When talking about refugees, the focus tends to be on shocking statistics - casualties, poverty rates, and the need for humanitarian assistance. Whilst awareness is crucial, we should also be celebrating the incredible achievements of those who have overcome so many obstacles to create a positive and prosperous future for themselves and others. As we celebrate Refugee Week 2022, we have compiled five of the most inspiring stories which demonstrate the sheer determination and courage of those who are forced to leave their homes and rebuild their lives.
Yusra Mardini was 14 years old when the conflict in Syria started, she was a young swimmer already competing with the Syrian national team. She lived in Damascus which was devastated by the war. In August of 2015, four years after the war began, Yursa and her sister were forced to leave their family and flee. They flew to Istanbul and traveled up the Turkish coast where they took an overcrowded dinghy to the Greek island of Lesvos. The dinghy had more than twice the amount of people it was designed to hold and soon the engine failed.
Yursa and her family were among four passengers who got into the sea to prevent the boat from capsizing. They swam for three and a half hours dragging the boat with a rope, battling waves and fatigue for the survival of the group. The sisters had to overcome many more obstacles as they made their way to Germany where they were eventually granted asylum. In June 2016, Yursa was one of ten athletes selected for the Refugee Olympic Team. At the Rio Olympics she won her 100m butterfly heat and competed in the 100 meter freestyle. She hopes to compete in future olympics but also works to raise awareness and support for refugees as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. You can find out more about Yursa Mardini and support her work by buying her book Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph or watching her appearance at Jusoor’s 2020 gala here (skip to minute 35.30).
Sami Al Ahmad is an inspiring Syrian entrepreneur who was one of the first participants in Jusoor’s first Entrepreneurship competition. In 2012, he decided to leave Syria to pursue his education in Egypt. During his transition to a new university, Sami realized that many students are facing difficulties regarding their university applications and registration. That was when he came up with the idea of “Khutwa”; an initiative that helps Syrian and foreign students to continue their academic journeys in Egypt.
When Sami first heard about Jusoor’s Entrepreneurship competition, he knew it was the perfect opportunity to present “Khutwa” as a startup, and to see where he can go next. After winning the competition, Sami channeled his efforts into fully understanding the needed skills and network in order to build a successful startup. Jusoor’s entrepreneurship team supported Sami creating a new mindset that will serve him in his journey. He found himself asking the right questions, investigating success stories in the region, and thinking of all the different ways he can grow and scale up his project. Read more about Sami’s journey and where he is now here.
Tareq Hadhad’s family owned a successful chocolate company in Syria until the factory was destroyed as a result of the Syrian conflict. The family fled to Lebanon and eventually found asylum in Nova Scotia, Canada. The family faced barriers with language, skills, and recognition of qualifications. Yet, the small community rallied around the family and built them a new chocolate factory which enabled the family to build a new business with a new purpose and name - Peace by Chocolate. The business gives back part of their profits to community organizations and have formed the Peace On Earth Society. Peace by Chocolate won the StartUp Canada’s National Newcomer Entrepreneur Award and the Business of Diversity Champion Award, Tareq was named one of the Top 25 Immigrants in The Maritimes, and was selected by Google as the National Hero Case for 2018.
Tareq has spoken at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Conference, TEDx events, World Bank, OECD, Chambers of Commerce Dinners, and keynote presentations. He has received acknowledgement from Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and has done over 500 interviews with different news teams across the globe as an advocate for peace. Recently, Tareq has published a bestselling book Peace by Chocolate describing his family's extraordinary journey, which got adapted into a movie in 2022. Watch the trailer here.
Nada was born and raised in Damascus. She developed a passion for drawing and art at an early age. As a result of her mother’s work, Nada spent most of her childhood between the historical sites of Damascus, from Umayyad Mosque to Qasr Al-Adm. She shaped her love and appreciation towards the art scene and the architectural heritage of the city she loved. Nada studied Fine Arts in the University of Damascus and focused on visual reaction. She then traveled to Saudi Arabia and Dubai and worked in a gallery there. At the same time, she was teaching art to young individuals as part of her project Nada’s Picasso.
Nada then moved to the United States in 2013 where she was granted asylum. In 2012, Nada heard about Jusoor’s scholarships, and she was awarded the 100 Syrian Women, 10,000 Syrian Lives scholarship from Jusoor in 2016. She joined Syracuse University and finished her master’s in Museum Studies. Nada now has more than 15 years of experience in art education and curatorial work. Recently, she founded QUARTSX, a project in which she offers innovative solutions for art collections, museums and galleries. Check out Nada’s inspiring project here.
Steve Ali is an entrepreneur of multiple businesses, a writer, public speaker, and a podcast host. In Syria, Steve was studying to become an architect but when continuing his studies became impossible he traveled to Greece and then to Calais in a dinghy. In a powerful and thought provoking article for GQ, Steve describes how he had to process this forced change and uncertainty by maintaining the hope and belief that everything would soon return to normal. In The Jungle, the infamous refugee camp in Calais, Steve started creating jewelry from old nails and materials he found, learning simple techniques from a volunteer who had previously worked as a silversmith. After finding asylum in the UK, Steve launched his jewelry business Road From Damascus based in Camden, London, for which part of the profits go to his mothers charity in Turkey which teaches refugee girls a craft. He has since partnered with the award-winning Guilty Feminist Podcast and received support from designer Vivienne Westwood.
Steve now also works on a podcast, GrownUpLand, and has authored a number of articles about his experience. He has spoken at many events and campaigns including several for Amnesty International. Becoming frustrated with news articles discussing the refugee crisis without including any quotes or opinions of refugees, Steve established the Refugee Media Center. The center connects journalists with displaced and undocumented refugees to enable their voices to be heard.