Integrating storytelling as a tool for healing and community building

It started like this: a small, white video camera; two Syrian youth facilitators; and twenty-five Syrian youth in the Zaatari refugee camp in 2014.
By Mohsin Mohi ud Din, Founder of #MeWe International Inc.

This article was originally published by UNHCR on December 18, 2017.

It started like this: a small, white video camera; two Syrian youth facilitators; and twenty-five Syrian youth in the Zaatari refugee camp in 2014. Now, three years later, #MeWeSyria is a team of more than 50 trained Syrian changemakers who have successfully localized and replicated their own #MeWeSyria hubs to more than 700 refugee youth and caretakers in 8 cities across three countries.

When one actually gives youth a space to dream, lead, and act, some pretty extraordinary moments are possible. Refugee youth are leading younger refugee youth to reclaim control of the narrative of their lives.

But leaders must first be comfortable with allowing youth the space and experience to identify and address the invisible wars within the self. Only then can healing and further development occur. Sounds like common sense, right? But it never ceases to amaze me how few innovations and NGOs actually practice this and mainstream this as part of their DNA.

No, this is not a token ‘give-a-camera-to-a-refugee-project’. Technical capacity and technical innovation continue to suffer a blind-spot of not being co-created with youth, nor are they meaningfully addressing mental and psychosocial support needs of young people.

In reality, a young person writing a blog, taking a photo, or video is great, but it alone is not sufficiently engaging a young person to dream loud, fail hard, and be resilient.

But the process of connecting mind, heart and breath in safe youth-led spaces for interpersonal communication might provide an answer. Through our storytelling innovation with #MeWeSyria, we are seeing youth identify their own resilience assets, while at the same time reclaiming control of the narrative of their lives. This is made possible through storytelling missions founded on a mosaic of creative collaboration, social and emotional learning, basic neuroscience, and media literacy.

“Words are events, they do things, change things,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin.

The stories we tell ourselves–and don’t tell ourselves—-impact our emotions, physical states, our choices, and relationships. The processes of interpersonal communication and collaborative storytelling involve exercising psychological muscles, executive function, and resilience where a person can begin to gradually reclaim control of their physical and mental connection to the environment around them. In MeWe, storytelling allows a space for one to empathize with him or herself, as a step to gradually empathizing and finding a verse to add with the world around them.  

There have been moments of doubt, failure, but extraordinary learning, and growth. Here, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some insights discovered in our changemaker journey so far.


Decentralizing not just the power of narrative, but also tools for brain science and MHPSS.

Storytelling is not just about media making and media literacy. Across our refugee communities, we are seeing that youth are utilizing our storytelling platform as a tool for mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), as well as community-building mechanism. Young people need spaces to step into and explore their own inner narratives so that they can physically and mentally exercise key concepts of empathy, collaboration, leadership, and creative problem-solving. We are increasingly seeing that such youth-led spaces are possible by making accessible scientific knowledge about how our brains work, how communications impacts our chemistry, and how trauma and stress impact the brain. Knowledge of our own biological technology allows for a young person to gradually build control of how the mind and body respond to disruption and challenges.

Equally important, prolonged stress, depression, and trauma among refugees is so prevalent, that there is an increasing need to make accessible tools for peer to peer psychosocial support. We find that whether a refugee is 15, 20, or 40, they are more frequently encountering situations with their family members and friends where they need to perform some type of psychosocial support to someone some suffering in their social network.  Just as how coding and website building are no longer limited to certified coders, neither should basic mental and psychosocial support tools. In the coming months, I am teaming up with neuroscientist  Michael Niconchuk from Beyond Conflict to pilot tools for self-care and MHPSS that will hopefully be localized and replicated by those without a science and health degrees. This is being made possible thanks to supporters such as UNHCR Innovation and the Ford Foundation.

It is possible for a young person to mentally shift from living in a world of consequences, to living in a world of choices.

We may not control the color of our skin, where we were born, or geopolitics, but in the words of Viktor Frankel: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This is one of a few guiding principles of #MeWeSyria, and through the innovation of Syrian youth teams, young people are shifting mindsets away from being passive consumers of a world in constant change, and discovering their capacities for being active creators of a new narrative of the self.

