What Can I Do To Help Refugees?

Hey remember this story from a few weeks ago?

The refugee crisis is still happening.  It didn't disappear just because the news stopped obsessing about it and we forgot about the photo of a dead child on a beach.

But I can't let this go, and it's something I'm really passionate about.

Because I have been to a refugee camp.

In 2014 I walked through the narrow walkways between crumbling buildings guided by a resident of Dheisheh Refugee Camp in  Bethlehem, West Bank.

The worst part is this camp was founded in 1949 and our middle-aged guide had lived there his whole life. 

Yes you read that right, the “temporary” refugee camp has been standing for 66 years.

Photo credit: Ashley Sawyer

Photo credit: Ashley Sawyer

The original housing provided was a square one room concrete box 9’ x 9’ and many are still standing today.  Thankfully many have also been expanded upon and they now have some plumbing and electricity, but it’s very rudimentary and stuck to the outsides of the buildings.  Showers are outside with only a thin wall as privacy. 

Original housing provided to refugees in 1949.  Photo credit Ashley Sawyer

Original housing provided to refugees in 1949.  Photo credit Ashley Sawyer

Photo credit: Ashley Sawyer

Photo credit: Ashley Sawyer

Water is stored on top of the towering buildings because they only have it delivered once a month.  For a long time the camp was gated closed with armed guards regulating who went in and out including for school.  Our guide told stories of having to find place to sleep outside the camp during finals week because there was no guarantee he could get out again in the morning to take his exam.

And this was one of the nicer camps with actual buildings, not tents, with a city built around it.  And only one of the thousands of groups of refugees fleeing conflict, poverty and persecution.

The refugee crisis in Europe is nothing new.  For years now hundreds of thousands of people have been risking their lives to escape war-torn countries (first the civil war in Syria, now ISIS invaded Iraq and Afghanistan) on a journey that has left hundreds of thousands dead.  It is a sad fact that it took a photograph of a dead child to spur action when so many have died undocumented in a similarly cruel manor.  

Many of the refugees in camps in Jordan, Turkey, and France are just tent cities packed in tightly, with no privacy at all.  Sitting in the middle of nowhere or gated off sitting in dusty fields it’s far from an ideal place to start a new life, let alone live for years.

I could give you a long history of the entire Syrian conflict that is causing most of the refugees, but there are more than enough resources already available.  One of the best I've seen is this fantastic timeline of the entire refugee crisis from the European University Institute.  The reason so many Syrians are fleeing to Europe is all the camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon are crammed with more people than they can handle.  That combined with worsening conditions in Syria means more and more people are hoping to find a better life and EU countries accepting more and more refugees every day, it is harder and harder for them to find places to go.

Understandably it is hard for these countries to find places for thousands of refugees, and often times they end up living in tents in huge camps.  However it is up to us to do something to help those in need.  All I can imagine is if I were in their place, fleeing my home for my safety and seeking refuge in a strange country with little or no knowledge of the language or culture, I would be terrified and desperate, welcoming any help available.  

Which is why the uproar about the crisis with the photo of the child on the beach may bring some help after all.  While regrettable that it took four years and an innocent child's death, the out pour of support has been incredible.  

Many want to know what can be done to help if you don't live the EU countries and can’t house or provide a job to refugees, or if you don’t have a direct influence on government policies and aid organizations it's hard to feel like you can do much.  BUT there is so much you can do right from your home.


Learn about the conflict!  Yes it's complicated but there are so many great resources out there, and I will provide as many resources as possible.  Education is the beginning of all change.  Knowing about the issue and telling others about it increases awareness and slowly small actions from many people can have a large impact.  Most importantly KEEP TALKING ABOUT IT.  NPR published a great article on how viral events like this create a moment of awareness and fades into the news cycle.  I'm guilty of it myself!  But let's not let a humanitarian crisis like this go unnoticed or unsupported any longer.  

