It’s time to fund organizations led by refugees

By Yasmin Kayali, co-founder and CCO of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, a refugee-led organization in Lebanon 

In the midst of hardship and catastrophe, refugee-led organizations are making a real difference for refugees and locals alike. 

On August 4, a harrowing explosion rocked the port of Beirut, killing hundreds and demolishing homes, schools, and businesses for kilometers. This most recent catastrophe comes on the heels of the now rapidly-spreading COVID-19, and an economy that was already buckling. Here in Lebanon, we are tired and we are in pain. 

The situation is challenging for all. For some, it has become tragic. The over 1.5 million refugees who sought safety in Lebanon were already struggling. Without the right to work, and access to basic social services like health care severely compromised, refugees could not rebuild their lives. Now, refugees and Lebanese alike face a humanitarian crisis.

In the face of these many hardships, the organization I co-founded, Basmeh & Zeitooneh (B&Z), has been there. When COVID-19 showed up in Lebanon, our staff toured refugee and Lebanese communities giving health awareness sessions, ramped up mask production and secured hundreds of tablets to keep our kids in school virtually. Between March and July, we distributed food baskets, hygiene kits, and cash assistance reaching more than 6000 households in need.

As the currency has plunged and banks have closed, B&Z has remained diligent. If a mother visits one of our community centres looking for work, we offer her training in an embroidery workshop (for example), her baby can be cared for in our nursery, her middle child registers at our school, her eldest can receive vocational training and her husband can apply for a small business grant. This holistic system lifts up the whole family.

And now, even as our own staff and families recover from injuries, we are in Beirut’s streets cleaning rubble, distributing hot food and water, fundraising to refurbish homes, and advocating for access to health care for all. Our community’s survival depends on it.

In some ways, Basmeh & Zeitooneh is a typical refugee-led organization (RLO). Started by four Syrian activists — a lawyer, a marketeer and two engineers — we did what all community leaders do: put our hearts and heads into helping our fellow citizens. Because we are embedded within affected communities, we understand the ins-and-outs of daily challenges, can rally community resources to support vulnerable people, and will pivot quickly to respond to emerging needs.

The explosion in Beirut, COVID-19, and economic collapse only highlight what has always been true: RLOs have the relationships, knowledge, and agility to help keep communities safe and stable.

In other ways, Basmeh & Zeitooneh is an unusual RLO. What started as a small emergency response initiative in the basement of a Lebanese church, is active today around the world in Lebanon, Turkey, Kurdistan, Syria, the USA, the UK and Switzerland. At its peak, B&Z was supporting more than a million people with various programs annually, and employing more than 350 individuals — the majority of whom were refugees themselves. Though we struggle with sustainable funding, it is undeniable that we are among a very small group of RLOs globally that have grown to such a size.

In truth, despite having the relationships, knowledge and agility to make a tremendous difference in the lives of refugees around the world, RLOs face massive hurdles when trying to access funding. Most funding applications don’t acknowledge or provide workarounds for realities on the ground (including challenges with banking, registration, and currency fluctuation that plague us now more than ever); use sub-contracting as a way of dictating programming; and rarely provide core funding.

The cumulative impact of these practices can be devastating for refugee communities: sometimes the only programs available, and often the most trusted, are deeply under-resourced. In fact, less than 1% of humanitarian funding goes to local organizations. RLOs receive some small fraction of that.

Where Basmeh & Zeitooneh has experienced growth it has been because we forged direct relationships with a handful of donors and influencers who respected our identities and trusted our viewpoints. In rare circumstances that approach has led to multi-year core funding, giving us the space to grow strategically and to establish an ongoing, sustained presence within communities. On rare occasions we’ve been invited to decision-making tables, and have been given a say in strategy. These practices need to become the norm if we are to see refugee communities around the world safe and stable.

Despite our successes and tenure, Basmeh & Zeitooneh too still struggles.  For example, some of our schools are only funded until next year. Without support, hundreds of students will literally be on the streets. And, although the annual snowstorms are predictable, every year we have to wait until children start freezing to death for financing to appear. To provide a particularly fresh example: following the destruction of the port explosion, donors have expressed the desire for full-fledged emergency response, but remain unwilling to pay for core mission support (overheads).

This is the continuation of a long-standing challenge: we have one finance officer managing four+ budgets and one grants officer managing 29+ partnerships. Our technical managers each manage three countries. This is unreasonable, and we know there is a better way.

In honor of World Humanitarian Day, Basmeh & Zeitooneh has come together with Amnesty International, Asylum Access, Independent Diplomat, Local Engagement Refugee Research Network, Open Society Foundations, Oxfam International, Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS), Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID), and Xavier Project to demonstrate that it is possible to give what’s needed now to support refugee-led action around the world.

Through a strategic partnership with NeedsList, donors can connect directly and immediately support RLOs around the world who are playing a critical role in responding to COVID-19, and many other challenges, that impact their communities.

Please join us in supporting their responses, and in calling for increased support for RLOs around the world.