As crisis in Syria drags on, Northwest donors appear to lose interest

Bashar Kabor, 49, founder of the Syrian American Coordination Committee of Washington (SACCWA). His organization has provided essential supplies to those displaced by the crisis in Syria. but in the past year funding has been hard to come by.  (Photo by Chetanya Robinson)
Bashar Kabor, 49, founder of the Syrian American Coordination Committee of Washington (SACCWA). His organization has provided essential supplies to Syrians displaced by the civil war. but in the past year funding has been hard to come by. (Photo by Chetanya Robinson)

Sitting behind an immaculate desk in his study, Bashar Kabor looks tired.

Kabor is the founder of the Syrian American Coordination Committee of Washington (SACCWA), a small aid organization headquartered in his Snohomish home.

His organization has come upon tough times, he says. Funds have dried up and interest by donors has waned, even after the Islamic State’s conquest of many parts of the country, and a brutally cold winter.

Kabor was born in Damascus in 1965, and moved to Seattle to study when he was 18. Now a Boeing engineer and father of two daughters, Kabor has fond memories of the Damascus that was.

“It has a special place in my heart,” he said.

Kabor decided to start an aid organization after his experience visiting a Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey in December 2011. After persuading the reluctant Turkish authorities to let him in, he caught his first glimpse of the camp and its sea of white tents enclosed by a fence. It was an eerie sight.

“It seemed like it was some sort of a third dimension place,” he said. “That’s how I can describe the shock I had.”

Kabor had gone in a convoy with other Syrian expats, to show their solidarity with the refugees. Many refugees in the camp had high hopes that he and the other Syrian from overseas could help them, he said.

Children in a camp for Syrian refugees clamor for aid distributed by SACCWA. (Courtesy photo)
Children in a camp for Syrian refugees clamor for aid distributed by SACCWA. (Courtesy photo)

Kabor formed SACCWA not long afterwards. Originally they were partnered with members of the Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM), another Seattle-based organization founded by Jordanian- American Rita Zawaideh. According to both Kabor and Zawaideh the two groups split over differences in vision and how to maximize limited resources.

“These were all great ideas, but you’ve got to be practical about what you can do…and how you can implement it,” he said.

Kabor’s organization sent volunteers to help displaced Syrians struggling to survive in camps and cities in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. In collaboration with local charity organizations, they bought clothes, food and school supplies to distribute to the needy.

Kabor said it was hard for him and other volunteers to get used to seeing the conditions in the refugee camps, or the plight of Syrians in Lebanon, where there are no official camps to offer them a support structure. These refugees are in crucial need of aid, said Kabor, because they have difficulties finding employment, and nothing to survive on but their savings.

At the moment, Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey are not allowed to work legally (a new work permit policy in Turkey may change this). A third of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are unemployed.

“It’s a struggle,” said Kabor. “Let’s put it this way: being a refugee, you’re doomed no matter what. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Ayman Hakim, 40, originally from Homs in Syria, has seen unspeakable death and violence on his trips to help refugees. He was in Atmeh camp near the Turkish border in 2012 when it was the target of an airstrike by Syrian government forces. Hakim, who has volunteered for both SACCWA and SCM, tried to describe the scenes of death he saw. It was like a scene from a Vietnam war movie, he said.

Attacks on civilians, even refugees, have often occurred during Syria’s bloody and destructive civil war. Armed groups have intentionally targeted civilians they suspect of being sympathetic to the other side, said Daniel Chirot, International Studies professor of at the University of Washington.

“This is a fight to the death — it’s just not about winning friends,” he said.

