Defender of the displaced: Rouba Mhaissen puts the world to rights

The Syrian-Lebanese economist and activist favours advocacy now over anger in her humanitarian mission to protect refugees

The founder of Sawa for Development and Aid, Rouba Mhaissen, in a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Courtesy: Rouba Mhaissen
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Rouba Mhaissen was on a spring break in Beirut to visit her parents when she heard about the 40 families fleeing lives that had become intolerable over the border in Syria.

It was 2011, when the term “Syrian refugees” did not yet exist, and the arrivals were a harbinger of something inconceivable to Ms Mhaissen back then – the largest displacement crisis of our time.

Little knowing that the families would still be refugees more than a decade on, the 22-year-old student at the London School of Economics raced off to see what they needed.

“I took the family car and drove to meet the families to offer them help,” she tells The National.

“My parents were very worried. At the beginning of my work and until this day, they worry about me because there are risky situations.

“You get threats, and our advocacy work, in particular, can be very controversial. But they believe in the cause and support me.”

Fast forward a decade, and Ms Mhaissen is in London to appear at a charity event run by the Hands Up Foundation as the founder of Sawa for Development and Aid, a grassroots organisation that offers protection, education and relief for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Rouba Mhaissen at a demonstration in London. 'I never knew this would be my career,' she says, 'I thought I was going to be an academic.'  Photo: Rouba Mhaissen

Sawa, which means “together” in Arabic, now has about 400 employees, many of whom are from refugee communities, and operates in 130 camps.

In some ways, it is a continuation of work that the young Rouba began as a child in Beirut and Damascus, where she would often volunteer to assist orphans, and refugees from Palestine and, later, those from Iraq.

“I never knew that this would be my career,” Ms Mhaissen says. “I thought I was going to be an academic.

"When the war started in Syria in 2011, I had already applied for my PhD and had no idea I would only end up being a part-time academic.”

Born in Beirut, a “surprise” 10 years after two brothers and a sister, she had been gently steered towards academia by her Lebanese stay-at-home mother and father, a Syrian businessman.

She claims to have been raised as a very spoilt last child yet her parents convinced Ms Mhaissen against studying her heart’s desire, theatre, because it was not what they described as a rigid path.

“I definitely think that, if I was reborn, I would be a dancer because I love to dance and perform,” she says.

A young Rouba in a long gone period of peace in the garden of the family home in Syria. Photo: Rouba Mhaissen

It was not to be. Ms Mhaissen grew up going to school in Beirut because the education was deemed better there, and then driving as a family two hours to Damascus for the weekends.

After an undergraduate degree in economics at the American University of Beirut, she embarked on a master's in development studies at the LSE, followed by a PhD in gender and development at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Somehow, in the middle of all these studies, she found the time to start Sawa, through which Ms Mhaissen unsurprisingly gives priority to education.

Of prime importance to her is that refugees acquire skills to live in dignity, take ownership of their lives and rebuild their communities themselves.

The demands have been many, and, with the spread of coronavirus, she thought that perhaps she might finally learn what it is to relax a little.

“I love, love, love travelling, learning about new cultures, new food and new countries," Ms Mhaissen says. “But with my son now it’s very hard."

She shuttles between southern Turkey, Beirut and London with her husband, a one-year-old and another baby on the way.

The pandemic gave rise to a more acute need for aid than ever, although one silver lining is that the whole world has for the first time experienced what it is to be refugees – at least the uncertainty, the inability to plan ahead and lack of communication.

“Camps are one of the hardest environments to sit out Covid as there is nowhere to self-isolate, no internet or devices for home-schooling, and gender-based violence rose dramatically," Ms Mhaissen says.

“People talk about refugees and their ‘resilience’, a term that is so misused. Conditions for refugees in host countries and their neighbours are constantly terrible and getting worse all the time.

"A Syrian family in Lebanon has to move their tent three times on average in winter when it floods, and then people wonder why they get on boats. It’s because they have no hope.”

Over the years, Ms Mhaissen has received many accolades and honours, including being named on the 2017 Forbes 30Under30 list of most influential people in Policy and Law.

There was also the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award and the Rafto Prize “for defending human rights from the local to the global level for people living as refugees”, both in 2019.

She has been invited to conferences, summits on Syria – at one in Brussels she met her husband, an activist from Aleppo – and this year became the 10th Arab woman to address the UN Security Council.

