Democracy building is crucial all over the world as “people power” increases and people want their needs heeded and to have a voice in matters that impact their daily lives.

You want to help Syrian refugees? 3 important ways to help in the MENA region

As Director at NGOabroad: International Careers and Volunteering, daily I have many conversations with people who would like to volunteer in our Syrian refugee programs in Lebanon or Jordan.


I am heartened by the multitude of people who would like to help…by the Europeans especially who have welcomed Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis into their communities; the Germans who share dinners; the Danes, the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Swedes,, the Finns, the Brits…the many Europeans who have opened their hearts and have helped refugees in their community. I am heartened by the Pennsylvania high schooler who I talked to who scurries around gathering houseware and bedding for incoming refugees.


I am grateful that as a world, we are beginning to learn about Islam and the Muslim world. There is a giant uptick in students studying the Middle East and Arabic.  But from my bird’s eye perch, there are some important targets most people are totally missing regarding the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.


1. Disempowering autocrats like Bashir Assad
Five million Syrians fleeing Bashir Assad’s barrel bombs indeed was a crisis. But I believe where our focus needs to be is making sure there are no more Bashir Assads. It was a Kenyan human rights colleague who taught me this: “Yes, all the Kenyan human rights activists were jailed and tortured under Moi. In prison, we planned: “When we get out, we must push for a new constitution that devolves power from Nairobi so there is not so much power in one person’s hands.”


If we do not prevent authoritarian leaders all over the world, we are consigned to play whack-a-mole. We need to build a world where people power disempowers autocrats. We need more political science majors and activists. But do NOT go to dangerous countries!  I recommend reading Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports. Learn about Giulio Regeni. In countries where critics and the opposition are jailed or killed this is a delicate line to walk.  We must be cautious.


2. What were the people fighting for in Arab Spring?

85% of the people coming to me to volunteer with Syrian refugees do not know what the Arab Spring was.  The Arab Spring birthed the Syrian revolution which Assad brutally suppressed.  The Arab Spring was both political – a fight against corruption and human rights abuses e.g. Egypt is a police state – and a fight for economic justice.


The Arab Spring was ignited in Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in protest against government harassment for selling fruit to feed his mom, uncle and six siblings on US$140 per month. (His dad had died when Mohamed was three so he was the bread-winner.) Mohamed had a university degree but unemployment in his town was 30% thus selling fruit on the street was his best option. Protests spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain to overthrow oppressive rulers who did nothing to improve the standard of living or economy.  


In 2011 when the Arab Spring spread, Egypt had an unemployment rate of 11.85%. When I talked to Karim the other day, he totally got it.  His family, as Coptic Christians, fled Egypt in 1995. “Yeah, my cousin in Egypt feels so hopeless. He has a university degree in Computer Sciencebut there are no jobs. He is an Uber driver.”


If we could take the passion directed towards Syrian refugees and direct it toward generating jobs, the entire MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region would cheer, as would the entire world. We need more people to mentor grassroots, scrappy entrepreneurship not glitzy, corporate entrepreneurship aimed at working in technology or Silicon Valley.  We need jobs generators….everywhere in the world.


“It’s the economy stupid” is the slogan that makes or breaks elections in the US… and everywhere because feeding your family is THE most important issue all over the world.


3. Don’t take someone’s job

Studying the Middle East and Arabic? Where are you thinking of getting a job after college -the MENA region? Given the high unemployment rates, please leave those jobs for the people there. At NGOabroad, I also do international career counseling. Let’s talk about where your skills are needed.


4. Conclusion: so what to do?

I thank the many people who have helped refugees, either in the Middle East or in your home country.  I just want us to take this to the next step:  more than studying Arabic or the Middle East.

a. I propose that people study entrepreneurship or economics so they can help generate jobs or mentor people in the MENA region on small business skills.

b. I propose that people study political science and activism – but do not even think of doing such organizing in-country – but at a distance due to safety concerns.


Let’s build a world where there are not leaders dropping barrel bombs and where everyone is prospering.  Then people will not be fleeing their homes. Let’s move to prevent refugees.

Continue Reading You want to help Syrian refugees? 3 important ways to help in the MENA region

Democracy building: having a voice in matters which affect your life

Autumn of 2019 saw an unprecedented number of protests: Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Hong Kong. Lebanon and Iraqi protesters said they were tired of corruption and the billionaires running the country. Chile protesters said that the neoliberal policies put in place by Augosto Pinochet do not serve the people. 

Continue Reading Democracy building: having a voice in matters which affect your life