Salam Neighbor is a documentary showing US citizens living in a Jordanian refugee camp, exposing what life is really like, and the bonds they created with the community around them.  It's still in the film festival circuit (If you live in DC go to the Washington West Film Festival and tell me how it is!), but have seen another documentary made by the same team that was fantastic.  I cannot WAIT to see it as soon as it's available.

Let's also not forget that there are more refugees around the world than just Syrians.  The UN High Council on Refugees (UNHCR- I know you've seen that acronym used a lot lately) has statistics on where the 59.5 MILLION refugees are from and what has caused them to become refugees.  They need our help just as much as Syrians fleeing ISIS.


A group of young adult authors got together and matched over £140,000 donations made to this fundraising page, and the donations continue to pour in.  As of the beginning of October they had raised over $1,000,000 (there hasn’t been many updates lately but the donations continue to pour in) for Save the Children, all through authors working with their fans to raise money.  That’s right young adult authors worked with their fans to raise over a million dollars.  Think twice before the next time you start talking bad about millennials.

Lots of celebrities and public figures have also been urging for people to donate and it’s SO important because the organizations working to help the refugees are grossly underfunded, even after the big push.  So keep donating, keep talking about it.  This problem is not solved just because it’s out of the news cycle again.

You can donate to:

Save the Children


World Vision

Doctors Without Borders

international Rescue Committee

Relief International

Mercy Corps

International Medical Corps

Norwegian Refugee Council

Your local refugee assistance organizations  (yes they do exist in your community, you just don't know about them)

and so many more!


With the US promising to accept 10,000 more refugees this year (over the 1,800 welcomed so far this year) there are lots of refugees who will be coming into the US without much help, knowledge of English, and desperate to just find a stable home.  I know the Sacramento area has always been a popular placement for refugees for years, and we are anticipating a large number of those 10,000 this year to be coming to the area.  If you are in one of these areas where you know there will be refugees and can help move families in or just filing at the headquarters, or even if you find an organization you can donate old furniture or housewares to out of your area, that is a HUGE help to these groups that will be flooded with people to serve in the coming months. 

And most importantly…


Don’t let this story fade from your consciousness.  Even if it leaves the news cycle remember there are millions of people fleeing war-torn countries that need our help.  Put yourself in their shoes, what help would you need if your country broke out in a horribly violent civil war with no regard for civilian safety?  What extent would you go to in order to reach safety where you can start a new life? Don’t forget and do something to help.  Even if it’s a small donation, or educating someone else, or spending a few hours helping a refugee get an ID card or apply for jobs, even helping with the welcoming committee to give them a warm welcome when they get off the airplane!  If everyone does a small part, it can make a hue difference.

If you're looking for more information, here are some of my favorite resources.  If you want to do research on your own and don't know where to start, the news agencies I turn to for limited bias (although some is still present) are NPR and PBS News Hour.  You can read any news source but look for biases and learn to read around them.  I also highly recommend looking at local news agencies and you can usually get a decent translation into English.  Learn about both sides of the issue!  Decide for yourself where you stand, but make sure you educate yourself before making a decision.


Syrian refugee crisis: why has it become so bad?- The Guardian

The Refugee Crisis Isn’t a ‘European Problem’- The New York Times

If you live in the UK: An interactive map on you can help

I was a refugee. I’m haunted by today’s images of child refugees - PBS News Hour

U.S. prepared to accept 100,000 refugees in 2017 - PBS News Hour

Germany’s Refugee Crisis Is Getting Worse - The Atlantic

Quick facts: What you need to know about the Syria crisis - Mercy Corps

Inside the Syrian Refugee Camps Where Childhood Doesn’t Exist - Time

Humans of New York is currently photographing refugees and telling their stories.

Other photographers documenting the life of refugees on the run on Instagram (a great reminder throughout your day):

Liam Maloney

Ciril Jazbec


What are you doing or want to do to help?  Do you have any resources you've come across you can share?  I am always looking to learn more!