‘We don’t treat humanitarian crises the same way’: Donating to Syrian-earthquake victims is challenging, despite easing of U.S. sanctions

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The moment Alexis Cheung saw the news about the terrible earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in early February, she wanted to do something to help. The 30-year-old non-fiction writer living in Honolulu, Hawaii, started looking for ways to give money directly to those affected on the ground.

Through a friend’s Instagram story, Cheung learned about a man from Aleppo who would soon be traveling to the Syrian city to help people with supplies and other expenses in one of the country’s worst-affected areas. Will bring money to help. Cheung asked for the person’s Venmo information in order to use the payment app to donate the $25.

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When Cheung sent her donation, she typed “Aleppo” into the Venmo app, along with a heart emoji. Immediately, she received an alert from Venmo that the transaction would be held for review. Venmo emailed Cheung requesting clarification for the reference to “Aleppo” and the purpose of his payment.

“I got really mad because it’s such a crazy thing. It wasn’t a hundred or thousands of dollars that might be like, ‘Hey, where’s this money going?’ It was flagged because of the word ‘Aleppo.'” Cheng said. “We don’t treat humanitarian crises the same way they happen where they happen.”

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Venmo approved the transaction within an hour, after Cheung responded by elaborating that he had sent his donation to help victims of the earthquake, which has left millions homeless and killed 50,000 people in northern Syria and Turkey. is estimated to have been killed.

But some people trying to donate money to help Syrians struggling in the aftermath of the quake are facing hurdles because of the US government’s long-running sanctions against the Syrian government. The sanctions are designed to block certain financial transactions from moving into the country and put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, depriving him of resources used to perpetrate violence against Syrian civilians in the midst of a brutal civil war. .

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while the US government Temporarily Removed Restrictions For transactions in February to allow money transfers to Syria for relief purposes, consumers and those involved in grassroots organizations say the financial system is still filtering and delaying aid donations at a time when time is of the essence. Some of these problems and delays are not resolved as quickly as Cheung’s $25 donation, they add, creating frustration, confusion and anger.

comprehensive ban Delaney Simon, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group for the US, said Syria has had a chilling effect on financial firms and institutions, complicating aid going into the country.

“Financial institutions are risk averse, they don’t want to get caught up in sanctions,” Simon said. “That’s always been the issue with sanctions in humanitarian settings. That’s the kind of chilling effect we see not only in Syria, but also in places like Afghanistan, Iran, where, in theory, there’s a license for these kinds of transactions.” allows, but in practice, financial institutions are not willing to facilitate the transaction.

‘Every additional hour that money is withheld, humanitarian aid is being withheld from people’

Hikmat Abukhtar and his siblings, Jude and Laila, are co-founders of Project Onwards, a non-profit organization focusing on educational, developmental and cultural projects for Syrian youth.

Courtesy of Hekmat Abukhter

When an earthquake rocked northern Syria in early February, Hikmat Abukhater swung into action. Born in Boston and raised in both Aleppo and the US East Coast, Aboukhter moved to France where he was a 24-year-old graduate student. Aboukhter previously co-founded Project Onwards, a network of Syrian Americans, with his siblings Laila, 27, and Jude, 24, to aid educational and cultural efforts for Syrian youth.

Aboukhater and his siblings dropped whatever they were doing in February to focus on fundraising efforts for earthquake victims. Given their experience raising money to help young Syrians, they knew that navigating the financial system would be difficult. They prioritized sending funds to aid organizations that have an accessible US bank account, European bank account, or Lebanese bank account–an international bank account number (IBAN) or a SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) code. As well as, sending cash to friends who could fly into the affected areas.

“Who are the people who are ready to receive our money within the next business day and who are the people we knew who could actually work with every cent that we’ve fundraised,” Abukhter said. “It was the first and only calculation we had to do because we were just focused on getting the money as quickly as possible.”

Members of Project Onwards, who in recent weeks have pivoted to aid earthquake victims in Syria.

Courtesy of Hekmat Abukhter

Aboukhater’s group posted about its fundraising efforts on social media on February 7 and urged members to avoid using “Syria,” “Syrians,” or “Aleppo” in the captions of their team’s Paypal or Venmo accounts. advised, so that the transaction can be avoided. Catch.

Yet, early on, Venmo informed them that a $5 donation with the caption “Syria” would be held for review and asked the group to provide details about their fundraising efforts.

On February 7, a day after the first earthquake in Syria, Aboukhter responded in an email to Venmo, “Please know that for every additional hour money is withheld, it is being withheld from people in humanitarian aid.”

A day later, the US Treasury Department issued a general license authorizing transactions related to earthquake relief efforts in Syria for 6 months. At the time, Wally Ademayo, the deputy Treasury secretary, said in a statement that US sanctions programs already included “robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts,” but added that the new general license was a broad mandate “to provide assistance.” What is needed most: saving lives and rebuilding. Ademayo said: “I want to be very clear that US sanctions in Syria are not going to get in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people. Will.”

Hikmat Abukhater interacting with members of Project Onwards in one of their meetings.

Courtesy of Hekmat Abukhter

Still, Aboukhater’s fundraising efforts weren’t easy. Two weeks after the Treasury issued his general license, Aboukhtar received a call from Bank of America asking him to explain the $2,100 he had sent nine days earlier to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society. The person representing the US bank allowed the transaction to proceed after Abukhater said the transaction was for humanitarian needs.

“But then I asked him, how could it be that I didn’t know that this transfer was stuck for the last nine days”? Abukhter said. “We started this transfer a few days ago,” Aboukhter said, “but only now today, I’m getting a call from Bank of America, while I’m in France, telling me that this transfer is going through its final destination.” Has not reached

Abukhater sent the money on 13 February and thought it had arrived on 16 February, three working days later as suggested on the receipt. Another receipt arrived in his inbox on February 22, when the funds ran out. Both acquisitions were reviewed by Marketwatch.

“We are reviewing and expediting humanitarian relief transactions while complying with sanctions requirements,” a Bank of America BAC spokeswoman said.
told Marketwatch in an email.

,“I don’t know how many donations we should have received are still pending because I have no way of finding out” ,

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent is trying to navigate the sanctions situation. “The situation in Syria is challenging and the humanitarian response is complex,” said a spokesman for the organisation.

Credit: www.marketwatch.com /

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