Some of the best sources for new and creative ideas to help mitigate the baneful effects of the Syrian refugee crisis can be found among their fellow citizens who settled in America years or decades before.
Since the Syrian uprising, Syrian-Americans—doctors, lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs from all over the United States—have come together and established a multitude of humanitarian organizations. They have collaborated and distributed hundreds of millions of dollars for aid and civil society projects in Syria and its neighbors.
One example of this collaboration has been the recent establishment of the American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS), a conglomeration of 13 Syrian-American humanitarian organizations.* In 2015, ARCS member organizations raised $51.9 million from individual donors and were awarded another $70.9 million in grants. This money supported nearly 6 million displaced persons and refugees, 119 schools and 145 hospitals, and humanitarian work in all governorates in Syria (save Tartus and Suwayda). Some of these organizations are now getting ready to expand their work to Europe, assisting newly arrived refugees on a range of issues—addressing some of their immediate physio-social needs, as well as facilitating youth and gender empowerment, education, and integration over the longer term.
The problem is that the United Nations, international non-governmental groups, and the U.S. government only approach ARCS member organizations about program implementation, not design. In other words, they have little say in policy. That is a mistake. These organizations have more to offer than merely filling gaps in implementation capacity. They have cultural and linguistic expertise, technical capacity, longstanding personal and professional networks on-the-ground, and the ability to raise and deploy substantial amounts of funding to bring relief to those who sorely need it. In short, these organizations have specialized understanding of Syrian refugees and they are uniquely positioned to offer insights that are rare to find in the halls of government or international institutions.
[I]f they are seen as good enough to implement programs for refugees overseas, they are good enough to advise on the policy and design of those programs.
To be sure, the notion of engaging diaspora communities is not novel. Nor am I arguing that ARCS member organizations have all the answers. But if they are seen as good enough to implement programs for refugees overseas, they are good enough to advise on the policy and design of those programs. It should give the international community pause that the leadership of ARCS member organizations, along with Syrian diaspora leaders in Europe, have been almost entirely excluded from major global conferences about Syria, including the Syria Donors Conference in London in February and the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul last month.
On September 19, the U.N. General Assembly will convene a high-level plenary meeting to address large movements of refugees and migrants, followed by a separate, but related, refugee summit being organized by the U.S. government on September 20. This presents an opportunity for policy makers to engage and collaborate with the leadership of ARCS member organizations and they should be actively involved in both events, including in the interagency meetings that are shaping the agendas as well as in formal roles at the events themselves. Not only do they have a great stake in the outcome of the deliberations, they are also among the Americans most capable of bringing fresh ideas and fulfilling the summit’s high-minded aspirations, namely improving the lives of refugees.
*The organizations include: Hope for Syria, Karam Foundation, Mercy Without Limits, NuDay Syria, Rahma Relief, Shaam Relief Foundation, Swasia Charity Foundation, Syria Relief & Development, Syrian American Engineers Association, Syrian American Medical Society, Syrian Community Network, Syrian Expatriates Organization, Syrian Forum USA.