Friday, December 18, 2015

#RefugeesWelcome: Here’s how you can help

When I first moved to Istanbul, the near-total lack of people living on the street stood in stark contrast to my native San Francisco, where homelessness has been a serious problem for decades. The war in Syria changed all that. I’ve become used to seeing the men who sleep outside the hotel where I go to the gym, huddling against the air vent for some scant warmth and propping up cardboard to ward off the wind; the children racing in and out of traffic to beg from cars, sometimes with a plastic bag of sickly-yellow inhalant drugs in one hand; the families begging on the sidewalk with their Syrian passports held open to passersby.

Syrian Kurdish refugees arriving in Turkey. Photo: EC/ECHO
Not all of the nearly 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey are homeless, of course. Though only around 220,000 are in the refugee camps set up near the border, others are renting (often overcrowded, overpriced, substandard) apartments, or squatting in abandoned buildings. And, of course, many are embarking on the dangerous and difficult journey to Europe, boarding flimsy boats to reach Greek islands like Lesbos and then crossing the Balkans by train, bus, or on foot. Photos of these refugees – and, in particular, of the body of one 3-year-old boy washed up on a beach in Turkey – have awakened the rest of the world to the desperate reality with which people in this region were already far too familiar.

Though there’s been much handwringing about the lack of response to the plight of Syrians and other refugees, and an increasingly ugly anti-Muslim backlash, I’m holding firm to my belief that most people (or at least, most of you) are, like me, not heartless or ignorant or prejudiced, but instead overwhelmed by the scale and scope of suffering in the world and feeling powerless to do anything about it. If that rings true for you, please join me in taking at least one of the following actions today, and continuing to look for ways to do more tomorrow.

Pro-refugee rally in Melbourne.
Photo: John Englart (Takver)/Flickr CC-by-SA
Individual efforts can’t bring an end to these devastating crises but they can save, and improve, lives. If you don’t have the time to volunteer, donate money; if you don’t have the money to spend, ask friends and families to donate on your behalf in lieu of giving you a Christmas present.

If you know of other ways to help refugees, from Syria or elsewhere, locally or globally, by giving money or time, please post them in the comments and I’ll keep updating this list. And please feel share this post widely. I know there’s a lot of options for ways to help, but don’t get overwhelmed! Just pick one, randomly or whatever speaks to you most. Let’s not let hate win or hope die.

> Stay informed and speak out

Donate to organizations saving lives and providing humanitarian relief

Small volunteer organizations like those listed below are carrying a disproportionate amount of the load compared to the support they receive. If you prefer to donate to a large organization, the International Rescue Committee has a good reputation. The independent evaluator Charity Navigator also provides rankings of charities assisting in the Syrian crisis.

In Turkey:
  • Turkish humanitarian organization Hayata Destek (Support to Life) distributes food, non-food items, and winterization packages to Syrian refugees staying outside of camps in southeast Turkey. They also operate two community centers in the region that provide mental health support, legal assistance, and other needed services.

  • Open Arms in Kayseri, a charity based in central Turkey, uses donations of funds to offer emergency support to refugees who have come to Turkey from war zones, including providing deliveries of food, coal, and baby supplies and helping the worst-off families with their housing expenses. They are working to set up a social enterprise under which refugee mothers can earn an income making handicrafts for sale and children can be enrolled in local schools.

  • Two volunteers I know from Lesbos are now channeling donations into direct assistance to refugees in İzmir, Turkey, on an as-needed basis, whether buying blankets or heaters for families as the winter cold sets in, distributing food, or helping meet medical needs. With such a large number of refugees in Turkey, many people are falling through the cracks and receiving little support other than from such ad-hoc volunteer efforts.

  • Istanbul-based Project Lift provides psychosocial support to traumatized refugee children, including through art and music therapy, and help with integrating into their host communities in Turkey.

  • International students, expats, and other volunteers in İzmir, on the Turkish coast, are gathering donations to purchase clothes, food, water, toys, diapers, feminine hygiene products, and other items needed by refugee families seeking safety and shelter in the city.

