When the disturbing photo of toddler Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach hit the news in the middle of last fall’s federal election, Canadian politicians scrambled to respond to the outpouring of grief and anger. Kurdi, his mother and five-year-old brother drowned in an attempt to flee Syria for somewhere safer. The family had relatives in Canada who hoped to resettle them here, personalizing a story that for four years had been somebody else’s nightmare.
As the political parties tried to outbid each other on their plans to resettle Syrian refugees, the then-Conservative government announced it would set aside up to $100 million to match donations to Canadian NGOs working in the region. But for all the tears shed over little Alan Kurdi and all the anger directed at the Conservatives for dragging their feet on refugee resettlement, Canadians have donated only $12 million since the matching funds were announced on Sept. 12. That’s not much more than a dollar per person for the nearly 11 million people displaced by the bloody conflict.
Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, whose Liberal government has replaced the Conservatives, yesterday announced Canada would extend the period for donations to be matched. Canadians have been focused on the Liberal promise to increase the number of refugees resettled, so now they’ll have an additional two months—until Feb. 29, 2016—to contribute. It’s “to say hey, there’s so many to come, to welcome, but don’t forget there are so many others to help over there,” Bibeau said.
To say there are “so many others” who won’t be coming to Canada is a massive understatement. The government’s goal is to resettle 25,000 Syrians by the end of February, with another 10,000 or so by the end of 2016. That’s 35,000 Syrians out of the 4.4 million who have fled their country—actually, let’s make it more clear and write it as 4,400,000 people. An additional 6.6 million (6,600,000) have been displaced from their homes but remain in Syria. Giving up a winter coat or a high chair for the family settling in your city is a more personal way to help somebody, but it’s also far more limited than giving even a small amount of cash to one of the many agencies trying to feed and shelter the families who will never make it to Canada.
The NGOs say the focus during the election campaign became how to welcome refugees in Canada, which is where everyone has targeted their generosity. Collection centres across Canada have been overwhelmed with bags of clothes and household items for the newcomers to set up their homes. Now it’s time to consider those on the other side of the world.
“I think that when you have a guest coming to your home, you lay out the good food, you lay out the nice linen. And this is what we’re doing: we’re saying to new guests and new Canadians, we embrace you,” said Cicely McWilliam, a senior adviser at Save the Children. The extension of the matching funds is a chance for Canadians to embrace the millions of Syrians who are living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, or who remain under siege within the country’s borders. “The effort really now needs to be refocused a little bit so that that Canadian generosity can support efforts under way in the region,” McWilliam said. “Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan have almost doubled their populations in some cases. So they are straining.”
The conflict’s long, slow burn is one of the barriers to fundraising. Donors tend to respond to major unexpected events and feel better about giving to a problem with a clear solution. “It’s easier to donate to a natural disaster where you see okay, there’s been an earthquake, thousands of people have been killed, thousands of people are homeless,” said Rose Anne Devlin, a University of Ottawa professor who studies why people donate to charities. With Syria, “there is a bit of fatigue… You start to wonder what can I do to solve this problem? It requires [a] structural political solution and people get frustrated by that.”
None of this is to say Canadians haven’t already given a great deal to local efforts. Devlin points out there are hundreds of organizations collecting donations for Syrians arriving on our shores, so to draw a conclusion from the limited response to the matching funds would be to ignore the massive success of the work in those communities. And while $12 million pales in comparison to the size of the refugee challenge, World Vision Canada says the matching fund did help boost donations.
“We raised more money in the first two weeks after the picture of Alan Kurdi on the beach and the announcement of the matching fund than we did in the 4½ years of the Syrian conflict,” said Michael Messenger, president of World Vision Canada. “We’re not disappointed in the generosity at all.”
This is the first time the government has tried to use a matching fund during a long-running conflict, as opposed to a natural disaster. Both the government and the NGOs are evaluating how it’s worked, as well as how best to raise money to support people in the midst of a drawn-out emergency without some kind of galvanizing moment. What’s clear right now is there’s little Canadians can do to help end an incredibly complex war on the other side of the world. By reaching into their pockets, they could be doing ever so slightly more to help its victims.
Listen to part of Laura Payton’s interview with the University of Ottawa’s Rose Anne Devlin.