Bashar Kabor (left) distributing essential supplies in Erbid, Jordan in April 2013. Kabor said the contrast between life for Syrian refugees and his life in Seattle is a shock that's hard to get used to. "Everytime we get back, we're depressed,” Kabor said of his organization’s missions. “It takes a few weeks for us to recover from those trips." (Photo courtesy of Bashar Kabor)
Bashar Kabor (left) distributing essential supplies in Erbid, Jordan in April 2013. Kabor said the contrast between life for Syrian refugees and his life in Seattle is a shock that’s hard to get used to. “Everytime we get back, we’re depressed,” Kabor said of his organization’s missions. “It takes a few weeks for us to recover from those trips.” (Photo courtesy of Bashar Kabor)

Kabor and Zawaideh both say they’re not interested in sharing political views, like who the United States should arm, or whether the international community should intervene. But Kabor urged governments to follow through on their aid promises.

Kabor pointed out that the seven and eight-figure aid numbers pledged by foreign countries may not be enough. SACCWA’s missions cost an average of $50,000 per trip and were able to feed 2,000 people for just two weeks. But there are millions more in need of aid.

As Hakim put it, if he went to Syria with $50,000 in his pocket, visited the smallest camp he could find, and handed them the money, it would be gone within a day.

Kabor’s organization has been paralyzed from lack of funds — their last aid trip was in 2013. They’re not alone: according to Hakim, the SCM is also struggling to raise money.

Hakim has fund-raised all over the West coast, going from city to city and countless churches and mosques for donations. The problem, according to him, is that everyone is tired of hearing about Syria. Part of being a non-profit aid organization, he said, is asking for money from the same people over and over again. He doesn’t blame them for their fatigue.

Hakim said the biggest donations came from individuals with deep pockets — doctors, or former Microsoft managers who could give away tens of thousands of dollars at a time. But these large donors grew as weary of hearing about Syria as everyone else, and without them, funding was reduced to a trickle.

Zawaideh did not express her difficulties in funding for SCM, though she suggested that there may be fatigue from the Arab American community in particular. Hakim and Kabor agree. Arab Americans with family in Iraq or Palestine, said Kabor, have other crises to worry about.

Tents in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo courtesy of Bashar Kabor)
Tents in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo courtesy of Bashar Kabor)

When it comes to helping Syrian refugees, donor fatigue seems to be a problem on an international scale as well. According to the UN-managed Financial Tracking Service, which collects aid figures from donor organizations, around 70 percent of required aid for Syria was met in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, it dropped to 57 percent.

According to Patrick M. Stewart in a December article in Newsweekpeople are less willing to donate to help victims of catastrophe with no clear end point, where aid is simply treating the symptoms of an intractable problem.

The fact that the crisis in Syria is a human-created conflict might also play a role. The Guardian cites a study done by the Charities Aid Foundation which found that in Britain, people are more likely to donate to humanitarian disasters caused by natural factors — such as earthquakes and tsunamis — than to human ones.

SACCWA has not relied just on the contributions of individuals. It has entreated governmental organizations, corporations and large charities (including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) for help, with little success. In his own fundraising for both organizations, Hakim has even reached out to manufacturers of baby formula and diapers — supplies that are badly needed. He has had no luck with them, either.

Kabor is baffled at the lack of donations. He wonders if it’s simply a lack of awareness. He has been considering buying up ad space on buses to better publicize his organization.

For his part, Hakim observes that people are more likely to donate to famous non-profits than small ones they’ve never heard of. Many Syrians donate to the United Nations, he said. Hakim has tried to persuade them that SCM and SACCWA are better because they give 100 percent of their donations to those in need, showing them the receipts as proof.

Kabor, Hakim and others feel the weight of unfulfilled need. They’ve had to turn away people waiting in line for essential supplies.

“They look at you like as though you are a god or somebody with a higher power,” said Kabor of the refugees. “But we are not. We are just like anybody else — we’re just trying to help out. But we see the disappointment on these people’s faces. It doesn’t leave you with a good feeling.” He pauses. “It’s just frustrating.”

Both The Syrian American Coordination Committee of Washington and Salaam Cultural Museum accept donations to help refugees from the crisis in Syria through their websites.

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