Building a future

While millions of Syrians wait for the opportunity to return home, one charity is laying the foundations for the country's future

Like many Syrians during the bloody summer of 2012, Hani Jesri was looking for a way out of Damascus – and the country.

“Everything had changed forever: my plans, my dreams and my future,” he recalls today. “It was devastating.”

Born and raised in Aleppo, the young economics graduate had expected to spend his life in Syria, and to build a career with NGOs working to improve the lives of children and youth. Now, as limited resources swung away from long-term developmental projects and behind emergency relief efforts, he was left with nothing to do but escape the violence.

He found his lifeline via Facebook, and an internship opportunity at a small nonprofit by the name of Jusoor, meaning ‘bridges’ in Arabic. He would apply successfully for the nine-month unpaid role, taking the first step of a journey that would take him to Lebanon and eventually on to the UK. Five years later, at the age of 29, he is living in London and credits Jusoor with having opened a world of possibilities for him.

“For someone like me inside Syria, with very limited access to opportunities, Jusoor was a second chance,” he says. “They gave me hope for the country and for its future.”

“What Jusoor has done is provide every Syrian who has left, with a platform to give back”Jusoor, the brainchild of a handful of likeminded Syrian expatriates, is dedicated to delivering programmes in education and career development around the world. Over the last six years it has persuaded members of the Syrian diaspora to donate more than $5.6m to support Syrian youth. As importantly, it has mobilised that diaspora’s expertise to priceless benefit: Jusoor today counts more than 100,000 individuals in its network from more than 50 countries.

The inspiration for Jusoor predates the current conflict by a matter of weeks. In early 2011, a small group of Syrian expatriates were toying with the idea of launching a mentorship programme to help students looking to study at university abroad. When fighting erupted, those thoughts turned quickly to action, and evolved to incorporate funding as well as intellectual support.

“The Syrian expatriate community is huge: we’re talking about as many as 20 million people, as many as there are inside the country itself,” says Dania Ismail, one of the cofounders. “We felt that there was no network bringing people together and we thought we could play that role and build a bridge into the country to help people.”

The resultant scholarship scheme leverages a consortium of more than 70 institutions offering full or part scholarships to young Syrians, and has so far placed more than 500 students at universities in the US, Canada, Europe, Middle East and Asia. It has also matched mentors with more than 600 students looking for guidance on the university application process and other academic choices that will shape their futures.

“As a Syrian expatriate you naturally draw a comparison between yourself and the youth that are inside the country,” says Aziza Osman, a social entrepreneur and startup advisor, and Jusoor board member. “What Jusoor has done is provide every Syrian who has left, with a platform to give back.”

The publication of detailed annual reports, as well as operational costs below 10 per cent of total spend, helps attract and retain supporters. Currently individuals are responsible for some 51 per cent of donations, with corporations responsible for another 36 per cent, and foundations accounting for the rest. Nor does the private sector contribution stop there: while financial support is invaluable, so too is the lending of time and talent by leading multinationals in the region and beyond.

“They [corporates] want to give back to society, they want to help different causes and with many of them it’s not just money that they want to provide, but their employees’ time and experience,” says Rami Zayat, another Jusoor cofounder.

The impact of corporate support is perhaps felt most keenly at Jusoor’s career development workshops, which take place in Dubai and were launched in 2012 in response to the influx of young Syrians into the Gulf. Private companies host one- or two-day workshops on choosing a career, matching to the right jobs, and the honing of skillsets including CV writing, job interviews and portfolio development.

“We’re trying to show Syrians from a positive perspective: they are intelligent, talented, and can contribute to society”Another Jusoor initiative to leverage healthy corporate backing is an entrepreneurship programme which aims to identify Syria’s business leaders of the future – and plug them into a network of international partners and investors that can help scale new products and ideas.

