7 Ways to Help Syrian Refugees and the Reason Why You Should

The Syrian crisis fades in and out of international news in accordance with the US presidential debates, the fluxes of refugees to Europe, the images — of children or boatloads of people or bombed-out buildings — that capture public attention. For those living outside of the region, the Syrian crisis can seem remote and irremediable. “Out of sight, out of mind,” and all that.

Here in Lebanon it is impossible to forget the Syrian crisis. There are towns where there are more refugees than local residents, dismal settlements lining the highway, children and women begging in the streets of Beirut.

One of many informal refugee settlements in Lebanon.

Whether we’re near or far, the need can paralyze us with its enormity, especially when we each face so many other claims on our attention, our time and our money.

So why should we care?

The war in Syrian has created the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world right now. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions of families are displaced from their homes, and millions of children are out of school. The struggle to buy groceries, to prepare for the cold winter, to get the kids an education, to find something to do that will earn enough money to make ends meet, is a struggle that a refugee faces every single day.

Who can’t sympathize with that?

And beyond the humanitarian suffering, the crisis in Syria threatens the stability of the entire region and provides space for extremist groups to grow. In addition, the crisis impacts the US economy and its global reputation, as well as the economy and reputation of the many countries in Europe and the Middle East that are also entangled — willingly or otherwise.

The good news? (Because there actually is some.)

It is surprisingly easy — no matter how busy you are, no matter your financial status — to find a way to help:

1. Learn more. The numbers are staggering, but each refugee is an individual, with family, hopes, dreams. Get to know one or two Syrians, if only ‘on paper’ (that is to say, through your computer). Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton did a series on Syrians who have been approved for resettlement in the US — beautiful portraits, with entire lives summed up in just a few sentences. The images of these everyday people struck a chord with thousands of viewers (including President Obama). Or check out Humans of Syria, inspired by Stanton’s work, which shares stories of Syrians who have remained behind.

Eight-year-old Aya, on the right, walks home along a dusty road in Dalhamiyeh with her sister, Labiba. The two are best friends. They live in an informal settlement for Syrian refugees. (Lebanon) UNHCR/ S. Baldwin

2. Join the conversation. Pick your favorite “Humans” image and share it on Facebook. Stop by Twitter and check out the hashtags #RefugeeCrisis, #WithRefugees and #WhatWouldYouTake. Comment. Retweet. Search Medium for “refugees,” then read, highlight, comment and/or share.

3. Eat soup. When Lebanese food writer Barbara Abdeni Massaad saw camps of refugees cropping up in her home country, she knew she wanted to do something to help. As she has famously said, “Had I been a barber, I would have cut their hair for free. Because I am a cookbook author and photographer, I decided to create a cookbook.” Massaad collected recipes from home cooks to world-famous chefs, and accompanied them with stunning portraits of some of the refugees she had befriended. Soup for Syria was born, and is now available for purchase in Lebanon, the US, the UK and Italy. Buy a copy and support Syrian refugees: proceeds from sales are donated to UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency).

My new favorite cookbook, Soup for Syria.

4. Throw a party. Keep it small: host a soup dinner party, talk about the cookbook and the Syrian refugee crisis, and ask your guests to make a donation the equivalent of what they would have spent on dinner out. Or, go big: follow the example of a trio of humanitarian workers in Beirut who spent their free time organizing an end-of-summer bash at a seaside bar. Charging $50 per head, after covering the costs of the venue and drinks, they had raised $1,600 which they donated to a non-profit that provides medical assistance to children injured in the Syrian war.

Expats and locals in Beirut come together in support of refugees.

5. Pay for a child’s schooling. According the UN, roughly half of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees are children. Many have not been in school since their families fled Syria — up to five years ago. Putting a child in school not only gives him or her the chance to learn, but also protects the child from the risk of injury, sexual violence, abduction or recruitment into armed groups. Host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, can’t bear the burden alone, and the Give a Child a Chance to Learn campaign by UNHCR enables private individuals to be part of the solution.

6. Advocate. Ask your government to insist that cease-fires be respected, and to provide assistance to the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. (Check out Oxfam’s analysis about which governments are doing their fair share.) Get informed about the refugee asylum process (in the US, refugees undergo more rigorous screening than anyone else allowed into the country), and consider putting your support behind resettlement. You can write your own letter to the government, or add your name to an existing petition, such as this one by Catholic Relief Services.

7. Donate — and maximize your impact. There are many reputable and effective organizations working with Syrian refugees. In addition to the ones I’ve linked to above, another that bears mentioning is International Rescue Committee. I worked for them many years ago in New York City as a fundraiser, and know first-hand how efficient they are with their spending. I’m now based in Lebanon, and the IRC has an excellent reputation for their work here with refugees. Double your impact by checking if your employer will match charitable donations — many in the US do so.

I am a freelance writer who arrived in Beirut, Lebanon in May 2012, when there were “just” 15,000 Syrian refugees. The numbers have since swelled to over a million. I’ve made soup, donated cash, crowdsourced funds, danced the night away at fundraisers, petitioned my government, and talked with friends and family about the Syrian crisis. I hope you’ll join in.

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Amy E. Robertson is a freelance writer based in Beirut, Lebanon. She holds a Master’s in Development Studies from the London School of Economics, and worked for five years at the New York headquarters of the refugee aid agency International Rescue Committee. Her writing has appeared in Budget Travel, Christian Science Monitor, Ms., National Geographic Traveler, Vice Munchies and the Wall Street Journal Expat Blog, and she is a contributing editor for the website Transitions Abroad. You can see more of her writing on her website www.amyiswriting.com.