Amid dire need, Syrians doubt aid allocation is fair

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo - 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Amid dire need, Syrians doubt aid allocation is fair

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo - 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Hussam al-Mahmoud | Zeinab Masri | Jana al-Issa

Under the barrage of bombardment, millions of Syrians were displaced from their homes to where shells could not reach them, scattered on hastily makeshifts in northern Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, in areas not originally suitable for habitation, due to several factors that start with the nature of the land on which the tents of the displaced were erected, and do not end with the absence of basic needs for a decent living, from water and electricity networks and economic activities to secure daily requirements.

These hardships put Syrian refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in the cage of humanitarian aid, which was first adopted by the United Nations. Then, local organizations and teams emerged that achieved their presence in relief work by depending on donations to set up emergency projects that could improve the harsh living reality inside the camps.

In association with researchers, analysts, and experts, Enab Baladi will focus in this in-depth article on aid donations and those who deserve it, the extent of internal political influence, and the extent of trust in humanitarian and relief organizations.

It will also discuss the state of skepticism about humanitarian aid and distrust in humanitarian organizations that distribute relief donations to specific groups of people.

 IDPs’ suffering continues despite donations

Numerous local aid and relief associations and organizations have come to surface to lessen the mounting human suffering of the displaced in terms of time and material.

Also, some influencers and celebrities are using their social media platforms on a humanitarian and sympathetic basis, which has been clearly evident since the last snowstorm that rocked the displaced camps since December 2021.

The most outstanding aid campaign in support of the IDPs and refugees was launched by the Kuwaiti YouTube star and content creator Hassan Suleiman, known as AboFlah.    

AbuFlah collected more than 11 million US dollars, between the 7th and 18th of January, in order to help more than 100,000 refugee families in a campaign called ‘The Most Beautiful Winter in the World.’

The campaign was launched in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives, and the Food Banking Regional Network (FBRN).

AbuFlah, who has amassed 24.4M subscribers, said his campaign would provide materials and heating supplies for about 300,000 people who suffer difficult conditions in cold winter.

Social media influencers and users broadly welcomed AbuFlah’s campaign for many considerations, most notably the IDPs’ urgent need for help and the previous experience of the Kuwaiti YouTuber to support refugees in the Middle East during the winter season by raising one million dollars through a campaign launched in October 2021.

The AbuFlah campaign was preceded, in December 2021, by the “My Tent” campaign, launched by the Syrian “rapper” Ismail Tamr and supported by the Syrian actor Qusai Khouli, with the aim of raising 100,000 US dollars to secure fuel oil and heaters and change the shades for the tents of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

More than 13 million Syrians have been displaced in the past ten years. Around 6.7 million are displaced inside the country, and 5.5 million are hosted in five neighboring countries in the region, according to the UNHCR.

Also, the Syrian Molham Volunteering Team (MVT) raised 2 million US dollars in five days launched on 28 January. The campaign was called ‘Until The Last Tent.’

The campaign pulled many prominent Syrian figures, such as Clergyman Mohammed Rateb al-Nabulsi and rights activist Omar Alshogre, actor Maxim Khalil, actress Sawsan Arsheed, and actor Jihad Abdo, who called on their followers to participate in the campaign in order to end the suffering of hundreds of families in northern Syria.

These campaigns encouraged the launch of similar campaigns in the Israeli-Occupied Palestinian territories. The Compassionate Hearts association has collected 10 million US dollars in donations for Syrian refugees, according to the association, via its website on 4 February.

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo - 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo – 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

The total value of the collected donations to Syrian refugees has not been fixed due to the multiplicity of campaigns and entities launching them. In the Sur Baher neighborhood on the southeastern outskirts of Occupied Jerusalem, the Palestinians launched the Insan (human being) campaign, which collected about 315,000 US dollars in addition to quantities of gold jewelry.

Another Palestinian campaign called the “Fael Khair,” or Man of a Good Will, which was supervised by the Relief 48 association, inside the Occupied- Palestinian territories, raised 328,000 US dollars, in addition to 1 million US dollars collected by the “House Instead of a Tent” campaign, launched by Palestinian activist Ibrahim Khalil last January.

