Syria, the chance of a lifetime: how your giving can help save a generation

As part of our series from Lebanon, we track the cash from the donor’s wallet to the people who need it most, as good intentions translate into worthwhile deeds

More than 160,000 Syrians have died since the country began its descent into chaos in March 2011. Another 3 million have been forced to flee the country, leaving behind their homes, loved ones and livelihoods and striking out into a dangerous and uncertain future.

The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, is struggling to meet the food, health, education and protection needs of these displaced millions: as of July the agency had raised only 30 per cent of its $3.74bn target for 2014.

We trace the impact that a donation to the UNHCR can make. We track the cash from the donor’s wallet to the people who need it most, and as good intentions translate into worthwhile deeds, we illustrate how the generosity of one human being can change forever the lives of countless others.

From the Gulf to Lebanon, via Switzerland and the Mediterranean, we follow the money and demonstrate how every dollar really does make a difference.

See how much it costs to provide a family with a UNHCR tent equipped to cope with winter conditions

In January 2014 the UN stopped counting the dead in Syria. The intensity and the brutality of the conflict were such that safe access to war-torn swathes of the country had become impossible; all the outside world could do now was rely on the estimates of NGOs and the first-hand accounts of the millions of refugees streaming into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, among other countries.

This mass exile has placed a huge burden on the humanitarian and aid agencies tasked with ensuring that those who escape the conflict are able to survive with dignity. It has also placed a near-intolerable strain on Syria’s neighbours: unofficial estimates place the true number of refugees at far higher than the official figure of 3 million.

“The Syrian crisis, both with regards to refugees and internally displaced persons, has created one of the largest populations-in-need that we have ever seen,” says Daniel Endres, director of external relations at the UNHCR. “This year alone we expect another million refugees to arrive in neighbouring countries, and this represents a huge challenge.”

See how much it costs to educate one refugee child for one year in Lebanon

In late May, Philanthropy Age visited Lebanon, one of the leading recipients of refugees from Syria, travelling to the Akkar District in the north, and the Bekaa Valley in the east. Both areas have long, porous borders with Syria, and both have been overwhelmed by new arrivals.

The number of Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon has grown from 5,000 in the summer of 2011, to more than 1.1 million as of mid-August 2014. Unofficial figures place the true total at more than 2 million, in a country of just 4.5 million before the conflict began.

Today, one of every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.

“There simply is not a country in the world today that has more refugees in proportion to its size than Lebanon,” says Ninette Kelley, the UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon. “Lebanon has so far shown  incredible generosity in responding to this crisis, however, we don’t have enough money to support the needs of the Syrian refugees, let alone Lebanon and Lebanese institutions in the manner in which they really need to be supported.”

See how much it costs to register a refugee in Lebanon

In Lebanon, 82 per cent of refugees are in rented accommodation, many living in Lebanese families’ homes. Local communities are incentivised; for example, locals’ homes may be renovated if they agree to take in families.

Now, however, villages have become crowded and tensions are emerging between the refugees and their hosts.

“The pressure of refugees has been very dramatic and we are seeing this in increased consumption of water and electricity, as well as great pressures on other infrastructure including water and sanitation,” says Kelley.

See how much it costs to give a young refugee a three-month technical skills course

Right now, the UNHCR and its partners are fighting a losing battle. Refugee numbers are rising steadily, while money is running out: as of July, the agency had raised only 30 per cent of its $3.74bn target for its Syria Response Plan for 2014.

Furthermore, there are precious little government funds to cut the shortfall. Many consider Lebanon to have suffered a significant economic meltdown even before the influx: GDP growth dropped from 10.3 per cent in 2009 to 8 per cent in 2010 and 2 per cent in 2011. Upon the arrival of the refugees, it sank to 1.2 per cent in 2012 and 0.9 per cent in 2013.

“The Lebanese economy has been affected by the war in Syria by $8bn, and the Lebanese state needs $4.7bn to return the economic stability that it had before the Syrian crisis,” says Sejaan Azzi, Lebanon’s Minister of Labour. “The Palestinian and Syrian refugees are dangers to the unity of the country, and then there’s the economic, financial burdens, and on the working population,” he continues. “Lebanon is unable to bear the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis. Its economy is unable to carry it. Its geographic space does not allow it to host these numbers and there are security problems.”

See how much it costs to keep a premature baby alive in an incubator for one day

“Lebanon faces the most extreme situation,” concedes Endres, warning of the effect on ordinary Lebanese. “It has pushed a significant segment of the Lebanese population into poverty because rents are going up, while salaries go down. It is having an enormous impact and, for Lebanon’s own stability, it is vital to do something to ease this situation.”

Fundraising shortfalls have a straightforward consequence: the less money there is coming in, the less the UNHCR and its partners can do to help.

See how much it costs to provide a ‘newcomers kit’ for a family of refugees

“We’re looking at a very serious shortage and we’re constantly looking to have to reprioritise what we’re going to put first among equally compelling needs,” says Kelley. “We’ve already made restrictions in healthcare, for example, and we’ve limited how much we can do in education. Now we’re coming up to another critical review in terms of what we can do.

“We are reaching out to the Gulf countries,” she adds. “There are so many ways that your efforts, your energy and contributions, can make a huge difference to people’s lives.”