The Failure of International Aid, Empathy, and Innovation for Syria
Through an oculus, on the eve of the first World Humanitarian Summit, I entered the world of Sidra, a 12-year-old Syrian girl who lives in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp. As Sidra narrated each scene through the camp, her tent, the gym, the internet cafe, the soccer field, I turned around to carefully examine the details, searching for familiarity. When a group of little children swarmed to my invisible body, I remembered exactly what it felt like to be inside a refugee camp, how the children run up to you first. For a few precious moments in the dusty chaos, I was there among my people. Pulling the mask off my face, I reentered the fancy hotel ballroom. This is reality in the Summit world in Istanbul — the city which shelters hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees yet where Syrians were mere illusions.
For two days in May, over 9000 international figures representing 135 countries: world leaders, government officials, celebrities, CEOs, and humanitarians gathered at the WHS — a concept initiated a few years ago by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The WHS was an effort to unite the humanitarian aid world and dedicate tangible solutions to massive global catastrophes. The global refugee crisis has spiraled in an unprecedented scale largely in part because of the Syrian tragedy — the largest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime.
Despite the devastating numbers — over 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, another million in Europe and across the world, over 6 million internally displaced (with tens of thousands of civilians currently trapped between ISIS and closed neighboring borders), thousands of drowned refugees in the Mediterranean, one million civilians held hostage in areas besieged in vast majority by the Syrian regime (where starvation is being used as a weapon of war), the frequent targeting of hospitals, schools, and marketplaces by regime and Russian aerial bombardment, and the list goes on — the Syrian humanitarian crisis that dominates the headlines was left on the margins when it should have been at the summit of the Summit.
In the world of aid, Syrians have become a virtual commodity: consumed as images, footage, infographics, maps, and data; used as case studies for testing new technologies and innovations; and repackaged as a model for “empathy production.” At some point over the last five years, it was decided that the reason no one was “saving Syria” was because the tragedy had not been humanized enough. If only one could feel what it’s like to be a refugee, to understand what it’s like to be tortured, to imagine what it’s like to watch your country being destroyed, maybe someone will be able to stop the death, displacement, and destruction. Maybe they would be able to stop the war.
So far, this empathy plan (and all other plans) have failed. Despite the well-intentioned efforts, no one knows what it’s really like to be Syrian.
Earlier that morning, I visited Jihan, a Syrian entrepreneur from Damascus. Jihan lives with her family in a suburb outside Istanbul, along with thousands of other Syrian refugees. Our organization, Karam Foundation, has been collaborating with Jihan since 2014 on artisan projects she runs with 50 women in Damascus. Last September she was detained by the Syrian regime for her humanitarian efforts. After her family was forced to pay bribes to release her, she fled with them to Istanbul.
In Jihan’s cozy home, she presented the furniture she collected piece by piece at the local market with the pride of a seasoned bargainer. She said, “People here throw away furniture in perfect condition! We never did that in Syria.”
Every floor of the apartment building is occupied by Syrians. Jihan’s sister lives across the hall with her son, a young man in his early twenties who was one of Damascus’s graffiti activists, spray painting anti-government slogans in the capital when the revolution began in 2011. He used to attend university but now finds odd jobs to make a living. Her family is scattered between countries; her older son has been imprisoned by the regime for four years, her son-in-law has disappeared, and her two daughters live in Sweden.
One of those daughters, a young mother, was detained by the regime for five months and was only released after she had publicly divorced her dissident husband. Her mother told us that when her daughter’s home was raided by regime soldiers, they snatched her wedding trousseau. They callously wore her intimate pieces over their military uniforms and paraded down the street while the neighbors watched from their windows, adding humiliation to the family’s suffering.
Jihan’s sister now protects the sliver of family she has left. She still does not know the fate of her detained son. She plans to leave to Sweden soon.
A kind, prematurely frail Syrian Kurdish woman from Afrin lives upstairs. She presents her intricately hand-crocheted table covers. She remembers her past in Aleppo when she embroidered elaborate needlepoint designs with gold thread on robes for royal families in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Now her products are folded and piled high on the table, going nowhere.
Jihan’s four children are still getting used to school in Turkey. Like thousands of Syrian children, they find much difficulty learning the language and so opt to attend Syrian refugee schools which often lack the resources needed to provide a proper education. Her daughters, 8 and 9, were shy at first but slowly warmed up to us. They showed us their precious possessions — the only toys they were able to bring from their home in Damascus: a doll and a plush dog.
The family asks our opinion about the limited options they weigh every day: should they leave to Europe? Or stay in Turkey? I face these questions from refugees wherever I go; questions I am not equipped to answer. Instead, I listen, nod, smile, and act as if these questions are a normal part of normal conversations. The only advice I repeat to mothers, “Just don’t get on a boat.” Those words sound hypocritical to my own ears — every mother would risk taking a smuggler’s leaky boat to save her children’s futures.
At lunch, Jihan covers the square table with heaping dishes that taste like home. They pluck fruits from the tree outside the window and serve them in bowls with steaming glasses of sweet tea. In this remote Turkish suburb, living with generosity, hospitality, and dignity has not been lost on these families who have lost everything.
