Middle East and North Africa

Flickr/CC/Freedom House

By Maria Bennici 

The Syrian Civil War has stretched for more than four and a half years with no end in sight, and one of the unfortunate consequences of this war has been the displacement of more than 7.6 million Syrians. More than 4 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries, and an increasing number are now heading to Europe, often through means as dangerous as they are desperate, in order to find sanctuary. With the death of Aylan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy who drowned as his family tried to reach Greece, more attention has been brought to the refugee crisis, with pleas for help from governments and people around the world.

Eager to help refugees but don’t have the money, time, or expertise to help in the field? Check out these ways to support refugees without even needing to own a passport.

Flickr/CC/EU Commission | Domiz refugee camp, northern Iraq
Flickr/CC/EU Commission | Domiz refugee camp, northern Iraq
  1.       Volunteer in Your Community: Research small grassroots NGOs and nonprofitsnon-profits in your area to see if they offer help to refugees. For instance, the International Rescue Committee operates in 22 cities throughout the United States.
  1.       Donate money: Cash donations are an efficient way to give to organizations that are able to work immediately with refugees. With cash, the organizations are able to allocate the money to the greatest needs, plus cash doesn’t come with shipping and handling fees. You can donate to large organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or with smaller organizations with a more specific focus that appeals to you personally. UNHCR also has partnerships with a variety of organizations, including IKEA and UNIQLO so you can support refugees through shopping with these partners. If your company or organization is also interested in supporting refugees, plenty of refugee NGOs form private-sector partnerships as well.
Flickr/CC/Freedom House | Syrian boys 2012
Flickr/CC/Freedom House | Syrian boys 2012
  1.       Educate yourself: The Syrian refugee crisis is a complex and nuanced situation, with plenty of challenges to understand, including the difference between “refugee” and “migrant,” government obligations to provide asylum and why Syrians can’t just “go back home.” Read this article, which describes how the situation has gotten out of hand, watch this Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode, and explore this section of Human Rights Watch.  
  1.       Speak out: Unfortunately, the lives of refugees are not magically fixed once they reach sanctuary; often, they are faced with truly staggering amounts of xenophobia and racism. With the new knowledge you’ll have gained through step three, speak out for refugees when you hear ignorant, bigoted comments being made about them.
  1.       Donate items with care: Many people are moved to donate items they no longer need to those in need. While this generosity is admirable, sometimes donating items can be detrimental to the rebuilding process (this editorial, published after the Nepal earthquake in April 2014, explains more). If you absolutely must donate items, research organizations in your area and find out what items they actually need in order to avoid inundating their space and ability to organize.


Bonus: Refugees Welcome, an AirBNB-like website that allows Germans and Austrians to open their homes to refugees, is currently in the process of opening in other countries. Get involved here!


Flickr/CC/Marco Raaphorst

How One Digital Language Platform Is Employing Syrian Refugees  

By Minji Hong

So, you decide one evening to head out to a bar with a friend to spend some time together, and just have a chat on what you’ve both been up to these days over a few drinks. Now, replace the bar within the comforts of your home, the friend with a Syrian refugee physically living across the ocean, and the drinks with the Internet, which virtually allows you two to talk to each other through the computer screen in front of you. Most importantly, imagine the whole chat was in Arabic. This is exactly the kind of scenario NaTakallam, which literally translates to “we speak” in Arabic, is trying to write as a new digital language platform, by pairing Arabic language learners with Syrians currently displaced in Lebanon to facilitate conversation-based interactions online, which benefits both you and the underprivileged.

Driven by their mission to promote “a different kind of Arabic learning,” this startup was recently launched in July by three graduates of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, namely, Aline Sara, Anthony Guerbidjian and Reza Rahnema, all of whom originally hail from the Middle East. It is a relatively fast-growing company with currently home to 80 students, 15 conversation partners, with an overwhelming number of new sign-ups (500!).

