Saving Desperate Syrians in the Age of Peer-to-Peer Aid
There are images that jar us from complacency. Nick Ut’s harrowing shot of a naked and badly burned Vietnamese girl running from an aerial napalm attack in 1972. Kevin Carter’s equally chilling photo of a Sudanese girl, withered away to skin and bones, being stalked by a vulture during the darkest days of the Sudanese famine in 1993. Now, the image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee whose tiny body was photographed lying face down and lifeless on a beach in Turkey, is seared into our brains.
These photos—the you-know-it-when-you-see-it kind—become tragic icons and political flashpoints. They rightly inspire international outrage from the public and heartfelt condemnations of the governments and international aid organizations that refuse to do anything about it. But back in 1972 and even 1993, encouraging these massive bureaucracies to take action was about as much as ordinary people living half a world away could do. Concerned citizens who wanted to reach out directly to help these victims had far fewer options back when the Internet as we know it didn’t exist.
Now, no matter where they live in the world, what resources they have at their disposal, or what level of understanding they have of the issues, billions of people can go online to donate directly to a family in need, organize a caravan of strangers to drive Syrian refugees across borders, or join Refugees Welcome, an “Airbnb for refugees,” and offer Syrian families a place to stay.
As governments waffle over what to do about the refugee crisis, people around the world are using the connective tissues of the internet to take international aid into their own hands. That fact has drastically changed—and irreversibly complicated—the way aid is distributed in a crisis. From now on, we can be sure that if international leaders won’t act, the crowd will—whether they know what they’re doing or not.
To put it in tech industry parlance, aid has gone peer-to-peer. Of course, in a way it has always been. When German families hid Jewish families during the Holocaust, there were often no intermediaries—just one neighbor reaching out to help another. But technology has vastly expanded those networks and erased the geographic and cultural boundaries that once contained them.
“Online, everyone’s able to contribute equally to the discussion, and individuals who might not have strong backgrounds in political activism are able to participate forcefully,” says Francesca Vassallo, an associate professor at the University of Southern Maine who runs the school’s social media activism minor. “Geographically, it’s allowed citizens of the entire planet to get together.”
Online Connections, Offline Change
And it isn’t just so-called “slacktivism” anymore, either. Past online movements like #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls have been criticized for making people feel like they were contributing meaningfully to a cause when in fact they were just retweeting a hashtag. Compare those memes to the political force that #BlackLivesMatter has become, or the medical breakthrough that the ALS Association attributes to the #IceBucketChallenge. Online campaigns are now manifesting themselves in significant and lasting ways offline, as well. #RefugeesWelcome is a continuation of that evolution.
“We’re seeing a lot more coordination between online and offline,” says Slava Rubin, CEO of the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, which has seen a 60 percent increase in the number of campaigns related to the refugee crisis in the last month.
Take the story of Gissur Simonarson, a computer programmer and journalist living in Norway. For Simonarson, it was yet another photo of the refugee crisis that compelled him to get involved. This one showed a Syrian man with a beard on his face, grief in his eyes, a sleeping daughter on his shoulders, and eight pens in his hand. In the photo, it appeared he was selling the pens to support his family. As a father, himself, Simonarson says, he couldn’t get the image out of his head. So he Tweeted it.
— Gissur Simonarson CN (@GissiSim) August 25, 2015
Suddenly, he was inundated with messages from strangers asking how they could help.
Once again, he turned to Twitter, asking if anyone could identify the man in the photo. Within 30 minutes, he had an answer. Within two days, with the help of a local journalist and a Beirut-based activist, he had confirmed the man’s identity—his name is Abdul and his daughter is Reem—as well as his backstory. Immediately after that, he launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo that has since raised $188,000 and counting for Abdul.
“I’ve had many more retweets in the past,” says Simonarson, who runs a Twitter-based news outlet called Conflict News. “But this had a bigger impact, and people were actually serious about wanting to find this man. Nothing’s been this powerful.”
And Simonarson believes he knows why: transparency. “People want to see where their money is going and how it’s being spent,” he says.
More Than Donations
For Jules Cowan-Dewar, the experience was similar. After seeing the photo of Alan Kurdi, she and her brother, her sister, and their families decided they couldn’t sit idly anymore. Decades earlier, their parents had been among a group of Canadians who sponsored Vietnamese refugees, and the siblings wanted to do the same for Syria’s refugees. “We thought, ‘We can donate to the Red Cross,’ but this just felt much more tangible,” says Cowan-Dewar.
