Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Refugee Activists' Involvement in Relief Effort in Lebanon

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Refugee Activists' Involvement in Relief Effort in Lebanon

Article excerpt

There is a significant community of highly educated, middle-class and generally leftleaning Syrian refugees living in Lebanon who are strongly committed to assisting needier refugees and to playing a role in rebuilding Syria, yet whose energies could be harnessed to better effect.

"You can do a lot for Syria from outside," says one of the refugee activists I met in Beirut. Some were involved in a range of initiatives to support fellow Syrians at home and in Lebanon, collecting and distributing food and non-food items through networks of private individual benefactors and volunteers, improving conditions in tented settlements or helping Syrian families to pay their rent. Others focused their energies on cultural and educational activities, such as providing art and music classes for refugee children or filming a documentary on the lives of the Syrian intelligentsia in Lebanon. Several were working on projects that they hoped could sow the seeds of a flourishing democratic civil society in Syria, holding workshops on active citizenship and negotiation.

Most of these initiatives had been established since arrival in Lebanon. For the most part they were small-scale grassroots affairs, operated through networks of friends and acquaintances with little formal organisational structure, though some also benefit from relationships with longer established international or Lebanese NGOs for funding and mentorship.

Though they are doing important work with very limited resources, the capacity of these Syrian-led initiatives to fulfil their potential is hampered by several factors. Firstly, Syrian refugees report that their organisations are not permitted to register officially as NGOs or to open bank accounts, which hampers their ability to secure funding. Some get around this difficulty by partnering with Lebanese NGOs or by registering under the names of helpful Lebanese activists but this entails relinquishing some financial and managerial control to the Lebanese partner along with a percentage of any income.

Barriers to working with more established and professionalised NGOs include perceived discrimination against Syrians and unreasonably high requirements for language skills, qualifications and experience, and play a part in encouraging refugees to set up initiatives on their own.

Political sensitivities also constrain refugees' activities. One activist living and working in Beirut explained that the Lebanese state, with its official policy of disassociation from events in Syria, "has no problem if you work here but don't get involved with back inside Syria. …

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