Syrian who made it big in the US wants to give her homeland's children a helping hand

Rania Succar's charity provides educational opportunities for Syrians at home and abroad

Jusoor runs refugee education programmes for close to 15,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. Photo: Jusoor
Powered by automated translation

For Rania Succar, there are not enough hours in the week.

Last year, she was made chief executive of Intuit Mailchimp, a multibillion-dollar marketing company with 1,500 employees and 13 million global users. On top of that, the San Francisco-based Syrian American helps head education non-profit Jusoor.

Jusoor is the brainchild of Ms Succar and a group of other Syrians who came together more than a decade ago, motivated by their desire to change the fortunes of the country’s young people.

“One of [my motivations] was when I was visiting family in Damascus with my siblings [as a child] … and I thought about how young Syrians coming back [to visit from overseas] could teach a class in English or run a camp, that there would be a two-sided benefit,” she says.

Years later, a gathering in Damascus in March 2011 that brought together Syrian Harvard graduates and others further fuelled ideas about how to connect Syrians at home with those overseas.

“The conversation was all about hope and opportunity,” she recalls.

Twelve years later, Jusoor runs refugee education programmes for close to 15,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and has secured 390 scholarships for students to study at elite institutions such as Oxford University in England and Columbia University in New York.

It also assists students secure places in institutions in areas with large Syrian communities, such as in southern Turkey, and organises entrepreneurial training and awards funding to start-ups run by Syrians and others across the Middle East.

Jusoor’s wider aim is to fight against the growing possibility of a lost generation of young Syrians due to ongoing economic hardship in the country.

In honour of her work at Jusoor, Ms Succar this week will receive an award from the Centre for Arab American Philanthropy.

“One of the things that we want to do is to increase the expertise that’s connected to Syria – for better policy and business outcomes – because that would mean a better body of research that would then exist for Syria,” says Ms Succar.

There is also a multiplier effect in play, she says. Several early participants in Jusoor programmes have since formed the Syrian Youth Empowerment Initiative, which helps young people apply to and prepare for university.

“They’ve had a tremendous impact helping students getting into top universities,” she says.

One beneficiary of the programme is Warda Sahtout from Damascus.

The daughter of Palestinian and Syrian-Kurdish parents, Ms Sahtout graduated with a bachelor's from Damascus University in 2014, at the height of the conflict.

“It was a difficult experience due to the prevailing political and social circumstances. [However] one thing that characterised my experience at that time was a profound sense of mission,” she says.

“I woke up every morning with a clear goal and a solid determination to create positive change.”

After graduating, Ms Sahtout worked with NGOs in Damascus operating in conflict-affected areas across the city, but she felt the need to acquire further training and skills.

She first heard about Jusoor through a boot camp it ran for start-ups. Later, she saw an advertisement for scholarships.

“‘This is for me,’” she recalls thinking. By 2018, she had won a scholarship, through Jusoor, to attend Columbia University.

“I will be grateful my entire life to Jusoor. This opportunity helped me know my abilities and how I can contribute to the world,” she says.

“They helped me not only access a world-class education but professionally helped me gain more exposure to cutting-edge research and a network of professionals.”

Today, Ms Sahtout works with non-profit Compliance and Capacity Skills International, where she was recently made director of project management. She also provides Syrian students with academic guidance, helping to mould future peacemakers.

“My aim is to empower them with the skills to make a positive difference,” she says.

She met Ms Succar in person for the first time at a Jusoor gala last year.

Syrian musician hopes for brighter days as future hangs in the balance - video

Syrian musician hopes for brighter days as future hangs in the balance

Syrian musician hopes for brighter days as future hangs in the balance

“She’s an inspiration to many women,” says Ms Sahtout. “She’s always served as a role model for me.”

The road for Jusoor has not always been easy. The conflict in Syria has killed about a half million people and displaced more than 12 million. Today, more than 90 per cent of the population lives in poverty, according to the UN, with access to a quality education out of reach for most.

What’s more, building a non-profit and creating institutional sustainability amid the broader tumult has been challenging.

“It’s very easy to get people together and have a project. But how do you scale it after five, 10, 20 years and keep it growing?” Ms Succar says. “We ensured the funding sources were diverse and constantly injecting new growth and focus.”

For Syrians seeking to team up with Jusoor, the non-profit co-founder has ideal candidates in mind.

“We look for individuals who have excelled both academically and have leadership traits,” she said.

“We’re looking for people who we consider to be change agents that have demonstrated an impact on society around them, that they can lead and organise and mobilise.

“The biggest advice I’d give is to have tremendous tenacity and determination to succeed. It might feel hopeless, but what I’ve seen from Syrian youth is this absolute determination.”

Updated: September 22, 2023, 6:09 PM