Based on their belief that immersion is the best approach to learning a language, and in response to the growing popularity of the Arabic language worldwide, and to feed the rising demand for learning its diverse range of colloquial forms, as well as the precarious situation the some 1.2 million Syrian refugees find themselves in Lebanon with an incredibly unstable job security that for the most part take a toll on their health, NaTakallam is a one-stop solution.

If you are learning Arabic, you’d pay about $15 per session, seventy percent of which goes directly towards contributing to the livelihood of your very own Syrian conversation partners in Lebanon. Moreover, these sessions are unique in that you get an interactive approach to learning colloquial Arabic with a native speaker whilst gaining insight into the real struggles these refugees are confronted with in their daily lives, getting a whole different perspective from the information the media feeds you. Not to mention, the duration, time, and the format are flexibly tailored to your availability and needs!

NaTakallam financially and psychologically supports the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. By establishing a partnership with the SAWA for Development and Aid, a Lebanese non-profit organization it provides these refugees with paid job opportunities as “conversation buddies,” while fostering a relatively secure and safe, but most importantly casual and amicable environment, for these refugees to find solace from their realities in constant turmoil in building an interactive friendship and a bridge between different cultures.

Stay tuned to hear more from NaTakallam: Website, Twitter, Facebook


Flickr/CC/Jonas Hösler

By Minji Hong

There are many ways for one to contribute to various social causes, be it through making donations, raising awareness, holding fundraisers, or simply signing petitions. Small or big in scale, we can all lend a hand in making this world more peaceful. With the aid of technological advancements over the last few decades, it has become increasingly more globalized by allowing people from one country to help out a cause taking place half way across the globe, or merely expanding their awareness of events taking place far away from home. In light of the famine in Ethiopia during the early 80s, a group of famous American musicians got together to release a worldwide hit single titled “We are the World,” whose proceeds went on to contribute to starvation that Africa had been suffering for a long time. 25 years later, a group of famous artists all over the world convened to produce a remake of the single for the Haiti Earthquake in 2010. They have proved that one can marry music and technology to create a powerful synergy effect in raising awareness and further compel people to take action. So these 3 Arab artists in the music industry have used their talents to release songs dedicated to bringing to light the plight of various conflicts in the Middle East – to show the power of music in bringing about social change.


Michael Heart, Website, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook

“It was my way of speaking up about this terrible injustice… Some people march and protest and some people write letters to the powers… I wrote a song; A song that seems to have hit a global nerve and resonated really deeply all around the world.”  

Making his debut in 2008 as a Pop/Rock recording artist, Michael is now widely recognized as a humanitarian singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles. His legacy as a humanitarian artist in the music industry took off with the release of his massive hit single “We Will Not Go Down,” which gave him a phenomenal worldwide recognition for this powerful and moving song that captured the plight of Palestinians in Gaza by having more than 1 million views in Youtube within just a month of its release. From then on, he wrote songs about devastating conflicts and events around the world, those especially concerning the Middle East, where his roots belong. Indeed, originally born in Syria as Annas Allaf, this Syrian-American artist chose to use Michael Heart as his stage name. Although he has worked with many artists as a producer and a songwriter, Michael’s passion for writing songs in support of various causes lives on, with the most recent one being, “What About Us” dedicated towards the Syrian conflict, “Freedom” inspired by the Arab Spring, and also one dedicated towards the victims of the earthquake in Haiti titled “Help is on the Way.”



Maher Zain, Website, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook

“My music is a message of Islam. But I want people to understand what Islam is about. It’s a message of peace, brotherhood, humanity, respect, and love.”

