Refugee resilience: Subul’s innovative social impact strategy

AMSTERDAM: The social enterprise Subul connects refugees and conflict-affected individuals with employment opportunities in the digital labor market.

With outsourcing as its business model, its goal is to help them achieve success while meeting the needs of international businesses, Syrian founder Khaled Shaaban, 39, told Arab News.

In December, Subul pre-launched its latest service, the Impact Hiring Platform, on which 250 individual accounts are already active.

It has resulted in three Syrians finding jobs with a Dutch company, and talks are underway with a Danish company to recruit two others. The official online launch of the service is scheduled for Feb. 19.

In his hometown of Jobar, a district in Damascus, Shaaban installed internet satellite devices for hospitals and secured activists’ phones against government surveillance during the Syrian revolution in 2011.

Despite risks to his own safety, the information technology specialist felt driven to take action.

“I began setting up technical telecommunication infrastructure for hospitals, relief groups and media organizations,” he said. “It felt like juggling a part-time job with being a part-time activist.”

Today, residing in the Netherlands, he remains committed to aiding others. In 2020, Shaaban established Subul, meaning “pathway” in Arabic.

He recognizes how individuals affected by the Syrian war struggle to find jobs, facing language barriers, difficulties with online money transfers, and legal obstacles. So he strives to create social impact and unlock new pathways for disadvantaged communities.

“We bridge the gap between the unique talents of refugees and marginalized communities, and the needs of the global tech industry,” Shaaban said.

Shaaban believes that the platform’s online services, such as detecting AI-generated images or remotely monitoring patients in hospitals, offer the ideal solution for his employees. He labels it as a win-win situation for refugees, businesses and societies alike.

The effort has been successful, helping over 700 individuals find a job, not only in Europe but also in Syria, Turkey and Jordan.

Starting his career in the late 1990s as an IT delivery boy, he gained experience and certifications from global tech giants such as Microsoft and Cisco.

During the Syrian revolution, his life took a significant turn. He was forced to help his family escape to Jordan and then went into hiding after being listed as wanted.

In 2013, Shaaban fled Damascus on foot, seeking refuge in Turkey. After reuniting with his family there, separated for over a year, he re-established his IT business, aiming to return to Syria someday.

He quickly realized that it was more important to invest in people instead of infrastructure, so in Istanbul he founded Roia, a non-profit organization teaching IT skills to vulnerable people, with funding from the UK government and the EU.

“I started to think how I can allow people to empower themselves and become resilient,” he said. “There’s always this stigma and stereotype about the capability of refugees. Businesses and individuals look at their vulnerabilities, but we must forget about this picture.”

While Subul primarily focuses its services online and is managed from the Netherlands, it also has an operating facility in Syria where men and women from Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey work together.

Shaaban wants to expand this presence. “I’d love to establish a small India in Syria because one of the main factors that contributed to the growth and development of India was the outsourcing,” he said.

Shaaban aims to demonstrate the viability of his conceptual ecosystem, intending for it to be adopted by businesses and NGOs globally.

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