Eight years ago, Shefaa Al Refaai and her sister, Refaa Al Refaai, were just two ordinary Syrian girls from Damascus who had just graduated from university with little experience of the world around them. After the troubles of the revolution in Syria at the time, they left to Egypt as refugees – or as ‘guests’ as they prefer to be called.
“We came to Egypt and suffered a lot in the first five or six months, because we did not have any job experiences or any knowledge of the community here, so we tried really hard to integrate, make connections and familiarize ourselves with it,” Shefaa Al Refaai tells Egyptian Streets, “I don’t really like the title ‘refugee’, because I feel as though we are like guests coming inside another person’s home, and like all guests, we should also be protected and cared for.”
Sitting by the sea in Alexandria in 2012, Shefaa and her sister saw a little child play across them. Gripped by emotions of homesickness and estrangement in a foreign land, both sisters debated whether the child was Syrian or not, until Shefaa Al Refaai went to speak with him and found out his Syrian origin.
“We were so pleased when we found out that he was Syrian, and got to know his family. It turned out that they left Syria and stopped in Alexandria to then go to Libya, so I gave them my phone number and told them that if they needed anything I am here to help,” Al Refaai says.
Later on another day at midnight, the family called and said that someone had set them up and that they’re in the streets with nowhere to go. “Because I came to know the country more after living for a longer while, I started to inform the people I know and tell them their problem, and one Egyptian friend was able to help and found a house for them to stay in until they were able to fly to Libya.”
From this experience alone, Al Refaai noticed the great impact it had on one Syrian family, and how two communities – the Egyptian and Syrian – were able to work together to solve the other’s problem. “We said that we should definitely do something and not stop from here, so we started a small initiative between me and my friends dedicated to anyone coming from Syria, where we would offer them help and training on how to access the job market and the community, and basically help them create a life here,” Al Refaai notes.
“Slowly and gradually, the initiative started to grow and we began offering services and assistance for around 60 families, so we thought why don’t we start an organization and reduce the burden on other organizations that work with refugees, as instead of them trying to reach out to refugees, we can immediately bring them and create easier communication,” she adds.
This gave birth to ‘Soryana‘ in 2015, the first training and human resource development center by the non-Egyptian community. It works on reducing gaps between people from different communities and cultures, and working on mutual acceptable and integration through joint workshops and the formulation of multi-ethnic teams.
“We now help over 16,500 refugees of different nationalities in over 15 governorates across Egypt, from Sudanese to Yemenis and Iraqis, with partnerships from the international community, from different embassies like the Canadian and British Embassy, and also Egyptian NGOs,” Al Refaai says.
In the beginning, the organization mainly focused on the mental well-being of the family, offering workshops on the prevention of violence and offering psycho-therapy. However, the two sisters realized that they want to center more on nurturing better human beings in their communities – meeting their needs to work, integrate with their community, and live a normal life as any other citizen.
For that reason, the organization began offering vocational training oriented towards preparing refugees for the job market and enhancing their skills, business trainings on small and medium enterprises, and child educational services to improve the child’s education.”We saw that to truly help the community, you cannot just help one individual, but you must target all members in the family, a mother, a child or the father,” Al Refaai notes.
“Syrian women are also usually closed off from society in the beginning, and when they have a business idea, it can be hard for them to reach their customers because of lack of information. So we teach them how to market and brand in order to sell, and where to sell, and we always follow up with them in order to ensure that she is fully able to depend on herself,” she explains.
Binding communities together is also the main activities of the organization, as it believes in the power of integration and the benefit of sharing one another’s skills and experiences. “We started organizing activities that join different communities together – Egyptians and refugee – in order for each community to know the problems of one another and bridge the gap between them and help them benefit from one another.”
“So for example, Egyptians have better English language skills, while the Syrians are better in cooking, so we organize activities centered on each community’s skill and try to share this skill for both communities to learn from and allow them to know each other at a deeper level,” Al Refaai adds.
The organization also organizes psycho-social group sessions, inviting all communities – Syrian, Egyptian, Sudanese, Yemeni – to share their problems and become more aware of each other’s problems, creating closer and deeper connections.
Soryana were one of the startups that participated in the Startups Without Borders Summit in Cairo, which connects refugee entrepreneurs with resources to grow their business and investors an entry-point to discover startups with disruptive potential.
The summit shed light on one of the main challenges refugee entrepreneurs face, such as funding, networking and legal issues, and the growth of impact investment, which refers to investments made into companies or that have a beneficial social or environmental impact.
“One of the main issues refugees face is their lack of knowledge on laws in Egypt and the process of how to open their own startups, so more legal assistance services are needed, as well as the provision of safe spaces for them to work in because they often struggle with accommodation,” Al Refaai says.
In the future, Soryana aims to expand and provide more services to people in the Arab world, encouraging other refugees to follow their ambition and spread values of tolerance, acceptance, and integration between communities – creating a new big home out of shattered homes.
“Soryana is like a big home; a big family where all different communities come together,” Al Refaai says, “our motto is ‘Soryana is our big family'”