Shadow Aid to Syrian Refugees

In Longreads

A carpenter all his life, ‘Ala’ never imagined himself wanting for something like a chair or a bed. But today his blue plastic seat is a luxury. After fleeing war in Syria, ‘Ala’ and his family were homeless in Jordan for roughly 18 months. But since January, the father of three has lived with a dozen other refugee families in a furnished apartment building on the outskirts of Amman.

‘Ala’ is the beneficiary of a shadow aid system, one that operates outside the auspices of any government or official relief agency registered with the Jordanian authorities. Across the Middle East, the United Nations is coordinating the largest operation in its history to help nearly 3 million Syrian refugees at a cost of $4.2 billion in 2014 alone. Dozens of international and local aid organizations — from Oxfam to Save the Children to Caritas Jordan — are running projects as a part of that effort. But on the side, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of start-up charities and regional donors have built parallel networks of aid.

Because of their unofficial nature, there is no data to quantify these efforts, but they are large enough to reshape the humanitarian landscape. Newly established charities, regional donors and local NGOs have flushed tens of millions of dollars into this strained society. While aiding many, they have left others unhelped, exacerbating the disparity between have and have-nots. Seemingly lavish projects have fueled resentment toward Syrians among hosting Jordanian communities. Aid is ad hoc and often administered by just one or two power brokers who jostle with the ones who were already there. Uncoordinated projects can overlap and even compete with the work of official charities, complicating the relief efforts of everyone. And yet the success of these informal aid groups reveals just how insufficient the UN-coordinated assistance has been. For many refugees, this shadow system is the only safety net — and it has been lifesaving.

At the heart of the divide between these two systems — on and off the books — is a philosophical clash. UN-registered, mostly Western NGOs try to act on a level playing field, spreading benefits to as many of the needy as possible. It is often heartbreaking work: insisting that each family get only one blanket in winter, for example, so that every family gets at least that many. Many start-up regional charities, however, favor a different approach: Assistance filters to refugees on a tiered schedule based on a web of family, religious and tribal connections, offering more intensive support to those in the network.

The benefits are great for those who can tap into this second system — far greater, usually, than the support provided by the UN system. ‘Ala’, for example, runs his apartment building on behalf of a small Kuwaiti charity, Hayat Volunteer Team, founded to help with the Syrian crisis. In the apartment complex, behind an unremarkable storefront, the donors spared little expense. The annual rent of 70,000 Jordanian dinars (about $100,000) was paid, including water and electricity bills. ‘Ala’ ensured that each home had a refrigerator, television, couch and Dutch oven. When a resident runs into a budget crunch, ‘Ala’ passes word to his Kuwaiti friends, who often send money. The donors have visited twice, bringing cash handouts.

‘Ala’ and his neighbors are by no means rich, but compared to other refugees — and even impoverished Jordanians — they are well off. “The Syrian situation is very difficult in Jordan,” he says now, offering visitors orange juice and biscuits. “Every family is very busy supporting itself. We only get UN assistance for food, but since we don’t pay rent, it is enough.”

 

‘Ala’ fled Syria after his life was set ablaze in the early days of 2012. A fire set by fighting in Homs ravaged the family furniture store, killing his father. With his elderly mother ill and his wife pregnant, ‘Ala’ knew he had to leave.

Like the vast majority of refugees from Syria, the family came to Jordan with hardly anything to their name. At that stage, there were only a few thousand Syrians displaced in the country, so the UN and other aid agencies could afford to give more and more frequently to each arrival. ‘Ala’ and his family joined dozens of others squatting at a school in the Hashimi al-Shamali neighborhood of Amman, a former enclave for Iraqi refugees.

At the school, ‘Ala’ found himself leading meetings between displaced families. He was patient and quiet, the sort of cool head who could mediate heated disputes. He was a natural leader when wealthy Kuwaiti donors arrived at the school one day and started to give out aid. He was also someone whom the donors trusted, thanks to a connection he simply says was made “through the mosque.” ‘Ala’ began to liaise directly with the Kuwaitis about who deserved help. “When I found a family in need, I would file a report for Hayat, and they would accept or reject the case,” he explains. ‘Ala’ says there was no religious or ethnic consideration in the selection, but because he was the only conduit for aid, the beneficiaries were certainly limited to his circle of acquaintances.

