Syrian philanthropists try to ease their homeland’s suffering

Friday 04/03/2016
Syrian philanthropist Moataz al-Khayyat

Washington - Institutional charities continue to face obstacles in reaching Syrians who are most in need, but substantial humanitar­ian aid has been arriving from Syrians themselves. Syrian expatri­ates and locals, some wealthy, but many middle class, have formed ad hoc networks to pool resources to help their next of kin or stranded neighbours.

One such Syrian philanthropist is building and construction tycoon Moataz al-Khayyat, who recently spoke with The Arab Weekly dur­ing a break between his meetings with insiders in Washington, where his foundation is based.

Though Khayyat declines to say exactly how much his foundation contributes to humanitarian aid in Syria, among its partners are the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN High Commissioner for Ref­ugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

“There’s huge demand and a huge crisis and the extent of de­struction is unfathomable. There are millions of displaced, requiring the budgets of nations,” Khayyat said.

A total of $6 billion, including $1.6 billion by the United States, was contributed in 2015 to Syrian refugee aid efforts. The figure in­cludes nearly $380 million contrib­uted by private individuals and or­ganisations such as Khayyat’s.

Though dwarfed in dollar terms, individual donations to Syrians have had a disproportionately large effect on recipient communities because individuals are not bound by the same restrictions as institu­tional donors.

Syrians stranded in besieged ar­eas around Damascus and Homs, for example, cannot receive inter­national humanitarian aid without permission from the Syrian gov­ernment, which enforces the siege. Individual contributors rely on per­sonal networks of Syrians who can deliver humanitarian aid to those in need.

Elizabeth Dickinson, a UAE-based journalist and author of God­fathers and Thieves: How the Syrian Diaspora Crowdfunded a Revolu­tion, said that without this type of help, the Syria crisis would have spilled into Europe long before it did.

“The Syrian diaspora has been perhaps the single most impor­tant contributor of humanitarian aid for a large number of the war’s displaced, injured and needy,” she told The Arab Weekly by e-mail from Abu Dhabi. “Working in small groups scattered throughout the world… [they are] able to navigate the security situation far more ef­fectively than international aid groups. Often, areas denied aid from the United Nations were still receiving some support from the diaspora.”

Khayyat may be too big a donor to send substantial amounts of aid through surreptitious ways to be­sieged Syrians but, like most phi­lanthropists, he said one aspect of his charity is particularly dear to his heart: education.

“For me, it’s important to focus on education because it’s a weapon you give to anyone and they can fight their way through life with it, so we have several projects in edu­cation,” he said.

Among the public ones is a group of schools in Istanbul working with displaced Syrians. Khayyat said he has plans to expand the school project to refugee areas along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Another publicised project is a scholarship fund for 43 Syrians to study at universities in the United States, with more in the pipeline, though Khayyat demurred when asked for details.

His bashfulness is not unique among Syrian philanthropists, who generally eschew the more aggressive, transparent and public fundraising that is commonplace and expected of foundations in the West.

Philanthropy and grass-roots charity have a long tradition in Syr­ian society but it is run much like most businesses operate in Syria’s private sector: They are family owned and private. And, just like a culture of publicly traded corpora­tions had not yet taken hold in pre-war Syria, transparent philanthro­py remains highly unusual, even as private charities are ubiquitous.

Before the war, much of society’s medical and humanitarian needs were met by private and minimal­ly regulated family-run charities, which usually focused on specific needs, such as those of children with autism, cochlear implants, heart surgeries or milk for babies and nutrition for the poor.

Asked about the vision he sees for Syria after the war, Khayyat re­flected a common sentiment that captures the war fatigue that over­whelms Syrians today.

“First of all, we’re working for Syria at war time because we’re not thinking Syria post-war, because if we focused on that then we won’t be able to meet the needs now,” he said. “We’re focusing on Syrians inside Syria, the ones we can reach with humanitarian aid, or Syrians outside of Syria and how we can help them.”