The experience of the Manzoul organisation in using digital technology to support the Syrian diaspora
By Jihad Alabdullah
After more than a year of coronavirus, we discovered that there are a huge amount of changes that we can make in our lives. These most likely are simply awaiting an event to accelerate their occurrence.
The changes that took place affected all aspects of life: at work, at school, and at home. In many countries, children remained at home, homeschooled; and the work of many employees switched to ‘home office’, with many facing dismissals or suspensions from their jobs.
With the acceleration of events, many new digital methods developed to suit the new situation. They are likely to outlast COVID-19 social-distancing policies.
Charitable and civil organisations working in public affairs have also met this transformation, laboriously seeking new ways of working and adapting to the new situation.
The initiatives and activities of the Manzoul organisation
Manzoul was established shortly before the coronavirus outbreak and struggled to carry out activities throughout the spread of the pandemic and associated closures. First, Manzoul organised interactive lectures through digital platforms (such as Zoom) related to concerns about coronavirus, dealing with COVID-19, and nutrition and a healthy diet.
With time, especially with the signs of a second wave, Manzoul developed the idea and launched small cultural and service projects in line with its policies, interests, and goals.
These projects were aimed at:
Providing services to migrants and refugees in their Arabic mother tongue, especially for Syrians in different parts of the world. This harnessed the power of technology as a solution to social distance imposed in their countries, such as remote consultations and teaching Arabic to children from a distance.
Reducing the burden and consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and its social and psychological effects, with cultural, artistic, and literary activities.
We review here two examples of the projects that the association undertakes.
1) Medical and psychological counselling project
With the onset of the coronavirus crisis, we noticed an increase in medical questions submitted to us and the doctors around us relating to COVID-19 and other diseases, as patients were often unable to visit or obtain direct services from doctors and hospitals. This resulted from strict COVID-19-related policies, an overburdening of the health sector, and patients’ fear of in-person visits.
An advertisement for the project in Arabic, including the objectives, the method for obtaining advice and the target group, was posted on the Manzoul website, social media sites, WhatsApp and Telegram groups.
A WhatsApp number for consultations was allocated, containing an announcement about the quality of service, advice, method of communication, and the nature of the service as consultation rather than therapy.
After receiving the written or audio consultations, the counsellor sends a small brief of the case, usually anonymously. The person receives an answer within 48 hours to determine the date of the consultation, conducted within the week on the basis of need.
There is one doctor who supervises the reception of WhatsApp consultations and then distributes them to the group’s doctors. The team consists of three doctors from different specialities: a psychiatrist, a family doctor, and a gynaecologist. We have also cooperated with other doctors from other specialities when issues cannot be addressed by the team, especially with regard to children's diseases or subspecialties.
The consultation proceeds by listening to the consultant and then providing advice, possible solutions, and/or an explanation about a particular disease or course of treatment. In many cases, those seeking advice are directed to obtain healthcare services tailored to their country.
During the project period, in the last months of 2020, Manzoul provided nearly 50 consultations to people (especially Syrians) in different countries, from Germany to Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries of asylum. In the beginning, the main share of the consultations was psychological. With the start of 2021, the number of consultations increased, and during the first third of the year we provided about 50 consultations.
Difficulties encountered in consulting:
We experienced some minor difficulties such as network disruptions, during which voice or written messages were used.
The limited time and the frequency of requests were often difficult to reconcile with our objective of conducting complete – not quick or superficial – consultations. To address this, appointments are usually scheduled during the weekend, with up to 30 minutes of consultation time.
We sometimes faced callers’ urgency to obtain treatments such as psychotherapy, which could not be performed for legal and professional reasons, or to write prescriptions for medication or write reports related to the case.
We also had to refuse requests to give out doctors’ personal numbers.
We aim to expand this service with the use of means such as video calls, hopefully growing the team and communication networks involved.
2) Manzoul’s Cultural Forum initiative
The Cultural Forum is a periodic cultural activity that takes place on digital platforms, organised by Manzoul in cooperation with activists and others interested in cultural and public affairs.
The initiative, in its first phase, was devoted to a region of Syria, Al-Qaryatayn, which is a town in the centre of the country and at the outskirts of the Syrian steppe, the Badia, from which a number of the Manzoul members come from, who now reside in Germany and beyond. The activities of the Forum involved talking about the people of the city of Al-Qaryatayn, their folklore, heritage, and the role models therein, in the past and now.
The initiative aims to:
Restore the communication between persons and families from the same country, who are distributed around the world, through available technology.
Introduce a generation raised abroad over the past ten years to the heritage and environment of their country and the personalities active in it. This aims to show the youth inspiring experiences of success to help build their future.
In the executive steps of the initiative, an administration was formed consisting of five people, including three members of the association and two activists interested in cultural and literary affairs.
From March 2021 until now, the Forum has hosted three guests from Al-Qaryatayn, who are living in different regions of the world. In the first episode, we had a guest who had lived with his family in Jordan for years, who is a teacher of Philosophy and worked as a teacher and director of the cultural centre in Al-Qaryatayn before migrating. He is one of the people who continued working, writing books, teaching his students, and guiding them from a distance.
In the second episode, we hosted one of the figures interested in heritage. He is a teacher who has worked for many years in the teaching profession and continues to do so in his country of displacement, Lebanon, despite his advanced age (over seventy) and the difficult conditions there. The guest wrote a book on Al-Qaryatayn and its Folklore. He spoke for two hours about this book and its contents in the presence of about 60 people from different parts of the world, most of them from Al-Qaryatayn.
The third episode featured a likeable figure and role model, a teacher of Physical Education currently living in the Gulf. He has an important history, having laid the foundations for the most important popular game of football in Al-Qaryatayn. Otherwise, he practices the hobby of falconry for which he travels around the world. The meeting with him introduced many young people to the history of their country and the emergence of football while recovering beautiful and influential historical moments.
The Forum is preparing five additional meetings with figures from Al-Qaryatayn who are interested in the arts, heritage, education and humanitarian work, in addition to hosting young people who have done distinguished work in the countries of the diaspora.
The Cultural Forum is a new experience and constitutes a turning point for the people of Al-Qaryatayn, who have been introduced to role models from the region and learned about and debated their heritage. There was positive feedback from the people of Al-Qaryatayn and from Syrian people who asked to extend this experience to other regions, especially rural areas.
These are two of several projects undertaken by Manzoul, taking advantage of modern technology at the time of the coronavirus pandemic, as an important, useful and scalable experience.
We expect that these activities will continue even after the end of the pandemic, due to the positive impact they have left and the distinct opportunity they bring to communicate and alleviate the burdens of alienation amongst individuals of the diaspora.
Jihad Alabdullah is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist with the Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy Centre for Transcultural Psychiatry (ZtP) and the Vivantes Humboldt-Hospital. He is also a member of the German Society for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy (DGPPN) and the Sub-Section of Intercultural Psychiatry and Migration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manzoul is a non-governmental charitable organisation, established in Berlin in 2019 by Syrians and Germans of Syrian origin. The organisation works to support Syrians in achieving effective integration in Germany and to provide relief and support for refugees and displaced persons in Syria and neighbouring countries.
- Website: https://manzoul.org/de/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ManzoulVerein
This article is part of the issue ‘Empowering global diasporas in the digital era’, a collaboration between Routed Magazine and iDiaspora. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or Routed Magazine.