Unlimited and Unmatched: How Syrian GenU Global Winners ‘CreaDeaf’ are Helping the Deaf in Syria

GenU Global winners 'CreaDeaf' tell their inspiring story of youth-led innovation and empowerment.

Rasha Al Sabbagh, Abdul Karim Al Khatib, Lisar Morina
Members of the CreaDeaf team during the Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge in Damascus, Syria.
Unicef Syria
30 December 2020

Damascus, December 2020 – Even as the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world as we knew it and forced countries around the world into lockdown, the young members of the CreaDeaf team from Syria did not waver in their conviction to engage in community action to help those most in need.

Seemingly against all odds—in a year that challenged many to adapt to a new reality marred by hardship—Rasha, 19, Aya, 22, Ahed, 22, Hasan, 22, and Mohammad, 24, from Damascus, Syria, put their hands to the plough to help the deaf community in Syria get access to education and build the skills they need to integrate into society and enter the labor market.

“Our goal to create job opportunities for deaf young people in Syria goes beyond merely having them more included and accepted by society,” says Mohammad Emad, founder of CreaDeaf, who learned Arabic sign language because of his deaf father.

“We want to support their education and help them build their capacity to prepare them for the job market.”

The CreaDeaf members met last year while volunteering at the Deaf Care Society in Damascus. The majority of them are themselves deaf and know all too well the challenges that come with growing up with a disability.

“As a child, I was first enrolled in a school with hearing peers, so I didn’t get to learn sign language properly or early enough. Having had to cope with such a struggle, I realize how necessary it is to have a common language as a medium to communicate in.”

22-year-old Aya, co-founder of 'CreaDeaf'

The lack of awareness and resources for the deaf, coupled with the lack of access to technology are among the main causes that spurred the members of CreadDeaf into action to empower deaf youth. “There are not enough sign language speakers in Syria,” says Mohammad.

“Having more people— especially youth—who have a good command of sign language and can train and teach others would help bridge the learning gap for the deaf and increase awareness of the hearing.”

“Young people in Syria face many challenges. The lack of suitable work opportunities is a major one,” says Hasan. “These challenges are greater for the deaf,” adds 19-year-old Rasha. “They are even more compounded for marginalized groups of the deaf, such as women and those residing in remote areas.”

More than anything, what CreaDeaf is advocating for is communication and mutual respect between the deaf and the hearing by stressing the importance of everyone to learn sign language, especially young people in Syria.

“Working in teams and collaborating with others to find solutions was one of the workshop’s highlights. It was my first experience taking part in such a workshop. The schedule and program of the workshop were impressively organized, and I also was very excited about pitching our ideas before the jury.”

22-year-old Hasan, CreaDeaf co-founder

From inception to incubation through Generation Unlimited

In 2019, Mohammad saw a Facebook post announcing the Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge. He came together with his friends as a team and submitted the application, believing they could play an important role in bridging the gaps between the deaf and the hearing in Syria.

“We dreamt of having an impact not only in Syria but across the world as well,” says Hassan. “We want to interact with young people, including the deaf, from different parts of the globe.”

(Left-to-right) Hasan, Rasha, Ahed, Aya, and Mohammad, founders of CreaDeaf pitching at the GenU Youth Challenge Workshop in Damascus, Syria
(Left-to-right) Hasan, Rasha, Ahed, Aya, and Mohammad, founders of CreaDeaf pitching at the GenU Youth Challenge Workshop in Damascus, Syria

Right after the Generation Unlimited workshop in Syria—implemented by UNICEF and UNDP in Damascus in February and March 2020—CreaDeaf began to interpret content in Arabic sign language, including on COVID-19 awareness-raising and educational subjects. They relied on social media, mainly their Facebook page and YouTube channel, as well as their website to spread awareness and disseminate educational content. In addition to producing awareness video content in sign language, CreaDeaf took their creativity a step further, designing and producing face shields with awareness messaging, in an attempt to highlight COVID-19 prevention and the significance of deaf-hearer communication.

During the incubation period, they rented a centre where they ran training courses for deaf young people on a wide range of subjects and continued to produce and interpret training content. Due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, their work at the centre was put to a halt. “We had to reduce our presence in the centre as a precautionary measure,” says Rasha. “It was essential to continue our work, but we couldn’t risk imposing additional risks on youth benefitting from our courses,” adds Hasan.

Winning the Global Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge Competition

In December 2020, the leaders of UNICEF, UNDP, Plan International, and the Scouts announced the global winners of the Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge. Among 15 million youth who participated in the Youth Challenge across 36 countries, Rasha, Aya, Ahed, Hasan, and Mohammad were crowned global winners in the empowerment and equity category—one of just 8 teams to receive further funding of up to $15,000 USD along with a tailored global incubation program coordinated globally by UNICEF’s Office of Innovation.

“We felt extremely excited and proud for being the first-ever team from Syria to win the challenge,” says Hasan. “Deaf young people or those with hearing disabilities are as able as everyone else. If given the opportunity, education, and support necessary to develop their capabilities, will make great achievements,” says Mohammad.

For CreaDeaf, this is just the start of the journey. The team is now working to scale their initiative, aiming to form a global entity that connects and empowers deaf people around the world. We can’t wait to see what they’ll achieve!

The Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge 2019/20 is co-hosted globally by four Generation Unlimited partners – UNICEFUNDPPlan International and the World Organization of the Scout Movement, with support from Irish Aid