Lisa Barrington
Last updated: 14 August, 2012

Networks of trust: the personal side of humanitarian aid for Syria

Away from the headlines of large, often politically motivated donations to the ‘Syrian cause,’ Your Middle East takes a look at individual, often risky, efforts that have been providing lifelines to Syrians from the uprisings’ early days.

In an undisclosed location in Beirut, stacked cardboard boxes of food and medicine lie ready to be delivered to Syrians who, although refugees from their crisis-hit homeland, fear coming forward to agencies or authorities, which means that they miss out on what formal aid provision there is.

The hands that will deliver the boxes do not represent a formal NGO or international agency, but a small grass-roots group of friends who, having come into personal contact with refugees through their own networks, set out in May 2012 to deliver small, targeted acts of emergency relief for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

A spokesperson for Little Projects for Syrians told Your Middle East that “many refugees fear registering with UNHCR or coming forward for informal aid from local NGO’s due to political sensitivities.” These include fear of deportation and fear that those fleeing Syria for political reasons could “face targeting from Lebanese groups who have sided with the Syrian regime.”

Relying on donations from a network of concerned friends, the group, Little Projects for Syrians, has a name that says it all. It is personal, grass-roots and often risky approaches such as this that have characterized the provision of humanitarian aid to Syrians during the sixteen months of conflict.

Informal and low-key as such projects are, the most hidden of all acts of humanitarian relief to international eyes has been the many homes opened up across Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to shelter not just family members but also complete strangers.

Your Middle East spoke to a Syrian former detainee and victim of torture currently in hiding who told us how the generosity of strangers within Syria has been keeping many, including him, alive.

“Every time we were in a demonstration and the security forces came and we had to escape, a lot of people opened their houses and let us in. And now when there are a big group of people escaping from their town to another town, a lot of people open their houses. If anyone has an empty apartment he will open it to them without anything in return, and certainly those people provide the emigrants with everything they need.”

When questioned about the role of NGOs and relief organisations in helping Syrians in need, he said that “until now, 90% of the help is done by the Syrians themselves. As for me I rarely heard of or dealt with any one who got external help.”

What unites the groups of activists running the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs), the ordinary people offering sanctuary in their houses to family and strangers, and the groups outside Syria’s borders delivering fans, food and medicine to those in need, is that all these efforts depend on networks of trust to function.

“This is a network of friends – not an NGO – and we depend on trust,” said a spokesperson for Little Projects for Syrians.

And this philosophy applies to larger and more formal organisations too. UK based Syria Relief was set up in September 2011 to co-ordinate the various fundraising activities across the UK and despite being a registered charity fully accountable to UK authorities, it still uses informal distribution networks in addition to formal NGO routes to deliver aid.

“We have an extensive network of contacts on the ground, who have organized themselves as an effective logistics operation,” said a Syria Relief spokesperson. “Under normal circumstances, those networks would have formed proper and successful local NGOs. However, due to various reasons, not least the real and constant fear for their very lives, they have to work in this quasi-formal manner.”

In addition to the networks of trust made necessary by the ever deteriorating security situation, there are a number of other factors that have contributed to the development of the aid for Syria landscape as we see it today, and that could have serious implications for its future.

Syria Relief came into existence because a group of Syrian expatriates realised that although a number of major charities were already on the ground helping Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, “due to a number of hurdles and obstacles, very little was being done inside Syria.”

Syria Relief told Your Middle East that, having realised in the spring of 2011 that Syria was in for a long struggle, “we thought long and hard about whether we should simply ask one of the big established charities to set up a Syria Campaign. We approached a number of major charities and were struck by the amount and complexity of red tape they have to go through, despite their extremely good intentions. Most were very happy to help, but any action they take will have to be in the context of their overall strategies and plans.”

Despite having overcome this round of red tape to create an organisation that is “responsive to very fluid and ever-changing situations,” Syria Relief faces a number of other difficulties.

“The deteriorating security situation…makes it difficult for our contacts to reach potential recipients, to carry out assessments or to deliver aid. Second, it makes it difficult – even more difficult than it normally is – to provide verifiable proof as to where the aid is going, something that is always at the forefront of our thoughts, since our activities have to be totally transparent in front of the Auditors and the Charity Commission.”

Another source of difficulty for Syria Relief is the reluctance of the UK and European Banks to handle any money that is remotely related or has any thing to do with Syria, a problem that is becoming more acute with the tightening of EU sanctions against Syrian financial institutions.

While providing immediate relief, it is always good to have one eye on the future and this is particularly important in a region whose governments have a poor track record of dealing with refugees in the long-term.

Little Projects for Syrians note that most families they come into contact with consist of women and children because “male family members have either chosen to remain in Syria, or been killed or detained by the Syrian authorities.” As a result, most families lack a regular income to pay for day to day life.

“Whilst the situation varies from family to family, securing long term work for refugee families may be one way forward in helping their situation in the long term.” In the case of Little Projects for Syrians, this will however depend on the cooperation of the Lebanese government.