. “Imagination? What does that mean?” I point to the light bulb in the room. “The people who discovered electricity and invented light were crazy enough to imagine something new. Before this, there was dark. The internet? Even crazier. Now we are all connected.” Imagination fuels creativity, innovation, and ultimately a world that rises above the walls and barriers of body and mind.

“There walls around us now in this room and around Zaatari,” I tell the groups. “ But in the mind and the heart, we must not have walls. Instead we have keys to solutions, lessons, new ideas.”

With patience and a bit of pushing, both groups in Zaatari came up with four story ideas for filming this week. All it takes is one spark, one idea. Blank papers and confused eyes then give way to ink on paper and energetic collaboration.

The girls group today in Zaatari came up with the following film ideas:

A rich boy mistreats a poor boy in need. The poor boy struggles in life, but ends up being sponsored by a man who helps him get an education and a job. Later in life, the poor boy becomes rich and sees that the other rich boy is now poor. The lesson: treat every one equally and with respect, because  one who is rich can just as easily become poor. The story is also about forgiveness. This was a particularly interesting group because I asked the girls why they chose a male lead character. “How can a Muslim girl have a job and live all alone?,” they asked. We challenged this concept by saying the story should not be restricted to cultural conventions if they do not want it to be. They are now debating which route to take.

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The other group of girls came up with a story about how a blind girl is mistreated and discriminated against. They chose to do a story on blindness because it is a problem they noticed a lot in Syria. The protagonist does not give up in the face of ridicule and ends up becoming a world famous composer, earning enough money to get an eye operation that allows her to see.

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The boys groups in Zaatari developed the following stories:

– A group of talented soccer players are forced from Syria due to war and violence. They end up in Zaatari where they can only play on rocks and desert. They are so talented though that they become the local soccer champions of Zaatari. They are at risk of giving up soccer because there is no safe field to play on and a persistent lack of water. Upon a visit from the Jordanian national soccer team, the Zaatari team challenges the national team’s coach to a charity match. If the Zaatari team wins, the Jordanian team will build a proper soccer facility for the youth in Zaatari. The story will end with the boys back in Syria, playing for the national team.

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– The other boys group developed a story about an uncle who loses one of his legs from a bomb blast in Syria. In Zaatari, he is not able to afford a prosthetic leg. He dreams of walking again but those around him do not support his dreams. He then has an idea of how to build his own prosthetic and ends up back in Syria teaching others how to make their own, and how to walk again.

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Sufficed to say, I am in awe of the human spirit within the Syrian youth. In the next few weeks I will lead these groups in directing and filming each short story in Zaatari. The challenge will be how to film all the scenes inside the compound of Zaatari. As I understand it, it will not be safe to travel outside the caravan with cameras. Stay tuned and follow our progress. I am also teaming up with a local gallery called Young Eyes to put on a exhibition and screening of the youth’s work.

* These workshops would not be possible without the support of the staff of Questscope, who are leading mentoring programs and youth education programs inside Zaatari. Learn more about how to support Questscope here.

*This project is my own independent initiative known as the Me/We Initiative. Project support for Jordan has come from the German government, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and UNFPA.