  • For those who speak Turkish, the Okmeydanı Sosyal Yardımlaşma ve Dayanışma Derneği (Okmeydanı Social Assistance and Solidarity Association) is helping refugeees living in Istanbul's Okmeydanı neigbhorhood. Okmeydanı Sosyal Yardımlaşma ve Dayanışma Derneği, İstanbul'un Okmeydanı semtinde yaşan mültecileri yardım eder.

On the Greek islands:
  • The Migrant Offshore Aid Station provides professional search-and-rescue assistance to people in distress at sea or trapped on unsafe vessels in the Aegean Sea, including around Lesbos. They also work in the Mediterranean Sea and the Andaman Sea, where a southeast Asian refugee crisis has been playing out largely unnoticed in the international press.

  • The Spanish lifeguards with Pro-Activa Open Arms are working on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios, patrolling the coast by land and sea to help refugees coming by boat disembark safely.
In Calais, France:
In Lebanon:
  • Basmeh & Zeitooneh provides a range of social services, including emergency relief, medical assistance, educational support, and vocational training, from its community centers in Lebanon, a tiny country that is sheltering more than 1 million refugees from Syria.

  • INARA provides medical care in Lebanon to Syrian refugees, Palestine refugees from Syria, and other refugee children impacted by conflict.
In Syria:
  • The violence that Syrian refugees are fleeing is still taking a brutal toll within the country. The volunteer first-responders of the White Helmets risk their lives daily to pull people out of bombed buildings, saving 40,823 lives to date.

  • The Syrian American Medical Society provides lifesaving medical services within Syria, setting up field hospitals, organizing medical trainings, and providing medical supplies and fuel to keep local hospitals running.

  • The Karam Foundation’s “Smart Aid” program distributes infant formula, basic food supplies, and winter relief to families within Syria.
  • The London-based group Help Refugees helps organize funds, volunteers, and donations of goods to dozens of refugee-focused projects across Europe. Guardian correspondent Patrick Kingsley, who has been reporting extensively on the refugee crisis, writes: “In many of these places, [Help Refugees] answers a humanitarian need that larger and better-established agencies have not been quick enough to meet – building, among other things, infrastructure and water facilities in Greek camps where major NGOs received EU aid to operate, but were too slow to arrive.

  • This comprehensive list of organizations working with refugees in Europe and the Middle East, compiled by Refugee Relief Action Forum: Europe-MENA, includes groups working everywhere from Egypt to Finland that could use donations (and, in some cases, volunteer support).

Buy a gift that supports refugees

In Istanbul:
  • Buying a book (mostly Arabic-language, with some English and Turkish selections) at Pages Bookstore Café in Fatih helps support this Syrian-run business’s efforts to be a multifaceted space for cultural events and community gatherings.

  • Another Syrian-run initiative, Arthere in Kadıköy gives Syrian artists a place to create and sell their work. It’s also a café and hosts various artistic events.

  • Members of the Olive Tree Women's Craft Collective organized by Small Projects Istanbul make and sell colorful earrings to help support themselves and other refugee families and activities in the community. Contact them through their website for ordering information.

  • The adorable baby and children's clothes of Knitistanbul are knitted out of 100% wool or 100% cotton by Syrian women temporarily living in Istanbul, who receive all profits from the sale of their work. Contact them through Facebook or by email (Knitstanbul [at] gmail [dot] com) to order; they ship to Europe too!
Elsewhere in Turkey:
  • Thanks to a partnership between the wonderful social-entrepreneurship project Çop(m)adam and the NGO Yuva Derneği, refugee women are using their skills to earn money free of exploitation by sewing stuffed animals and other handicrafts. Contact Çop(m)adam through their Facebook page for orders -- in Turkey or internationally.

  • The knit stuffed animals, baby shoes, blankets, diaper covers, hats, and scarves sold through Amal are made by Syrian women living in Izmir, Turkey, who are utilizing their skills in knitting, crocheting, and jewelry-making to help support their families. International delivery available; all products made to order.
  • Profits from the sale of the cookbook Soup for Syria, created by a Beirut-based food writer who’s witnessed the refugee crisis up close in Lebanon, are donated to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to provide urgently needed food relief for Syrian refugees.

