As War in Syria Rages on, Activists Scramble to Fill the Void

#MeWeSyria uses innovative storytelling to enable millions of displaced people to tell their stories.
By Nick Chedli Carter

This piece was originally published by VICE on August 11 2017.

The 21st century has failed to distinguish itself from the preceding hundred years when it comes to avoidable deaths of large numbers of innocent people. The seven-year-long conflict in Syria is a hard example of the worst in humankind and a failure of our modern times. The ongoing civil war has left more than 250,000 dead, over a million people injured and millions more displaced. It has had major global implications from the sheer number of people seeking refuge in neighboring countries particularly Turkey and already unstable Jordan and Lebanon. World governments have been at a loss on how to deal with the situation and geopolitical drama has stifled any meaningful relief for the people who need it most. This has made the region ripe for terrorist organizations and chaos to flourish, but also has inspired a number of activists and nontraditional players rise to the occasion in search of effective solutions. In the spring of 2017, VICE Impact spoke with activist and former UN staffer (and rock drummer) Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din about the platform #mewesyria, a program of Ashoka's Youth Venture, which was recently awarded an MIT Solve Award. Youth-led platforms like #mewesyria are stepping up to fill a void and are providing immediate assistance to individuals that need it the most. VICE Impact checked in with Mohsin after a recent trip to Jordan about what he's seeing on the ground in refugee camps in the region, and how our audience can help. VICE Impact: What have been some of the big picture developments for #mewesyria?

Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din: Right now we're trying to address the increasing demands from the Syrian brothers and sisters in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon for our program to scale within these countries, and also in Europe. Also, the initial 'Storytelling for Changemakers' program wasn't designed towards mental health and psychosocial support, but now we're increasingly seeing that our young Syrian changemakers are organically using our storytelling tool for mental health and psychosocial needs.

I don't think anything can shock the American audience anymore when it comes to Syria.

We are working with neuroscientists and clinical psychologists on how to infuse the storytelling methodology with more brain science on how trauma impacts the brain, how language impacts the brain and brain chemistry and how people act and react.

What has some of the big picture, geopolitical things that have happened meant for your constituents?

There's a narrative when it comes to how the media and politicians approach refugees. We all know one narrative is dangerous, and they're maintaining the one narrative that refugees are carriers of trauma and violence, just taking and taking and taking.

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But the systemic space for young Syrians trying to contribute in their host communities is shrinking, the space for that, yet the the hunger and talent to contribute from within refugee communities is constant. Systemically, the space for being able to go to school, the space for getting a resident's permit, the space for getting a work permit, the space for having permission to rent an apartment -- those things are shrinking really fast.

What do you think Americans will be most shocked to hear about what's happening right now in Syria?

I don't think anything can shock the American audience anymore when it comes to Syria.

Syrians are being gassed to death, and we saw the pictures of what happened when Alan Kurdi's body washed up on the shores. When another boy was sitting in an ambulance days after getting pulled out a rubble and cameras are shooting there was a couple of days of, "Oh my god, look how sad this is."

I think we have to challenge ourselves as American citizens, and as global citizens, to move beyond sympathy and towards a place of actually empathizing with people from outside groups, and then actually translating that empathy into action. Things that should shock us are not changing anything.

Refugees telling their story. (Photo via Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din)

Do you see themes across borders with young people today?

We see young people expressing that they don't know how to react and find a role and purpose in a world of constant change and inequalities. They are inheriting a world of disruption and change, and that's scary because there is no one approach on how to deal with that. Physiologically, it's hard for the mind and body to respond to constant disruption, especially ones involving loss and trauma.

When you think of the challenges that you and your organization are facing right now, what are the big ones that stick out, specifically ones where people can help?

There's five billion pieces of content put online everyday. There's a lot of noise. People are understandably overwhelmed by the complexity of issues, but the issues aren't that complex at all when you boil it down to how can you connect your passion with a problem and then contribute that to an existing solution like ours. If you are a passionate storyteller, translator, communicator, or you work in communications but you also want to work in social change, then connect with Youth Venture's #MeWeSyria because we need your technical expertise.

#MeWeWeSyria communities. (Photo via Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din)

Funding is a big challenge for us; I am constantly frankensteining budgets at a time where a demand for a program from refugee communities is so high, and that keeps me up at night. I'm constantly struggling with how to do things more sustainably and in a bigger way because the need is so great.

What makes you optimistic about the future? What frustrates you?

What makes me optimistic about the future is young changemakers in our network. It doesn't matter how little resources they have or how little support they have physically, financially, mentally, time wise. They are creating something from nothing on a daily basis, and not waiting for permission to do so. I am privileged enough to be able to be close to the frontlines to have access to those inspiring stories of change.

The thing that's frustrating is there's still a gap between the old world and the new world. There's still a gap between the youth and the youth ecosystem (schools, governments, parents, employers) when it comes to actually giving young people the space to exercise leadership and contribute ideas beyond the superficial way.

READ MORE: #MeWeSyria is Battling Displacement with Social Media Storytelling

What's next? Right now, we at Ashoka's Youth Venture we are developing exciting partnerships where we are going to refine and scale our #mewesyria program with refugees so we have more young Syrian changemakers who are able to replicate our program within refugee communities.

In the long run I want to transfer our storytelling for changemaker program at Ashoka Youth Venture so that it's able to reach non-refugee communities. There are brothers and sisters coming from south and Central America that also should be activated and unlocked in terms of storytelling for change-making. They need mental and psychosocial support as well, and in Europe as well. I want to scale this globally beyond the Syrian refugee context in the long run. In the coming months, we are going to head back to the Middle East region to keep things growing and to keep fighting for decentralizing the power of narrative as a tool for healing and youth-led community-building.

If you're interested in helping out Mohsin's efforts, email #MeWeIntl at and donate to Youth Venture. Or follow updates from #MeWeSyria youth teams on instagram and twitter.

#MeWeIntl x vice