YouTuber and Jerusalemite activist Saleh Zighari launched the “Your Giving IS There Warmth” campaign in December 2021. It achieved 350,000 US dollars in support of refugees on the Syria-Turkey borders, in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, Zighari told Enab Baladi.

The opposition-held northern Syria witnessed heavy snowfalls last January that caused the total collapse of more than 467 makeshifts, and the leakage of water to 411 tents, in addition to partial damage to 982 other tents.

The damage swept more than 176 camps, according to the Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG), on 24 January.

During a briefing he gave to reporters, on 24 January, Mark Katz, deputy UN’s Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syrian crisis, said that the humanitarian conditions in the northern Syrian camps are “appalling,” explaining that a quarter of a million people living in tents have been affected, as a result of the severe cold weather and the accumulation of snow.

Katz’s statement coincided with the report of the SRCG, which indicated to the expiration of the lifespan of more than 90 percent of the camps in northern Syria, which increases the scale of disasters and damage caused by natural factors in the region, in addition to the high risk of living in tents in this condition.

Donations, a split factor?

With the harsh weather conditions and the intensification of the snowstorm that hit northern Syria, simultaneous campaigns were launched to meet the urgent needs generated by the weather.

Donations have become a priority that overturns political considerations, as long as the campaigns do not target people’s ideas before their dilapidated tents.

Sociologist Sultan Jalabi in an interview with Enab Baladi ruled out any split in the mechanism of collecting donations for the benefit of the various Syrian refugee and displaced camps. The humanitarian call to support IDPs has even been echoed by pro-Syrian regime artists who encouraged people to donate to the Molham Team’s campaign.

Jalabi believes that the comparison between the campaign of the Molham Team and the campaign that was launched in Lebanon by Syrian rapper Ismail Tamr cannot be correct due to the vast difference in the size of the two campaigns in the first place.

The researcher in sociology mentioned the role of the UNHCR in reaching understandings with influencers on social media and launching campaigns through them.

Molham Volunteering Team’s ongoing campaign united the opinions of influential Syrian artists with different and conflicting political trends. Non-opposition artists called for support for the Molham Team, including Tamr, who expressed in a video his confidence in the Molham Team. He called on his followers to spread the campaign in order to expedite the response to the suffering of the displaced affected by snowstorms in northern Syria.

Sociology researcher Talal Mustafa believes that collecting donations for the benefit of the Syrians in the camps is a positive matter, regardless of the location of the camp or the source of the donations.

It is normal for artists or influencers to lead a donation campaign, as they have prestige and social image, Mustafa told Enab Baladi.

He also pointed out the inability of artists within the regime-controlled areas to clearly provide assistance to the Syrians in the camps in the north, which means that what is available to them is the camps within Lebanese territory, being in one way or another under Syrian security tutelage.

In Mustafa’s opinion, it is common for donations to be collected for the benefit of the camps anywhere, as long as much of the aid that enters through Turkey targets the displaced in northern Syria.

According to the researcher, the priority is for people to move from tents to homes and deliver donations to those who are eligible, regardless of whether there are political backgrounds for donations or the mechanism for collecting them and the parties that undertake operations of this kind.

Mustafa called to draw attention to the humanitarian aspect of these donations and their feasibility, indicating that the delay in these campaigns, compared to the age of the human tragedy in Syria, may be related to people’s dependence on the end of the humanitarian crisis within a short period, in addition to the international role in the issue.

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo - 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo – 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Does aid reach people in need?

Relief campaigns and donations conducted by organizations and associations, whether global or local, have always been accompanied by doubts about aid delivering to the Syrian refugees and IDPs amid accusations that the administrations of these organizations embezzled funds under the name of “administrative or operational expenses.”

These criticisms have topped social media accounts during the past few months after YouTuber AbuFlah launched the “The Most Beautiful Winter In The World” campaign. Criticisms of social media influencers accompanied the campaign, with accusations that the donations for the first campaign, “Warm Their Hearts,” launched by AbuFlah in cooperation with the UNHCR in October 2021 that ended with raising 1 million US dollars to support refugees in the Middle East during the winter season were not delivered.

A publication of the UN Refugee Commission talking about its decision to distribute half of the donations collected from AbuFelah’s last campaign sparked outrage among the Syrian people; however, the UNHCR clarified via email to Enab Baladi that the entire donation money would go to support needy families.