Maher Zain is a Swedish R&B singer like no other. He is a Lebanese-born Muslim singer, whose success is admired by and inspires young Muslims that Islam and modernity can co-exist. Not to mention, he is perhaps one of the highest-profile artists in the modern Islamic music industry. He rose to fame with the release of his debut album titled “Thank you Allah,” which brought him a giant success among Muslims throughout the world. The album was awarded multiple platinum by Warner Music Malaysia and Sony Music Indonesia, and also highest selling album of 2010 in Malaysia. He has also gained worldwide prominence for his two humanitarian songs – “Love Will Prevail (#SYRIA),” whose proceeds were directed to Syrian humanitarian relief work, and “Freedom,” inspired by the uprisings during the Arab Spring. Apart from his humanitarian songs, Maher is also famous for his philanthropic activities, including performing at the 2014 Nansen Refugee Award ceremony and going on a tour organized by Islamic Relief for typhoon victims in the Philippines in 2013.

Flickr/CC/AK Rockefeller
Flickr/CC/AK Rockefeller


Mohammed AssafWebsite, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook

“I have a goal and it’s not fame. I want to influence people.”

Another real-life example of a rags to riches story, Assaf is using his recently garnered fame and success to contribute to the conflict in Gaza, a place he calls home, a place dear to his heart and soul. Born in Libya and raised in the Gaza strip, this young Palestinian singer first gained public appearance through his participation in Arab Idol, an equivalent of American Idol in the Middle East. His heart wrenching performances won him the title as the winner of the second season of the television competition. From then on, he has continued to proclaim his support for the fellow Palestinian refugees through music, gaining worldwide popularity in the Arab world through his rendition of patriotic Palestinian hymns. Thus in a way,  many believe that he facilitates Arab unity through music, especially for the Palestinian cause. To this day, Mohammed stands as one of the most popular artists in the Arab music industry and strives to use his power to influence in order to bring peace to the region. In addition to being declared as an honorary ambassador by the Palestinian president Mahmood Abbas, he is also the very first Regional Youth Ambassador for Palestine Refugees for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency since his appointment in 2013.


Flickr/CC/Jason Howie

By Beatrice Loh


With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat changing the way we communicate, social media has been reshaping our world in recent years. The advent of technology and the Internet has made connecting with people across international borders a breeze. Social media has impacted not just the communication between individuals but also the relationship between corporations, the government, and the general public. Social media has not only changed the way we communicate, but also the way we give. Non-profit organisations have adjusted the way they operate with the influx of social media avenues to raise awareness and funds for their causes.

Here are 5 ways that social media has changed the non-profit world:

  1. Reduced Cost of Advertising

Although setting up a Facebook page or Twitter account might be free, social media accounts for non-profit organisations still require staff to run them. However, compared to more traditional methods such as television and print campaigns, social media is a new low cost avenue that non-profit organisations can take advantage of. Apart from reducing cost, social media campaigns allow non-profit organisations to monitor and mine these campaigns for data to better plan budgets, cut costs, and ultimately make more money available to the actual cause itself.

  1. Increasing Awareness for Social Causes

Social media has given non-profit organisations an avenue to raise awareness for social causes through posts that generate ‘likes’ on Facebook and videos and posters that can be shared on numerous platforms.

The ALS Challenge was a viral campaign by The ALS Association, which fights Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. People would either donate $100 to the charity or take a video of having a bucket of ice water dumped on themselves. They would then nominate others to do the same in the video before posting it online. This led to an explosion of videos and donations for the organisation, with celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Chris Evans and Benedict Cumberbatch participating. Matt Damon also joined in and used the opportunity to promote awareness about the water sanitation crisis and Water.org, the organisation he co-founded to combat the problem. Although a significant portion of the Internet audience was more interested in watching funny videos of their friends and favourite celebrities than they were about ALS research, the campaign succeeded in generating a large amount of awareness and funding. Since July 2014, The ALS Association has received more than $115 million in donations.  In comparison, in the fiscal year ending January 2014, revenue from all sources totalled only slightly over $29 million.

A Mashable survey on the link between charity donations and social media has shown that 68.8% of respondents felt that social media was “extremely effective” or “very effective” for spreading information about social initiatives, with the vast majority of the survey audience claiming to learn about new social initiatives through social media.

