Alan Kurdi photo spurs rise in donations for Syrian refugees

Young Syrian refugees in a camp in Suruc, Turkey, which hosts about 35,000 people in 7,000 tents. Photo: Procyk Radek/Shutterstock
Young Syrian refugees in a camp in Suruc, Turkey, which hosts about 35,000 people in 7,000 tents. Photo: Procyk Radek/Shutterstock
Published October 5, 2015

The dramatic spike in donations for Syrian refugees this fall has left some officials at Canadians aid groups with mixed feelings—on the one hand, moved by the sudden outpouring of compassion they’ve seen, and on the other, mindful of the fundraising challenges that have faced them for most of Syria’s four-year civil war.

There seems little doubt about the cause of the increase: the publication, starting on September 2, of a photograph of three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach.

“It was just after that that we were inundated with phone calls…It was just unbelievable,” said Fikre Tsehai, manager of Canadian Lutheran World Relief’s refugee resettlement program. “Sometimes I cry, ‘where was this before?’ It’s just an outpouring of generosity.”

Naba Gurung, humanitarian response co-ordinator for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), agreed that before the photo of Alan Kurdi appeared, raising funds for Syrian relief was more difficult.

“It has been there, but slow and few,” he said, adding it has since “ramped up.”

Donations to PWRDF for Syrian relief from January 2012 to early September totalled $80,155—and seemed to be on a downward trend. Peaking at $39,564 for 2013, they had dwindled to $6,401 for the first eight months of 2015. There was a dramatic increase in donations after Kurdi’s death—as of September 12, PWRDF received an additional $70,000, which the federal government will match.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, had been facing a funding shortfall also. It had set funding requirements for its Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan for Syrian refugees for 2015 at US$4.5 billion. As of August 25, only 41% of that sum had been raised ($90.95 million from Canada).

Since 2012, Canada has provided $307.9 million to the plan, according to Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada spokesperson Rachna Mishra. It has also “committed over $810 million in humanitarian, development and security assistance in response to the Syria crisis,” she added.

UNHCR Canada spokeswoman Gisèle Nyembwe said the agency does not release figures about donations it receives from Canadian individuals and corporations. However, she said, as of mid-September, the agency in Canada had been “overwhelmed” with donations.

Asked whether raising funds was much harder before the publication of Alan Kurdi’s photo, Nyembwe said, “I don’t think people have been less generous at that time than now—it’s just that there are so many crises.”

Nevertheless, Nyembwe acknowledged both the urgency and the difficulty of raising money for Syrians and other refugees worldwide.

“We’ve been calling the government; we’ve been asking individuals to donate because the needs are overwhelming and the needs continue to grow,” she said. “There is no end to the war in Syria and people are still fleeing the country.” But, she said, there are not enough donors. “With almost 60 million people forcibly displaced worldwide and multiple emergencies existing, funding from existing donors is overstretched.”

John Longhurst, director of resources and public engagement at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of Canadian churches and church agencies targeting hunger worldwide, said his group has been “relatively successful” raising money for the Syrian crisis, but admitted it hasn’t been easy. The agency has raised more than $1 million for Syria since 2012, when it first began appealing for donations.

“That’s great, and we are grateful,” he said. “But to put that in perspective, one of our member agencies received $2.3 million for Nepal within a couple months of that earthquake this year, and another received $3.5 million.”

It’s harder to raise money for drawn-out conflicts like Syria and disasters that play out over a long time, Longhurst said. “A sudden catastrophic event is guaranteed media coverage to begin with…but a drought, for example, takes a long time to come.”

Added to the challenge of raising funds for Syrian relief, he said, is that it tends to be difficult to raise money for people in conflict situations. “There are competing stories about who’s right and who’s wrong, and which side you’re on and who’s responsible—it can be very hard for people to sort out.”

Tsehai agreed. In many refugee-producing crises of the past, he said. “It’s been very easy for us to see who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. Now there [are] so many warring factions, so many people who have extremist ideology. It’s becoming very difficult for us to see who we are reaching out to.”

The challenge is particularly acute with a drawn-out conflict like the Syrian civil war, Longhurst said. “It goes on and on…and after a while, it all becomes…noise in the background, and who hears it anymore?”

The frequent news of wars and refugees worldwide may also have inflicted potential donors with “compassion fatigue,” Tsehai said. “Refugees here, war there—what’s the big deal? It’s like it has become commonplace” for many people.

On top of that, fundraisers for Syria, he suspects, are facing another challenge raising funds in an age in which Islam and terrorism are often associated in popular media.

“This time around, what I’m observing more and more is fear—fear of the unknown,” he said. Potential donors, he said, seem to be thinking, “They have a religion which is different from ours, and that religion is just a religion of terrorism and so on—so who are we bringing [into Canada as refugees]?”

For the time being at least, fundraisers are riding a wave of generosity following the news and social media coverage of the photo of Alan Kurdi.

“That little boy literally jolted everybody globally to open doors and reach out and reawakened the compassion of humanity which was missing for some reason,” agreed Tsehai. “This young boy for me, as a person, he’s just saying, ‘humanity let me down. I’m at peace now.’ Then I think we have to ask ourselves whether we have been doing the right thing or not.”


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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