From the beginning of the political unrest in Syria which started in March 2011, US based international charity Zakat Foundation has been providing humanitarian assistance to Syrians displaced by the worsening civil war between the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army.
Despite the risks that come with humanitarian help in times of political unrest – especially when many of the aid recipients are government protesters – Zakat Foundation was able to deliver medical aid, food packages, and clothing to thousands of Syrians using its network of volunteers established prior to the beginning of the Syrian spring events.
While the number of people in need for humanitarian assistance has risen from 1 million to 1.5 million according to United Nations, the situation of the refugees seems to get less attention than the political turmoil inside Syria. Most of the media focuses on the images of bombs falling on buildings and street protests while a real humanitarian crisis is taking places at the borders of Syria and its neighboring countries like Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. Tens of thousands of families have been driven out of their homes by indiscriminate shelling by government forces on residential areas, hitting apartment buildings, schools, and masajid. Because hospitals are overwhelmed or damaged, hundreds of wounded civilians are forced to seek medical attention in neighboring countries.
Feras Abdelrahman, a program coordinator for Zakat Foundation, estimates the number of people who crossed the borders to be more than 50 people a day. In response to the this large influx, Zakat Foundation opened field offices in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. According to the Illinois based charity, the number of refugees in these countries exceeds 250,000. Jordan alone counts over 200,000. [Note: these figures are now much higher, as the violence has increased dramatically since this report – TML]
While the Turkish government showed flexibility in dealing with its 24,000 refugees by allowing in non-governmental relief organizations, the refugees in Jordan and the 30,000 in Lebanon don’t have refugee status. Many speculate that the two governments don’t want to grant the Syrian refugees asylum for fear of attracting even more refugees, increasing the chances of internal conflicts similar to the ones that happened as a consequence of the Palestinian refugee influx in the 1970s and 1980s.
Since refugee camps were not allowed in Jordan and Lebanon, Zakat Foundation reached out to the local families in those countries or rented homes to provide shelter for the Syrian families. Feras said that some of these families are vulnerable to abuse because they have no status in the country, and also because of their fear of reprisals from supports of the Assad regime. In fact, very few photos of the Syrian refugees circulate in the media because of fears of retaliation from Assad supporters who operate among the refugees.
Many Syrian Americans are donating to Zakat Foundation, a three-time “four star” charity listed on non-profit rating website Charity Navigator. Thus far Zakat Foundation has been able to raise $3 million for the Syrian Crisis Humanitarian Relief program. Feras said more housing and schooling programs for refugees is the immediate priority for Zakat Foundation’s Syria relief effort.
The Syrian regime’s response to the 15-month old uprising is becoming more radical, and Free Syrian Army leaders say Assad plans on using chemical weapons against the dissenters. Whatever direction the unrest takes, with each passing day, the humanitarian crisis only gets worse.
To learn more about Zakat Foundation or to donate, visit www.zakat.org .