The terrorist attack in Paris has many victims — and some of them may be Syrian refugees.
That’s the concern in the international aid community. Aid groups have been struggling to get the public to donate to help the refugees. This year’s heart-breaking photos of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean — and sometimes dying en route — seem to have changed minds and hearts.
This September witnessed record-breaking donations. Mercy Corps raised $2.1 million for Syria-related refugee work, while U.S. Fund for UNICEF raised $1.4 million.
But with reports that one of the suicide bombers in Paris might have been a Syrian refugee who entered Greece in October, NGOs now worry that donors might shut their wallets, lumping the refugees in with the terrorists.
To get a better sense of how donations to Syrian refugee programs may be affected, I talked to Joel Charny, vice president of humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, an umbrella group for international aid organizations.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How do you think the American public feels about Syrian refugees right now?
I think the general public is worried. Most people are not aware of how carefully refugees eligible for resettlement are vetted, so the anxiety is understandable.
And what about donors who have given to Syrian refugees before?
I’d like to think these individuals will understand — by just reading the paper and receiving communications from the organizations that they support — that this is a massive crisis with millions of vulnerable men, women and children who require international aid.
Many of our members are not newcomers to the Syrian refugee crisis. They’ve been working in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and inside Syria since 2011. These organizations have built up credibility and a base of support from their constituencies that shouldn’t be damaged by the fear created by the events in Paris.
So no impact?
I think there will be some impact, and it will be more challenging to bring in new donors, [who] will worry that their donations might be going to people trying to damage the interest of the U.S.
We’re asking Americans for the continuation of the empathy that people felt in September. People were touched by the sheer level of suffering and endurance that the Syrians were showing as they crossed the Mediterranean in flimsy boats. Don’t lose that because of that one incident in Paris.
Why has it been difficult in the past few years to raise money for the refugees?
People felt very helpless. They didn’t feel like there was a solution.
How should charity groups make their case to the public?
There’s a pretty strong consensus here at InterAction of what message will work: The violence we saw in Paris is violence that people in Syria are fleeing. It’s more intense and widespread than anything the average person can imagine.
We’re not helping terrorists. We’re helping vulnerable people. It’s the perpetrators of the violence in Syria that’s driving people to flee. Let’s not punish the victims.