“What were you doing 10 years ago?”
This is a question Stephen Hall, a partner in McKinsey’s Dubai office, often asks when he’s trying to help people understand what the statistics don’t capture about the Syrian refugee crisis, which began in March 2011. The numbers, after all, are a matter of empirical record—and staggering: There are more than 5.5 million refugees in the region, and 6.1 million others are internally displaced, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. As many as 1.5 million of those refugees are in Lebanon.
“Once you recall what you were doing, think about everything that’s happened in your life since,” Stephen says. “Now imagine that for that entire time, you’ve been displaced, living in a camp, and unable to return to your home country. This is the heartbreaking reality that millions of refugees live with everyday.”
Stephen has seen that reality up close as one of the leaders of McKinsey’s pro-bono work to support the ongoing refugee crisis, which is featured in our regional social responsibility report Giving Back in 2020. In his five years at the firm, he’s worked with several NGOs in Lebanon and across the region on their response to the crisis. This has included a lot of work on education—with almost 500,000 children among the refugee population, continued learning is one of the most challenging aspects of the crisis.
“One of the reasons we chose to focus on education is the fact that many children have been out of school for years, and others haven’t been to school at all, so this isn’t just a short-term disruption,” Stephen says. “At the same time, the challenges that schools and teachers face in a refugee context are the same as those schools and teachers face everywhere—getting more students access to learning. And it’s exciting to be able to bring solutions we’ve developed in other places to these challenges.”
During the pandemic, which put an increased strain on education access, McKinsey colleagues teamed up with the Alsama Project, which seeks to empower refugee women and children. In addition to establishing partnerships with English-language schools to create distance-learning opportunities for refugee children, we helped develop a toolkit for refugee schools in Lebanon. In close collaboration with NGOs like Alsama and the Sawiri school, in both Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, we have developed a program to improve the classroom experience and education outcomes in refugee camps, from curriculum development, to teacher training, and broader school governance. Our team has also helped to set up a mentoring program, with consultants from across the Middle East volunteering their time to work with students from different schools to think about their education and how to set goals for their future, however challenging.
Part of the focus on student wellbeing extends beyond the classroom. As part of our firm’s work at the Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut, a group of colleagues from London and the Middle East introduced a weeklong cricket camp for children. More than 40 Syrian children—most of whom had never heard of, let alone played, cricket—arrived on the first day of camp. As it turned out, news travels fast in Shatila, and on the following day, 120 kids showed up, a quarter of them girls. This project has gone from strength to strength, and Alsama now runs six sites across Lebanon, with regular competitive matches between mixed teams of boys and girls.
More broadly, our support for talented youth also extends to those who have become refugees as a result of events in region over the last few decades. Through our support to the International Refugee Committee and other refugee organizations, we have helped accelerate delivery of programs—including emergency response, basic needs, and sustainability—to hundreds of thousands of refugees across the hardest hit populations of the Middle East and globally.
I think anyone who sees the magnitude of this crisis wants to help...I feel incredibly lucky to be in a place and position to do so.
Stephen has been based in the Middle East for 15 years, but his interest in the region runs even longer. He studied Arabic in high school (and is fluent today) and later majored in mathematics and Middle Eastern studies at university. All of this makes his work in the region even more meaningful. “I think anyone who sees the magnitude of this crisis wants to help—sometimes, they just don’t know how or don’t have the access to do so,” he says. “So I feel incredibly lucky to be in a place and position to do so.”