  1. Increasing Speed of Response

Whilst social media has a wide reach, it also allows the quick transfer of information. The speed of social media has changed the way we learn about and respond to events, especially natural disasters. Ease of accessibility has resulted in unprecedented numbers of people being reached in real time. In the wake of devastation, charities can create a status, page, Tweet, or post elsewhere to inform their followers of a situation requiring urgent help and donations, which can be shared and spread in seconds. In the past, charities had to rely on hastily thrown together television commercials and getting hundreds of people to call others and hope for donations.

After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, non-profit organisations used social media to mobilise rescue efforts and to support the community. The earthquake also saw the deployment of one of the most successful text-to-donate campaigns seen at the time. Similarly, when Japan was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, millions around the globe used social media to receive updates on the situation and contribute to rescue efforts and donate money for medical and basic supplies for survivors. During the recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal in April 2015, Crisis Relief Singapore used Facebook to rally its volunteers and managed to create 5 medical teams that were deployed to Nepal within the next month.   

  1. Rallying of Individuals and Small Groups Around Non-Profit Causes

Social media is enabling individuals to create, join and grow groups around issues they care about outside of the direct control of non-profit organizations. Crowd funding websites such as as GoFundMe and CrowdRise have made it easy for individuals to raise funds for social causes special to them.

Social software design is also accelerating this trend. Facebook Causes is an in-app feature that allows users to discover, support and organize campaigns, fundraisers, and petitions around the issues that impact users and their communities. DonorsChoose launched a feature called “Birthday Give Back” that allows individuals to use their birthdays to champion a social cause – instead of a birthday gift, they can share their page and ask friends to donate to their special cause instead.

The rise of social media has led to a more socially conscious population with the right tools to promote awareness and raise funds for social causes that affect their community.

  1. Ease of Donating

Social media has emboldened people to donate time and money not only by making them aware of issues and needs, but also by providing them with solutions to help. Websites like Just Giving, a charity platform that has so far enabled over 21 million people to raise £1.5 billion for over 13, 000 different charities, has made it easier for social media users to share causes and encourage their friends to donate, even to organisations headquartered abroad. Providing a number of ways to donate online and via text, Just Giving makes donating quick and easy, encouraging more users to do so.

Another way that social media has increased donations is through increased transparency. Donors are becoming increasingly selective of the charities they want to help, and prefer to see where the money they are donating is going. Social media offers non-profit organisations a platform through which they can share project updates and successes with status updates, reports and photographs. Donors expect updates on funds raised through special events for a specific cause, and the increased transparency on the use of funds have encouraged previously sceptical people to donate.


Flickr/CC/Maya-Anaïs Yataghène

By Minji Hong


Look around you and you’ll realize that every single discernible object had been born from someone’s ingenious mind and wrought by someone’s dexterous hands. Your quirky phone case, the magnets on your fridge, the website you were just surfing, the patterns on your favorite sweater, the traffic lights you come across each day on your way to school/ work. These objects have been designed to serve different purposes, either for a particular function, for pure esthetics, or both! What is certain is that these objects shape our day-to-day lives from how we dress to how we access the internet to read this very article you are reading right now. And so why not use this already enormous base of consumers and scope of impact to design with a social impact to really reach out to a wider audience and maximize the influence with the messages we want to voice?

Flickr/CC/Salih IGDE
Flickr/CC/Salih IGDE

This was the guiding principle behind the theme of “Social Beings,” for the fourth annual Beirut Design Week at the heart of Lebanon in June 2015. As the director of this internationally acclaimed project, Doreen Toutikian affirms the role of design as, “a tool for innovation in social change and business development,” which reinforces the event’s focus to provide a comprehensive platform comprised of various exhibitions, conferences, workshops and open studios as a means to foster the growth of creative communities and design entrepreneurship, facilitate intercultural exchange of skills and experiences, support design as an academic field, and last but not least, developing the importance of designing for social impact.

