An interview with Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder and CEO of Karam Foundation.
You recently launched Karam House – an innovation community center for Syrian refugee teens. Can you tell us a bit more about the project: What is the goal? What’s the role of innovation in it? How many teens are included?
Karam House is an innovation community space designed for Syrian refugee youth. Our first Karam House is located in Reyhanli, Turkey, a town that is miles away from the Syrian border and home to 125,000 Syrian refugees. This is a place where they can find tools, build skills, and connect with mentors to build a better future for themselves. We think the word “innovation” has been overused, especially in the humanitarian world, to the point of losing its meaning. So we actually broke down the meaning of innovation to fundamental components: ideas, creativity, mentorship, technology, community. Our tagline is “I have an idea, I can make it at the Karam House” and Karam House will serve as a space where ideas by the teens and for the teens can come to life. Syrian refugee youth are among the most vulnerable group of refugees that have lived through these last 6 years. They are at an age where they are still discovering themselves; many of the teens have experienced serious gaps in their education; some of them know what they want to be, many of them don’t. We believe that if these kids have access to the proper resources and positive role models, that they will become leaders in their communities and mentors to the younger generation. Karam House offers classes in technology, journalism, entrepreneurship, arts, and language acquisition. Currently we are working with 100 Syrian teens (50 girls and 50 boys) who are our first Karam House “members.” Our goal is to have 1000 members by the end of 2017.
How much does the future of philanthropy depend on innovative fund raising? What’s the place of such initiatives in the changing world of philanthropy?
Due to the nature of this conflict, many times we always find ourselves in crisis mode, running a nonprofit that is responding to this generation’s worst humanitarian crisis. We find ourselves in unpredictable situations and as much as we try to plan for the future, Syrian families are constantly in the crosshairs of a violent war. Karam is committed to providing emergency aid to Syrians on the ground, but we are also invested in developing long-term programs for families and youth so that they can rebuild their lives with confidence and dignity. Providing aid today and an education and dignified livelihoods for the future is our mission. This kind of innovative approach that evolves with the communities we serve and the changing conflict needs an innovative fundraising approach as well. Creative online crowdfunding, strong social media and communication with our donors, and planning diverse campaigns that have a strong social activism component are all critical to expanding our donor base.
In light of the Syrian refugee-crisis taking place in the moment, what concrete steps can the average citizen take to help this cause?
People often want to know what they can do instead of donating, and the truth is you can speak and you can advocate, but refugees are living a very scary transition, crossing dangerous borders, learning new languages, working odd jobs to simply survive. Their lives are unpredictable and they are in need of security and a sustainable source of support. Our thousands of donors who donate even $20 truly make a difference in people’s lives. You can make an impact by donating a small amount every month so that one refugee child can get on a bus and go to school.
The US has resettled just over 14,000 refugees, that is less than 1% of the number of Syrians that have fled Syria. So when we are talking about refugees, we need to include those that are not living in formal camps, that have not been issued visas, that do not have access to large resettlement agencies. Our focus at Karam is providing these communities with sustainable sources of aid, asking them what do they need, and figuring out a way to provide them with this aid in a sustainable fashion. Syrian refugees and Syrians displaced inside Syria are the co-authors of our programs. We encourage our donors to join us in this co-authoring approach to provide aid that truly makes a difference in a life-affirming way to thousands of Syrian families and kids.
Being informed on the crisis, raising awareness for the cause, and advocating for the rights of Syrian refugees (and all refugees and marginalized communities) are imperative actions for concerned citizens. We are living in perilous times across the globe. There is no excuse for anyone not to be involved in helping others whether that means acting in your own local community or working for a cause that’s far away geographically but impacts us all.
The name of your foundation means that your actions today will affect our lives tomorrow. What actions should be taken today to improve the lives of people tomorrow?
Karam means generosity or giving in Arabic. We have witnessed firsthand the impact of our programming on families and children and youth that we work with. Kids who have been out of school for 2 or 3 years because they have to work in order to support their families, have benefited from our sponsorship program and some are on their way to higher education opportunities. When donors contribute, they are investing in these kids; by helping them access education today, you are helping them build their futures. There are not many ways that you can lend support to communities that are not within your physical reach, but through gestures like this, you are actually making a much larger impact than you would think.
Your Foundation puts emphasis on projects initiated by Syrians for Syrians. What lessons can the « Global North » or philanthropy in general, learn from these initiatives?
For us, it is crucial to build a strong relationship with the people on the ground. We want to provide aid that matters and help communities access resources that they need in order to sustain their lives. We do not believe in band aid solutions, rather we believe in providing aid in a dignified manner by helping Syrians help themselves. Our team works with both internally displaced communities and urban refugees, groups of people that do not have access to formal distributions facilitated by large humanitarian agencies. They want to depend on themselves and they don’t want handouts. They want to live dignified and confident lives. We are proud that these communities are co-authors of our programs. We are evolving as an organization as they adapt to their changing realities on the ground. Being flexible and open to changing the scope of your programs to meet the needs of the people you serve is one of the most important aspects of any humanitarian organization.
How does Karam Foundation measure its impact?
This year we have hired an entire team to oversee our programs in Turkey. Our staff in Reyhanli, almost all Syrian refugees themselves, oversee our education programs and our sponsorship program. We have an office in Syria with a team that oversees our Smart Aid programs inside Syria and facilitates the aid distributions there. It is very important to us that we are in constant communication with the communities we serve so that we can be sure to meet their needs. Having staff on the ground is crucial because we always have someone checking in with the families we sponsor or the kids that we are sending to school, that way we know whether or not the programs we’ve developed are beneficial. We measure impact by how people’s lives have changed through access to our programs. Deep-impact and sustainable interventions in a focused community means much more to us than sheer numbers.
Can philanthropy alone make Karam’s vision come true or do you see it being a joint effort?
I think without philanthropy, the work we do would not be possible. Our generous supporters and donors are the reason we are able to have the freedom and independence to create our life-affirming programs. We are so grateful for the deep trust that people place in Karam to do this work. As importantly, having a team that believes in your vision is extremely important. In the last year alone we have grown so much, from having 2 full time staff to now having a full time staff in both Turkey and the US is huge. And finally, it’s vital that people that are involved in this work have a true understanding for the situation on the ground. We have learned so much simply from being present and traveling frequently to the border and meeting with refugees, and asking them what they need so that we can provide them with aid that matters so that we can really make a difference.