The conditions at the school deteriorated as more families arrived, and by late 2013, ‘Ala’ began working with Hayat to relocate some of the families in proper apartments. With the influx of Syrian refugees, rents have skyrocketed by as much as 300 percent in some areas, according to Jordan’s Ministry of Planning. ‘Ala’ visited brokers and went building to building searching for a fair price. Finding a furnished flat was particularly difficult, and no one wanted to rent to Syrians. Still, he found the 20-apartment building fairly quickly. “God made it easier,” he says.

Together with Hayat, ‘Ala’ selected 12 families to move into the new homes, favoring the injured, widows, orphans and the elderly. The rest of the families at the school in Hashimi al-Shamali were left squatting there.

 

In 2013 the UN’s refugee chief, Antonio Guterres, called the Syrian crisis “the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the Cold War.” The cost is inflicted on some of the poorest countries in the region. Donor budgets have not kept up with the vastly growing needs.

Here in Jordan, ‘Ala’ is just one of the 700,000-800,000 Syrian refugees the country expects to be hosting by the end of 2014. Together these people make up more than 10 percent of the country’s pre-crisis population. The needs of the new arrivals are stark: The government estimated in the spring that 645,000 are at risk of going hungry and 350,000 are destitute and require urgent cash aid. The UN has asked for more than $1 billion for its operation in Jordan in 2014; about 49 percent of the funds had been pledged through the official system as of August. This figure does not include the budgets of the many charities working outside UN documentation.

In the controlled environment of refugee camps such as Zaatari and Azraq, where roughly 20 percent of the Syrians in Jordan live, everyone is meant to get comparable aid. Residents are allotted baskets of food staples, blankets, mattresses and water. The camps rely on a voucher system that allows each refugee family to buy the other items that they most need. Inequalities among refugees inevitably arise. But to limit conflict at Zaatari, the largest refugee camp, the UN has prohibited aid groups from giving any assistance that is not universal — mattresses for everyone or no one, for example.

Outside the confines of the refugee camps, where the vast majority of Syrians scrape by, refugees describe an aid system that is fractured and difficult to understand. Officially, aid begins when new arrivals register with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to receive biweekly food vouchers. In theory, this UN paperwork also gives the refugees access to Jordanian government services such as health care and education.

But many families run into trouble receiving even the most basic goods. Searching for the best conditions, many refugees move from town to town — and each time they pull up stakes, they have to re-register. It can take weeks to renew the UN paperwork, leaving the families without benefits. Jordanian services can also be frustrating. Children can enroll in government schools, many of which have introduced a second shift for Syrians. Once all of the spots in a school are filled, though, Syrian children have to join a waiting list. Jordanian state medical care, meanwhile, does not cover chronic conditions ranging from hypertension to cancer.

Hundreds of NGOs and charities are trying to plug the gap — hosting mobile clinics and providing winter blankets and waterproof tarps. Yet information about these efforts is distributed almost entirely by word of mouth. Refugees “are reached by different NGOs about how to have access to education, services, what are your rights,” says Feda Gharaibeh, director of the Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. There is no transparent or centralized system for finding out who is providing which services and where.

So many Syrians here have come to rely on wasta, connections, of exactly the sort that a Gulf or another regional NGO can provide.

In a crowded hillside neighborhood in Amman, a Jordanian named Mahmoud is one of the many independent volunteers trying to be a connection. A liaison for an NGO funded largely by donors in the United Arab Emirates, he spends several days each week going door to door, visiting places he knows to host Syrian refugees. Reports of a new family are passed through a social media grapevine. For those in need of medical care, Mahmoud calls a friend in a registered medical charity. For those who cannot make rent, he sometimes gives out cash. “It’s difficult to get any kind of service,” Mahmoud says of the UN-coordinated NGOs. “Most organizations help once and then they forget about you.”

Hayat has a more direct line to services such as medical care. The Kuwaiti donors “rent” space in several private hospitals for Syrian patients, covering everything from doctors’ salaries to medical supplies and surgery costs. When the Jordanian government cannot or will not pay, patients are sent here. But space is tight and admissions depend on the donors knowing of — and accepting — a given case.

Those accepted are usually “in network.” Hayat’s Jordan-based liaison for the hospitals is the first filter; he hears about need through his personal ties, and like anyone, the majority of his contacts roughly fit his own social and ideological profile. Donors might be further swayed by shared beliefs or social ties. But they are not likely to hear of cases in a significantly different social group.

Back at ‘Ala’s apartments, one resident has been shuttling between doctors for months — appointments facilitated by Hayat. Shrapnel took out ‘Uthman’s eye back in Syria, and now the elderly man is waiting for a glass replacement. Since he came to Jordan from Homs, his pre-existing diabetes has bothered him and he has suffered a heart attack; his medication is not covered by the public health system. ‘Uthman leans hard on his cane but it wobbles unless his son guides his body. He has paid for hospital admission, prescription drugs and surgery with Hayat’s help. “What would we do without them?” asks his wife, Fatima, helping her husband sit down in their Hayat apartment.

 

Fatima ‘Abd al-Jadir, the founder of Hayat, meets me over high tea at the old Sheraton hotel in Kuwait City, where the gold embroidered staircases harken back to the era when oil-rich Kuwait was the wealthiest Gulf state. Kuwait City was long ago surpassed in extravagance by Dubai, Riyadh and Doha, but in the small country of roughly 3 million, there is vast personal wealth. Kuwait was the first Gulf country to set up an international aid project, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, a half century ago. While quasi-government charities are common throughout the Gulf, Kuwait’s more politically open environment means that private charities also flourish here. Today, dozens of registered charities offer aid both at home and abroad.

The Syrian crisis — which lit up televisions and galvanized the public across the region — spawned a new generation of smaller, informal charities that operate on the edges of regulations. Hayat Volunteer Team is not registered with the government, but after it began its work, it came to be housed in another legal charity, the Sheikh ‘Abdallah Nouri Association. Other groups work through organizations registered abroad — in Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East.

Many of these private regional charities groups work in concentric circles, following a logic that governs traditional Islamic charity, or zakat. Aid should begin with those closest to the donor: the family, then neighbors, then later tribe and ideological kin. Once extended generally, Islam dictates the categories of needy at the front of the line: orphans, widows, the elderly.

‘Abd al-Jadir is new to coordinating multi-million-dollar projects. A young mother with perfectly manicured nails, she is breathless speaking about her work — a vocation just three years old. When the Syrian crisis began, she gathered her friends for tea parties, held fundraisers and solicited donations on social media. In a folder full of receipts and reports, she points out how the costs of one hospital project broke down: 34 percent on medicine, 21 percent on equipment and so on. “Charity — some people do it as a hobby. For me, it is serious, as a business. I will be specialized and I will concentrate,” she says, meticulously describing operations.

If her beginnings were modest, Hayat’s resources are not and they put the group on a par with some of the smaller international NGOs working on the Syrian crisis. Today, ‘Abd al-Jadir supervises an array of projects in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. She provides support to three hospitals treating Syrians at a cost of roughly 200,000 Kuwaiti dinars ($709,000) each every two months, or about $8.5 million annually. Hayat has sent more than 10,000 dinars ($35,500) worth of food inside Syria, to places like Homs and Mu‘azzamiyya. Hayat also sponsors 200 Syrian orphans, each of whom receives 100 dinars ($355) per month.

‘Abd al-Jadir routes this money personally, staying in touch with beneficiaries through photos, prayers and benedictions sent through WhatsApp. She speaks of ‘Ala’ as a brother; she considers colleagues working with Hayat in Jordan to be family, too. She has visited projects in Jordan, but also in Turkey and Lebanon. Even back in Kuwait, her eyes drift upward when she talks of Syria—it is all she can think about.

