Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

UPDATED: One way to help Syria: Donate to Syrian refugees

Update 12/21: Some of the comments from donors below this post are worth reading.  Also, I’ve added UNICEF to the list of organizations at a reader’s recommendation.  Happy holidays, and thank you for giving to Syrians in need.

Recently, a friend from Latin America expressed her difficulty in following along with what’s happening in Syria, and wondered aloud if there was anything at all she could do to help. She, like me, has friends in Syria, but largely feels helpless living in a city without a strong Syrian community, where there are virtually no protests to join, no ways to locally reach out.

One way to help that has a low barrier to entry is by donating or volunteering with organizations working with Syrian refugees. I’ve seen a lot of tweets about different organizations, and while I’m sure all have the right intentions in mind, as someone who donates (small amounts) frequently to a variety of organizations (and also as someone who has worked in fundraising), there are a few things to look out for when selecting an organization. You want to be sure that the organization is registered, and has been vetted independently by Charity Navigator, Guidestar, or similar ranking systems. If I’m considering a regular or somewhat large donation (large for me is $200+, I work for a non-profit too!), I like to look at the public financial records of an organization to see how they spend their money. I’m also put off by organizations that send out a lot of paper (like the ACLU, which I am a donor to but which annoys me with their constant mailings and phone calls) or sells my name to other organizations (ahem, Planned Parenthood).

With that in mind, I’ve put together a short list of organizations that are currently channeling funds into helping Syrian refugees, with comments as to their strengths and weaknesses. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I’m open to more suggestions, but let this be a starting place.  In order of Charity Navigator ranking, top to bottom:

  • Mercy USA is an 501(c)(3) nonprofit* that funds relief work largely in Muslim communities and is considered an Islamic charity, though the organization publicly commits to “no discrimination in aid given, impartial and non-political.”  Mercy gets the Guidestar seal of approval for transparency and gets a 67.95/70 score from Charity Navigator.  Right now, they’re running a Text4Syria campaign that makes it easy for anyone to quickly give $10 (by texting “SYRIA” to 80077), but you can also donate on their website, by phone, or by mail.  Note: Mercy USA receives US government funding.
  • Save the Children is an internationally known organization (65.30/70 on Charity Navigator) and 501(c)(3) nonprofit that currently maintains a Syrian children in crisis fund. Their program is unique in that they’re working to create “child-friendly spaces” to give children in refugee communities ” a safe space to play and get support while keeping their minds off the harsh reality they are facing.”  This is important in that psychological help is as needed in a crisis as medical and other care.  Guidestar also ranks Save the Children highly.
  • The UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, has a special fund for Syrian refugees, with clear indications of what support of different amounts can provide (for example, “$200 can provide blankets for 20 families”).  Donations through that page go through USA for UNHCR, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and is ranked 51.17/70 by Charity Navigator.  Part of the reason for their lower ranking is that they spend more than 20% of their funds on fundraising, which usually means a lot of paper (and it’s true: I do receive a lot of mailings from UNHCR generally).  You can review their financials through Charity Navigator or GuideStar.
  • Syrianorphans.org is a new coalition that allows donors to choose between three foundations: The Karam Foundation (which is unranked by both Charity Navigator and GuideStar), the Islamic charity Zakat Foundation (55.29/70 on Charity Navigator), and the Syrian Sunrise Foundation (also unranked).  Right now, given the relatively low ranking of the Zakat Foundation and the lack of ranking for the other two (not to mention the fact that, at the current moment, the website’s donation page is not functioning), Syrianorphans.org isn’t one of the best choices.

Lastly, here are a couple of organizations I’d be a bit wary of:

  • SyriaRelief.com – I have no reason to doubt this organization, but it is brand-new, offers no financial transparency, does not appear to be a registered nonprofit, and has no rankings.  YMMV.
  • Sham Relief Foundation – Again, no way of knowing where your money is going.  Why not give to a known, reputable organization instead?

* Donations to 501(c)(3) nonprofits are tax-deductible for US taxpayers.

13 Comments

  1. Hi Jillian! Thanks so much for including UNHCR on your list of organizations that are helping Syrian refugees!

    If you feel you’re getting too much mail and would like to opt-out or only get an annual (end-of-year) mail reminder please let me know.

    Lauren
    USA for UNHCR
    @UNRefugeeAgency

    • USA for UNHCR is a scam, that is not the UNHCR… They are telling people on the street that 250 people are dying from starvation everyday in Somalia, that 85% of the donations go the refugees and the Charity Navigator shows less than 65%… I will report this organization as soon as I have the chance to do so.

  2. Incredibly helpful. Thank you for doing this.

  3. Could you tell me why Unicef isn’t listed? They are distributing blankets, food, etc. within the interior of Syria – https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2012/12/20/pol-syria-displaced-children-face-winter-cold.html

    • Hi Lorri –

      No particular reason. At the time I wrote the blog post, I’m not sure they were focusing on Syria. In any case, I’d be happy to look into them and update…generally, UNICEF is a great choice.

      -Jillian

  4. Thank you for this list. I did some research into Mercy USA, and they look like just the group that I want to donate to. There is no religious teaching as part of the aid, the boxes all have large ‘USA’ signs on them, which can only help our profile in the Middle East, and the aid that they are offering is very culturally sensitive (for example their monthly food boxes contain the food that the syrians actually know how to cook and are used to rather than an americanized menu).

  5. Hi Jillian,

    Do you know anything about ShelterBox? On their site it states they are giving boxes to Syria. I just want to make sure my donation will go to the right place.

    Thanks,
    Dana

  6. Hi Mike, thank you for your feedback. USA for UNHCR supports the UN Refugee Agency’s humanitarian work to protect and assist refugees around the world. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, USA for UNHCR raises funds and awareness in America on behalf of UNHCR.

    We take your opinion very seriously and would like to speak with you further. Please email us directly to discuss your experience at info@usaforunhcr.org. If possible please include the information about where, when and who you spoke with so that we can follow up with our staff and take corrective action if necessary.

    Thank you!

  7. Thank you for providing this information. Are there any reputable organizations that allow one to ‘adopt’ a family by providing money every month and allowing some sort of contact ( email or other). I realize this might not be most appropriate for refugees in camps but according to a recent bbc story families are struggling to pay rent, etc and as marrying off young daughters for a fee to get by. See http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22473573

  8. For example, do you know anything about ‘adopt a refugee family’ organization ?

  9. Thanks for this most helpful list. I’ve also been reading that Doctors Without Borders is on the ground in Syria treating all injuries, including gas attack victims.

  10. What acts as currency within the syrian refugee camps?

    How do I put this currency in said refugee’s hands?

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