This was accompanied by extensive media coverage regarding the United Nations agencies’ cooperation with pro-regime companies and organizations which were involved in committing human rights abuses. The al-Assad regime attempts to lock the opposition-run Bab al-Hawa border crossing and limit the entry of UN aid through the contact lines, which means the aid delivery to the opposition-held areas would be through the regime-controlled areas.

In order to find out the amounts deducted by the United Nations agencies from the donation campaigns they launch, whether by dealing with influencers through social media sites or through their official websites, for administrative and operational expenses, and the mechanism for delivering donations to those who deserve it from the Syrians, Enab Baladi contacted the UNHCR’s media center via email but has not received a response until the time of preparing this report.

Molham Team as a leading volunteering model

Shortly after AbuFlah launched two fundraising campaigns for refugees in the Middle East in cooperation with the UN, and with the escalation of talk about the need of the displaced in northern Syria for housing apartments after the snowfalls in the region during the past few days, the Molham Volunteering Team launched a campaign to collect donations to move families from their tents to homes, as one of the sustainable solutions to end their suffering.

The “Until the Last Tent” campaign, launched by the team, revived the discussion and comments about the Syrians’ benefit from it and the basis for selecting those eligible for donations, especially after the team announced that the campaign aims to build new homes, while video clips showed that the team moved families to pre-built apartments.

The campaign sparked speculations about Molham Team’s work under the banner of a “Volunteering Team,” while the administrative and operational expenses are being deducted from the donations.

Volunteering is not free

Atef Nanoua, the co-founder and the executive director of Molham Volunteering Team, told Enab Baladi that the non-profit organization would deduct 3 percent of the donations to cover the administrative expenses for the year 2021, and it is expected that this percentage will rise to 4 or 5 percent in 2022.

Nanoua said that the leading Syrian relief team bears the motto “volunteering” because it was established as well, and it lasted about three years until it obtained the license. It currently includes 100 employees and more than 300 volunteers, so the term “volunteering” is predominant.

The need to employ a number of full-time people in Molham Team appeared after obtaining a license, so the team started paying salaries to them and announced this to all donors on social media pages, the executive director said.

Nanoua considered that this deduction is “legal” and does not negate the character of volunteering, pointing out that the Syrian Red Crescent (SRC) or the Civil Defense in all countries of the world includes volunteers, so the status of “volunteer” is not a condition for the work to be unpaid.

Molham Volunteering relies on any practical models from the relief teams in delivering aid, and it also adopts the standard model, which is to collect donations and deliver them by themselves directly to the beneficiaries without any intermediary. Thus the beneficiary knows exactly the donations the team has collected for him.

In regard to ensuring donations reach their recipients, Molham Team states, on its official website, that it is a licensed organization in several countries: Turkey, Germany, Sweden, Jordan, and Canada, and is subject to the supervision of the competent authorities in these countries.

Molham Team’s website displays all donations received and disbursed in the transparency file and presents news of cases, campaigns, and other programs that have been worked on through the latest news page, in addition to posting media materials about the team’s work on the ground through social media accounts.

Molham’s Transparency file on the official website shows that the total donations received amounted to 40,465,758 US dollars, while the total donations disbursed amounted to 34,76248 US dollars.

The reason for the difference between the amount received and disbursed is the amounts allocated to orphans who are sponsored for a year, the amounts of educational projects, and the amounts of the ongoing campaigns that are still under implementation, according to the official data posted on the official website.

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo - 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo – 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Selection of beneficiaries

Molham Team details on its website the mechanism of selecting beneficiaries of medical and humanitarian cases and beneficiaries of response campaigns. It also confirms that anyone who donates to any medical or humanitarian case on the site can request direct communication with it.

The Medical Cases Department receives requests for medical assistance on a monthly basis in the team’s work areas, and in the event of initial approval, it is visited by the field volunteer, after which it is referred to the medical committee, which in turn evaluates the case based on several criteria.

Among the criteria are the type of medical cases, the availability of treatment in the area, its success rate, and the cost of the required assistance. If the case is approved, a special fund is opened for it on the site, and it is published on social media to help secure aid and then arrange assistance procedures such as booking an operation appointment, purchasing a drug, or other medication.

