Wikilogia: The Syrian NGO that brought open source learning to Damascus

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As the nearly six year war raged on in Syria, hundreds of entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts were quietly thriving in Damascus. They are led by Wikilogia, an NGO for open source learning and collaborative education.

Founded in February 2011 and run by nearly 50 volunteers, Wikilogia has educated more than 2000 students and youth on topics ranging from coding to hardware.

“We gave courses in all open source subjects: Web 2.0 (user generated content), Wiki content, coding, hardware… people in Syria had absolutely no knowledge of such things at the time," said Al Amjad Isstaif, one of Wikilogia’s the three cofounders.

Cofounder of Wikilogia Al Amjad Isstaif with Muhammad Al Syrwan, one of Wikilogia's main organizers [Image from Wikilogia]

The NGO gave all its workshops and lectures in Arabic, helping to catapult several of Syria’s main startups, including Remmaz, BitCode, Atadiat and Daraty. The founders of all those groups were once voluntary instructors themselves.

“We were all part of this community in Wikilogia, teaching each other about all kinds of open source knowledge,” said Leen Darwish. Darwish is the founder of Remmaz, an interactive platform teaching code in Arabic.

Darwish had taught coding in Arabic while Sana Hawasly and Yahya Taweel, cofounders of Daraty and Atadiat respectively, gave workshops in open source hardware.

“We in [Wikilogia] were the first to import the Arduino hardware toolkit to Syria from China in 2011,” Hawasly said.

Contestants at the Startup Weekend Damascus 2014.

The Story

Isstaif and his colleagues Nada Albunni and Saddiq Hasna founded Wikilogia. At the time, Albunni was a teaching assistant, Hasna was a lawyer, and Isstaif was a computer science student - all at the University of Damascus, and all passionate about “the hacker culture”, as they called it.

“We would always read and research about the open source coding and content platforms, such as GitHub, or Web2.0, or even Wikipedia” said Isstaif.  “And we knew these things because they were accessible to us as IT students, but we wanted to share them with our peers and have them ultimately think of tech projects on their own.”

Before organizing the meetups, the founders needed to secure a space. They approached the Syrian Computer Society, Syria’s oldest and most prominent IT organization.

“The Society provided us with the IT plaza venue, which was one of the biggest IT venue in Damascus at the time. The next five years were all spent there,” Isstaif said.

The trainings and workshops that began in early 2011 were initially organized as a TEDx event titles “Ideas Worth Spreading”. The workshops were a quick success, drawing a crowd of 80 to 100 attendees per lecture.

Wikilogia lecture. [Image via Mahmoud Khateeb]

Overwhelmed with the demand on the lectures and workshops, fellow engineering students began volunteering to give the lectures themselves. “We started with one weekly lecture and a weekly workshop in 2011. By 2012, we had four weekly lectures as well as workshops,” Isstaif recalled.

Along with the demand came an interest in more niche content, as attendees started forming various Facebook groups such as Wikilogia medicine, Wikilogia entrepreneurship and Wikilogia ED.

A war in your country

Surprisingly, the escalating war in Syria did little to curb the enthusiasm of the meetings and Wikilogia continued to pick up momentum.

As the attendees worked hard on designing their own projects, one initiative stood out from the rest: engineering student Shiraz Shoupassi built and designed her own 3D printer. “We don’t know anyone who designed a 3D printer in Syria, so that created such a hype,” Isstaif said.

Shoupassi was a mentor for one of the winning teams in Syria’s World Robot Olympiad (WRO) 2016, which took place last week on July 31.

Empowered by these Shoupassi’s success and others in their NGO, Isstaif and his team decided to organize the first Startup Weekend Damascus in 2014. The event needed at least $10,000 in funding, which they mostly obtained from MTN Syria, and a license from the global organization behind Startup Weekend.

Startup Damascus was a success. The event made news around the world, appearing in the Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Mashable, among others.

Shiraz Shoupassi displaying a 3D printer, that she and three others built, at a community meetup in Wikilogia

Where is Wikilogia now?

After the great hype of Startup Weekend, the “Wikilogians”, as they like to call themselves, struggled to keep up with their workshops and classes. Without a supportive ecosystem, limited access to the global market and no funds, the startup scene in Syria had little chance of thriving.

In 2014 the group lost their space. The Society’s IT Plaza venue home to all their meetings throughout the years would no longer be available to them by the end of 2015. With rents as high as $1000 a month in Damascus - very costly, considering the current value of the Syrian pound - the group wasn’t able to find an alternative venue.

“While we still had these hundreds of enthusiastic techies, many of them graduated and were pondering what to do with their lives during this war, so a lot of them traveled,” Isstaif added.

He briefly considered moving Wikilogia to the engineering department of the University of Damascus, but the university has tight security measures concerning the admittance of non students, and is located close to the Damascus International Airport, a not-so-strategic location given their county’s ongoing war.

Isstaif is now the only cofounder of Wikilogia left in Damascus. Albunni and Hasna traveled abroad to continue their education.

Isstaif hopes to secure another venue for his NGO and raise the necessary funds for the equipment, laptops and toolkits. “We’re in talks with a few organizations, and we’re hoping for the best,” he said.

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