Crowdfunding the Syrian Refugee Crisis

There are now four million Syrian refugees, many of them children who rely on underfunded groups for their education

Palestinian boys at the Shatila refugee camp, which also now houses thousands of Syrians. Credit: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty

It is a sticky, summer night in Beirut. A crowd gathers around a projector at a venue in the city's Hamra district.

"10! 9! 8! 7! 6!" they count down.

The crowd is anticipating the launch of a crowdfunding effort called #ShatilAlive that's designed to raise funds for the Basmeh wa Zeitooneh community organization and arts and cultural center located in the heart of Beirut's Shatila refugee camp.

Shatila camp was established in 1950 as temporary shelter for Palestinians fleeing the creation of Israel; this is commonly referred to as the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe. Sixty-five years later, it is home not only to three generations of displaced Palestinians – who, despite many of them being born in Lebanon, do not share the same rights as Lebanese citizens – but also to thousands of Syrians fleeing the war next door.

Crammed into one square kilometer of urban space, some 40,000 refugees are now living on top of each other in Shatila camp, all but ignored by the Lebanese government. Trash piles up in the streets. Low-hanging electrical wires threaten to electrocute residents, while barely supplying the camp with any power. Without any space to expand outwards, recently arrived Syrian refugees have no choice but to join already occupied homes, or build upwards, the physical strain on faulty infrastructure compounding the emotional strain of exile. 

The crowd gathered for the launch of the fundraiser is mostly young Syrians, many of them artists and humanitarian types who either work or volunteer their time at the center to help fellow Syrians living in Lebanon while they wait out the war.

"5! 4! 3! 2! 1!" #ShatilAlive is online.

Basmeh wa Zeitooneh started as a volunteer-run collective, handing out food and clothing to newly arrived Syrian refugee families in need, but over the past three years it has bourgeoned into a full-fledged organization, offering everything from art workshops and theater classes for students to day care and medical assistance for refugee families.

The organization infuses Shatila camp with artistic energy. Though it may not always have basic necessities – power, running water – it is a hub of cultural activity. Women from the camp use the center to make traditional Palestinian embroidery, which some have leveraged into their own small businesses.

Their children attend the organization's school, and participate in after-school programming that encourages them to express themselves through art and performance. The school is an informal one, designed for the many Syrian students who are unable to attend Lebanese public schools. About half of the almost 1.2 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon are children, and only 25 percent of them are enrolled in Lebanese public schools. Most of them rely on informal schooling, like the education program that Basmeh wa Zeitooneh offers, to not fall behind completely.

"The kids' program is one of the most important parts of the organization," Osama, a 30-year-old English teacher at the school from Syria, tells Rolling Stone. (He asked that his last name not be printed since his family is still in Syria.) "At the beginning of the school year, they were drawing bomb scenes and soldiers," he says of his students, all of them Syrian refugees. "But now they're drawing hearts and angels. They're drawing their hopes and their dreams."

Today, a series of grants that helped the organization implement and sustain several of these programs is running out, putting several of the programs in danger. Osama fears that without such efforts, his students – many of whom have been out of school for three years or longer – won't have the tools to begin to heal from the war or cope with the daily challenges of being refugees.

"If we leave them in the streets, they could become terrorists," he says in a low voice, pointing to the fact that a lack of educational infrastructure has been linked to a rise in extremism in some refugee communities. 

To make up for the difference in funding, the organizers at Basmeh wa Zeitooneh have launched #ShatilAlive on Zoomal, an Indiegogo-like crowdfunding platform that specializes in initiatives in the Arab world. Although the platform is typically used for arts and cultural events, or to raise seed money for the growing Arab startup scene, the organizers at Basmeh wa Zeitooneh hope that it can be leveraged to fund these programs so they don't close down.

"We know there are many people of goodwill around the world who want to help, but don't know how," Basmeh wa Zeitooneh Co-Founder Fadi Halliso tells Rolling Stone. "We are trying to show that refugees are people like them who are trying to get back on their feet, and need some of these programs to do that."

With a little more than a week to go, and some $88,000 raised of an ambitious $120,000 goal, Halliso is cautiously optimistic.

"We are hoping that ordinary citizens can identify with their needs, even with a small amount of money," he says.

Basmeh wa Zeitooneh is not the only community organization crowdfunding humanitarian aid for the ever-increasing number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. During the winter months, when a series of unusually severe blizzards caused at least four refugees living in tents in the informal settlements throughout Lebanon's Bekka Valley to freeze to death, Syrian-led humanitarian collective Eyeoon Sooriyeh (Syrian Eyes) appealed to raise funds to purchase firewood and blankets, and coordinated aid deliveries to the affected camps. Lebanese-run NGO Lebanese4Refugees took a similar grassroots approach, using social media to broaden its reach to gather food, clothing and cash donations and recruit volunteers to distribute them in the camps, often venturing to areas underserved by larger NGOs.

But however creative, or effective, these grassroots initiatives may be, many residents still wonder why community organizations are depending on their networks alone to support an underserved population. Where are the United Nations or international NGOs, they wonder?

There was an influx of humanitarian aid at the beginning of the conflict to establish the first refugee settlements and fund services, mostly administered by the United Nations High Council on Refugees. But since then, aid has slowed to a trickle. In 2015, Lebanon received less than a quarter of the $2.1 billion requested by aid agencies and the government to meet the demands of the ongoing humanitarian crisis. For many refugees, this has had drastic consequences, as corners are repeatedly cut. At the beginning of this month, the World Food Program's allowances were cut in half, from $27.00 per month to $13.50 – barely enough to buy a family's basic necessities for a few days, much less 30. 

"After four years of crisis, there are other humanitarian crises that these international donors are funding, and channeling their resources towards," Halliso says.

And yet, the Syrian refugee crisis is not abating. The number of refugees who have fled Syria recently topped four million, with many fleeing deadly attacks from ISIS and ongoing violence from the Assad regime. As humanitarian aid runs out, and unsustainable programs in host countries like Lebanon struggle not to collapse under the strain, many Syrians are taking matters into their own hands.

"If this crowdfunder fails," Osama says, "it will leave 500 kids in the streets without school, many women without work and many families without aid."

He pauses for a moment.

"Let's not say this will happen. Please."