By Julie Galante

Yasmin Kayali MC/MPA 2023 is combining her humanitarian drive, business experience, and the skills and knowledge she has gained at HKS to make a difference in the region.

Yasmin Kayali MC/MPA 2023 was living in Lebanon with her husband in 2011 when conflict broke out in her native Syria. Her parents who lived in Aleppo eventually lost everything—their home, their business—and her brother volunteered with the local Jesuits to help the displaced. But the ongoing threats of kidnapping and arrest were too severe. They took the last flight out of Aleppo, leaving behind a country that has since descended into one of the deadliest conflicts and largest humanitarian crises of the 21st century.

The devastating onset of the Syrian crisis changed the course of Kayali’s life.

After working at Procter & Gamble as a brand manager and running her own marketing services agency, she quickly shifted her focus to support those impacted by the crisis. She met a Jesuit from Aleppo through her brother who was studying to be a priest, and, in the basement of a church, they organized and worked alongside some 25 volunteers and used donations raised by Kayali to provide hygiene baskets, food, mattresses, blankets, and funding to help pay for medical treatment to those who were displaced.

She wasn’t deterred when the regime bombed the university across from her office that caused it to collapse. Instead, she got strategic.

“I decided this is my true calling,” she says, “and then, things just happened.”

Kayali met a lawyer who worked pro bono to officially register organizations that support refugees; from there, she co-founded Basmeh & Zeitooneh—Arabic for “smile” and “olive,” a symbol of peace and nourishment. She met an obstetrician-gynecologist who wanted to treat women in a nearby refugee camp—the doctor brought an OB-GYN colleague whose husband was a director at MercyCorps. Kayali got a crash course on how to write grants and how to apply for them, eventually leading to Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s first grant from USAID to support its women and embroidery project.

Yasmin at a podium during the Women in Power Conference.
The Women in Power Conference, where Yasmin was director of community outreach and a speaker.

It grew from there. Within a decade, Basmeh & Zeitooneh became one of the largest refugee-led organizations with more than 600 staff members in centers spread across Lebanon as well as in Turkey, Syria, and in the Kurdistan Region. What was an organization originally focused on supporting Syrian refugees extended its reach to support marginalized and host communities. Following the 2020 Beirut explosion, Kayali’s organization also began supporting Lebanese communities in rebuilding their homes and livelihoods as well as small- and medium-sized businesses.

She spoke at conferences to elevate her organization’s work and purpose, published opinion pieces on refugees, women’s and refugee empowerment, and Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s education programs—all in effort to change the narrative about development and philanthropic work. Kayali won the 2020 Voices of Courage Award and the 2022 Leaders for Peace Award in recognition for her work.

“As grassroots organizations, no matter how much we grow and the capabilities we build, we are treated like subcontractors by international nongovernmental organizations who are awarded grants from large organizations or countries’ development funds,” she explains. “The people on the ground who are actually doing the work never receive credit. The hero is the person who’s in the camp every single day against all odds, supporting everyone with every means possible. They are the true heroes.”

It was during this time a Harvard Kennedy School graduate (and Basmeh & Zeitooneh donor) recommended she enroll in the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration Program because of her experience and skills.

“He told me, ‘You can make more of an impact on a regional or global level, but you need the tools that HKS will give you,’” she says. “At the time, my kids were young … it was completely out there for me, but I felt the need to make my voice bigger, to get the message out there about refugees, women’s rights, children’s rights, rights to education, rights to empowerment. I chose to come to HKS to build that network and learning.”

“If you have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s quality of life, you have the responsibility to make that difference. That’s why I do what I do.”

Yasmin Kayali

In addition to being an Emirates Leadership Initiative fellow at the Center for Public Leadership while at HKS—which she says created a great haven and platform for her—Kayali was president of the Harvard Arab Students Association, served on the leadership teams for the Women in Power Conference and Arab Conference at Harvard, spoke at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, and headed an HKS student delegation to the World Government Summit in Dubai.

She was at HKS in February 2023 when the earthquake devastated Turkey and Syria, including her hometown of Aleppo. Basmeh & Zeitooneh stepped in with a full emergency response, launching an online fundraising campaign and working with existing and new donors on emergency relief intervention first, then a full rehabilitation plan.

Not being home was wrenching.

“For two weeks I literally didn’t sleep,” she says. “It’s so difficult when you’re working far away, hoping to alleviate some of the pain people are feeling and give them some normalcy while you’re operating normally. There are teams responding on the ground who lost their homes, their family members, and are living out of their cars. And yet, they had the energy to help others and facilitate programs we were trying to fund. I’m in awe of our people on the ground, their power, their ability, their resiliency, and I continue to learn from it.”

Through the Arab Conference at Harvard in March and the networks she forged at HKS, she was able to raise funds for earthquake survivors as well as be an information source that people were looking for about the earthquake.

“I was far away from home, but very fortunate to be held and anchored within this community,” she says. Kayali says her HKS experience, like many other things, gives back as much as you give of yourself.

Yasmin Kayali with her children Nour and Malek when the program first started.
Yasmin with her children (Nour, 13 & Malek, 11) when the MC/MPA Program first started and they met some of her cohort. (photo credit: Sara BinMahfooz).

She made a promise to herself to return to Harvard at least once a year to continue to learn. “There’s so much more I still want to do. So many professors I want to sit with, take courses with. So many people I haven’t have the time to deepen my knowledge of and learn from,” she says. “This set me off on a journey that doesn’t end with Commencement.”

She will be heading home to her husband and two children, now in Saudi Arabia, next month and is determined to make an impact in the region, particularly related to women’s empowerment, improving educational programs, and in the philanthropic sector.

“Now I can use my skills from the business and humanitarian worlds and all the frameworks I’ve learned at Harvard to be a driving force for change in our region,” she says. “I want to be involved on a much larger scale, in program design, localization, social impact, and to make sure programs are designed and implemented in a way that is more sustainable, long term, and impactful, to benefit the people it’s supposed to reach rather than being stuck in the hallways.

“If you have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s quality of life, you have the responsibility to make that difference. That’s why I do what I do,” Kayali says. “In the end, if I make any kind of difference, I’m leaving behind a better world for my children and future generations. I owe it to myself, to them, and to the people I represent.” 

Portraits by Lydia Rosenberg. Inline images provided by Yasmin Kayali.

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