Although much of the recent coverage of Syrian refugees has centered on routes into Europe or conditions at refugee camps, the majority –- the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates up to 80 percent – of Syrian refugees are eking out precarious livings in poor parts of towns and cities spread throughout the Middle East. In these cities, refugees have largely had to fend for themselves, and have come up with an array of informal, grassroots initiatives to bring relief, aid and social support.
Humanitarian aid organizations should applaud such efforts. Yet paradoxically, many of the successful refugee initiatives across the Middle East are succeeding in spite of, not because of, the humanitarian sector. Syrian groups must navigate a maze of legal, financial, cultural, and bureaucratic roadblocks – some of which have been erected (mostly unintentionally) by the aid community itself. If humanitarians wish to promote the social capacity and autonomy of their aid recipients, they must first stop sapping existing relief efforts of their vitality, and then begin devising programs that can support fluid and informal initiatives.
Success Stories and Challenges
The Narlica district of Antakya, Turkey is the poorest part of town. When the Syrian civil war began in 2012, refugees began trickling into this city near Turkey’s southwest border with Syria. They gravitated to Narlica, where rents were the cheapest. Today, there are thousands of Syrians living in this neighborhood; most shop signs are in Arabic and locals estimate that there are three times more Syrian than Turkish residents.
During Ramadan in 2013, a Syrian chef who had moved to Narlica began distributing hot meals from his own kitchen to poor families. The following month, he gathered 26 men and women from the community in his living room and formed the Narlica Society for the Relief of Syrians, with the goal of providing food and in-kind aid to families whose heads of household had been killed or disabled. Eventually, the group rented an abandoned storefront for 350 Turkish liras ($120) per month, which they renovated with the help of volunteer welders and carpenters from the neighborhood. They opened a medical clinic, but it was only operational for seven months before the Turkish authorities shut it down – the clinic wasn’t using certified Turkish doctors, but instead had hired Syrian doctors for a fraction of the price.
One of the biggest drawbacks the group now faces is simply keeping its members around. Of the 26 founders, only five are still involved; the others have moved away or have had to focus on making a living. Recently, the group’s young clerical volunteer left to take a job at an international education NGO.
Hundreds of similar Syrian pop-up charities operate in southern Turkey. In the small city of Reyhanli (population 60,000, 6 miles from Syria) there are at least 47 Syrian relief programs including schools, health clinics, legal offices, vocational training centers and orphanages. To the south of Antakya in Yayladagi (population 6,000; 4 miles from Syria), the governor has identified 16 Syrian associations.
In Lebanon, Beirut has become a hub for middle-class Syrians, many of whom have poured themselves into volunteer work. One group, Ayoun Syria (Syrian Eyes), was formed in 2012 by seven young Syrians from Damascus. They focused on providing food and blankets to poor refugees who had settled in informal camps around the country. They spent the night among these rural communities, befriended their informal leaders and learned that among their greatest needs was consistent access to decent food. So they collected tires, soil, bricks and other equipment and began building communal gardens and collective bakeries in the camps.
But funding, staffing and Lebanon’s restrictive laws have been major challenges. Three of the seven founders of Ayoun Syria have migrated to Europe, and many of their volunteers have left for jobs at better-funded NGOs. After burning through their savings, the founders sought financial support from donors, but because they are officially unregistered, few international NGOs will fund them directly. A handful of other Syrian initiatives have managed to formally register as charities by partnering with other NGOs, but they have found themselves distracted and burdened by the demands of grant- and report-writing, which has pulled them away from their grassroots focus. “The last thing we want,” said Mahmoud, the founder of Ayoun Syria, “is to give up what makes our work so effective in the first place.”
How Should International NGOs Help?
Informal Syrian relief efforts like Ayoun Syria and the Narlica Society have a number of advantages over international and national NGOs: they operate at a fraction of the cost, their volunteers typically understand recipient needs very well, and most importantly, they are personally and politically invested in the long-term futures of their communities. Humanitarians would do well to support such efforts wherever they can.
Part of this means being sensitive to the unintended consequences of NGO actions. For example, NGOs could stop hiring Syrians away from smaller groups and organizations that are already struggling to maintain staff and volunteers. They should also design funding programs that accommodate the fluid and informal nature of these initiatives – for example, by offering small grants to unregistered groups, and relaxing accountability criteria that create onerous and distracting administrative burdens. In short, they should support and cultivate grassroots groups, rather than pressuring them to adopt the model of the bureaucratized international NGO.
Of course, many of the challenges that these groups must navigate are legal or administrative barriers put in place by host governments. It is difficult, after all, to run an NGO when you can’t open a bank account or rent an office. Should humanitarian actors wish to go further in their support, they might consider using their considerable leverage with host governments to push for changing such laws and regulations.
It is inspiring that Syria’s refugees are successfully running such a diverse and dynamic array of social support programs, even in the face of significant odds. But those odds need not be so high – and the humanitarian aid community could do more to reduce them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Refugees Deeply.