At the summit, we seek out the rare Syrians we could find among the thousands of humanitarians. A few Syrian youth were on a panel on education. As I listen and try to tweet their comments, news of a lethal terrorist bombing in the Syrian coastal city of Tartous begins to occupy my feed. Images we are now used to, smoky destruction and charred bodies, the twisted metal of disfigured cars and dusty, wailing survivors — the images are always the same and always horrific. While journalists begin to debate how the attack is being framed in the media and the bickering on which “narrative” to accept, was it ISIS or a conspiracy, I watch the death toll grow. How many more Syrians have just been annihilated while we sit here discussing the future of education?
I look up from my phone as a young man from Yarmouk tells the story of living in a besieged area, watching his community being starved. He ends his statement, “We don’t want your sympathy. We are not here to make you feel pity. We want action.”
Later that afternoon, at the launch of a new global fund, Education Cannot Wait, a panel of very important people faced the audience. The UN Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown moderated the dignitaries’ fast-paced remarks. A young Syrian student speaking on behalf of the Malala Fund, Rawdanour, addressed the room in a strong unwavering voice, in near perfect English. She used to dream to be a doctor but now she is studying political science at a Turkish university in Gaziantep. because she “wants to be a leader.” She unknowingly echoed the man from Yarmouk’s words, “We don’t want your sympathy. We want action.”
At the WHS, action was expressed in repeated ambitious and vague commitments to “education,” to “refugees,” and to “the humanitarian crisis.” The abstract statements were divorced from the Syrian reality that spread right outside the Summit’s guarded gates across the world. The statements conveniently ignored the many months in 2011 that Syria was not a humanitarian crisis, the many months that Syrian refugees didn’t even exist, and thus avoided becoming “political.”
This forced compartmentalization of the humanitarian and the political worlds is delusional. Refugees cannot be separated from the political failures that produced them. And as we have witnessed from the back and forth negotiations between the Assad regime and the UN agencies regarding food distribution to the over one million Syrians trapped in besieged areas, political agendas and war crimes cross over to humanitarian matters all the time.
Taking Sides, the recent report released by The Syria Campaign, details exactly how the “impartial” UN aid programs are in reality. By insisting on continuing to cooperate with the Syrian regime, the result is that over 88% of UN aid serves regime-controlled areas. Even more damning, the agency’s humanitarian aid is being used by the regime as a weapon of war in their “kneel or starve” tactics against besieged populations.
While the concept of providing education for every child in the world is a noble and just cause, speaking about it in abstract without differentiating why children living in Syria are not going to school is disingenuous. Sheikha Moza bent Nasser from Qatar delivered one of the few brave and unambiguous statements on this very subject. After acknowledging that over 6000 schools have been destroyed in Syria since 2011, she said, “The destruction of schools are not just ‘accidents’ of war. . . . We must hold the perpetrators of these crimes responsible and accountable. Only when the perpetrators are shamed and punished will we deter others from attacking education. Only then, can we break this vicious cycle of building and destroying, building and destroying.”
In response to the international community’s utter failure to protect Syrian civilians and aid workers, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), decided to boycott the WHS altogether. MSF hospitals and clinics in Syria had been targeted by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies too many times and killed too many of their volunteer medics and patients. In their boycott, they too demanded action instead of talk.
Outside the official halls of the summit, the handful of attending Syrians were embraced with much compassion and enthusiasm for the work we do collectively. Under the massive UNHCR “refugee” tent set outside, we held our meetings with NGO leaders and collaborated with inspiring people truly doing innovative work in the field.
The only event dedicated to Syrian humanitarians was held on the sidelines, tucked away in a small, dark room. Syrian doctors, aid workers, and NGO leaders presented impassioned accounts about their work and the plight of the Syrian people. At the end of the panel, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was presented with “A Book of Syria’s Dead” that records the names of the first 100,000 Syrians who have been killed since March 15, 2011. The over 1000-page list ends in 2014. Ki-Moon acknowledged that well over 400,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict. He said “I have a very heavy heart. This is a totally unacceptable situation.”
Nada Hashem, my colleague and co-founder of the How Many More? project, carried the heavy volume around the summit for two days. Its physical presence caught people’s attention. They stopped to ask about it, photograph it, report on it, and we explained the book’s message over and over: this is a fraction of the weight of Syria’s loss. We watched people’s expressions of shock and grief with the cold numbness only Syrians know.
In that small way, we brought Syria to the summit, from the forgotten margins to confront the world.
On our last day, we visited the office of the Syrian Civil Defence (SCD) to deliver the book to their elected leader and spokesperson, Raed Al-Saleh. His eyes brightened when he saw the book. He said, “I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. You don’t know what this book means to me. It holds the names of my friends, my family, my loved ones.”
Raed spoke about his frustrations as the representative of the civilian group dedicated to saving lives. They had thought the extensive documentation of their work digging through the rubble of the aftermath of bombings to pull out bodies — occasionally miraculously pulling out living ones instead of corpses — would move the world to action. Instead, they were hailed as heroes; their white helmets became symbols of inspirational courage.