  • The soaps and sachets in the Scents of Syria product line are handmade by internally displaced women currently residing in Damascus as a way to support their families.

  • Internally displaced women in Syria are also using their skills at making beautiful embroidery to help support themselves and their families. Sign up for Sabbara's mailing list to find out when their online shop opens.

Support education for Syrian students

In Turkey:

Though registered Syrian refugee children are allowed to enroll in government schools in Turkey, language barriers and bureaucratic hurdles can make that a difficult process. So does economic hardship, which leads to many children being sent off to work rather than receiving an education. As a result, Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 400,000 Syrian children in Turkey are not attending schools.
  • Education Support for Refugee Children is helping refugee children and youth living in Turkey resume their educations. Join the Facebook group for updates and PM the admins to find out how you can support this small-scale initiative, organized by an expat friend of mine who personally identifies kids in need of support and follows up to make sure the children are attending school. I can vouch for this effort 100 percent.

  • Another trustworthy grassroots group, Turkey Volunteers, has a fundraising campaign for their "Kids to School Program," which sponsors Syrian refugee children to attend school in Istanbul by paying for their school fees and transportation expenses.

  • The Karam Foundation provides cash support to impoverished Syrian refugee families in southeast Turkey so they can afford to send them to school.

Volunteer your time and skills

In Istanbul:
  • Find a match for your skills and availability with schools, community centers, and associations that need a helping hand in Istanbul and elsewhere through the Turkey Volunteers portal. Their "5 Ways to Help" post is a great place to start.

  • The newly established Yusra Community Center in Istanbul's Balat neighborhood is looking for Turkish teachers and Arabic/English or Arabic/Turkish speakers as well as people to volunteer weekly helping with childcare, children’s art classes, and donation sorting/distribution.

  • Volunteers with Small Projects Istanbul provide Turkish, English and German language classes for children and adults from Syria, offer help with homework for refugee children enrolled in school, and organize music, art, sport, and other activities for refugee families.

  • A community center for refugees from Syria, Ad.dar offers a variety of activities for young people and adults, including English and Turkish courses, book clubs, and theatre projects, and works to get Syrian refugee children enrolled in school in Turkey. Contact them to find out about current volunteer opportunities.
In İzmir:
  • University students in Çeşme are bringing blankets, food, water, clothing, medicines, and other needed items to refugees stranded in this resort town near İzmir under the umbrella of the Çeşme İmece İnisiyatif (Turkish only). “Çeşme İmece İnisiyatifi'ni kuran öğrenciler, mültecilerin yiyeceğinden sağlık kontrollerine kadar bütün ihtiyaçlarına yetişmek için çaba harcıyor.” (Zaman, 18 Aralık 2015)
In Greece:
  • The flow of refugees over the Aegean to Greece has diminished significantly since the EU signed a controversial deal to return refugees to Turkey, but help is still needed! Groups you can check with to assess current needs on the Greek islands include: Samos Volunteers on Samos; Starfish Foundation; and Chios Refugees – Volunteers Collaboration on Chios.

  • Set up to respond to the refugee influx to Lesbos, the Swedish NGO Lighthouse Relief is now focusing most of its efforts providing relief to refugees who are stranded in Katsikas and Ritsona camps in mainland Greece. Volunteer opportunities mostly require a three-month commitment, though people who can't stay that long can help with cleanup initiatives on Lesbos.
In the United States:
  • The International Rescue Committee (IRC) offers opportunities at its 26 offices across the U.S. for volunteers to help welcome refugees as they seek to rebuild their lives. Typical volunteer opportunities include mentoring refugee families and individuals, assisting refugees to develop effective job seeking and interview skills, and working alongside refugees to grow and maintain community gardens.

  • In addition to IRC, eight other nonprofits, mostly faith-based organizations, have partnered with the U.S. State Department to provide initial assistance to newly arrived refugees in the United States. The website has compiled a good list of these organizations, with contact information and volunteer/donation needs, as well as a couple of related advocacy groups.