They too set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise the $29,700 they would need to sponsor a refugee through a local organization called Lifeline Syria. Within six days, they had raised more than $7,000 toward their goal. Many of the donors, Cowan-Dewar says, have also been drawn in by the immediacy of this kind of campaign.
“People we went to school with a decade ago have been putting forward whatever money they can afford with little notes that are like, ‘We were looking for somewhere to put our money, and this feels like a tangible place to put it,’” she says.
But this online activism has also stretched well beyond pure donations. Recently, a group of Austrian activists launched a Facebook event to organize a convoy of people to drive down to the Hungarian border to pick up Syrian refugees and drive them to Vienna, Germany, or wherever they wanted to go. Some 3,200 people joined the group, called Convoy of Hope. Last weekend, according to organizer Marty Huber, around 170 cars traveled to the border, bringing back an estimated 380 refugees.
Huber, who has been involved in political activism for years, says that the Facebook event drew out a level of participation she’d never seen before. “It’s people from all languages, backgrounds, religions, all ages. It’s very diverse,” she says. “A lot of people got information through social media, Twitter, or Facebook, and I think a lot of people had gotten very frustrated of feeling helpless.”
It’s hard to argue with that logic, or with the fact that what Cowan-Dewar, Simonarson, Huber, and so many others are doing for people in need is a beautiful expression of humanity in a world that is too often inhumane. And yet, some experts in the field of international aid worry about these small-scale initiatives and the impact they could have on large-scale aid and foreign policy.
If aid is increasingly happening in this ad hoc way, they wonder, what happens to the millions of people who need help, but whose photos are never shared on Twitter, who are never granted refugee status, who never hitch a ride over the border? And, if algorithms are left to decide which issues and hashtags are trending in any given week, what happens to the millions of victims still left suffering from yesterday’s tragedy?
It’s not that this form of activism is harmful, says Irina Raicu, the internet ethics program director at Santa Clara University. It’s just that it might be more beneficial if the crowd threw its support behind one unified effort instead of countless small ones.
“Knowing who you’re helping is very powerful, but we have these non-governmental organizations that are on the ground, and if we could just use the wonders of these online platforms to fund them, they’d be a lot more effective,” she says. “We shouldn’t be reinventing all these little wheels, not for a challenge of this magnitude.”
Becoming A Target
Often, these amateur humanitarian undertakings can be dangerous, both for the volunteers and the people they’re trying to help. Just before Huber and her group set off on their convoy, four activists on a similar mission were arrested and accused of human smuggling.
Simonarson, who raised far more money for Abdul than he expected, is now working on figuring out how to get nearly $200,000 to a man with no bank account in a way that won’t put a target on Abdul’s back. Now, he’s working with major aid organizations, which don’t typically take on personal cases, to figure out a way forward.
“It could become dangerous for Abdul. Everyone knows he’s getting this money,” Simonarson says. “Refugee cases are very complicated, and there’s a lot more involved than just raising money and getting it to them.”
Often, Vassallo says, in addition to economic help and housing, the biggest need these people have is emotional, psychological support. “They leave their homes, have family members killed and tortured. That’s the No. 1 need,” she says. “Volunteers mean well, but they’re not prepared or trained, often, for that type of support.”
A False Sense of Power
And there are fuzzier, more philosophical arguments for the old-fashioned way, too, like the fact that online activism can give the crowd a false sense of power, when in reality, the power to allow refugees into a country and to address the systemic violence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria still rests in government hands.
“Scholars who are critical of online activism would say none of this is enough if the real problem is the civil war in Syria,” Vassallo says. “It’s short-term solutions to the real problem, which is the fact that these individuals have to leave their homes to feel safer somewhere else in the first place.”
But Huber doesn’t subscribe to this line of criticism. Even if the power of the crowd isn’t as efficient, she says, it is immediate, and for the families stranded at train stations throughout Europe and suffering in refugee camps throughout the world, immediacy matters.
“The last weeks have shown that we need both, because bigger organizations are, very often, also dependent on funding and public opinion. They sometimes cannot risk as much. Activist groups can be more radical in the best sense of the word, more at the roots of problems and act faster,” she says.
“This is the first line of aid, so to speak. It comes from the civil society that organized itself on social media. They’re not trying to negotiate with the government first about if it’s ok or not to help.”
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