 

The test of any aid operation is whether the people in need get help. And many unregistered NGOs working in Jordan say that is why they started: because the official relief is failing Syrians. “The needs are more than the aid organizations can cover by themselves,” says Zayd Sukkar, a 26-year old co-founder of one such NGO calling itself the Mulhim Team. A group of 14 university students, the Mulhim Team has moved about $1 million in aid from private donors since mid-2012, and even then, he says, “a lot more people need help.”

It is hard to disagree with that assessment in cities like Amman, where refugees crowd into old Palestinian and Iraqi refugee neighborhoods, building makeshift homes and squatting in abandoned abodes. Prohibited from working, they take illegal odd jobs and eke out a living with UN and other NGO handouts.

But Gulf and local aid projects are often fraught with as many difficulties as the official relief efforts. And because there is little monitoring or transparency, the shadow sector often sees the extremes: both the best and worst of aid.

The most obvious problem arises when groups want to offer goods or services that do not match what a community needs. For months during and after the holy month of Ramadan, for example, Jordan’s refugee camps are flooded with dates from Gulf donors who rally to help Syrians break their fast. Dates are usually garnishes to begin the meal, so just a few would be sufficient. Instead, the camps get tons. Stories abound of NGOs sending unwanted items like paper towels, miscellaneous shoes and old coats during the summer. Meanwhile, needs such as rent assistance and schoolbooks go unmet.

Sustainability is another concern. Because many projects depend on the whims of individual donors, they can be canceled or paused at a moment’s notice, leaving beneficiaries hanging. Take Hayat, which has seen its donor support fluctuate dramatically. According to a coordinator for the group in Jordan, the funding peaked in 2012, when the Syrian crisis was young. “The longer the crisis goes on, the harder it is to find funds,” says the coordinator, who goes by the name Abu Mazin. Donor support dictates exactly how many patients can be treated through Hayat’s hospital program. So even as the number of needy Syrians has grown, the number of beneficiaries has dropped. “There is almost a siege looking for enough funding.”

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Money is not the only limiting factor. Many of these groups also depend on local volunteers, whose time is often divided between this work and their own jobs and family obligations. Across Amman, a Palestinian physician famous as Dr. Aws offers medical care free of charge. He has treated nearly 10,000 patients over 85 weekend sessions for refugees, whether in the capital or in a mobile clinic that travels to other Jordanian cities and towns. “Sometimes I go by myself, and sometimes it’s me with a nurse or a few friends,” he explains. Up to 400 patients per day take advantage of the service.

But most alarming of all are the new power structures that have arisen with the influx of cash. As beneficial as the Gulf aid can be for those who receive it, such high-impact relief can exacerbate inequalities among refugees as well as between refugees and the local community. The disparity can be particularly stark between Syrian refugees and impoverished Jordanians, who have no access to the relief networks. ‘Ala’s apartment building, where each family is benefiting from thousands of dollars in annual rent assistance, is a case in point. No Jordanian is getting the same help, even as rents have gone through the roof with refugees streaming in.

Elaborate aid projects like the apartments have helped generate a perception among average Jordanians that they get short shrift from playing host to refugees. Jordan is not new to hosting the displaced; Palestinians today make up an estimated half of the population. In the 1990s and early 2000s, tens of thousands of Iraqis fled to Jordan from war and sanctions. In each case, many Jordanians say, they have paid the price while the newcomers build a new life — taking jobs and international aid. Now, once again, they see Syrians crowding into government health facilities, bumping up class sizes in schools and giving landlords justification for raising rents. And while the newcomers are seen getting assistance, low-income Jordanians tough it out.

Analysts worry that these discrepancies could lead to conflict, whether among refugees or between them and their hosts in Jordan. “Tension is building” between Syrians and Jordanians, says Musa Shteiwi, head of the Center for Strategic Studies Center at the University of Jordan. In November 2013, he conducted an opinion poll that found vast public support for closing Jordan’s open door: 71 percent of respondents said they no longer wanted to host the Syrians. “People feel that the refugees are getting help while Jordanians are squeezed.”

Western aid groups, meanwhile, say that they often feel blindsided when they enter a community without realizing that significant aid is already being channeled there. They do not understand the power structures that ad hoc relief has created and may end up exacerbating resentments or inequalities. “We’ve heard from humanitarian actors that there are packages of money that arrive in communities for humanitarian networks to work with, but with little tracking and accountability this is complex environment to work in,” says the Syria campaign manager for a large international NGO.