Late last month, days befor 27 migrants died in the English Channel, she was at the Opera Garnier in Paris being presented with the International Diane von Furstenberg Award alongside businesswoman and philanthropist Melinda Gates, CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward, Burmese human rights advocate Wai Wai Nu, and climate change activist Vanessa Nakate.

She took the opportunity to tell the room full of European policymakers and philanthropists that attempting the crossing is not an illegal act.

“You have the right legally to apply for asylum in whatever country you are in,” Ms Mhaissen says. “We need to live up to our responsibility to these people.”

She also talked about the refugees stuck at the border of Belarus and Poland, and of one in particular, Ahmed, who had grown up in a camp, but was the first of the refugees to be buried officially after he drowned in a river there. His mother joined the funeral on a conference call.

“I reminded those listening that this was a woman who had been pregnant with him, who had celebrated his birthdays, who had brought him up like any mother, and who was now connecting with him on social media, just like [those in the audience] used social media to connect with their loved ones during the pandemic … except this was his funeral.

“Everyone was really moved and many were in tears. I always try to humanise it for the wider public, and I use the word ‘humans’ as often as I can when I talk about refugees.

"‘Refugee’ carries a lot of legal rights with it so while there is certainly fatigue associated with the word, it’s not a redundant word that we should stop using.

"Politicians, on the other hand, want us to call them migrants because it sounds more scary.”

The citation on the DVF award was for Ms Mhaissen’s “dedication and fierceness to support displaced Syrian individuals and families”, which world leaders gathered at the Support for Syria donor conference in London a few years earlier experienced in full force.

She was the first speaker up and was introduced by then UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who said: “Rouba Mhaissen, you have the floor. Two minutes.”

But a stern-looking Ma Mhaissen retorted that, as one of the few Syrians at the event speaking in the name of Syria, she wasn’t sure that she would stick to two minutes. She was at the podium for nearly nine.

It was a passionate speech in which she criticised “Fortress Europe”, her “token presence at an ad hoc event for which the priorities have already been pre-determined without our involvement”, and counter-terrorist legislation stopping funds being sent where they were most needed.

“Don’t fight the wrong people, guys,” Ms Mhaissen said.

She said she could see good leaders in the room but hoped for greatness from them along the lines of "the next Martin Luther King, the next Benazir Bhutto, the next Churchill, the next Madeleine Albright, the next Mandela of our time ...

“Each one of you can be that person,” she told them, “Remember that.”

Ms Mhaissen smiles at the memory.

“I realised that those in power have incredibly thick skin," she says. "They are inured to what the situation is on the ground.

"I used to be very angry and lead a crazy life where I would come out of the field where kids had to step over their parents’ dead bodies to get to safety, and then you’re invited as the token Syrian to an event in a five-star hotel where people are drinking champagne and eating caviar.”

With a dawning realisation that advocacy, not anger, was the way to go about beating the system, the focus has since been more on changing laws that help refugees and doing the day-to-day work that affects people’s lives.

Rouba Mhaissen, above in Akkar, northern Lebanon, says that her spirituality has been of great support throughout her journey: 'Knowing that God has been alongside me all along has helped'

Her spirituality has been of great support throughout. “Knowing that God has been alongside me all along, and my faith, have helped me along the way,” she says.

Ms Mhaissen’s message to those gathered on Wednesday night in the 17th-century Great Hall of Lambeth Palace at the annual Singing for Syrians carol concert will be comparatively gentler in nature.

The event raises funds for Hands Up Foundation’s humanitarian work in Syria for which Sawa is a partner on educational projects.

This year it will feature the author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan, Citizens of the World Choir, actress and activist Joanna Lumley and actor Tom Hollander.

She will, she says, of course push everyone to donate to the foundation’s Big Give Christmas Challenge as a firm believer in how the deeds of the few can transform the lives of the many.

“I always say that what goes around comes around, and the more we give the more blessed our lives are,” Ms Mhaissen says. “It’s like investing in the best thing ever.”

The memory of an email received from a young Icelandic citizen will also be shared. It arrived in her inbox at the time of a terrible massacre in Syria, with the sender asking what help he could give.

Shocked, Ms Mhaissen recalls staring at the message for a long time, wondering how to answer a person on a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic Ocean.

“I told him, ‘If you want to help Syria today, call your mother. Just call your mother and see how she is doing. We are in a world of small circles and they are all interconnected …

“Sometimes,” she says, “it’s best just to start local.”

Updated: August 11, 2022, 8:00 AM