  • Enter your zip code into this map to find other opportunities to work with organizations near you that are helping refugees start anew in your community.
In the United Kingdom:
  • An alliance of community organizations called Citizens UK is asking people to lobby their local councils to increase the number of refugees being resettled in their local area, and to pledge to volunteer in helping welcome newly arrived refugees by assisting with orientation, providing English-language support, mentoring refugees to help with integration and accessing public services, and/or offering housing or hosting refugees.
Across Europe:
  • Keep up with the fluid and ever-changing needs of refugees scattered across Europe from the Turkish coast all the way to northern France with the Refugee Volunteer Map, an invaluable resource that’s regularly updated with the situation in dozens of places, the contact information for organizations working with refugees in each location, and the most urgent current needs for donations and volunteer assistance. [NOTE: The Refugee Volunteer Map seems to have not been updated since early 2016; for a more current map of organizations working with refugees in different countries across Europe and into the MENA region, try the Refugee Support Map.]
  • If you speak another language, you can contribute to the crowd-sourced Refugee Phrasebook, a collection of useful words and phrases related to orientation in a new place, medical care, and legal rights. If there’s a need in your area, you can also distribute copies of the current phrasebook or create a custom version.

  • If you live in an area where there are refugees transiting through or trying to resettle, why not follow the lead of these awesome folks in Berlin and create an open-source map of your own city identifying and locating useful services and other resource for refugees?

  • UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming has some other good ideas for ways to help refugees no matter where you live, including employing refugees or creating opportunities for them to volunteer, encouraging your university to offer refugee scholarships, and holding awareness and fundraising events in your own community.

  • A friend helping welcome refugees in Canada shared this wonderful list of simple things you can do in your community:
    • Volunteer: Help a refugee practice English once a week. Take them grocery shopping with you. Show them how to use the local transportation systems.
    • Donate: Support children in educational programs. Support parents getting back on their feet with superstore gift cards, driving lessons, or by hiring them for odd jobs around your house.
    • Welcome: Invite refugees to community events. Provide volunteer or employment opportunities. Stop by for tea or coffee.
    • Most important: Don't be afraid to smile and say hello, this small gesture opens minds, builds bridges and creates a stronger community.

Give a refugee a place to live

  • Help ease the process of resettlement by offering a room in your house or apartment for a refugee to live in for a period of six months to a year by signing up with Refugees Welcome, currently active in Germany, Austria, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland, and Italy. If you live elsewhere, they can help you get involved with setting up a similar program in your country. No room to spare? You can donate to Refugees Welcome too.

  • Citizens UK has a refugee-resettlement program under which landlords in the United Kingdom can sign up on a registry to offer their home as a rental property to a Syrian refugee family.

Donate goods

When donating goods, please adhere to the guidelines set by each organization so as not to tax their distribution capacity and storage space, and call ahead if you're not sure about what they need. No matter who you’re donating to, all clothes should be washed and clean, free from tears or stains, and appropriate for the needs of refugees, and any household items should likewise be in good working order.

In Istanbul:

Beyoğlu Belediyesi Sosyal İşler (Beyoğlu Municipality Social Affairs)
What they need: Donated clothing and furniture are distributed to needy people -- not just refugees -- who can prove Beyoğlu residency
Drop-off location: Kızılay Meydanı, Kasımpaşa, Beyoğlu.
Drop-off hours: Call for details. Municipality team can pick up furniture if it's already been disassembled.
Contact number: 444 01 60 (no prefix needed when dialing within Turkey)

Şişli Belediyesi Sosyal Merkez (Şişli Municipality Social Center)
What they need: Clothes, possibly household items/furniture (call for details). Donations are distributed to all needy people, not just refugees. Şişli residents have priority, but no ID is necessary to receive donations and no one is turned away.
Drop-off location: Bilgiç Sokak No. 15, Feriköy, Şişli
Drop-off hours: Call for details. Municipality team can also arrange pick-ups.
Contact number: Burak Kartal, +90 212 234 15 59/89 15; mobile: +90 554 261 04 81; e-mail:

