When the Syrian refugee crisis began to accelerate in 2013, Zeina Saab watched it firsthand from her home in Lebanon. She saw the devastation of displaced communities—1.5 million refugees currently call Lebanon home—and the strain on local infrastructure. But she also saw an opportunity.
Saab had already been working on the Nawaya Network, an NGO she’d started in 2012 after she resettled in Lebanon. Nawaya focused on talent development for impoverished youths, but that work was expensive: each student required an individual program, and only a few dozen could participate at a time. So she shifted her focus, submitting a proposal to UNICEF for a program to help Lebanese and refugee young adults build income. Impact Lab, which Nawaya launched in 2016, now reaches 2,400 young people in more than half of Lebanon and aims to become nationwide in the next year.
Unemployment for young people is at 30 percent or more and there are strict limitations on the types of jobs refugees can do, so the program seeks to empower them to start their own small home-based enterprises. “We work with Lebanese and refugee youths aged 18 and above to generate income by creating a product or service that’s valued in the community,” Saab says. “Without this opportunity, their options would be extremely limited.”
Born in Beirut, Saab moved to the U.S. at a young age and traveled with her family to Lebanon once a year. Her interest in post-conflict urban planning led her to MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. One source of her interest was the strong Lebanese community, and she still works as an MIT educational counselor and serves on the board of the MIT Club of Lebanon.
“MIT helped give me direction,” she says. One of Nawaya’s other projects, SE Factory, is a coding boot camp that links talented students at risk for poverty with companies that need tech workers. “We focus on low-income youth, and we have a 90 percent employment success rate,” she says.
Lebanon is now beginning to see positive momentum politically and economically. The Central Bank of Lebanon recently committed $400 million to startups, and VCs, boot camps, and hackathons have sprung up. “Social entrepreneurship is now a buzzword,” Saab says.
“We need to make youths feel good about themselves and motivated to work hard,” she adds. “If they have a sense of purpose, it can change their path.”