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Why Are Syrian Aid Workers Leaving for Europe?

Gaziantep, Turkey -- Frustration. In a city that has become known for its dynamic activist community, weariness is starting to show in a network that has been stretched by donor fatigue, occupational burnout, and the opportunity of starting over far away.

Located only 50 kilometers away from the Syrian border and home to more than 200,000 refugees, Gaziantep has become the address for Syrian and international civil society, aid and development organizations. It's also where many activists decided they had had enough.

"I'm based on the airplane between Beirut and Gaziantep," said Fadi Hallisso. The 37-year-old is the CEO and cofounder of Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a grassroots NGO that supports Syrian refugees and vulnerable host communities in Lebanon and Turkey.

After studying civil engineering in Aleppo, Fadi moved to Egypt and Lebanon to study to become a priest. He was in Lebanon in 2011 when the uprising started in Syria, along with the first waves of refugees. What began as a group of friends volunteering to help refugees turned into Basmeh and Zeitooneh, which translates as A smile and an olive. Photo provided by Fadi Hallisso.

Over the course of the past year, Hallisso said almost 25 % of their employees had gone to Europe. Their personal reasons for leaving vary, but the common underlying one is a frustration with instability.

The laws of the neighboring countries these organizations are based in do not make matters easy. Even Turkey, which had long been considered more lenient than Lebanon and Jordan in its policies towards refugees, introduced new visa restrictions last week.

"The laws keep getting stricter and more constricting for Syrians in Turkey and Lebanon," said Hallisso. "We weren't able to work in Jordan at all, although there were so many opportunities for projects there. But we were unable to do anything, because none of us can go to Jordan."

Despite—or perhaps because of—the Syrian conflict dragging on well into its fifth year, funding for most relief and development projects comes in short inconsistent spurts. This means that the projects too are short and inconsistent, despite an urgent need for more sustainable solutions in a war that has left 13 million people in need of assistance, and more than 4 million as refugees.

"There is no long term plan to deal with the enormous humanitarian crisis," said Hallisso. "When all these organizations came they were planning for a short term emergency, and now we have to shift to long term. The transition is not easy for them, and many organizations still prefer to just give aid because it's easier (than development)."

Short term funding means refugees continue receiving aid instead of empowerment to support themselves. It also means that the people working on these projects, who are often refugees themselves, never know for how long they have a job.

"For someone to work with us, it has to be someone really willing to make a sacrifice for the country, and make much less than they would have working for an international NGO," Hallisso said.

Our main goal is projects that enable people, even as refugees, to maintain their dignity, gain the necessary skills to work and support themselves, and help in rebuilding Syria in the future, Hallisso said. One of Basmeh and Zeitooneh's projects is the women's workshop, which empowers refugee women by training them in embroidery they can sell, helping them to provide financial support to their families. It's projects like this that are made possible with long term funding. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Although INGOs are often the funders of projects by grassroots organizations, they are suffering from insufficient funding themselves. The main problem however, said Hallisso, is the lack of communication, or perhaps the manipulation of it.

"One of the issues we face (with INGOs) is that Syrians are absent from the decision making process," said Hallisso. "Very few actually ask us what our real needs are."

New to the aid world and eager to help in any way, many grassroots Syrian organizations did not ask for administrative costs (overhead) a few years ago, and would accept funding for projects that would not even pay their own salaries. As the work piled on, so did the realization that this is not sustainable. Yet many donors still refuse to provide overhead, in a situation Hallisso describes as feeling like blackmail.

"If you accept the project without overhead, you're sentencing your own organization to a slow death: pushed to let your employees go, or bring down your standards," said Hallisso. "And if you refuse to take on the project, you find yourself in front of a sharp conflict with your conscience. Can I deprive 1000 students from education because we didn't get overhead? They (the donors) know well that we have this moral conflict, and will likely step down from the overhead we need in order to serve the people. They know how to play it very well."

Zein was in the United States waiting for an asylum application to be processed in 2013, when she decided to instead move to Turkey. I was only there for nine months, but felt so inactive. If we leave all our seats empty, then in my opinion we can't even dream that our children will see our country again, Malazi said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Zein Al Malazi, the director of public relations at Space of Hope, an organization that supports orphans in Aleppo through education and protection, tied insufficient funding to the occupational burnout many aid and development workers experience. When there aren't enough funds to hire more people, she said, all the work ends up piled on the same person.

"One person turns into a focal point for more than 20 sides, has to stay in contact with everyone, do all the reports, go to all the meetings—this person is done for," Malazi said.

A sarcastic Facebook status with the hashtag #That's_what_the_donor_wants turned into a campaign when activist Fakhri Al Haj Bakkar saw how deeply it resonated with the community here. The campaign, and later an event with the same name, was used to criticize the often disconnected and unrealistic demands of donors.

"I saw that a lot of people wanted to vent about the 'donor,' not just me," said 29-year-old Bakkar. "The donor doesn't want to give you what you need, he wants to give you what he thinks you need."

Formerly an aid worker himself, Bakkar moved on to work with a development team after tiring from the negative effects of aid work.

"Projects should be bottom up, according to what people's needs are," said Bakkar. "Because if we keep doing what the donor wants, then we're going to keep working in aid for 25 years, and that's wrong."

Fakhri moved to Turkey in 2012, in an overnight decision after two of his friends and fellow protesters in Aleppo were detained by airforce intelligence, and found dead the next day. He is currently area manager with Tamkeen, a development project that works inside Syria, and is completing his masters in aeronautical engineering. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

It's a dead end that many Syrian organizations have faced, and one that has led activists to leave.

"They decide that's it, they don't want to be a part of this field anymore, and they migrate. They feel it's a dirty game they don't want to be involved in," Hallisso said.

The problem with those activists migrating is that they leave a void that is hard to fill, a UN staff member who asked to remain unnamed told me.

"We used to rely on these activists to provide us with their analysis of (the) human rights and humanitarian situation, connect us with victims, witnesses and others for us to build a solid picture of the grim situation in Syria," he said.

The irony is that the massive numbers of refugees that have made it to Europe in the past months have prompted European governments to increase funding to Syria projects in neighboring countries. Although the much needed funding is welcome, said Hallisso, the implementation is still shortsighted.

"They are just throwing money at the surrounding countries in the hope it will keep refugees from coming to Europe," said Hallisso. "We want long term programs that can work on building people's capacities, (dealing with) their legal situations, and pressuring neighboring countries' governments to ease refugees' lives instead of complicating them."

For those who choose to stay in Turkey, a combination of guilt and hope keep them from leaving. Despite mounting pressure, Hallisso said, he can't leave.

"Sometimes I feel I am too cowardly to turn my back and walk away. Somehow, this is the result of something we started five years ago. We wanted freedom and dignity for the Syrian people, and we don't have the right to turn our backs on them when they're suffering," said Hallisso. "At the same time, I think we've built and are building something truly beautiful. We're trying to build a new structure, an image of the Syria we dream of. So when the cloud of anger and frustration passes, I think it would be a shame to sacrifice all this."

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati

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