St. Antoine Church
What they need: Any kind of clothing, which is distributed to refugees and migrants on Tuesdays at approximately 5pm
Drop-off location: Istiklal Caddesi No. 171, Beyoğlu (near Galatasaray)
Drop-off hours: Call first to confirm drop-off times. Contact person Father Julius Ohanele speaks English.
Contact number: +90 212 244 09 35

The Union Church of Istanbul
What they need: Warm winter clothing for kids (especially jackets, sweaters, long-sleeved shirts, pants, and shoes) of any age, newborn through teen. Please do not bring adult clothing as it cannot be used.
Drop-off location: Union Han, İstiklal Caddesi No. 237-239, Beyoğlu (near Şişhane metro station). Please give donations to the kapıcı or call the phone number below before making your drop-off; do not leave donations unattended.
Drop-off hours: Monday - Friday, 10am - 5pm
Contact number: +90 212 244 5212

In the United Kingdom:
  • U.K.-based Calais Action, which works in the Calais refugee camp in northern France and in other hotspots around Europe posts periodic calls for donations (and volunteer opportunities) on its Facebook page.
  • Country Coats to Syria organizes group collections of warm winter coats to be sent to refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. Not in the U.K.? You can donate to the cost of getting these lifesaving containers of coats into the hands of people who need them.
  • Refugees don’t just need food, shelter, and warm clothes. Smart phones have proven indispensable in helping people on the move find safe routes and needed resources, and keep in touch with – and reunite with – family members. If you have an old unlocked cell phone that you can send to Geecyle in London, they’ll get it into the hands of a refugee who needs one.

  • Volunteers on Lesbos and Kos have created Amazon registries of the items most-needed by refugees transiting through these Greek islands.

Lobby for political change

In the United States:
  • Contact your senators and ask them to support refugees by blocking measures that would keep people fleeing persecution from being admitted to the US. This Human Rights Watch website makes it easy to write, call, or tweet at your elected officials. You can also call your congressperson through the U.S. Capitol Switchboard, (202) 224-3121, and ask them to support refugee resettlement in the United States.
In the United Kingdom:
  • Sign a petition calling on your local council to welcome refugees. If there's not already a campaign in your town or city, start one.
  • Write to your MP, asking them to commit to advocating in Parliament to increase the commitment to resettle Syrian refugees from 20,000 to 50,000 over 5 years and to create an additional safe route by establishing a system whereby private individuals, communities, and businesses can sponsor a refugee’s resettlement.
Across Europe:
  • Ask your elected officials to support real solutions that would protect the lives and dignity of refugees.
  • Join non-violent Syrian activists in asking world leaders to establish a no-fly zone over Syria to stop the regime’s barrel bombs and back real peace talks to try and find a solution to the violence turning millions of Syrians into refugees.

Stay informed and speak out

Fight so-called “disaster fatigue” and show the media that you do want to read about Syria and other conflict-affected parts of the world by following the latest news on sites like IRIN (humanitarian news from around the globe, with a special section focusing on the global migrant and refugee crisis) and Syria Deeply (in-depth reporting and analysis about the Syria crisis). International newspapers like The Guardian are also providing extensive coverage of refugee-related issues and news.

Perhaps as important as anything else is to share these stories and talk to people in your own community about these issues. With ugly, prejudiced rhetoric (and attacks) on the rise in the United States and Europe, your voice of compassion is needed more than ever.


Senior Dogs Abroad said...

Brilliant post, Jen. The product of a lot of hard work and a big heart. And yes, we shall share it.

Unknown said...

A small group of English ladies, living in Datca, south west Turkey, we are sending regular consignments of warm, hand knitted, winter hats, along with children's socks, scarves and gloves, to the Syrian Refugee camp in Diyarbakir. I'm not able to provide regular financial support, such as the large charities request, but I am able to afford to buy wool, and of course my time is free. The winter weather is already severe in the east of Turkey, and warm hats are a necessity. Our efforts are very small scale, but this week 80 children will get a nice new woollen hat - I think that's an achievement, don't you?

The Turkish Life said...

That's wonderful, Linda, thank you for sharing! It's a great example of how people can use their own time and skills to make a contribution. Thank you to you and the rest of the Datça ladies for doing what you do. Happy holidays!

And thanks to you too, Senior Dogs!