Trauma and stress leave a genetic and physical imprint on a person’s body. But this is not the full story. With routine practice, it is possible to change our brains and exercise greater control of how our brains handle change and disruption. Our brains are not static machines, and by providing youth with accessible ways to understand how their own brains work,  we are supporting a small path to for youth to reclaim some control of their lives, observing gradual shifts in behaviour in some of our youth participants. Some of the shifts we have observed include: quitting smoking, going back to school, not joining a gang/or armed group.

But there are risks in this work…the heart’s work. The risk in unlocking the potential of a young person and sending them back to a system that continues to delegitimize or discourage them. This leads to my second point…

Dig deep to find ways for how the program is applicable to their daily lives and battles.

Too often the burden of change is on the young person. But for youth, especially marginalized youth, there is a real danger of building-up hopes and unlocking spaces of change within a person, only to have that fragile growth eroded as soon as the daily routine and status quo systems around them come into play again. More creative thought and needs-assessment can and should be done to assure that after a workshop or training, youth are being equipped to audit their social network and identify and express their needs to their immediate ecosystem. This is an immediate need our teams are actively problem-solving for in 2018.

Burn-out is real, and it is an epidemic.

On the practitioner-side of things, I am experiencing first-hand and seeing among colleagues how prevalent burn-out is. A dear friend once told me, “In the process of elevating others, we trick ourselves into thinking it’s ok to marginalize ourselves.” That really struck me, and I started to feel it in myself and see it in colleagues around me. Indicators include eating irregularly, short tempers to little things unrelated to work, trouble sleeping and remembering things, and having trouble connecting to the present, when far away from the field. This has led me to realize that more resources and team priority has to be put on self-care and burnout prevention. Otherwise, we practitioners in the humanitarian world will not be able to what we do and last. We should not be ashamed of identifying it and addressing it.

It’s not just about human-centred design, but human-centred operation and replication.

Co-create with the community, and ensure the innovation is self-replicable peer to peer.

If it is no co-created with refugees, and not experienced and replicated by the community itself, the innovation won’t have legs, nor ownership among youth for sustainable replication. Having trainers, volunteers, program coordinators, and monitoring and evaluation teams who are themselves Syrian refugee youth makes all the difference.

Innovating what/who we measure for.

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) are a must-have, but the measures we select, and who the measures are for seem to be outdated or not believed in. MeWe, with partners Beyond Conflict and Ashoka’s Youth Venture, are trying to build measures for mindset shifts and behavioral changes related to mental flexibility, emotion regulation and other categories. Additionally, we are trying to form the questions based on feedback from our target communities, while also giving agency for the Syrian replicators to conduct the evaluations and data gathering themselves. It is definitely complicated, and takes more time, but the upside is that the Syrian replicators will be getting an even deeper understanding of the program’s goals, and feel greater ownership in achieving them. Moving forward, we are challenging ourselves to reframe the ‘why’ for M+E to be a tool for the beneficiaries, not the funders.

A singular focus on refugee youth in a host community is only targeting half the equation.

Parallel to the engagement of Syrian youth in host countries, youth native to the host community must also be engaged in creative and innovative programming so that there is not an imbalance of services allowing inequalities and social tensions to persist. From the #MeWeSyria side, we hope to tackle this challenge in 2018-2019 and run parallel interventions for both Syrian refugee youth, and youth native to the host country.

#MeWeSyria, founded by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din,  is a program of Ashoka’s Youth Venture.

**This article reflects learnings and insights from our recent #MeWeSyria missions in Jordan and Lebanon, co-led by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din (#MeWeSyria/Ashoka’s Youth Venture), and Michael Niconchuk (Beyond Conflict).

#MeWeSyria is both a methodology and youth platform built in collaboration with local community-building NGOs and technical partners like Ashoka, and Beyond Conflict. #MeWeSyria 2017-2018 is being made possible thanks to UNHCR Innovation, and the Ford Foundation. Previous years of #MeWeSyria were supported in part by the German Government and Porticus Family Foundation.

To learn more about #MeWeSyria please go to:

#MeWeSyria on Facebook:

#MeWeSyria Twitter: