An unidentified Syrian refugee crossing the border. Dona_Bozzi / Shutterstock.com
After four years of brutal conflict, the victims of the crisis in Syria see more bad than good in their everyday lives. What was at first thought to be a glimmer of hope for these victims now has some questioning if the so-called act of kindness ever even occurred.
In February, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) allegedly made a donation of $878,000 worth of angora fur to Lebanese villages around Tripoli, the Bekaa Valley and refugee camps in Majdal Anjar, El Marj, Bar Elias, Sawiri and Al-marj. According to PETA’s Senior International Media Director Ben Williamson, the fur originally came from Inditex, the world’s largest clothing retailer and owner of major brands like Zara. After PETA’s video investigation of the way angora rabbit’s fur is collected, Inditex pulled angora from its shelves, and the company agreed to donate its stock to Syrian refugees through the charity Life for Relief and Development, which claims to be the largest U.S.-founded Arab American humanitarian relief and development organization.
“Thanks to Inditex’s massive donation, PETA is able to send a vital message about compassion for animals this winter—that only people desperately lacking basic necessities have any excuse for wearing fur that is ripped out of live animals’ bodies,” PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk had said in a statement.
Though at first glance, the donation seems like a well-intended humanitarian effort, no organizations or individuals but PETA and Life for Relief and Development can confirm that the act even happened. After conversations with dozens of reporters and charities in Syria and Lebanon, no one else has any knowledge of the almost $1 million dollar donation. Some sources said that type of a donation even mocked the refugees.
“I think the problem is not with the coats, it’s with the idea of the donation itself,” says freelance journalist Ammar Al mamoun via email. “It’s like a sick parody. I am not saying the idea of donating is bad, but let’s be real. It’s the sympathy, people don’t wanna be looked down at.
Giving them fur coats, it’s like giving them golden hammers. It has some insult built in.”
A few reporters, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the whole thing felt like a hoax because PETA is against the use of fur. Williamson, though, said that it is PETA’s rule that no one in the United States or any other developed country has the right to wear the skin from any animal. But according to him, almost 1.2 million refugees received garments from this specific donation.
“We receive a lot of fur coats,” he says. “We have more than we know what to do with. So we donate fur coats to homeless for winter warmth or clothes or as bedding for animal rescue centers. Syria has lost so much. Only people who have lost have the right to wear fur.”
Though the Life for Relief and Development organization, the organization PETA utilized to make the transaction, originally agreed to help connect Glammonitor to a refugee that received some of the garments, they ceased communication after further questioning. In the one interview with the organization’s Chief Operating Officer, Mohammed Alomar, his answers were simple—and for an issue spanning three countries, thousands of lives of brutally tortured animals, one million dollars and 20 thousand pieces of expensive fur apparel, it seems the small operation out of the suburbs of Detroit would have more to say.
“The life of a refugee is really tragic,” says Alomari. “We have millions of people that were forced to flee their homes because of the conflict in Syria. They have been forced to either be displaced or cross the border into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. So when we saw an opportunity to provide some clothing, especially during these winter months, we wanted to provide that assistance to the refugees.”
He went on to say that there are 3 to 4 million refugees from the Syrian crisis. About half are still in Syria, and the other half are spread around Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In addition to the project with PETA, Life USA also provides food, water, blankets, jackets, temporary shelter and other primary humanitarian supplies to those in need in many Middle Eastern countries.
“Obviously these refugees are very appreciative of any assistance that they receive,” says Alomari. “We see them very happy, very delighted to receive these clothes from PETA. A lot of these refugees feel helpless. They feel that the world has forgotten about them. So when different organizations are involved it reassures them that there are people that are concerned with their plight. It eases, at least psychologically, that impact emotionally that makes them feel helpless.”
With so many refugees being the beneficiary of this fur coat donation, it still remains that no one but Life for Relief and Development and PETA have any knowledge that the clothing was given to the victims of the Syrian conflict. Williamson of PETA sent Glammonitor a link to photos taken during the distribution of clothing at a makeshift refugee camp in the village of al-Bireh, just outside of Beirut in Lebanon, but they don’t appear to be angora fur. The photos were taken by Agence France-Presse Photojournalist Brahim Chaloub on Feb. 4, and he confirmed taking the photos.
A few other reporters covering the area in Lebanon said that it would be too late in the year to wear fur. According to recent weather reports the high for Syria is nearing 75 degrees.
“When you have lost everything, something as simple as a new, clean, warm coat makes a world of difference,” says PETA’s Senior International Media Director Ben Williamson. “Sadly, we can’t bring these animals back to life or reverse the violent ways in which they died. However, we can make compassionate fashion choices today that will spare the lives of countless more animals by always opting for animal-free clothing and accessories.”
After Communication Consultant at BBC Media Action Maurice Aaek asked several NGOs, in Lebanon about the donation, none could confirm that the million dollar donation had taken place.
“There is a lot of corruption in this field in Lebanon in general,” Aaek says. “I asked more than three NGOs in that area and nobody knows.”
Aaek said he spoke to three different sources from refugee camps in El Marj, Bar Elias, Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley. All three of the sources knew nothing of the donation, and spoke to refugees who also said they didn’t know about it.
According to a 2013 report by Transparency International, 63 percent of respondents in Lebanon felt that NGOs were corrupt or extremely corrupt. Though a few NGOs like Sakker el Dekkene and the Lebanese Transparency Association have made creative initiatives to stop corruption, the focus has mainly been on governmental institutions and not the NGOs themselves.
An article by Nonprofit Quarterly reported that NGOs are usually perceived as being connected to governmental or political agendas. In countries like Lebanon, the use of international aid may also be viewed as corrupt.
“NGOs are sometimes seen by authorities as politically troublesome and likely to follow foreign agendas, leading to their corruption rankings,” the article reads. “NGOs functioning in what the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calls ‘fragile states,’ which typically receive large amounts of foreign aid, face multiple challenges. Their reputations and effectiveness are not wholly reliant on their own managerial and technical skills, but on the governmental and political dynamics of the nations they are trying to assist.”
Since March 2011, the citizens of Syria have been battling what some are calling the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. According to “Syria: Alienation and Violence, Impact of the Syria Crisis,” a report released this month by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, the life expectancy for Syrians has dropped two decades from 79.5 to 55 years. An estimated 3.9 million people have fled the country, and a further 7.6 million have been internally displaced.
“There was a substantial increase in death rates due to the crisis, especially conflict-related deaths, which almost doubled in 2014,” Christopher Gunness told Newsweek. Gunness is a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, one of the U.N. agencies that helped with the report. “Increasing death rates among youth, who had a low probability of death before the crisis, became a significant component in the regression of life expectancy.”
The report also states that the social impact of the Syrian crisis has literally transformed the human geography of the country through redistribution and movement. In 2010, the population was 20.87 million, and by 2014, it has fallen to an estimate of 18.02 million. Turkey is currently the main host of Syrian refugees, with 35.1 percent of refugees finding shelter there. Lebanon held that spot until October 2014, when the Lebanese government decided to ban the inflow of Syrian refugees except for cases approved by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The impact of the Syrian conflict can be shown by the amount of people living in poverty. According to the report, by the end of 2014, 82.5 percent of Syrians lived in poverty, suffering from multidimensional deprivation. The rates of poverty were highest among those areas that were directly impacted by the conflict, and they were the lowest in areas that were least impacted.
“Such excessive levels of deprivation put life at risk, which is reflected in the increasing number of tragic cases of death due to malnutrition and starvation, especially besieged and isolated places,” the report states. “Moreover, the prolonged nature of the conflict is diminishing the resilience, self-reliance and empowerment of Syrian households that are increasingly exposed to violence, discrimination and abuse. While the substantial provision of humanitarian assistance from multiple parties has helped mitigate some of the worst situations and provided a lifeline for millions of households, its scale, form and content remains far below the needs of people within the present catastrophic situation.”
With so many refugees relying on charities and NGOs to survive, many people hope that they are actually getting the help they need. Not just in the refugee camps, but in the country itself.
“Refugees need a lot of support,” says journalist Mohammed Al-khatieb. “Especially in the Syrian interior because of the work of humanitarian organizations is less compared with neighboring countries. Organizations can work freely and easily in those countries. But inside Syria, the situation is difficult because of the bombing and the closure of the border.”