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Wayne State M.S.W. student bringing social work to Syria

February 11, 2016

During a humanitarian crisis, social workers are among the first responders of community health, mobilizing quickly to help those afflicted by violence, hunger and homelessness connect with critical resources to support their physical and mental well-being. This is why the absence of social workers in Syria is so alarming. Syria is a nation with millions of dead, displaced and “disappeared” citizens and is currently suffering from what the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has called the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II. Marijo Upshaw, an M.S.W. student at Wayne State University, wants to change that.

With her husband, Syrian-born Detroit cardiologist Khaldoon Alaswad, M.D., Upshaw is helping to bring Syrian nationals to the United States and Canada for social work training they can take back and apply to a post-conflict Syria. To this end, the couple is teaming up with the International Community Action Network (ICAN) at Montreal’s McGill University to give dozens of Syrian nationals graduate social work training in Canada.

“The profession of social work doesn’t exist inside Syria, however social work will be critical to rebuilding Syrian society when the conflict ends and Syrians begin developing government programs and civic organizations,” said Upshaw, who holds a B.S.W. and an M.B.A. and has worked extensively in nonprofit leadership and management. “More than 40 years of repressive rule inside Syria has disenfranchised the Syrian people from civic life and left the country without any institutional capacity, creating an urgent need for social workers to advocate for policies and design public health service systems in a nascent democratic society. Meanwhile, social workers trained in interpersonal and direct practice will be indispensible in helping the Syrian people – half of who have been forcibly displaced and almost all of who have been touched by death, injury, scarcity, violence, and the disruption of family systems – recover from prolonged physical and mental trauma. Finally, healing the sectarianism that has been fanned during the conflict by inside and outside forces will require culturally competent Syrian social workers trained in reconciliation and conflict resolution.”

The perfect partner for social work capacity building for Syria, ICAN has been training community activists from the Middle East in rights-based social work practice for 20 years. When Upshaw and Alaswad learned last year that ICAN’s two-year Graduate Fellowship Program brings together cohorts of Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian graduate students to study social work and create a regional network of professionals and academic institutions in the Middle East, they reached out to ICAN Founder and Director James Torczyner about expanding the program to include Syrians. Torczyner responded enthusiastically, and Upshaw and Alaswad raised money from the Syrian American community to recruit and fund the program’s first Syrian fellow, engineer and activist Adnan Al Mhamied, who among other community-led projects organized the first free municipal election inside Syria in more than 40 years.

Through Al Mhamied’s work raising awareness of the Syrian crisis, the ICAN program has plans to expand. There are two projects, said Upshaw: one to recruit 100 Syrian refugees in Canada to receive B.S.W. and M.S.W. degrees at McGill, the other to expand ICAN’s Graduate Fellowship Program to include an additional two dozen Syrian fellows. These 24 fellows will be composed of community-building specialists as well as Ph.D.s in other disciplines, such as law, architecture and medicine, who can bring a multidisciplinary approach to their social work practice. They will study Canadian and U.S. models of social work and develop the curriculum, human resources and professional programs that can be adapted in Syria once the political climate permits.

Meanwhile, Upshaw and Alaswad have also partnered with the Dearborn-based nonprofit ACCESS to start a fund, the Innovative Leadership Fund for Syria, through ACCESS’ Center for Arab American Philanthropy to invest in innovative projects that build civil society for Syria. The projects the couple have spearheaded are all characterized by empowerment approaches rather than top-down models, Upshaw noted, saying Syrians have a deep need for civic engagement and have been heroic in their efforts to help themselves even as 11 million have been forcibly displaced, 250,000 have been killed, and 65,000 have “disappeared” – taken by government forces and detained, tortured or killed without the knowledge of their families.

“As this tragedy has unfolded, you can’t help but be inspired by the  humanity, determination and creativity of the Syrian people,” said Upshaw, who will present on Syria’s need for social workers at the 2016 NASW-Michigan Annual Conference in Lansing next month. “My role as a social worker and as an ally to the Syrian people is to use whatever knowledge, experience and influence I have to help Syrians develop the human, financial, and social capital needed to rebuild the country.”

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