Newcomer leaders during the COVID-19 lockdown

As a global community, the coronavirus crisis has changed the way we see our leaders. When presented with a common challenge, the response could not have been more varied. Shock, denial, fear, acceptance, reconstruction – the reactions were, in fact, refreshingly human. When it comes down to it, we can all become leaders, be it leaders for ourselves or for others – it is a common trait in our shared humanity. At PLACE, we witness exceptional leadership by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers every day. However, we were privileged to see how it was accelerated during the global pandemic. Here are the stories of a doctor, a born-teacher, a caregiver and an entrepreneur who rose to the occasion during the time of COVID-19:

When you’re a doctor, you’re always on call 

Thoeiba is a doctor from Sudan who previously served in the Ministry of Health. As an experienced doctor with an expertise in respiratory illnesses, not being able to offer her services on the medical front line of the coronavirus crisis was disheartening. However when the lockdown went into effect, she took action and mobilized others to do so as well.

As the president of Ensemble Pour le Changement, a Sudanese women’s association in Paris, she led the coordination of an emergency hotline during the lockdown. People in need of support in accessing basic services such as housing and food were put in contact with volunteer phone operators. The volunteers would then either offer direct translation and mediation services with the local authorities or redirect them to the best-placed organization or entity to support them. 

In addition to the hotline, Thoeiba and her team of dedicated volunteers also led an initiative that collected messages and art from children to offer support and a spark of joy for patients and doctors caught in the turmoil of COVID-19.

Thoeiba first met PLACE in 2017, when she dived into the world of innovation through PLACE’s pop-up innovation Labs. Through a series of 6 Innovation Labs, she created her project “Health for All” which addresses education and prevention for HIV and tuberculosis co-infection amongst vulnerable populations in Europe.

Offering the gift of words

Rohullah is a multi-lingual, natural-born teacher who has been an inherent part of the PLACE community since day one. His unique life story, which traces across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Norway and France, has enabled him to become fluent in seven spoken languages – a skill set that he regularly uses to support diverse communities in France.

After completing his double master’s degree in international relations from Sciences Po and INALCO last summer, Rohullah started working as translator and interpreter. Outside of the era of COVID-19, you can find him based at the bustling Charles de Gaulle Airport translating essential services and rights for people asking for asylum in France. Since the lockdown began for him in early March, Rohullah has been continuing to offer his translation services on a volunteer basis, at distance, for asylum seekers who find themselves caught in the administrative blindspot left by the global pandemic. 


Meanwhile, Rohullah has also been volunteering his linguistic expertise to front-line workers in Parisian hospitals. Coronavirus knows no border, culture, gender nor ethnicity – so it is safe to say it knows no language either. During the lockdown, Rohullah has been translating essential medical information into Pashto and Dhari for use in Parisian hospitals. His translations have helped doctors and nurses ensure patients were able to stay informed, safe and well in one of the hardest-hit regions in France.

Fighting elderly isolation at it’s peak 

Marie is an entrepreneur and a natural caregiver. When she first arrived in France from her native Senegal, she was shocked by the plight of isolation that many seniors face in Europe. Marie met PLACE in the summer of 2019 when she was a part of the Ice Academy, an early stage entrepreneurship program that PLACE runs in France. Over a period of four months she developed Keur Service – a service that provides adapted at-home care for elderly persons, meanwhile fighting isolation. 

Following her experience with PLACE, Marie continued to develop Keur Service through the SINGA incubator program, all while working part-time as an administrative assistant to sustain her project. However, once the global lockdown took effect in Paris and she was no longer able to go to work, Marie immediately signed-up on multiple volunteer lists to offer her expert support to elderly persons.

The health and social systems that were already leaving the elderly in a fragile position now found themselves threadbare, leaving Marie’s target audience more at risk and isolated than ever. Grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, pharmacy runs, phone calls to make sure people knew they were not alone – Marie volunteered her services every day. 

As the economy opens up, Marie will apply what she learned during this period to upping Keur Service’s commercial offer. For her, coronavirus was a validation that her meticulous approach to providing adapted care is so very needed.  

Boundless creativity under lockdown 

Despite being under lockdown, Moulham took the opportunity to let his creative mind roam free. Over the past three months, he has ideated four projects that he is now ready to take to the next level. 

The first to take root is the Maison de Knafé, a restaurant (delivery based for now) that serves the sweet, yet savoury, dessert knafé which is known and loved across the multicultural middle east. The next step for La Maison de Knafé is to transform it into a safe space where people from diverse beginnings can exchange in an interfaith dialogue and practice peaceful coexistence – all while savouring a sweet dish.


Passionate about tennis, the Syrian native has also been developing a fantasy tennis game as a part of the Parisian incubator “La Ruche”. He’s almost done with the market study and the business model and currently testing the first prototype. Meanwhile, Moulham has  also been exploring other creative outlets and is in the early stage of writing a film script and designing a fashion line. 

An active Catalysts in the Emerging Leaders program, Moulham has been sharing his creative journey with PLACE throughout the lockdown period and sharpening his leadership skills to ensure the projects can take off when the time is right.

The stories of Thoeiba, Rohullah, Marie and Moulham are just the tip of the iceberg of how newcomers in Europe rose to the occasion to cover the gaps our aging systems had left in the face of a global pandemic. As we emerge from this crisis, we hope that their leadership will continue to be leveraged as we design the ‘new normal’.

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