Impact Work

#MeWeSyria is Battling Displacement with Social Media Storytelling

This UN and MIT-approved grassroots initiative lets refugees change the crisis narrative by using interpersonal communication.
May 22, 2017, 5:30pm

There's a lot of self-promotion out there in various do-goodery circles, and being a successful advocate can, at times, feel like a full-time PR job. But Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din has credible international experience, and doesn't seem to have much time for the bullshit element of advocacy. He's taken a successful path through the ranks of various NGO circles, and is bridging the divide between top-down, insular UN culture and a bottom-up, people-driven approach with #MeWeSyria.

MeWeSyria, which recently won a highly competitive MIT Solve award, is a social platform that aims to bring immediate assistance to refugees in war-torn countries by facilitating peer-to-peer learning and support.

Moshin -- a former Fulbright scholar, UN staffer, and rock drummer -- is also the current Director of Storytelling Innovation at Ashoka's Youth Venture. While he is a strong proponent of effective storytelling, he believes that content alone will not fully address the world's problems, and that local communities must be empowered to actively take part in the change they seek.

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VICE Impact caught up with him before he took a trip to Jordan for the World Economic Forum to push his new project and visit refugee camps. Nick Carter: You're the recipient of an MIT Solve award. What does that mean for your work and where are you right now in the process?

Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din : It means being deemed a quote-unquote "solver" with the MIT and UN community. It basically gives visibility for something that started out as a tiny underdog grassroots program to connect and collaborate with a network of MIT funders, engineers, tech companies, researchers, and data scientists who can actually help us scale #MeWeSyria.

It's dangerous when a young person is made to feel that the narrative of their lives has been written by someone else.

MeWeSyria is a fragile living organism, and we've had to fight and fight and fight because we're reinventing a landscape that sees the process of storytelling as a vehicle for forms of interpersonal communications. But we sync it with group psychosocial support and individual healing, which is what refugees need the most when it comes to education. When you're innovating there's a lot of people rolling their eyes at you or dismissing you, and being connected to the Solve MIT community is super validating.

What were you thinking when you said, "You know what, I can do something about this," with regard to the refugee crisis? The methodology that we've created is a storytelling education and training platform that actually started in Morocco. I was a Fulbright Scholar and I was living and working with street kids and orphans in Morocco doing music and film workshops with these migrant youths. I was just doing it as a Fulbright project as something to make them smile, but I didn't realize the mental health-and-well-being benefits it offered and resiliency it would build in these kids.

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It's dangerous when a young person is made to feel that the narrative of their lives has been written by someone else, or by outdated education and political systems. One narrative is dangerous, not just for that young person but for the world and for the community.

So I saw firsthand what happens to kids when the failures of the world are imposed upon them and they're constantly suffocating under constant change or disruption. So what are they going to do? They're more prone to isolation, depression, violence, and extremism. So I said, "Okay we need to work with the youth who are being treated like they're a problem or they're a ticking time bomb. They're not being nurtured to discover themselves as change makers for a better world."


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What are the next steps in this process for you?

MeWeSyria is just a slice of our "storytelling for changemakers" program. It focuses on marginalized, disadvantaged youth -- particularly refugee youth. So having just come back from MIT where we presented at meetings with people face to face, now it's time to follow up and work to make our vision and our action plan beyond the three countries where we already are.

But, most importantly, I'll be going to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. The situation there is dire, and reports coming out of Zaatari are very disturbing. People are trying to smuggle themselves out. People are starting to get deported. Families are being torn apart, and deported back to Syria. There's a lot of paranoia and fear, and it's now being internalized into the minds and hearts of the people that have been forced to live there for way longer than they ever thought or imagined. I need to be there to look them in the eye to let our teams know that they're not alone, and to further collaborate with them on cultivating and protecting the spaces we've built for youth-led created expression and peer-to-peer psychosocial storytelling support.

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There are things like the UN Sustainable Development Goals , but what is it really going to take to bring about the change that I think so many people really want to see? That's the million-dollar question. Socially speaking, we're living in a world of constant disruption and change. It's not yet clear if the change that's happening is for good or for bad.

The critical skill of empathy is under constant threat.

For instance, are we creating more inequalities with technology or are we actually getting close to equalizing things? We're living in a digital age where there's five billion pieces of content put out every day and yet you have communities and cultures that are more polarized than ever.

So is content the answer?

One would think that if we're at the point in human history where we have the incredible ability to put out content every day that we would live in a world where there'd be more understanding -- more empathy, and less war, less discrimination, xenophobia, racism, and displacement. And yet there's huge polarization between cultures. The critical skill of empathy is under constant threat. I think, culturally speaking, we need to change systems that are outdated, that are still playing by the old rules. Why aren't we valuing empathy skills -- skills for creative collaboration, skills for interpersonal communication?

Skills that won't be replaced by a computer. How are we when it comes to our own empathy capacities? It's up to you and it's up to me and the generation coming up to search and value that change from within before we talk about disrupting the systems around us. A lot of of us are just running in the dark.They're not taking the time to stop and see for a second. Certain flares pop up in history where people can finally see what's around them -- something like the Arab Spring or the civil rights movement. People could stop and see that's where they should go. But right now that hasn't happened. And it's disturbing. But we can change.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Correction: We previously referred to MIT's Solve Initiative as the "UN Solve Award." The award isn't affiliated with the UN, but a pitch event involving #MeWeSyria was held at the UN. We regret the error.