Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

Syrian refugees need to be empowered, says education NGO founder

Massa Mufti was a refugee herself so knows what she's talking about when she says aid money would be better spent on finding jobs for displaced Syrians.

There are estimated to be over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which has placed a strain on the country's infrastructure.. A McConnell / UNHCR
There are estimated to be over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which has placed a strain on the country's infrastructure.. A McConnell / UNHCR

DUBAI // International humanitarian aid organisations must shift their focus from fundraising, food and shelter to hiring refugees, a Syrian former refugee has said.

Massa Mufti, the founder of an NGO that provides educational support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, fled to her neighbouring country as the crisis deepened in her homeland and spent three years there before relocating to Dubai.

“After four years of continuous crisis with unprecedented violence, I think we ought to be a little bit self-critical,” she said after speaking at the Dubai International Humanitarian and Aid Development Conference (Dihad) this week. “Why, after four years of continuous crisis, is it still approached from a relief perspective, as if you are addressing a humanitarian or a natural disaster? Today, we need to act on a policy level.”

Ms Mufti said it was no longer about just providing food and shelter to nearly four million refugees who have fled Syria to neighbouring countries because that task was “endless”.

“We all know that the funding has only gotten [smaller] and [smaller] every year,” she said. “So it’s not sustainable. Syrian communities who were not that poor, today, are impoverished because of this crisis.”

Her comments were made in response to Luca Renda, country director at the UN Development Programme in Lebanon, who called on countries, including those in the GCC, to help fund a US$2.1 billion (Dh7.7bn) plan to create opportunities for the poor and to invest in services.

“Lebanon is [a small country] with a population of four million people but it is now hosting 1.2 million refugees from Syria,” Mr Renda said. “These are just the ones who are registered but there are probably more. Not to mention the 250,000 Palestinians already present there and 50,000 Palestinians coming from Syria. Eighty per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live among the poorest areas of Lebanon, which consists of a sixth of the country and they need more help.”

But Ms Mufti said refugees should also help one another.

“What have you done to empower them?” she asked. “I am very critical of the UN contracting international NGOs to bring staff to work with the Syrian community rather than engaging the Syrians themselves to help one another at a fraction of the price.

“These people need to be empowered and have a self-sustained income.”

She said the young were the most vital, dangerous, critical and vulnerable groups because they were recruited by extremists.

“They are the ones described as the lost generation,” she said. “Vocational education has not been addressed by any of the interventions. We’re talking about food and shelter and soliciting fundraising but I feel we are only creating a generation of beggars.

“I want my people to be empowered. They need to be engaged in helping one another and that is the gateway for peace-building.”

Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International in Washington, visited Syrian refugees in Turkey last week.

“It’s four years of children not being in school and people not having a regular job,” she said. “People don’t necessarily see futures for themselves where they are because there aren’t long-term prospects, so it often actually gets worse for them. We need to think beyond emergency assistance and we need longer-term prospects.”