Unexpected humanitarians – the rise and potential fall of Syria's diaspora aid

Just a few years ago, Hussein knew little about humanitarian aid. A mild-mannered Syrian car salesman in Doha, he lived a simple life between home and the office. Aside from the odd gift or remittances, he had never sent goods back to Syria. 

But these days, Hussein is an accidental expert in logistics management. As head of an ad hoc, Doha-based relief office run by Syrian volunteers, he spends nights and weekends shipping relief supplies to his home province of Deir Ezzour. In one recent campaign, the group gathered winter blankets and clothes. Another time, it was food supplies; before that, goods for refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. “People are very happy they can do something,” he says. 

Hussein is just one member of vast army of Syrian expatriates who have, since 2011, deployed their spare time, their savings, and even their livelihoods to send aid back home. An estimated 10 million Syrian expatriates lived abroad well before the Arab Spring ever reached their homeland. Many of them were opponents of the successive governments of Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar. Knowing the coldness of the regime first-hand, they willingly helped demonstrators rally. And while many in the Gulf were workers with little savings to spare, others had built vast business empires and solid middle-class lives. 

The expatriates began their work with a simple idea: if the world could see the Syrian uprising, it would not stand for a crackdown. Social media could relay images of the protests and videos of the security forces’ reactions. That model helped oust long time leaders of Tunisia and Egypt; in Libya, the West was poised to intervene to stop leader Muammar Qaddafi’s air force from striking civilians. Surely in Syria too, expats reckoned, no one would stand by and watch President Bashar al-Assad murder unarmed protestors.

As quickly as the protests escalated, businessmen in the Gulf began looking for ways to supply activists with the tools of civil disobedience: cameras, mobile phones, phone credit, and at times even satellite phones. “There was always a strong trader route between the Gulf and Syria, and among us were people who knew how to move these materials,” recalls one expatriate involved in efforts from Abu Dhabi.

With each shipment, pods of exiles across the region grew better organised. Soon, they formed what they would call local coordinating committees, or tansiqiya groups. Parallel structures were emerging on the ground in Syria. Together, the networks forged a supply chain. Tansiqiya groups on the ground sent lists requesting supplies; tansiqiya groups abroad filled them.

Remarkably, these diaspora networks emerged both spontaneously and independent of one another. Expats in the United Arab Emirates insisted they were alone in their efforts, as did similar groups of Syrians in Kuwait and Qatar. As organic as the uprising itself, a support network was emerging in exile. 

Soon, the same tools exiles had sent to prevent bloodshed helped turn the expatriates into humanitarians.

 

By mid-2011, security forces were rounding up young men in opposition strongholds, and their families needed help paying the bills. Activists wanted medical supplies to treat the wounded, who risked arrest if they sought care in state-run facilities. Suddenly, instead of Samsung smartphones, boxes headed for Syria were filled with antibiotics and blood bags. 

As the humanitarian crisis spread, the diaspora was uniquely positioned to understand what was needed on the ground. “The challenge [for aid groups] was how to liaise with the population,” Hussein explains. International organisations struggled to piece together information from behind complicated battle lines. But the diaspora could message family and friends on the ground for immediate updates – and then respond quickly. For every needy area or town, “one Syrian here [in Qatar] knows a trustworthy person inside” – whether a friend or a family member – to whom supplies could be directed, explains Hussein.

Social media enabled the expats to track shipments through a gaggle of middle-men. At each point on a journey from the Dubai or Doha port to Syria, someone would snap a photo of the goods to prove delivery. Videos shot inside needy communities proved to the diaspora that their donated medical supplies, food, clothing, and even cigarettes were arriving. 

It was often uncoordinated, sporadic, and messy. But diaspora aid made its way into areas that other relief groups couldn’t reach. Leveraging personal connections and local expertise, they have been able to navigate checkpoints – and often pay them off – with better success and fewer political restrictions than official aid organisations. “To get food to some areas, we pay three times the cost of the food itself to the Syrian military,” a female expatriate in the UAE explains of the aid network to besieged areas.

Now, four years into the Syrian conflict, diaspora tansiqiya groups have proven to be among the most important sources of aid for millions of civilians. But that may soon be coming to an end. Never expecting the uprising to last so long, many diaspora members’ personal savings have been depleted from sending aid. Syrians abroad host dinners, liaise with local charities, and accept all manner of donated goods. But mostly, they continue to find ways to fund the relief themselves. Countless men, women, and youth give up the majority of their salaries to send aid. 

Yet, as needs compound, no amount of diaspora generosity can keep up. The safety net of family support from abroad that so many Syrians have relied upon is fast disappearing. And this may be one reason that more and more refugees are seeking out more permanent security in Europe. A bankrupt and heartbroken diaspora cannot prevent millions more Syrians from joining them. 

 

Elizabeth Dickinson is the author of Godfathers & Thieves: How Syria’s Diaspora Crowd-Funded a Revolution.