Beirut Design Week was launched in 2012 as the first of the now 5 design weeks in the Middle East and North Africa Region by the MENA Design Research Center, a non-profit organization founded in 2011 geared towards creating social impact and strengthening the role and appreciation for Design in the region. The platform continues to be the largest event of its kind in the region, welcoming more than 25,000 visitors, inviting 50 professionals, and hosting more than 150 events in about a 100 locations around the city, as well as introducing many startup design entrepreneurs to the market.

Flickr/CC/Francisco Antunes
Flickr/CC/Francisco Antunes

Not only does the event unite people from all over the world to celebrate the creative innovation that design brings to change the world, but also brings to light Lebanon’s rich culture despite the instability prevalent in the region. It has paved a successful path for subsequent additions to the series of design weeks in the region, such as the Bahrain International Design Week, Saudi Design Week, and similar events in Dubai and Cairo.



The 2015 edition of this event featured an international conference in which academics and professionals prominent in the many diverse field of design, such as IBM, Parsons New York, and Instituto Europeo di Design, created an intellectual discourse around the role of design as its use in business and technology to make advancements in society for the better.

As director Toutikian concludes, “Design thinking is about prototyping; it’s about finding problems and streamlining the process of finding solutions. All solutions have an expiration date, so it’s important to focus on the process rather than the destination.”


Flickr/CC/Statsministerens kontor

By Minji Hong

To this day, gender inequality continues to plague the world with women still being at a disadvantage in many sectors of society. They constitute half of the world’s population, work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, whilst only earning 10 percent of the income. The Middle East and North Africa are no exceptions to this trend. In fact, research shows that in 2014, the region is furthest behind from the rest of the world in terms of the Global Gender Gap Index with its highest score below the regional averages for the other regions according to the World Economic Forum. But these female activists and social entrepreneurs are working to pave the way for women to break free from the shackles of traditionally male-dominant societies and realize their dormant potential. In the process, they themselves have become living manifestations of women’s empowerment.


Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan), Website, Blog, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter

“I want to serve the people and I want every girl, every child, to be educated…”

You might think she is an average 18-year-old by the looks of her father’s tweet about being proud of her GCSE results. But of course, she is quite the opposite. Malala first gained worldwide prominence on October 2012 when the Taliban attempted to end her life for her heroic activism against the Islamic militants’ repression of female rights. It was the culmination of her advocacy for education for girls in Pakistan that began in 2009 as she wrote a blog for the BBC. Since then, she has earned countless titles, namely, Youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Runner-up of Time’s “Person of the Year” in 2012, one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People In The World” in 2013, and in 2015, an asteroid was named after her! Now, Malala is also known as a co-founder of Malala Fund, a nonprofit organization geared towards empowering girls through education, initiating projects such as the opening of schools for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon and Jordan.

Flickr/CC/Statsministerens kontor
Flickr/CC/Statsministerens kontor


Maysoun Odeh Gangat (Palestine), Website, Facebook, Twitter

“NISAA FM is all about inspiration and empowerment. Inspiration is very important in our society. Through airwaves we can share our experience and knowledge, and support women to realize themselves.”

Maysoun is the President of NISAA Radio Broadcasting Company and the founder and director of Radio NISAA FM, a women’s radio station based in Ramallah, Palestine. It is the first of its kind to be launched in the Middle East, run mostly by women, which aims to provide a platform to give voice to Palestinian women, as well as men, on issues that have an effect on their lives. Even the station’s name was specifically chosen as the word for women in Arabic. The discussions on the radio range from relatively innocuous questions like whether a man should help out more in the home, to more sensitive issues, such as honor killing and the culture of polygamy. To Gangat, the radio station, established in 2009,  is a way to break stereotypes of Arab women in a patriarchal society where women are still deemed as the subordinate gender. Starting with the honor she received from the Palestinian Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gangat went on to achieve many recognitions for her innovative social entrepreneurship, namely being awarded as one of Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of the Year 2015.


Haifaa al-Mansour (Saudi Arabia), Filmography, Facebook, Twitter

“I have a passion of telling stories, and I know that the stories of women in Saudi are untold.”


