By Mohsin Mohi ud Din and Michael Niconchuk
This article was originally published by UNHCR on October 7, 2016.
In life, there are things we cannot control: where we are born; the color of our skin; our parents; or the rapid pace of change in our personal lives and in our societies.
On the other hand, stories, by nature, are free. In the face of uncontrollable variables, every person, young and old, possesses the power of narrative and the ability to formulate new realities and ideas. Stories are blank canvases in which the author is in control, using the past and the imagination to create a new reality.
When it comes to the story of Syria, and how the international community and Syrians themselves interact with it, it’s no surprise that extremists, political plays, and tragedy colonize the narrative space. It’s also not surprising that the production and consumption of stories of suffering, fear, and violence results in the international community’s desensitization to Syrians’ plight and of refugee youth from numerous communities. But less obvious is the risk of Syrian and other refugee youth accepting a world of consequences instead of innovating a world choices, for an entire generation. This risk carries direct implications for humanitarian efforts and for sustainable peace and development.
Step into the story
A story can be a simulator, where anyone can practice control, exercise imagination, build empathy, and test a range of human conditions, failures, and triumphs.
For most of us, the push of a ‘record’ button on a camera, the push of a key, the ink on a piece of paper seem as though they are insignificant acts. But words and the process of connecting feelings and ideas to paper and media have power.
Check out recent pieces produced and shot by young Syrian refugees from the Darb-Syr community organization in Gaziantep, Turkey during Youth Venture’s #MeWeSyria program. What you see is a finished story, but the real story is what transpired as young Syrians stepped into their stories and connected mind and heart with their breaths. Through collaborative storytelling exercises, young Syrians practiced working in creative teams, leadership, creative problem-solving skills, and connected passions with problems. What was built was not just a video, but a tangible youth-led space for empathy and ideas sharing that lasts beyond the actual days of the workshops and trainings.
The world so often reduces youth’s voices to a whisper. These are the sounds of amplified voices, of stories told with confidence and hope, despite years of efforts to silence them. Here are two youth refugee stories which young Syrians are brave enough to share with you. What are we as the audience going to do with these messages? A first step is to share so that hope and peace are viral, not messages of polarization and hate.
Heal | Empathize | Revolutionize
Humanitarian youth interventions must foster spaces where Syrian youth are engaged as co-leaders who dream, lead and act to rebalance the power of narrative away from extremism, loss, and helplessness and towards healing, empathy, and resilience.
“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. We are choosing to connect with the world and by storytelling, also we are expressing ourselves to all people from our place.” — Syrian refugee, Age 21, with #MeWeSyria in Darb-Syr, Turkey
Just as we pay special attention to tragedy, we, as their audience, should learn to listen better, nurture and value their hope, and take their successes, and not their sufferings, as a rallying cry to protect, support, and value their change-making lives.
About the authors and #MeWeSyria
In recent years, we have had the honor of co-creating, alongside Syrian youth at Questscope and Darb-Syr, a storytelling for changemakers program called #MeWeSyria, where we integrate therapeutic, artistic, and communications frameworks to develop self-awareness, promote recovery and wellbeing, and restore a bit of control and hope in a world of chaos. Youth are not just consumers or containers. They too are the creators and curators. Follow #MeWeSyria to learn more and support youth-led storytelling hubs for social change.
Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din is the Director of Storytelling Innovation for Ashoka’s Youth Venture (@Youth_Venture) and the founder of #MeWeSyria, which is currently running in Jordan with Questscope, and Turkey with Darb-Syr. Follow him on Twitter @mohsindin, and #MeWeSyria @MeWeSyria.
Michael Niconchuk is a researcher and consultant based in Boston, MA, focusing on youth development, violence, and neuroscience. Michael worked as an Emergency Response Coordinator in Za’atri Refugee Camp for three years and worked on the pilot project for the #MeWeSyria initiative in Jordan. He is a Neuroscience and Social Conflict Innovation Fellow at Beyond Conflict.