"I was dedicated to making psycho-social support available to children everywhere"
hat if it were possible to neutralize traumatic memories with stories and images? Social entrepreneur and activist Imad Elabdala has achieved this and more with Stockholm-based startup, Kidnovation.
After seeing his country decimated by war, and consequently fleeing Syria in 2011, Imad used his experiences to launch Kidnovation, a media innovation lab, to help support the emotional struggles of displaced children. The two-year-old startup combines scientific research with art and storytelling to speak to every child who has suffered from trauma.
Using his love for storytelling, Imad initially created a book called Sarah’s Journey: Dreams Make Any Place Home, which sought to reach the hearts and minds of children suffering from psychological trauma through a more positive medium. The book uses methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy, exposure therapy and psychodynamic therapy.
Imad infused his narratives with therapeutic techniques he himself learned when suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a refugee. Through the creation of strong, spirited and multinational characters, Imad hopes his books will bring peace to refugee children all over the world who have been affected by unhappy memories.
It was not difficult to integrate for work. Understanding Nordic traditions and having a social life was tougher. People here are friendly but not very open.
For his humanitarian work, Imad was presented in September with the honour of being this year’s Årets Nybyggare, an award issued by Sweden's King Carl Gustav XVI which pays tribute to the excellence of foreign-born business owners and supports them in starting, operating and developing their companies.
So what is Imad’s whole story? And how did his experiences as a refugee influence his unwavering desire to help others? We sat down earlier this year and chatted with Imad on these very points.
Where are you from?
I was born in 1984 in Damascus, but I grew up and lived in Homs, the third-largest city in Syria. In 2008, I got my bachelor’s degree in materials engineering in Yerevan, Armenia. I then studied my masters in Homs, Syria, and started my entrepreneurial career, founding an engineering company.
But in 2011, the civil war broke out and took everything from me: my company and many of my friends and family members. I saw people, including friends, killed on the street. Nobody was saying anything. No foreign journalists were allowed in Syria. I felt I was forced to do something.
What did you do?
I took it upon myself to report on what was going on. As I was able to speak English, I contacted the US television news channel CNN, and I started making videos for them – and also for the British BBC and the Arabic Al Jazeera – as an activist reporter. I learned how to be a reporter by doing it.
How long did you work as a war reporter?
For two years. When my city was destroyed, I had to search for a safe space for myself and my family, which includes my three sisters, one brother and two parents. So we left Syria and moved to Jordan. There, I helped to get aid for the refugees in the camps; for example, by distributing medicines for children.
When did you arrive in Sweden?
In 2013. I was able to reach this country the hard way, by smuggling my family through Turkey and Greece, and then traveling to Northern Europe until we arrived in Stockholm. Sweden was the first European country to open its doors to Syrian refugees, and we were able to get asylum.
How difficult was it to start a new life?
My family and I are educated and we speak English, so it was not difficult to integrate for work. Understanding Nordic traditions and having a social life was tougher. People here are friendly but not very open. Anyway, I got an engineer job with AGA, the biggest Swedish gas company, and I worked there for one year. Then in 2014 I decided to quit my career and pursue my dream.
Why did you resign from a well-paid job?
I had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and in order to heal I’d studied therapeutic techniques designed to help sufferers of PTSD. It took me more than one year to regain a balance, and then it just hit me: in the world, there are 27 million refugee kids who have had my experience, and only about five percent can be helped recover from their trauma by some non-profit organizations. In practice, it is impossible to send a psychologist to every child. This is why I quit. I decided to put my career aside and dedicate myself to creating a solution for making psycho-social support available for them everywhere in the world.
Which idea did you have in mind?
I wanted to make a tool that could be used to give psychological support to refugee children. The tool had to be simple, low cost, scalable and easy to use. As a hobby, I’ve always loved storytelling. In Syria, I wrote scripts for theatre shows for children. So I figured out that I would embed the best practices of psychology to tackle these problems via stories.
How did you start?