Startups in Syria face a wide range of obstacles. Some are a mechanical consequence of the conflict: physical insecurity, collapsing infrastructure, power cuts, and slow internet. Others are economic or bureaucratic: sanctions and payment restrictions, restrictions on movement of people and goods, a diminishing market, a lack of financial support and investment, and an unfriendly regulatory environment that is enough to suffocate new business before it gets off the ground.

Yet despite these challenges, while rates of poverty and unemployment are soaring, so too are the numbers of Syrians embracing entrepreneurship. A recent study interviewed 268 people over 12 months and found a significant increase in the number of people working on a startup idea in 2015 (65.8 per cent), compared to the year before (52.2 per cent).

According to Ismail, who has a background in venture capital with Dubai-based MBC Group, Jusoor recognised the emergence of this new commercial class and now employs mentorship, incubators and competitions in order to build skills and confidence.

“I was exposed to a lot of entrepreneurs around the region, however it always felt like the Syrians were a little bit behind compared to their peers,” she explains. “They didn’t have access to resources and training facilities, the industry wasn’t as developed and then the war came along and made everything even worse. So it always felt like there was room to improve.”

So far more than 700 companies have applied and 100 have taken part in ‘bootcamps’ in Beirut and Berlin. Startups are exposed to Jusoor partners and given training in building a business model, structuring their financials, pitching for funding, and more. It’s a precious opportunity: one young man was so determined to attend that he took 26 hours to travel the short distance from Aleppo to Beirut, after his bus was run off the road by gunfire courtesy of Islamic State.

“He showed up three days late, but he made it,” smiles Ismail. “There are a lot of those stories of people trying so hard to make it. This is their lifeline and from the day they come in, to two weeks later, it’s crazy how much they are transformed.”

The remaining pillar of the Jusoor offering is its refugee education programme in Lebanon, launched in 2013 under the direction of Hani Jesri, who after his internship volunteered to pilot the scheme. The building of three education centres in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley has so far helped more than 3,400 children of primary school age to make the leap back into formal education.

“At first we provided schooling for refugees because the Lebanese system wasn’t available to them – schools were over capacity and even then the registration fee of $60 was more than most [refugees] could afford,” says Osman.

“When the Lebanese Ministry of Education opened up the second shift and gave education for free, an influx of Syrians went to formal school,” she continues. “That is a good thing, but we realised that a lot of them weren’t at the level they needed to be for that system.”

Jusoor expanded to offer accelerated remedial classes to enable Syrian refugees to catch up with their peers in Lebanon. Today it works closely – if informally – with the Ministry to ensure that they are pulling in the same direction to assist young Syrians both inside and outside the school system.

“As we continue to grow we are always trying to fill an area of need,” says Zayat. “Today, once [the children] are in school we follow them and support them because the idea’s not just to get into school, but to succeed.”

There is a need to salvage something from this “lost generation”, says Ismail, to enable Syrian youth to reconstruct not just infrastructure but institutions. There is also an opportunity to relaunch the narrative around that generation.  

“Right now people just see Syrians as refugees because that’s all they see in the media,” she says. “We’re trying to show Syrians from a positive perspective: they are intelligent, talented, and can contribute to society in different ways and forms.”

Back in London, Hani Jesri’s trajectory is testament to what Syrian youth can accomplish if given the chance. In 2016 he achieved his Masters degree in Public Policy at the University of Oxford, supported by a scholarship from the UK-based Saïd Foundation. He has since completed a two-month placement with the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID), working on DFID’s engagement with Syrian civil society and studying how NGOs might better contribute to programming and policy advocacy.

He credits his opportunities at Oxford and DFID to his experience with refugee children at Jusoor. And like many members of the Jusoor family, he now balances a full-time career with pro bono work for the charity that changed his life. One day, he hopes to parlay those efforts into a future in policymaking in education in Syria. Today he is classified as a refugee, unable to return home. Tomorrow, he will help rebuild from what remains of that home.

“Even though I can’t be in Syria, everything I have done and everything I am doing is for my return there,” he says. “Until then we have millions of Syrians all over the world who need support. That’s what Jusoor does: it allows us to help those who need it.”