They never intended to work in refugee aid. Then war broke out in their native Syria. Today, the medical doctor Firas Alghadban and the marketing expert Yasmin Kayali run aid organizations in Lebanon – and try to give refugees what they most urgently need.
"It's important to be with the people and to understand what's on their minds," says Dr. Firas Alghadban. The first question that he asks in job interviews is therefore: "Are you willing to give out your phone number to everyone?" What would be unusual in most companies is a prerequisite for working at Endless Medical Advantage (EMA). The ten full-time employees are always reachable. With a mobile medical practice, Dr. Alghadban travels daily from the city of Bar Elias in Lebanon to Syrian refugees in camps in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley. When the war in Syria began in 2011, many people fled across the border to the valley. One million Lebanese people live in this region, as well as the 330,000 registered refugees. The Lebanese state has reached its limits providing for them – and international organizations simply can’t fill the gaps. The refugees therefore started to set up aid organizations themselves in Lebanon, for example Firas Alghadban and Yasmin Kayali. They receive support from a collective of international foundations and non-profit organisations, including the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
It's a warm spring day, snow lies on the mountains in the distance, while the midday sun shines on the tarpaulins of the tents at Camp 068. Children play on the path between the tents and Dr. Firas opens the bus door to his practice. There is a bench in the vehicle with a box of medication on it: headache pills, antibiotics for infectious diseases, and lozenges for dry coughs. The first patient climbs in through the side door. Six-year-old Ghafran suffers from earache and fever. "Say aaahh," Firas Alghadban asks, gently pressing the child’s tongue with a wooden depressor so that he can look down his throat. He checks for fever, inspects the eardrum, and listens to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Ghafran is given liquid paracetamol. "I know all of them," says Alghadban after the door has closed again. I know their stories."
Like that of 48-year-old Fadila, who fled Raqqa with her family. She has been seeing Dr. Alghadban for five years. She has diabetes and has been feeling unwell for days. After a short conversation, Firas Alghadban sends her to an inpatient clinic to get a blood test. EMA will cover half of the cost. Fadila is grateful. There is no stationary medical care in the camps. Fadila says that visiting a doctor in Lebanon usually means a lot of time and money. "Sometimes they don't treat you because you're Syrian," she says.
"It's important to be with the people and to understand what's on their minds."
Firas Alghadban often laughs with his patients. But there’s been a lot of pain in the life of the 37-year-old doctor. He fled his homeland, a small town 60 kilometers from Damascus, in 2017. He crossed the rough mountains on foot and reached the Beqaa Valley with 600 US dollars in his pocket. "I was sad for four months. I was far away from my family, lost my big house with a big garden." Then he decided to go to the camps as a volunteer with an organization and treat people. "I thought it was better to help than sit around at home." When the project was over, he just kept going. In 2018, he met a friend from the UK who arranged a private loan for him, which he used to finance his first small bus and to found Endless Medical Advantage.
In the meantime, EMA has a larger vehicle in which two doctors can work at the same time. The number of staff has increased to 25, including some volunteers. The organization looks after 40 refugee camps, operates two permanent clinics outside the camps, a dental practice, offers physiotherapy for people with disabilities, and thus provides medical access to a total of around 50,000 people from Syria and Lebanon.
It's not as if Firas Alghadban was the first to have the idea of a mobile practice in refugee camps. Other aid organizations have tried it before – with moderate success, as the doctor says. “International NGOs need time to respond to emergencies such as extreme weather events. We start right away when we get a call.” Flexibility is also crucial. “I decide on the spot when and where to go, depending on how many calls I get from a camp. I don't spend money unnecessarily to wait around in one place."
His wife and children are now with him, and the family all lives together in Beqaa. As he drives back from camp, he greets several people from the window. "My biggest concern is that people ask me for help, and I can't help them. Cancer treatment costs 4,000 US dollars. We can't afford that, and that weighs on me." Still, he doesn't want to worry too much about EMA's funding. “We started with volunteers, and we can continue working with volunteers. If tomorrow we couldn’t pay the wages, the team would still work.”
Doctor Firas Alghadban from Endless Medical Advantage visits Camp 068 for Syrian refugees in the Beqaa Valley, where he and his team provide essential medical services.