With my savings, I bought an old car, named her “Kate,” and then spent 2015 traveling and volunteering at the Red Cross to help my fellow refugees. I also did a lot of research about the best science and best practices to develop a therapy tool for traumatized kids.
I knocked on a lot of doors, but nobody knew me, and so I kept being rejected. There’s still a stigma surrounding refugees and their trustworthiness.
In 2016, I returned to Stockholm with my project to found a startup and create my first book: Sarah’s Journey: Dreams Make Any Place Home. It’s the story of an eight-year-old refugee girl hero who is meant to be a role model for the displaced children, one who looks like them, shares their experiences and helps them feel positive, self-confident and safe. I wrote it in collaboration with professors of psychology at Stockholm University and University of Vienna, incorporating the story-based psychological methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and psychodynamic therapy.
Did you ever think of abandoning your project?
No, I didn’t. I believed in it. For me, it’s a one-way ticket, and there’s no way to give up. I developed the product testing it with children and working with schools. Being an engineer, I also created an app to measure the impact of the book. I can boast that my startup is one of the very few social companies with a system that can use data for implementing its project.
How did you move on from the first failure?
Sarah’s Journey was supposed to be ready for Christmas 2017, but there were a lot of delays in production; for example, there were problems with illustrators. Finally, I made my best decision ever: to not publish the book. Instead, I applied for support from Reach for Change, a non-profit organization founded in Sweden in 2010. It backs social entrepreneurs with innovations that solve pressing issues facing children. It helps innovators like me through seed funding as well as providing access to business expertise and networking opportunities. It’s very difficult to be accepted, and it usually takes two or three years to make it. My project made it on the first try and was approved in December 2017.
What were your early struggles, and how did you overcome them while starting up?
I knocked on a lot of doors, but nobody knew me, and so I kept being rejected. There’s still a stigma surrounding refugees and their trustworthiness. Luckily, I found Impact Hub Stockholm, a community that supports social entrepreneurs. They offered me a discounted package for a working space. It’s where my startup Kidnovation was born.
It was great to be surrounded by like-minded people: other social entrepreneurs who were willing to do something good. But at that point, I had finished all my savings. So in November 2016, I decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to finance my book, which was written in three languages: English, Swedish and Arabic.
Was it a successful campaign?
Yes, It was a successful campaign, but it was less than I expected. The project got 352 backers who pledged 227,101 SEK out of the 218,000 SEK goal. I did a great job with social media to spread the word, so I’d expected to reach ten times the goal! It was a big business lesson for me: even if the idea and the company were strong, the timing was wrong. I had launched the campaign just before Christmas, when all the charities and non-profit organizations are asking for donations. People trust what they know, especially big names like the Red Cross; whereas we were totally new.
What are your next steps?
The Reach for Change’s incubation program lasts three years with the goal of making our business scalable and sustainable. Kidnovation not only received money but it’s also going to benefit from the best consultancy in its field, including advice about media communication and PR. My next steps will be hiring a couple of employees, selecting a board of experts and raising the quality level of my products.
My experience as an entrepreneur in Syria was so different from what I found in Sweden.
I believe I have to focus more on being an artist besides being an engineer. I also learned that in order to deliver quality work, I have to put time aside for the creative work and to completely focus on being an author, and then to put other time aside for being an entrepreneur. Doing both things at the same time was a mistake.
Do you plan to stay in Stockholm?
Yes, I do. I love working in this tech startup community, because Stockholm is a super organized city but it’s not obsessed with competition like Silicon Valley. Here, it’s more about collaboration, helping each other among entrepreneurs. I only wish I’d spent more time studying the Swedish business mentality before founding my startup. My experience as an entrepreneur in Syria was so different from what I found in Sweden. But, hey, learning by doing is the best way. Making mistakes and falling forward.
Are you totally healed from your war trauma?
I’m still losing family members who remained in Syria. But I try to look at the bright side of life for coping with emotions and stress.
This interview was originally published in our Startup Guide Stockholm book in September 2018.
Main photo: Startup Guide
*This article was originally published on October 17th, 2018 and updated on December 10th, 2018.