Omar Assaf: Working locally, thinking globally

March 25, 2021


Omar started his career as a telecom engineer. However, his life, as was the case for the lives of many others, changed completely in 2012 when Syrians were forced out of their homes and came to Lebanon as refugees. This was the moment he started working with the UN and other international NGOs, and he spent time working as an area manager for a local NGO. 

Tripoli is where Omar is from, and he truly believes in working with and for the community he knows. The city has faced many challenges over the years, in particular the 2008-2014 conflict between the two sectarian communities. He has always found himself on the sidelines observing the conflict and thinking about why this is happening, and what he can contribute to help it.  

Having worked in mobile development, in app development and other start-ups, he decided to use these skills he has to help his community. He connected with former colleagues and friends and this is how SHiFT started.

Once the conflict stopped, Omar was offered a small space to begin with his activities. He started with recreational and psychosocial activities for youth, women and children. He, most importantly, began to have many conversations with people to try to determine their needs, and with that started working on small, vocational projects. SHiFT grew from the small space of two rooms to a space over nine floors of a building. The Social Innovation Hub includes a Media Lab, a Designers Lab and a Digital Lab, as well as a business centre, training rooms and meeting rooms. They also host cultural nights on the roof. 

Their work as SHiFT currently covers three areas: supporting micro enterprises, employability, and peace building and reconciliation. The building is geographically and metaphorically located on the border between the two communities; the team at SHiFT wanted to create a neutral space that can be where the entire community can come together – and the entire project is a cross between peace building and social entrepreneurship. 

They want to replicate this model across other cities in the MENA region, but their focus is currently Tripoli – and there is a lot of work still to be done there. Due to a lack of resources and opportunities due to the conflict, it is one of the poorest cities on the Mediterranean. Their main, longterm, aim is to increase the community’s livelihood and resilience to future conflicts. Omar really believes that if the community is put at the centre, many issues can be solved, since they hold the key to the solutions. All he and SHiFT are trying to do is to facilitate and create an environment where those solutions can be met. 

What Omar has been working on as part of the Y&Y Fellowship is how to integrate the idea of social businesses into the Tripoli / Lebanese ecosystem, where there is currently no legislation that regulates social businesses and the only two available routes are to be an NGO or a for-profit business. Omar and his team are pioneers.  Through the Y&Y Fellowship he has gained a lot of knowledge, and exchanged with many others who have faced similar COVID-19 related issues – and he sees this as a unique feature of the Fellowship. He also sees himself as someone who is gaining knowledge to be able to feed it back into his community. Omar is really at the centre of his community, and the impact he is having is only just beginning.  

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