Meet Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din, a Global Citizen of America Using Storytelling to Help Refugees Heal
"I felt helpless. And then asked myself, 'well am I?'"
Global Citizens of America is a new series that highlights Americans who dedicate their lives to helping people outside the borders of the US. At a time when some world leaders are encouraging people to look inward, Global Citizen knows that only if we look outward, beyond ourselves, can we make the world a better place.
As the first American-born person in his family, originally from the disputed territory of Kashmir, Mohsin Mohi-Ud-Din was “shuttled back and forth between there and the US” throughout his youth. And it was this experience of jumping between these vastly different countries, and as he says, “seeing, touching and feeling inequality and social injustice,” after 9/11 hit, that inspired him to tell stories that fought polarization and inequality.
It is this steadfast belief in the power of storytelling to build bridges that drove him, “with no money, no formal training and the knowledge that I would make mistakes,” to set up a program in 2009 to help street children and migrant youth in North Africa. There, he was able to provide 300 children with tools for educational and emotional development through creative communication.
Out of this project ultimately came MeWeSyria, which Mohi-Ud-Din started in 2015 as an initiative that enables refugees to create narratives so that they can practice teamwork, leadership, and self-expression and ultimately embark on the complex journey toward healing the trauma that forced them to flee their homes.
Mohsin’s work could not be more vital today — as the world currently faces the worst refugee crisis since WWII. And as reported by Médecins Sans Frontières on Lesbos last month, the levels of PTSD, self-harm, and suicide attempts among the refugee population are on the rise. We managed to catch Mohsin in a rare quiet moment to hear more about the work that he’s doing as a true Global Citizen.
What was the catalyst to starting MeWeSyria?
I was working with the UN, for the department of public information— working across communications and running campaigns for the public. So I had access to a lot of information. And I couldn’t stomach it. I felt helpless. And then asked myself, “well am I?”
I had so many reasons not to continue my journey. It would have been so easy to stay in my comfort zone, at my job in New York and watch it unfold on TV and say “what a shame.” But at that point I realized I could not give myself excuses and just had to go for it, knowing I’ll make mistakes but knowing that I have the passion and proof that I have a methodology from my work in Africa that might serve these brave youth, who are fighting invisible battles internally every day that are not being addressed in the media nor in humanitarian aid.
And what were the first steps you took to starting it?
I literally just went for it. I got connected with this incredible NGO, Questscope, who recognize that we need to be willing to try out new approaches for the ever growing issue of the refugee crisis. They were open to trying out my idea, and then we spent months partnering together and piloted it in Zaatari refugee camp populated by over 200,000 Syrians, one of the largest refugee camps in the world.
And we started to see the tangible impact— the transformations of these refugees— within those two months. So it just took off from there, once people saw what the impact was.
Could you explain a bit about how the organization works?
As Director of Storytelling Innovation for Ashoka's Youth Venture, we are using storytelling as a vehicle that gives exercise to critical skills that a young person needs to thrive in a world of constant change. These changemaker skills include: Empathy, Collaboration, Leadership, Creative Problem-solving.
Me/We's storytelling methodology is one slice of our global Changemaker work with educators, schools, youth and our organizations. #MeWeSyria is the version of our storytelling program that supports young refugees by syncing personal social and emotional development with workforce skills development.
Simply put, we provide the space for a young person to practice leadership and creative expression, and that’s transformational. Especially for a young Syrian refugee who is surrounded by conflict, concrete walls and barbed wire. And there’s no trees, or grass or birds flying around.
MeWeSyria is actually helping them unleash their imaginative thinking for the world, to make the world lighter. Connecting them to their inner change-maker to flip the narrative to the outside world. That’s the power that comes with being a human being that we take for granted everyday.
Ultimately, we’re decentralizing the power of narrative and storytelling, so that it first becomes a tool for changemaking, for building resilience and inner strength and community building. But we’re also seeing that the process of storytelling is a way to decentralize tools for any person to be the provider of psychosocial support for the person next to them.
And why is it so important to be able to equip refugees to replicate their own MeWeSyria hubs?
The trauma and the violence is so pervasive that whether you’re an illiterate 60-year-old farmer or a 15year-old who had to run away from your home and your high school because of violence, all of those stakeholders are forced into a position where they have to provide psychosocial support to the person next to them or the person suffering in their family, to their friends. So everybody, whether they want to or not is forced into a position as Syrian refugee is forced into handling trauma and being a psychosocial support agent. Through MeWeSyria, they can become equipped to do that.
And it shouldn’t just be a clinical psychologist or a Ph.D. in an ivory tower, who knows how to handle PTSD and other social and emotional challenges, we need to start decentralizing this knowledge and these tools so that anyone can employ them. Because that’s the reality for Syrians— the situation is so bad that everyone is put in that position of needing to provide this kind of support.
