When Majd fled Damascus in the midst of the Syrian Revolution, early 2013, he arrived in Istanbul, Turkey with a strong sense of resilience guiding his path and conviction that he could make it anywhere. In the seven years since, he’s held strong to that belief by fostering support networks for the Syrian community, many hundreds strong, in Istanbul, and sought to expand opportunities for other refugees who are forced to uproot their lives and begin anew in a foreign city. He has worn many hats since his early days in Istanbul, but is deeply grounded in immigration rights and carrying out holistic, caring responses to support fellow Syrian refugees — as a translator, data tracker, humanitarian worker and tireless activist.
Majd traveled to Istanbul and almost immediately, began working at a Syrian factory, a Turkish workshop and later a hotel, where he cleaned and worked in the kitchen. In his first days in the city, the only places Majd remembers are the neighborhood he lived and the roads leading to his sites of work, so intensive were the working hours and lack of orientation for refugees. “You don’t get an opportunity here to learn the language or to integrate into the community,” Majd says. “You don’t get such a privilege.”
In the midst of hardships and long working days that left little time for anything else, Majd was able to find people who helped him along the way. The family who ran the workshop he worked at always insisted he join them for lunch and over meals, taught him the basics of Turkish, the country’s culture and history. On one of his first days off, one-and-a-half years into his time in Istanbul, Majd recalls a conversation with a pair of foreigners during a visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque that moved him to seek out different work and better conditions.
While employed at a hotel, where he consistently used his knowledge of four languages, Majd took on an increasing number of duties and eventually started working the night shift. This gave him more flexibility to volunteer with NGOs and eventually, he was hired as a translator by an NGO called Assam. Majd had attended the banking and insurance institute in Damascus for two years and went on to study economics in the city of Latakia, to which access was cut off during the war, but he says he felt compelled to leave behind his area of focus and work in the humanitarian sector.
“I’ve been in the hardships myself and I don’t want other people to be in the same situation,” Majd says. “You feel broken when there’s no one around you to guide you.”
Majd learned quickly as he worked with NGOs and took on more duties as a teacher and trainer for workshops, including one for the International Medical Corps. His curiosities drove him to put lots of energy into learning various forms of data collection, including barrier analysis, and aiding NGOs with various studies. Eventually, he decided to leave his job at the hotel and seek out full-time work with NGOs, ultimately securing his first position as a psychosocial worker with an NGO called YUVA. His daily work involved house visits to Syrian families and on-the-ground outreach as part of a small team, focused on teaching people how to access social aid. Many barriers inhibit newly arrived refugees from getting the care they need, and Majd was heavily involved in closing those gaps for people who do not receive any education or information on navigating basic rights upon coming to Turkey. He then trained people and coordinated teams for remote studies in Syria through UNICEF.
By witnessing firsthand the inner workings of government agencies, Majd became disheartened by the focus on data and results, rather than individuals and families. Still, he believed strongly in the absolute necessity of supporting newly arrived refugees and providing them with the tools to carry on with the lives they want to lead. “It makes me feel proud, it makes me feel alive,” Majd says. While some of his friends left for Europe during his first few years in the city, Majd felt it was important to stay grounded and committed to work in Istanbul. “If I do leave, who would be there for them?”
Majd’s ongoing work as a consultant on various projects led him to learn about Karam Foundation, where he has been working since 2018. With Karam, he found the work he really wanted to do that involved coordination of projects across leadership, family and education areas of refugee support. “It is what I had been dreaming for,” Majd says.
Karam, a non-profit that states its mission as one of “helping people to help themselves,” is currently aiming to create 10,000 leaders over the course of 10 years — to help get Syrian refugee youth on the path to working toward a better future and building on their visions for a more just, equitable world. Majd is one of four staff members in Turkey who are working closely with a fluctuating number of families in Istanbul, and notes that Karam is staunchly intentional in its approach to providing economic support to refugee families: the ultimate goal of the organization is to make families independent and capable of supporting themselves, rather than dependent on aid allocations.
“It’s not about aid or getting someone to help them financially,” Majd says. Karam’s approach is about connecting meaningfully with families about their hopes and coordinating to meet those goals, rather than focusing on numbers or benchmarks. Despite extreme difficulties, Majd consistently sees families prioritizing the futures of their children and advocating for their education above all else. “They still have hope,” he says. “I have learned a lot from that. It touches you.”
When looking at the refugee crises across the world, Majd believes it’s important for people to understand that refugees are not leaving their countries by choice, and that support for people must go beyond helping them financially. He sees immense possibility in the eyes of the kids who are part of the Karam family, and a common goal, one he is deeply committed to, of rebuilding Syria.
“I’ve seen a lot of hope and many kids that are doing great, resisting and fighting to make better of themselves even if they are kids,” Majd says. “They understood the situation and they understood why they have to become better and do better for their families and even their countries.”
Majd's story was captured by guest contributor Julia Thomas, a freelancer and journalist with Democracy Now!