Rola Hallam’s funding platform CanDo lets donors around the world give direct support to local first-responders working in Syria’s conflict zones.
British-Syrian physician Rola Hallam always knew she wanted to be a doctor. Growing up, her father was a gynecologist who moved his family from Syria to the UK when Hallam was just 13 years old. After studying medicine herself at the University of London, Hallam became an anesthesiologist and intensive care consultant for the National Health Service in the UK.
But with the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2012, the death of family members and the descent of her homeland into horror, Hallam returned to Syria to contribute to local humanitarian efforts. In the process, she learned how woefully underfunded they are.
So Hallam set out to change that. In 2016, she created CanDo, a social enterprise transforming the way world supports war-devastated communities. CanDo raises the visibility of local humanitarian organizations working in conflict zones, and allows anyone from around the world to come to their aid.
Here, Hallam tells the epic story of how CanDo’s very first campaign led to medical equipment being delivered directly to Syria — and how global funding made it possible to rebuild a desperately needed children’s hospital in just 12 weeks.
How did CanDo come about?
CanDo was born from my last seven years of working as a humanitarian in Syria. When the revolution and then war started, my family and I began to support our community with medical aid, sending tetanus shots back home and so on. It was a small operation, but as the violence spread and the crisis blew up, it soon became apparent our efforts were insufficient, and Syrians started to coalesce into humanitarian organizations.
I joined a newly formed, Syrian-led organization called Hand in Hand back in 2012, and I ended up working with them for five years — helping to build it up from a small volunteer group to one with over 200 office and field employees, reaching over a million people with our aid.
I started as a volunteer, but ultimately became medical director. I’d take chunks of time off to go to Syria to do medical missions with Hand in Hand, working with them and a couple of other organizations to set up six hospitals. Meanwhile, back in the UK, I was doing my specialist training and a nine-to-five job as an anesthesiologist. Every evening and weekend I was on Skype, doing need assessments and setting up hospitals.
What was the decisive moment when you realized that a platform like CanDo was necessary?
Through the experience of working in Syria, I realized that locals are the ones who know what communities need—who understand the language, culture and religious constraints enough to determine what help is needed where, and how to get it there efficiently. Yet these local humanitarians were not being recognized and supported in that role.
The real turning point for me was when we witnessed a war crime during one of my medical missions in the Aleppo area of North Syria. An air strike had happened nearby — they’d dropped a napalm-like bomb on a schoolyard full of children. We had an influx of dozens of severely burned children who came to the makeshift hospital we’d set up.
“Locals are the ones who know what communities need—who understand the language, culture and religious constraints enough to determine what help is needed where, and how to get it there efficiently.”
It was like Armageddon. That day, all these kids were rushed into our hospital, and we weren’t able to cope. Having trained and done all my work in the UK, where we have access to excellent health care, I knew I’d trained for that day all my life—it was the day I wanted to be a doctor for. I had the knowledge and skill to deal with those injuries, but I didn’t have all the equipment and tools and resources I needed. Children were suffocating and in pain and dying — not from lack of knowledge, but because I — who could potentially save their lives — didn’t have what I needed. That heartbreaking day was transformative and really the origin of CanDo.
What did you do next?
I did some research and realized not only how much our Syrian humanitarians do, but that we are among thousands of underfunded local humanitarians around the world. Syrian NGOs carry out 75% of the humanitarian work in Syria, yet receive less than 1% of the Syrian aid budget. I spoke to Liberian and Congolese and Somalian colleagues, and they all say the same: “We’re doing the work, but we’re not getting the support.” This injustice and inefficiency means millions of people in war-devastated communities are suffering and dying needlessly. I know this to certainly be the case in Syria.
I thought, well, we can do better, and we should do better. I’m going to change the humanitarian system so that we can enable the frontline lifesavers to save lives.
How does CanDo work?
First we look for trusted and high-impact local humanitarian organizations already working in the area. We assess and vet them to make sure we’re finding the best of the best. Then we support these groups through an organizational development program — a bit like an accelerator program for startups, but for humanitarian startups. We help them with fundraising, communications, marketing and financial and programmatic accountability. This helps maximize their sustainability and impact.
I also wanted the mechanism to get their work out of the shadows and into people’s hearts and minds. That’s why CanDo also functions as a bespoke online crowdfunding platform. Once a local humanitarian organization is our partner, they can create a crowdfunding campaign on the platform. There, they display their work and tell their stories in their own voices to the world at large, and show funders how their donations are being used.
CanDo’s very first campaign resulted in a new hospital, Hope Hospital for Children. How did that come about?
Our campaign for Hope Hospital was in response to an SOS call from the Independent Doctors Association, who was one of our first partners. IDA’s children’s hospital in Eastern Aleppo had been bombed, and everyone in the area forcibly evacuated to the Northern Aleppo countryside. There were a huge number of displaced children in this area, and no health care facilities for them. IDA reached out to us and said we want to rebuild a children’s hospital for a seventh time. Would you help us out?
At the time, we hadn’t even built the CanDo platform yet. But when IDA needed help I thought, “Let’s just try.”
Thus ensued the most crazy few weeks of my life. I called everyone I knew, and mobilized organizations to endorse and support the campaign. We launched with two weeks in which to raise the money. I announced that if we could raise the money to build the hospital, we’d personally deliver the medical equipment all the way from London to Syria.
How did you get the word out so quickly?
I launched CanDo and the Hope Hospital campaign on one of the biggest news channels in the UK — on Channel 4 News with Jon Snow. We had an incredible response. Thousands of people started to donate from around the world — and lo and behold, we raised the money we needed for the medical equipment. We were looking to raise £91,000 pounds, and in the end, through direct and indirect funding (we received three large donations from funders), we raised about £250,000. This money not only helped pay for the equipment and the rebuild, but helped keep the hospital going for three months.
So off we went on convoy — six humanitarians and a lorry full of medical equipment. We drove it all the way from London in a gigantic truck, to the Syrian border, on a six-day epic journey. We went through France, Germany, through the Balkans, and then through Turkey, to the Syrian border. It was an adventure. We got stuck in a massive snowstorm, and got separated from the lorry for three days.
The BBC did a four-minute video to promote the campaign, and as we went along, we received messages from Australia, Peru, Malaysia and India, saying “We’re with you, send them our love. Tell them we hear them, tell them we see them.” It was such a beautiful display of humanity that I think renewed everyone’s faith. From that darkness of bombing of hospitals, and war, it was this beautiful coming together of people to say, “No, this is not acceptable, We’re going to do something about this.”
When we arrived, everyone was in tears. It was a really emotional encounter. They decided to call the hospital Hope Hospital because the gesture gave them so much hope that people cared. Not governments and big, faceless charities, but people from around the world caring about them. They’d never felt that before.
How did the hospital get built once the equipment arrived?
IDA had found an abandoned building in an area where they knew it was going to be safe. They claimed this building and rebuilt it into a hospital, and installed all the equipment. It only took them three months! On April 15, 2017, they opened, and so far they’ve treated more than 20,000 children.
This speaks to the CanDo model’s agility: we were able to raise that money within two weeks, deliver the needed equipment, and a few months later a whole children’s hospital had opened — that’s the sort of speed of response that you need, when people can’t afford to wait.