A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“If you want to change the world, make your life about others. And everything will come back to you.” — Dr. Rouba Mhaissen
A film commissioned by Vital Voices
Running time: 4 minutes
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SAWA for Development and Aid, founded and directed by Dr. Rouba Mhaissen in 2011, responds to the needs of refugee Syrian families who have fled to the North of Lebanon.
Since its founding, it has grown to include individual activists, both local and international, who work “together” (‘Sawa’ in Arabic) to share their knowledge to support Syrians, internally displaced or refugees.
The SAWA team supports the right of Syrians to live in dignity and freedom, and to be proactive individuals in their host communities. Humanitarian, developmental and civic work has to strive to achieve social justice; and so SAWA aims to work with individuals and communities through holistic interventions towards a society based on democracy, pluralism, and values of citizenship and human rights. It offers a range of projects, from providing health kits to running programmes that improve literacy and tackle gender-based violence. In short, it is about Syrians supporting one another to build a civic and democratic Syria once back home.
Among its many aspects of work, it supports economic empowerment of refugees. NaTakallam (‘we speak’ in Arabic) is a start-up that works with SAWA to connect with refugees in need of job opportunities. Doctors, professors and lawyers are forbidden from working in their fields in Lebanon, thus NaTakallam hires them and other Syrians in the country (as well as in Egypt, Germany, France and the Turkish city of Gaziantep) to provide Arabic language lessons focused on the conversational Levantine dialect to people around the world through Skype.
Underprivileged women refugees are taught crochet and art, and offered psychological support. Their products are sold in Lebanon and overseas, in fairs and shops. To the beneficiaries, “SAWA is the new Syria”; it offers an example of how the battered country should become after the war, an equal society where women are not second class citizens.
A local fashion and accessories brand has partnered with the organization on a project hiring women residing in informal refugees camps. They are paid per piece and attend workshops on accessories’ creation to expend their talents and expertise. MasterPeace is a project launched in 2018 in which Syrian women learned the sewing and knitting techniques so they will be ready to work on a trendy fashion line.
A key part of SAWA’s work is operating several informal schools in the Bekaa valley for hundreds of Syrian child refugees who would otherwise not receive any form of education as Lebanese public schools cannot accommodate all the refugees’ communities in schooling age. Many of the teachers are from Syria, enlarging the beneficiaries from the project.
Scottish composer Nigel Osborne, a former professor of music at the University of Edinburgh, works with SAWA on its schooling program. He says creative arts give the children a “soft landing” back into education, build self-confidence and overcome the trauma they have faced.
Creative exercises are combined with the use of technologies to offer new and engaging ways of learning science and other disciplines.
In addition, the organization sponsored in 2018 the establishment of a football team of refugees who used to be professional players back in Syria.
In addition, shelter and infrastructure building, rehabilitation and maintenance are some of SAWA’s most impactful projects in Syrian camps, especially in preparation for the harsh winters. The relief team normally start their work with infrastructure activities: inserting piping systems, installing electric counters, digging wells, fixing roads, lifting tents from ground level; as well as building, restoring and rehabilitating tents, community centers, schools and playgrounds.
Until the end of 2016, the organization worked in 22 informal camps, supporting with shelter and infrastructure activities. It was able to rehabilitate more than 800 tents in Bar Elias, Saadnayel, and Dalhamiyeh; around 5600 individuals were supported.
Refugees receive food and clothes as well. Since 2015, SAWA involved hundreds of volunteers in its winter campaigns to support 70000 individuals. It distributed more than 1100 tons of firewood benefiting 65000 individuals, as well as blankets to 15000 persons.
The organization also opened its own dental clinic with the support of UK based doctors in order to offer free medical consultations and medications. By end of 2017, it has fixed six clinics across the Bekaa and two mobile clinics moving around 18 camps.
Over the past 7 years, SAWA for Development and Aid has been committed to winterization efforts including the distribution of warm clothes in the camps along the Beqaa Valley. The below freezing temperatures and inadequate housing make the winters more difficult on the refugees.
SAWA’s agro-ecological training farm is a project that promotes acceptance and common values in practice, as Lebanese and Syrians work together in harmony. Other than the families in camps and schools that eat from the harvest they produce, this project benefits 30 Lebanese and Syrian farmers from 18 to 30 years old. Participants from both communities are enrolled in a 25 days training to enhance their know-how on environmentally friendly techniques for the purpose of shifting their activity to organic farming.
Text adapted from Peace Insight.