Syria has been in the news since 2011, when the first pro-democracy uprising demanded the ousting of the then-current President, Assad. The government crushed the protests, which led the country to collapse into civil war. By 2012, small rebel cells were fighting government forces for control of major cities. The Islamic State, a terrorist organization attempting to take control of large chunks of the Middle East, have also been carrying out multiple attacks in an effort to control (and cow) the population. Russia and the United States have been attacking Syrian locations in an effort to wipe out the Islamic State, which is wreaking more havoc within the already faltering infrastructure. In December of 2016, government forces launched a military offensive (codenamed Operation Dawn of Victory) in the city of Aleppo which killed more than 1200, more than half civilians.
More than 4.5 million refugees have flooded out of the country, and some estimate there are almost 7 million more who are internally displaced. 70% of the remaining population is without access to clean drinking water and 30% have no access to food. The Islamic State continues to attack eastern Syria, preventing humanitarian organizations from successfully providing aid. Despite Donald Trump’s plan to ban refugees from entering the US, you can still help people whose lives are literal piles of smoking wreckage.
A lot of the time, your money is the best thing you can give people in crisis. Humanitarian organizations can do the work they do because they have the infrastructure in place to move quickly and effectively. Donating to a reputable aid organization can do wonders to help not only Syrian refugees, but Syrians still in their country. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, provides heating and stoves to people in refugee camps, as well as insulation, tents, and thermal clothing. Doctors without Borders is providing vaccinations and health care through mobile units in countries neighboring Syria, as well as attempting to service the internally displaced refugees within Syria. Shelterbox is an emergency disaster response in a reusable box: every box contains a tent and ground cloth, water purification system, mosquito nets, and other utensils. When empty, a Shelterbox can be used as storage or even as a crib for a new baby.
2. Welcome refugees in your community.
In Germany, an organization called Refugees Welcome bills itself as sort of “AirBNB for refugees” — it allows interested Germans to sign up their apartments to flatshare with refugees in need of somewhere to stay. The company will assist with rent payment to ensure no refugees are turned away due to lack of funds. In Australia, Joining the Dots runs the Welcome Dinner Project: they train facilitators to assist community members in hosting dinners for refugees and migrants, allowing them to make contacts and feel welcomed in their new homes. You can also donate money or clothing to local charities, churches, and other organizations that are collecting supplies to aid refugees in individual municipalities; in Montreal, for example, a local group was overwhelmed with donations of winter clothes for Syrian refugees and had to beg community members to stop donating until they could find a larger storage facility.
3. Do you speak Arabic? Volunteer with the International Refugee Assistance Project!
This group empowers lawyers and law students to provide international aid to refugees and potential refugees. If you can assist with translation, you can help lawyers do Skype interviews with refugees in need of legal advice. This can help the most at-risk refugees get to places of safety, or allow a family to be reunited.
4. If your country is involved with airstrikes in Syria, call them out.
There are many countries involved in doing further damage to Syria, under the policy of “acceptable casualties”. For the millions of Syrian refugees, there is no acceptable level of casualties. Take the opportunity to speak out to your government and tell them you oppose further attacks on the already decimated Syrian landscape and civilians.
5. Arrange film screenings in your community.
This can raise awareness of the crisis, and also provide opportunities to learn more about the refugees who may already be in your area. Some possible titles are: Return to Homs, Border, The Suffering Grasses, We Can Go There Now My Dear, The Journey from Syria, Our Terrible Country, Streets of Freedom, Syria: Snapshots of History in the Making. Cultures of Resistance Films can help provide screening copies free of charge.
6. Advocate for better coverage on Syrians.
Ensure that news coverage of Syrian refugees in your area includes actual contact with refugees. Challenge problematic stories and demand corrections. If you are hosting an event to raise awareness of refugees or provide information on how to help, invite Syrians to speak. Step aside to let their voices be heard! Similarly, advocate for protection for refugees and bring it to the media if you do not get a response.
7. Support businesses run by refugees.
The hardest part of moving to a new country (under terrible duress) is the financial hardship. Most refugees have only a small government stipend and had to leave most of their possessions and assets in their home country, never to be reclaimed. There are plenty of opportunities to support refugees as they attempt to get their feet underneath them; check out this Syrian man who sold pens on the street in Beirut and was the subject of an Indiegogo campaign that raised almost $200,000.
8. Check your government web pages for information on refugees and how you can help.
The Canadian government has a centralized web page for information on the crisis, which provides a regularly-updated tally of how many refugees have been accepted into Canada (39,671 as of January 2, 2017). It also provides information for refugees to help them transition to their new lives, and interviews with new migrants to tell their stories.
9. Are you a business owner? There are lots of ways to help.
Hire refugees wherever you can; Chobani makes Greek yogurt, and 30% of their workforce of 2000 is composed of Syrian refugees. You can mobilize your employees to do outreach or fundraising events, or donate a percentage of your profits to refugee aid organizations. The Norwegian hotelier Petter Stordalen offered 5000 free stays for refugees in any of their Norwegian locations. Find out what refugees in your community need the most, and figure out a way to connect your business. You can also use the hashtag #WelcomeRefugees on social media to demonstrate your willingness to provide support.