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MI Social Worker Spearheads Effort for Post-Conflict Syria

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Children are among those most affected by the humanitarian crisis in Syria. (Elsa Alaswad)
Children are among those most affected by the humanitarian crisis in Syria. (Elsa Alaswad)
 By Mary KuhlmanContact
January 11, 2016

LANSING, Mich. – The Syrian conflict is a monumental humanitarian crises with decades of social and human development lost since it began in 2011.

A Michigan social worker is spearheading a plan to rebuild the country.

Social workers are the backbone of civil society, says Marijo Upshaw of Detroit, who is a member of National Association of Social Workers-Michigan.

So she and her Syrian-born husband had an idea to train Syrians in the field. She explains that Syrian social workers, as opposed to those from other countries, would have knowledge of what's happening on the ground.

"Half of the country is living in extreme poverty,” she points out. “Fifty percent of Syrian children are out of school. The health care institution and educational system are in absolute crisis. Half of the hospitals in Syria have been damaged if not completely destroyed."

Upshaw discovered the International Community Action Network (ICAN) program at McGill University in Montreal, which trains Middle Eastern activists in rights-based social work practices.

Together they launched a project to establish the profession of social work in Syria. The initial goal is to recruit and train 24 Syrian nationals.

Funds were privately raised to train the first fellow at McGill in the fall of 2014. Upshaw says it's an engineer-turned-activist who faced dire circumstances fleeing Syria.

"He had to walk four days by foot, in cars and caravans that carry animals,” she relates. “At one point he had to walk through ISIS country. He was detained by ISIS. He was released and he made it into Turkey and had to spend a week recuperating physically."

The program cannot currently get into Syria, but is working to establish training in nearby Jordan. The trained fellows eventually will build a social work academic program inside Syria post-conflict.

Upshaw says Syrians are willing to fight for their basic dignity and freedom, but need more support.

"One of the things that was so sad to see in this recent crisis is the Syrian people who've been the victims over the last four years have now been re-victimized by some of the policies in the United States – some of the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiment," she states.

About 11 million Syrians have been forcibly displaced and nearly 250,000 killed in the conflict.

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