Exacerbating the problem, some donors are also competing among themselves — to build the best hospital or the biggest orphan support program. “The aid network is constantly in flux,” says David Scales, an American medical doctor who spent two months volunteering in Jordan, including for non-registered NGOs. “Everyone has their pet projects. No one was saying, ‘Hey, let’s all put money into improving this existing hospital.’ It was, ‘This hospital isn’t good enough, so let’s do our own thing.’ You would think everyone is working toward the same purpose but it really surprised me how much people are working at odds.”

Many of these problems are not unique to the unofficial aid channels; others will pass with time when the shadow network absorbs lessons that Western charities have learned over decades. Other inconsistencies of the shadow system could improve with official support: Someone could hire Dr. Aws full-time to treat refugees, or secure hospital beds for the Hayat facility. But if official and unofficial aid groups agree on one thing, it is to keep to themselves, for the most part. Neither side has made a serious effort to understand what the other is doing.

 

On paper, it is up to the non-registered charities to get on board the international aid system. In Jordan, all non-profits that receive foreign funds need permission from the cabinet to operate. And everyone is required to coordinate with the UN. “In this way, we see what interventions are taking place and at the same time that they are legally working,” says Gharaibeh of Jordan’s Planning Ministry. NGOs that do not register and coordinate “are breaking the law,” she says.

But distrust abounds on both sides. Western aid officials complain that regional charities are ideologically driven and amateur. But unregistered NGOs retort that the UN system is inefficient, wasting time and resources on coordination that could otherwise just be devoted to giving aid. “Ninety percent of organizations are mostly frauds,” alleges Mahmoud, explaining a common perception among small NGOs. The name of his charity, Breathing Numbers, shows the difference between his and international aid work, so focused on metrics, he says. “You always hear about the needy as if they are just numbers, but we try to make them know they are people, too.”

Some unregistered charities have established their own ways to share information. “There are coordination meetings, each group has board members and we meet,” explains Abu Mazin, the coordinator for Hayat. “This is separate from the UN.” These groups stay in constant touch by phone and Facebook.

Nor have international groups made much of an effort to reach out to — or understand — the regional charities. Meetings are usually in English; reporting forms are technical and cumbersome; and announcements are not publicly circulated. Gharaibeh says that the Jordanian government and the UN are now working to improve the transparency of Gulf charities. At a meeting in the spring, the regional NGOs “showed interest in providing data and coordinating with the government and UN agencies,” she says. But outreach efforts have largely focused on established and registered regional groups rather than the small-scale operations like Hayat.

Meanwhile, Western aid officials in Jordan express shock when they learn about the scale — and frequent success — of non-registered efforts. “There is no misunderstanding between most Gulf NGOs and other international NGOs as much as there is a simple lack of information and coordination,” Andy Baker, who manages Oxfam’s regional effort, told the Economist in May. “We simply don’t have a clear picture of what many of these groups are doing.”

 

The dark hallways of ‘Ala’s apartment building are quiet enough so that the echo of approaching footsteps serve as a knock on the door. As he approaches Yusna’s apartment one afternoon, her children open the door preemptively, bashfully smiling as ‘Ala’ sweeps his hand across their young cheeks. He checks on each family periodically to make sure they are coping.

Inside, the main room is a simple square, one corner partitioned off as a kitchen and another cushioned with mattresses. Yusna enters flushed, holding a sack of bread she has just bought, which the children eye desirously. There are few other staples in the house: a few onions and a bag of tea.

Yusna’s children — two boys and two girls — have not been to school in 24 months, since fleeing Dayr al-Zawr. At the Hashimi al-Shamali school, she says, life was hectic and the accommodations were unclean. Here, finally, they will have the wherewithal to go back to class; she plans to register them in Jordanian schools in the fall. “Now,” she says, thanks to Hayat, “We are in a different circumstance.”

First published in Middle East Research and Information Project.

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Elizabeth Dickinson
Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle Single Who Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.