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Aleppo, Syria-February 15, 2012: A man with a gun walks the street with his family. (Photo: mehmet ali poyraz / Shutterstock)

Why Helping Syrians is Harder than it Should Be

While the Syrian civil war continues to rage more than five years on, the challenges in helping Syrians caught in conflict grow. The U.N. estimates that 13.5 million Syrians are in need of assistance – their situations vary, and some, such as refugees, are easier to reach and help. But what about the estimated 4.5 million still living in difficult to reach parts of Syria – of which 400,000 are under siege? Helping those non-violent Syrians caught in conflict is difficult.

There are many Syrians in need. Recently, the media focus has been more on refugees – and not undeservingly. Some 4,819,494 Syrians have fled the country – often finding more danger in perilous crossings to Europe or discrimination and poverty in refugee camps. While the situation for refugees is overwhelming, it is far easier to offer support. The average person can easily donate through the UNHCR. Tech companies can raise $1 million in support in a single day. Landlords can offer newly resettled refugees free housing.

Helping Syrians trapped inside the country is a different matter entirely.

Setting aside the physical issues of actually reaching a besieged area such as Eastern Ghouta or Darayya, connecting financially is also a challenge. Official sanctions make it difficult to transfer funds or services to Syria. While it isn’t impossible, organisations in the U.S., for example, require a special general license to be able to offer support to Syrians caught in the conflict. Without that approval, providing tangible help can be illegal.

Such regulations discourage organisations from offering help to Syrians inside the country. Obviously, the sanctions were imposed with good reason – and in a conflict as complicated and enduring as the Syrian civil war, it can be a challenge to know who is whom, particularly in unreachable besieged areas. It is understandable that most organisations will not want to take the risk in engaging.

Having worked since 2012 to support those non-violent Syrians caught in the conflict, the SecDev Foundation understands these operational challenges. We also know that there are many Syrians, especially those under siege, who feel that the world has turned its back on them. Some of these Syrians are the best hope for the future. They are the voices of resilience in a protracted conflict.

A promotional video for the White Helmets created with guidance from our program.

Through our initiative SalamaTech, we have been fostering a network of local “Information Freedom Champions” (IFCs) who deliver support and assistance to Syrians inside difficult-to-access conflict zones. Together with these brave IFCs, who put their lives at risk to help others, we are aiming to help empower a chorus of voices of resilience – who will be heard.

Our IFCs come from a variety of educational, professional and geographic backgrounds, but they share three things in common: an extensive access to Syrian non-violent actors, a solid grounding in internet safety and savvy, and an overarching desire to ensure that Syrians communicate safely and effectively online.  As trusted nodes in their own personal networks, or within their own geographic enclaves, the IFCS play a critical role in reaching and supporting key project beneficiaries.

We are honoured to be a part of this network of IFCs – and even more so that we can act as a bridge to connect organisations outside of the country with these dedicated people championing a better future for Syrians from behind besieged lines. Over the next few months we will be collaborating with non-violent Syrians trapped by conflict to make their voices heard. Together with our IFCs we will support these voices of resilience in creating messages of hope and bridge the divide to facilitate help.

Among our planned collaboration includes a Tale of Two Cities, a pilot initiative that leverages the internet to connect youth in Syria with their peers in Canada. The aim is to foster a collaboration that will raise Canadian awareness of the resilience and fortitude of Syrian youth who are trapped by the conflict. Social media campaigns will be used to counteract the dominant images of violence and war, by shining light on the hopes and dreams of Syrian youth.