Finally, of course, it makes the initiative self-sustaining. Because rather than waiting for funds from foreign NGOs, or simply doing our job then leaving, instead everything is founded on empathy, which means you’re co-creating with the target population and they can sustain it themselves.
What would you say to people who ask: 'Why support MeWeSyria of all the organizations working to fix the refugee crisis?'
Having done this for several years, I know that you can’t talk about humanitarian support or youth education—or any of these development terms— if you’re not addressing social and emotional development of a young person. Before they step into a classroom, they are wrestling trauma and the narrative of a world that has failed them on a daily basis. If you’re not addressing that at the beginning then you’re not going to have any success in cultivating sustainable educational development of these young people.
As Stephen Hawking once said, “the greatest achievements of mankind came from talking and the greatest failures came from not talking.”
What about some of the science behind it— I know you’ve worked with cognitive scientists on the program— how does storytelling work to heal?
In neuroscience there’s a lot happening now in terms of studying how our brains respond and are activated by stories. It proves our brains were built to operate in patterns. If you study a brain as it’s hearing a story, you can see the regions of the brain that are activated and when you present a report of just facts and figures you’ll see far less regions of the brain activated. And there are studies in which scientists have analysed the blood of people and they’re finding that when exposed to stories and connectedness, actually changes the brain chemistry, which influences how our behavior and how we live.
I’ve heard you mention that MeWeSyria is not simply about helping the individuals heal, it is also about helping whole communities, countries even— can you explain this a little?
We have a world where 5 million pieces of content are added to the internet each day, and you’d think with that amount of content our world would understand each other so much better, with so much being shared how could we not? However, we have siloed and not connected communities of concern, so we need to push ourselves beyond the echo chamber of what we know, and really put our values into action. And storytelling is the best tool to do that. You can’t disrupt a system without mindset shift at a local level, and it’s been this way since the beginning of time.
One thing that we say on our program at MeWeSyria is that one narrative is dangerous. It’s dangerous for me, as a person, my family, my community and the world. And you can apply that to anything you see happening. Our world is on fire because of the existence of predominant siloed narratives – and these narratives are driven by one story.
What has been the best moment?
Working with Syrian changemakers, who have every reason to give up on a world that fails them on a daily basis and instead of suffering in the dark they’re choosing to light a candle, that’s inspiring every day.
And my favorite moments in the program come from starting in a place of tragedy and uncertainty and when you create the space for empathy to be exercised what can happen is to overturn that darkness, and that snowballs, it’s contagious and everyone discovers themselves as changemakers and connected to one another. You can actually feel when a room changes in terms of connectivity and you can see when a person starts to control the darkness that has been arresting their emotional development— it’s palpable.
One of the exercises we have is a video blogging exercise— and we give them certain prompts to run with, to film themselves doing. And for many of them it’s the first time they’re seeing themselves on film. Imagine, these are people that are late teens, twenties and thirties, and when they hit that button to record on a laptop, everytime there’s a fear, there’s a hesitancy, all these reasons not to do it. They push that button, to give themselves permission to be a changemaker, be a history maker not just a memorizer.
These are invisible battles not being reported about, these refugees are winning these battles every day and they don’t celebrate it.
What’s the toughest part of what you do?
Through the nature of the process of the program, there are lot of instances where our Syrian brothers and sisters isolate themselves, break down, cry and can’t breathe over the very real trauma they have experienced.
And that’s a tough process to go through, and it’s scary, but it works, and that’s why the program is being adopted by local refugees. It’s why it’s a localized organization, not run by foreign NGOs.
Because the end goal is that they will go back to Syria one day — Inshallah — and when that happens they are going to need to be community builders, helping to repair their homes, able to provide psychosocial support to the person next to them.
Stepping through darkness is a scary process. Every time I do this it’s scary and uncertain. But you can’t let fear paralyze you from taking a step — as you know, it’s the same for Global Citizens!
What are your hopes for the future?
To grow. We have more than 60 Syrian refugee teachers, youth volunteers, youth mentors that are currently replicating it. By August it will be more than 50 MeWeSyria hubs and it will have reached more than 500 self-replicated refugees.
We’re grassroots and we’re growing and we won at this innovation summit recently at the UN organized by MIT. We just expanded to Lebanon in February, Turkey last year and we’re going to go back to Jordan this year but we want to expand it even further and also bring it Germany, Canada, France, Brazil, and other countries where refugees exist.
Now we know it works, we just need to scale it.
Mohsin Mohi Ud Din is the Director of Storytelling Innovation for Ashoka's Youth Venture, and the founder of #MeWeSyria. Follow: @mohsindin, or @youth_venture, and @mewesyria