New location: Yasmin Kayali is standing in a narrow alley, the walls of the houses are unplastered, the electrical cables above her head are so low that she has to duck down to walk beneath them. When it rains, the street is charged with electricity, she says. Camp Shatila in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, established in 1949, was originally intended to house Palestinians. Today around 37,000 Syrians live here – alongside 20,000 people from Palestine.
Here in this place more than 10 years ago, Yasmin Kayali and her colleagues founded the Non-Profit Basmeh & Zeitooneh. When the war broke out, the Syrian woman lived with her Lebanese husband in Beirut and commuted between the countries. She owned a marketing company in Aleppo but wanted to help and so distributed food, medicine, and blankets to compatriots who had fled in Lebanon. As more and more people there fled the war, Kayali gave up her company. Together with a Syrian friend, Fadi Hallisso, she founded the charity with funds from family, friends and other Syrian expats. In 2013, they started their first program, a women’s empowerment initiative which was a women’s embroidery workshop in a new building in Shatila camp.
Today Basmeh & Zeitooneh is now one of the largest refugee-led organizations in the world, with 350 employees in Lebanon alone and other centers in Turkey and Iraq.
The name of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, which means "The smile and the olive" symbolizes the idea of the organization: the projects should not only serve people’s needs but also their souls – bringing smiles to their faces. The olive stands both for nourishment, but also for peace in the region which is the ultimate aim of the organization. The organization’s first project and one of Yasmin Kayali's favorites is the Shatila Studio. In this workshop, artisan women embroider a wide variety of products ranging from handbags, cushion covers, or denim jackets, and sell the products online, in expos and in a small shop in the camp. But instead of teaching more and more women to embroider, sew or crochet, the studio is now being spun off from the organization to become a social enterprise further empowering the women not only in artisanal skills but also in management, accounting, and finance.
The Shatila Studio in Beirut was the first project of the aid organization Basmeh & Zeitooneh. The women embroider bags or pillows, which they sell online and in a small store.
"None of us had worked in humanitarian aid before," says Yasmin Kayali about her co-founders in the organization. “We were engineers, lawyers, marketing-specialists. But we wanted to make a difference.” Through hard work on the ground and partnerships with global NGOs, they learned to lead and grow an organization. And today they play the role of incubating smaller initiatives and organizations to help them grow to their full potential.
Basmeh & Zeitooneh now runs six community centers in Lebanon including two schools in Shatila and the Beeka Valley for almost 3500 children. It offers English, computer courses and training courses, for example on media skills or business management. And it gives grants for projects and business ideas. The conviction behind it: aid should play the role of developing peoples’ skills and abilities and enable people to take care of themselves. "Our door is open for everyone," says Kayali. “Anyone can approach us with their needs. People stop us on the street and talk to us.” And when Basmeh & Zeitooneh can't help, it refers people to other organizations.
"Our door is open for everyone. Anyone can approach us with their needs".
To avoid conflicts, Basmeh & Zeitooneh also helps the host communities. Because of the economic crisis and high inflation in Lebanon, many Lebanese are also dependent on aid. After the devastating explosion in Beirut's port in 2020, Basmeh & Zeitooneh offered help in the working-class district of Karantina. Take, for example, the baker Sleiman Fayyad, whose shop was destroyed. Not only did he receive help to rebuild his bakery, but he also took a course in management. Today he sells manoushe: small portions of pizza topped with olive oil and thyme, a breakfast dish that people can afford and from which Fayyad can cover costs.
Back in Shatila camp, Yasmin Kayali proudly watches the seamstresses in the Shatila Studio, who should soon be able to make it on their own. "I’m deeply impressed by the resilience of the people who work day in, day out," says Yasmin Kayali. It’s a misconception that refugees are waiting for aid, she says. “They are brilliant people who just need a chance. We employ people from the camps or neighborhoods where we serve in each community center. This allows us to better connect with the community and to understand their needs and help the families - both directly and indirectly.”
Local refugee leaders and their organizations (RLO) deliver dignified, impactful and cost-efficient solutions to their communities. However, they have largely been deprived of recognition and resources from the formal refugee response system, which has been struggling to provide adequate protection to a steeply growing number of forcibly displaced people. Along with international foundations and NGOs the Robert Bosch Stiftung aims to shift power to refugee leaders in the Middle East and North Africa: strengthen the role of RLOs, as well as support refugee communities to address their needs, to speak in their own voice, and to organize for broader change. So far in 2022, the initiative has provided 1.35 million USD to refugee-led organizations in Lebanon.