Haifaa al-Mansour is a film director with a unique background. She is from Saudi Arabia and the first female filmmaker in a country where public cinemas have been banned since the 1980s. After graduating from the film school at the University of Sydney, Haifaa received international recognition with the premiere of her documentary film “Women Without Shadows,” centered around the restrictive segregated lives of Arab women in Persian Gulf. Soon after in 2012, she made her feature film debut, “Wadjda,” which also revolves around a young Saudi girl dreaming of owning and riding a green bicycle. It entered for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards in 2014. Although at first, it was not intended for the 41-year-old filmmaker to focus her work on women’s issues, she found them too pressing an issue to address, and they continue to be the recurring theme in her films.

Flickr/CC/ Festival de Cine Africano de Córdoba
Festival de Cine Africano de Córdoba


Aysha Al Mudahka (Qatar), Website, Twitter, LinkedIn

“My whole career is about contributing to Qatar’s societal improvement. I want to make a difference to the people of Qatar. My position at QBIC is not only a job; it’s a cause.”

Aysha Al Mudahka is more than the CEO of Qatar Business Incubation Center, a national organization aimed to provide a long-term support system for startups in Qatar. She is also a young female Qatari social entrepreneur with an extensive leadership experience in the field. Aysha rose to prominence by co-founding the Roudha Center with the aim to foster innovative entrepreneurship among women. Her commitment to women’s empowerment essentially began at the Qatar Finance and Business Academy in 2009, where she oversaw the development of various programs such as “Women in Business.” In 2014, she represented QBIC and the State of Qatar during Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the UN Headquarters in New York. Her efforts do not stop here. As one of the board members at INJAZ Qatar, Her contributions extend to her advocacy for youth development as a means to combat high youth unemployment in the Middle East, passion for which she cultivated through her study abroad experience at The Wharton School.


Maria Umar (Pakistan), Website, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn

“The glass ceiling is the ability to visualize getting to the top but not reaching there. In Pakistan for female entrepreneurs, you can neither see what it looks like nor aspire to be something you cannot imagine.”

Maria’s trials as one of the pioneers of a so-called female entrepreneurial revolution are indeed internationally recognized as she continues to manifest her passion for women’s empowerment in her exhaustive efforts to create work opportunities for Pakistani women. Her journey began when she was fired from her teaching position at a private school where she had worked for 3 years before giving birth to her child. Today, she is known as the founder and president of The Women’s Digital League, a company founded in 2009 that strives to train Pakistani women in remote areas of the country in various micro IT tasks, such as social media management. The issue in Pakistan is that not many women get to put the education they received into use in the job market. Now, the company has extended its area of focus to the world and to the other gender by renaming the company to The Digital League, whilst the Women’s Digital League remains an integral project of the company.


Lubna Olayan (Saudi Arabia), Website,


“You need two hands to clap. It is a natural progression and a natural fit of the building of a society.”

Trinity College, Dublin wasn’t wrong when it awarded the 60-year-old Saudi businesswoman an honorary law degree in 2011 for being a “role model for women in the Middle East.” Indeed, selected as one of Forbes’ top 100 most powerful women in the world in 2015, Lubna is famous for, in 2004, being the first woman in Saudi Arabia to give an opening keynote address at a major conference in the country. She is the CEO of the Olayan Financing Company (OFC), one of the largest investors in local and regional stock markets under Olayan Group, a family-run company founded in 1947. Her efforts to empower women began in 1983 when she joined the family business at a time where very few Saudi women had corporate positions. She set a striking path for other Saudi women when she became the first woman to be elected to a board position in the country in 2004. Moreover, she created the Olayan National Women’s Action for Recruitment and Development (ONWARD) the same year with an ambitious goal to have a total of 1000 female employees on board by 2016 in all 30 of the OFC’s companies. Her impressive achievements as a trailblazer at the trenches in the combat for women’s empowerment do not stop here. She was also previously an analyst at J.P. Morgan and is currently a member of the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum.



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