The Humanitarian Cases Section receives requests for humanitarian assistance on a monthly basis in the Molham team’s work areas. In the event of initial approval, they are visited by the field volunteer and then evaluated based on the severity of the need, with priority given to the newly displaced and cases that do not have a breadwinner.

If the case is approved, a special fund is opened for it on the site, and it is published on social networking sites to secure it, and then arrange assistance procedures for paying rent, purchasing needs, or delivering a sum of money.

For the response campaigns, field teams organize survey tours in the camps and gatherings in need at the request of the camp administration, the local council, or any third party. An assessment will be made for the camp or displaced gathering, the needs of families, and the number of beneficiaries, then a report will be submitted to the campaign’s official, who in turn initiates the implementation procedures.

Mounting doubt

The tendency of the Syrian people to distrust humanitarian aid is not accidental, given the ways in which the Syrian regime has used aid funds, organizations and agencies, in the past and present, to serve its political interests and plans, according to Ashley Jordan, a researcher in the humanitarian field who covers the work of Syria’s humanitarian organizations.

Jordan revealed to Enab Baladi that there is a lack of trust among the Syrians, which is a natural thing that is difficult to overcome or to restore confidence without directly solving this problem, which remains at the level of the UN leadership and aid agencies.

The researcher said that there is an imbalance within the humanitarian system itself that makes it difficult for affected people to feel dignity when receiving assistance because it does not improve their situation in the long term.

After all this investment, the needs in Syria are growing more and more over time, and in general, the affected population may view assistance negatively as if it were a business, not as a system that is really focused on helping people.

This is because business mentality dominates the human system itself; for example, there is an emphasis on quantity over quality and competition between agencies and organizations rather than cooperation.

The researcher added that many Syrians view humanitarian action as a way to pay the bills rather than a deeper call to effective and constructive change.

One of the reasons for the loss of confidence is the failure of international actors to invest their efforts in building local confidence, Jordan says.

Trust-building has been negatively affected by the severe restrictions on the ground in northern Syria. Without direct access, donors and international NGOs will not be willing to take risks, hampering confidence building with their local Syrian partners, Jordan added.

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo - 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo – 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Lack of trust in international donors

In the opposite direction, affected civil society organizations face difficulty in trusting donors and international NGOs due to what they claim donor agendas and asymmetric power dynamics from the highest levels to the lowest.

Power flows from top to bottom rather than bottom to top, so external actors often prioritize what type of assistance is being distributed, where, to whom, and why, with minimal consultation with the affected population in Syria beforehand, according to Jordan.

In the outcome, aid priorities are often simplistic or do not represent the diverse interests of the Syrian people and civil society, so how do the Syrian people trust them? Syrian civil society organizations may become subordinate to donor funding and thus feel constrained by what they can do with the few resources they have.

At all levels, there is a lack of local participation and accountability efforts and not enough space for advocacy among the local population.

Active Syrian civil society organizations are constrained in their relief work, what may be seen as a service provider executing donor requests rather than the independent and locally responsible actors in their own right, which they strive to achieve.

Can trust be fully restored?

The mechanism for distributing aid and ensuring that it reaches its beneficiaries occupies those interested in covering humanitarian needs in Syria, starting with those in need of this aid, passing through a number of humanitarian organizations working on the field, and not ending with activists, researchers or the media outlets that work to highlight the need for absolute transparency in the aid and relief work.

According to experts, the accountability bid which is exercised on aid organizations seems insufficient in order to restore confidence in their work in light of the continuous skepticism they face and the difficulty of restoring the trust of IDPs, while the efforts of international actors that might achieve adequate support are almost absent to ensure the required expectancy.

Reinforcement for better IDPs service

Jordan, the researcher who is familiar with the Syrian humanitarian organizations, warned that solving the problem of people who directly benefit from humanitarian aid questioning the extent to which it actually reaches them requires concerted efforts to change this perception among people.

These efforts represent the need for people to feel that humanitarian organizations really exist to help them, and not to serve some external interests or to support the donors’ agenda, by strengthening local efforts through continuous investment in accountability mechanisms, trust-building, partnerships, and capacity, said Jordan.

International partners should also look beyond the fact that Syrian humanitarian organizations may lack organizational capacity and recognize their need to build cultural capacities that enable and support deeper engagement and dialogue with Syrian communities before, during, and after project implementation. For a number of international NGOs, for example, they hire specialized Syrian staff, whose main role is to tell people the general standards of the needs they are working to cover and conduct regular dialogue awareness sessions between beneficiaries and civil society organizations working on the ground.

