Rouba Mhaissen on the challenges of aid work

This interview was conducted by SOAS student Shreeta Lakhani, Gender Studies.

We had the incredible opportunity to sit in conversation with inspiring SOAS alumna Rouba Mhaissen, who has recently been recognised in the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 influential people for her work supporting Syrian refugees.

Rouba completed her PhD in Gender and Development at SOAS, where she explored women’s empowerment in low-income Beirut. She is currently the CEO and founder of the SAWA Foundation, which supports Syrian refugees.

Dr Rouba Mhaissen

How does it feel to be mentioned in the Forbes Under 30 List?

I didn’t expect to be on the list at all.  It feels good in the sense that I can use this opportunity to further my cause and further the work I’m doing.  It also puts me in a position of responsibility as it sheds more light on our work and therefore I have greater responsibility towards the people I’m working with, those I serve and the communities I am speaking on behalf of.

What kind of work are you involved in?

Since the start of the Syrian Revolution, I have very much been involved on two levels: campaigning and lobbying/advocacy. The more I’ve been involved on these two levels, I’ve come to realise that it is vital to build solidarity with citizens in other countries especially after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. This is because it is these people that have voted these governments in, which means that we really need to start bottom-up when raising awareness and talking to people.  Contrary to the dominant narrative, the average citizen in democratic countries has agency and power.

In Syria, we have lost half a million people and twelve million have been displaced because we wanted democracy.  This is why in countries that have democracy we really need to push people to use it as there are people out there who are fighting to be able to enjoy the same agency and power.  Hence, I am targeting my efforts on average citizens by going to school, working with university students, and working in public spaces, mosques, churches and community centres in order to build international grassroots solidarity.

How did you become involved in working with Syrian refugees and starting the SAWA Foundation?  

Back in 2011 when the Syrian Revolution began, I was visiting my family back home in Lebanon and I heard about the first forty Syrian families crossing the border over into Lebanon. At the time, there wasn’t a ‘Refugee Crisis.’ So I got my car and drove down to meet up with these families and inquire what they needed. After that, I wrote a text message that was shared widely and people started contacting me because they wanted to donate and help. Little did I know that five years down the line, this initiative was going to become an organisation registered in two countries and working in eighteen different camp locations.

Since your involvement in the Humanitarian sector, have you seen a change in the approaches being used in the Syrian context?

To be honest, the humanitarian system is very messed up. Even though I keep meeting great people who are doing great work, there is something inherently wrong with the system as it stands.  It is highly bureaucratic, it does not respond to emergencies, the work is not sustainable, it does not create agency, and it simply turns people into beneficiaries.  I don’t think that one person or a group of people can turn the system around overnight, but I believe in small changes and small wins.  This is why we need to keep engaging and keep the conversation going and keep trying.

For instance, our lobbying and campaigning efforts have definitely changed things on a micro level. Sometimes even changing one-tenth of a policy can affect the lives of ten thousand people.  In this sense we need to keep engaging and not leave that sphere. However, we need a lot more effort to change it on a macro level. There is a need for more localisation of development and aid work as well as attempts to create more sustainable interventions rather than the current one-size fits all approach that people are implementing everywhere. Furthermore we need more transparent governments and institutions, which we can hold accountable.

How is the SAWA Foundation’s approach different from other NGOs?

We have come up with our own programmes that operate on three main principles: dignity, ownership and agency. We want to work with communities and every single member. Hence we have developed a holistic approach working in the areas of relief education, development and livelihoods.

What are some of the challenges the foundation faces?

Donors: For the first three years, we decided that we were an organisation that stemmed from the heart of the people, and we would not take any institutional funding. We raised cupcake money, artists like Mashrouh Leila and others fundraised for us. However, we grew in our scope and ambition and needed institutional money. But this sort of big money comes with ties that risk contradicting our own principles and ideas. It is extremely difficult to find unrestrictive funding, creating the dilemma: should we turn a blind eye so that we can help more people – or should we simply stick to what we believe in? A perpetual question that is never easy to answer.

Maintaining staff: SAWA works with the community for the community and in this sense; SAWA’s team is part and parcel of the Syrian communities themselves. However, they can’t stay in the region for too long because they will be prosecuted or they can’t find access to work permits and if by chance they do, than they are often get poached by International NGOs who pay them larger salaries.

Sustainability: The dilemmas continue. How can we think long term about our programs when funding is intermittent? Shall we plan to open more educational centres or will the host country’s policies towards refugees change? How can we spend money for the organizational sustainability- to further develop our hierarchies, our office, our image- when we can educate one more child with it? Yes, true, we need to be sustainable, but our conscious will never be clear.

Finally, I wasn’t born a CEO and didn’t study it, or have previous experience. I just became one. So managing a team and working in a war environment is difficult. Particularly because it is challenging to find the energy to deal with your insecurities on a minute-by-minute basis, leading a team and finding the wisdom to be your own shrink, 24/7.

What is a day in the life of Rouba Mhaissen like?

The past six years have really stressful. I was doing a PhD full-time, teaching at SOAS, managing my organisation, and doing advocacy and lobbying work. I am always on the go. Not a single day is the same. However, working with refugees is very inspirational because you get to learn resilience.

Do you have any advice for current SOAS students?

Follow your passion. Stay engaged politically and with society. It doesn’t have to be across the world, it can be in your community. Don’t be scared. In 2011, I was asked to speak in the British parliament about Syria but I had never spoken in public about Syria before. Yet I still said yes! So just jump at opportunities and do not be scared. If you have an idea, don’t wait until its perfect because it will never be perfect, start and try and make it perfect as you go. This sounds very cheesy but I saw my life motto on a jumper and I decided to just do it.

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