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UCL-Lebanon project to map out a future for refugees

24 April 2018

A new UCL research centre, which will explore how to build prosperous societies in communities affected by mass displacement such as Lebanon, received its UK launch today.

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With one in every four people living in Lebanon having a refugee background – by far the highest proportion in the world – the country is under immense strain economically, socially and politically.

Based at the UCL Institute of Global Prosperity (IGP) and led by its Director, Professor Henrietta Moore, the RELIEF Centre will bring together academics from a number of UCL departments, the American University of Beirut and the Centre for Lebanese Studies.

Between them, the Centre’s members have expertise in sustainable prosperity, economics, engineering, internet technology, anthropology and sociology, urban design and education. They will confront the challenges faced by the 1.5m Syrian refugees in Lebanon and develop a blueprint for better integration that can be applied worldwide.

Professor Moore said: “With over 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the need to develop new ways of understanding and building true prosperity for refugees and their host countries has never been greater.

“By exploring diverse themes including urban design, education and skills development, public health and inclusive economic growth, we hope to co-create a new model for sustainable prosperity that can be resilient even in the face of the most extreme circumstances.

“Far from being a remote academic exercise, we want to bring in the experiences of activists working on the ground in Lebanon to develop solutions that work in the real world.”

Today’s high profile event at the British Museum was attended by over 300 delegates, including the Lebanese ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Mr Rami Mortada and UCL President & Provost, Professor Michael Arthur.

Among the participants from Lebanon taking part in the RELIEF project is Dr Fadi Alhalabi, founder of the grassroots charity Multi Aid Programs (MAPs), which works directly with Syrian refugees in Lebanon to provide education and health services and to assist their integration into Lebanese society.

The 33-year-old qualified neurosurgeon fled Damascus in 2013 and has gone on to establish a network of nine Al-Amal (‘Hope’) schools catering for 3,500 young people, as well as three medical centres serving a population of 15,000, from both Syrian and Lebanese communities.

With support from the American University of Beirut, Dr Alhalabi has also established an "innovation centre", teaching youngsters computing, robotics, engineering and creative subjects such as art and design. This is already paying off: one cohort of students has already competed in a Lebanon-wide school robotics competition, while another group recruited from a camp close to the Syrian border are learning Artificial Intelligence (AI) coding skills.

For Dr Alhalabi, the RELIEF Centre project is a crucial bridge between his work on the frontline and international academic institutions that can help to provide a scientific basis for scaling the work done by MAPs.

"We need our teachers to become researchers so that they can understand the language of academic research and export our experiences in a high-level, academic way," he said.

"We're telling them they can be decision makers in this process. At the moment, no-one believes you can do innovation in a crisis, but we're showing through our work with young people that it's possible. The link with UCL means we have a chance to package what we're doing in terms of a methodology that the world can understand."

The RELIEF Centre is backed by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) via the UK Government’s £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which supports cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries.

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Rowan Walker

Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 8515

Email: rowan.walker [at] ucl.ac.uk