Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship for Refugees in MENA

Over five million Syrian refugees have fled the war to neighbouring countries (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey). Refugees now account for 30% of Lebanon’s population, the highest concentration in the world, and over 70% of these are destitute and living in vulnerable conditions according to the UNHCR. In Jordan, over 90% are living below the poverty line. Many refugees have exhausted their savings and in some host countries they are faced with increasing barriers to accessing public services, including with respect to food, housing, and healthcare. While Syrians make up the largest group of refugees, there are also large populations of Palestinian, Yemeni, Ethiopian, Iraqi, and Sudanese people who have been displaced.

While the UNHCR and NGOs strive to meet refugees’ basic needs, the protracted situation is placing a strain on the public services and economies of host countries, which threatens social, political, and economic stability in the region. Given these challenges and the increasing likelihood that this situation is long-term, there is a need for innovative solutions to not only ensure basic needs are met and mitigate instability, but to invest in and harness the capabilities of refugees to contribute to the sustainable development of MENA.

In the last two years, many social innovators have started initiatives to both help refugees and the wider society. Some of the main sectors of focus, which are at times overlapping, are employment, education, the environment, and financial inclusion.


Obtaining work permits is exceedingly difficult for refugees, meaning many have used up their savings and are either idling, which is incredibly disempowering, or doing odd informal jobs when they can, which presents many issues, especially for women. To address this, NaTakallam (“We Speak” in Arabic) has recruited Syrian refugees to teach Arabic lessons over Skype to students around the world. Displaced people have generated over $230,000USD through their work with NaTakallam. Basmeh wa Zeitouneh, established by Syrian refugees in Lebanon, combines vocational training with income generation. The organization teaches embroidery, computers, and English to Syrian and Palestinian women, and the embroidery pieces are sold abroad which provides an income for the women and to sustain the program. A small grants program has also been set up, in which candidates receive training, write a business proposal, and receive in-kind funding to set up their own shop.


According to a 2018 report by KidsRights, more than 40% of all school-aged Syrian children living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq still do not have access to education. For the hundreds of thousands of young Syrians who are out of school, the future is beginning to look bleak; this will have long-term negative effects not only for these children, but their home and host countries. Despite pledges, donor funding for education remains limited and restrictive policies have kept refugees out of school.

Thaki, based in Jordan, empowers refugee and disadvantaged children alike to learn through self-paced, motivational electronic tools. The organization collects retired electronic devices from corporations and individuals, loads them with high quality software and educational content, and gets them into the hands of young refugees. To date they have distributed over 430 computers which are touching the educational lives of over 4000 refugee and vulnerable children. Relief International is approaching education in a non-traditional way: they are operating nine Social Innovation Labs within refugee camps in Jordan. Over a four-month period, youth develop competencies in problem-solving, teamwork, and creative troubleshooting, as well as hard skills such as computers, photography, and English. They are then supported to propose creative solutions for social issues in camps; initiatives are pitched and the most feasible are selected and implemented. As of July 2017 nearly 600 participants have gone through the programs.


The Syrian refugee crisis is unique in that a large portion are living in cities rather than only in camps. While this can provide increased opportunities for refugees, it has placed a strain on environmental and energy infrastructure in the cities.These are also challenges for the camps, many of which are overcrowded and under resourced. Addressing both the strained waste infrastructure of Beirut and the employment needs of refugees, Recycle Beirut hires Syrian refugees as materials sorters, warehouse workers, managers, operations managers, drivers, and outreach coordinators to both tackle the waste problem and increase the profile of recycling in the city. Evaptainers, based in Morocco, address energy shortage and food storage issues in camps and remote areas through the creation of a lightweight, portable refrigeration unit that requires no electricity and produces no greenhouse gas emissions.

Financial Inclusion

There are a vast amount of ‘unbanked’ individuals in the region, including both refugees and migrant workers. This creates challenges around making payments, receiving aid payments, and saving generated income. To help integrate disadvantaged refugees integrate into the marketplace and provide a path toward economic resilience, Boloro MENA and BanQu have developed a portable payment system that will allow users to have a unique identity, a legal source of funds, and enable the purchase of goods and services.

MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab’s “Innovate for Refugees” challenge prize acted as a catalyst for several of these examples. The prize started in 2016 and has completed two competition rounds, with hundreds of thousands invested in innovative solutions for refugees. Before Innovate for Refugees began, there were few examples of SI for refugees in the region, highlighting the importance of support for the growth of the sector.

With no end to the refugee crisis in sight, and repatriation or resettlement in third countries unlikely for the vast majority, social innovation focused on integration and co-creating the future will be crucial for sustainable development.

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