While the SCD’s rescue videos went viral on social media, no efforts were made to stop the barrel bombs and missiles killing civilians (and targeting the SCD) featured in these very videos. “We don’t want people to cry,” he says, “We want them to act. We don’t want people’s empathy, we want them to work to end this.”
That evening, we met with our friend, Abd Al-Salam, a young Syrian from Aleppo who lives in Gaziantep, working as many Syrians do, in the NGO and journalism worlds, translating projects for the agencies and fixing for journalists as he applies to scholarships to continue his education abroad.
Abd Al-Salam is frustrated with the extent of corruption, waste, and inefficiencies of the hundreds of international aid agencies and organizations that have set up shop in southern Turkey. He attends an endless stream of meetings and training courses that are designed for every symptom of conflict except resolving the conflict itself.
He worries about his family caught in Azaz between YPG militias, ISIS extremists, and coalition forces, in a battle that raged on for days after we met. One mutual friend was kidnapped for a time by the Al-Qaeda affiliated group, Jabhet al-Nusra. Her sister, a doctor attending her last year of obstetrics residency, was kicked out of Aleppo’s countryside by Islamic extremists for treating patients. After she fled to Damascus, she was jailed for 14 months by the regime for her crimes: treating the wounded in opposition territories. She is still waiting to be accepted back into her residency. He said, “No one showed her mercy.”
She messages Abd Al-Salam from time to time for emotional support. She asks him, “What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong?”
He asked us, “Do you know what women like her go through?” I thought of her, Jihan, Jihan’s niece, and the thousands of women languishing silently in torture cells across Syria. “Death would have been easier for them. In those places, they die a thousand times every day.”
“But then the other day she messaged me. I asked her, “How are you doing?” She responded, “We are nurturing hope.”
The three of us sat in the familiar heavy silence only Syrians know, as we absorbed these words spoken by a woman betrayed by all and yet still holding on to hope.
We live in a world where somehow it’s become acceptable for Syrians to starve in front of UN officials who stand as silent witnesses, wringing their hands, and showing deep concern in their regime-censored reports; acceptable for a dictator to set the rules for administering aid to besieged areas where people have been cut off the world for over three years; acceptable for the minuscule aid that finally trickles in to be a mockery of the people, distributing lice shampoo and mosquito nets to starving masses.
Despite this grim reality, it seems there’s an app for all Syria’s problems: an app to feed the hungry, shelter the displaced, print out a prosthetic hand or an ancient Roman arch, teach a Syrian how to code, and even warn civilians of an impending bomb hurtling through the sky targeted at their homes. But there are no humanitarian apps or innovations dedicated to ending the war — the ultimate humanitarian goal.
The best of humanity is doing what it can. While the innovations and ideas challenge the dark reality and perhaps plant seeds for the future, they are still only bandaids of empathy placed gently over the wounds of a hemorrhaging country. The rest of humanity sits silently, glancing momentarily in shock when a Syrian toddler is washed up on a beach, but turning away quickly as their attention fades into indifference. All the while, the killers continue to kill with impunity and the war goes on.
Any fragile hope for the future exists only within the Syrians themselves. Like the young doctor, reliving her trauma by night, waiting in uncertainty by day, and still, “nurturing hope.” That’s what millions of Syrians are doing, nurturing hope while struggling in the crushing margins. They don’t want your sympathy. They want an end. They want peace. They want to go home.
It’s time to face the stark truth in front of our eyes: the towering stack of four books of the dead and counting, the millions of refugees, millions of internally displaced, and a country that has been gutted to the point beyond recognition. It’s time to recognize beyond doubt that humanity has collectively failed. It’s time to admit that the empathy building documentary films and moving photographs and groundbreaking technology and innovative projects and viral campaigns do not have the power to save Syria.
Since it’s apparently impossible for international world powers and their institutions to efficiently deliver food to the starving, or stop the boats from sinking, or stop the bombs (barrel, chemical, chlorine, phosphorus, cluster, and all the forms Syrians have learned to recognize over the years) from falling, or bring mass murderers to justice, Syrians need a drastic solution. Instead of trying to move the world with empathy, perhaps we have not been nearly innovative or creative enough.
Young Sidra watches the clouds pass over Za’atari and dreams to be carried north with those clouds across the border back to Syria. Maybe one day, some genius social entrepreneur will invent the most brilliant device for all Syrians, the technology that allows us to finally switch off this inhumane reality and replace it with a permanent virtual one that transports us back to our homes, families, and country.
Give us such an apparatus and let us disappear completely with Sidra’s clouds to a virtual Syria where people live in freedom and dignity, where there are no refugees, no summits, no hunger, no fear, no humanitarian aid, no books of the dead to write, nothing but ordinary people living in an imagined place they call home, nurturing their hopes in peace.
Give Syrians a way to live perpetually in their dreams. And then forget about us forever.
Lina Sergie Attar is a Syrian American writer and Co-Founder/CEO of Karam Foundation. @amalhanano