To build local accountability, international partners should focus on creating mechanisms that allow their Syrian partners to speak out about their humanitarian concerns without fear of blame or loss of funding. In turn, Syrian organizations should not hesitate to report to their international partners about the lack of public trust in them to achieve greater pressure and get more independence in their work.

Empowerment and international support

In an attempt to search for solutions or recommendations that support the organizations’ work in the file of transparency towards the beneficiary people with the aim of restoring part of their trust in them, Jordan said that the most important thing that might restore that confidence is the organizations’ awareness of what strength and effectiveness they have today in the Syrian file.

Jordan clarified to Enab Baladi that the fact that organizations have access to people, their knowledge and proximity to people’s issues, and their deep sympathy for their suffering is an indispensable part of the solution.

The researcher added that international actors in the field of humanitarian aid must realize that Syrian organizations operating today enjoy efficiency and value for more than just the access they provide, as some organizations have proven that they are able to lead the humanitarian response in Syria from the first day of the start of the revolution, despite their work without resources and a supportive structure, and in light of the difficulties they faced that seemed insurmountable, including the humanitarian violations that were being practiced against them.

According to Jordan, it is also important to recognize the fact that ‘traditional’ humanitarian actors and civil society organizations complement each other well, but this may only make the difference if the focus remains on cooperation and mutual respect for each other’s strengths.

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo - 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Displaced Syrians clearing accumulated snow off the roof of their tents following snowstorms that hit the Sheikh Bilal camp in Rajo area of Afrin district, northern Aleppo – 20 January 2022 (Enab Baladi / Malek al-Habal)

Right holders without authority

On the international aid sponsored by the United Nations, researcher Ashley Jordan believes that the UN agencies should realize the diversity of humanitarian organizations working in Syria, especially the credible ones.

From there, these agencies must work to ensure the participation of diverse organizations in global conferences and working groups that they carry out, as well as limiting their dealings with specific organizations such as those that have the most authority, Jordan urged.

Syrians may perceive the United Nations’ handling with organizations with power as ‘illegitimate’ while the participation of varied organizations may create a feeling among people that such participation is “valuable” and more beneficial to them.

NGOs aid coordination

Since the Syrian revolution erupted in March 2011, humanitarian needs have steadily increased in all Syrian territories. However, the multiplication of these urgent needs is now accompanied by a state of lack of imports and funding, which may be a reason for the lack of aid reaching some of those who deserve it.

The humanitarian necessities may create a need for organizations operating in Syria to work on diversifying their resources and not relying excessively on donor funding only, Jordan suggested.

Aid experts say the modest initiatives by a number of organizations can renew the sense of local ownership of the projects of these organizations, which may contribute to restoring people’s confidence in them by opening volunteer opportunities that ordinary people can participate in by creating their own ideas.

Despite some differences in mindset and working methods between organizations, the organizations must remain careful not to internalize the competitive logic inherent in traditional human structures and instead encourage cooperation and work on common points, with the aim of uniting their mission through a commitment to humanity, Jordan added.

Dire need for transparency

Nisreen al-Zaraee, from the Operations and Policy Center (OPC), assures that transparency about the continuous decrease in aid funds allocated to Syria is very important, and it can explain to people the reasons for the lack of aid they complain about today.

In light of the clear and proven ‘corruption and racism’ of the UN agencies, the solution to the issue of persistent doubts about the arrival of aid to those who deserve it is today in the hands of civil society organizations operating in Syria, al-Zaraee told Enab Baladi.

The researcher, who is interested in the political, economic, and social dynamics of the conflict in Syria, added that these organizations must rebuild society away from deceptions, in line with the currently existing data indicating that humanitarian aid is less than that provided during the past year, pointing out that it will also be less over the next year, or it could end completely.

Full transparency in the issue of humanitarian aid can solve most of the problems of trust between the organization and the community, as it requires the organization and donors together to work with one clear approach that takes the community’s needs as a priority to implement their mechanism of action, in terms of aid distributing due to the refugees and IDPs’ requirements and needs, not according to the donors’ measures or plans.



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