Politics, News

There’s a breathtaking double standard between American non-profits helping Syria

Regardless of our work, we are identified as merely Muslim-focused NGOs, which comes with the assumption that we lack consciousness of where our aid is headed or who is benefiting.

NuDay Syria is a non-profit humanitarian organization dedicated to providing relief to displaced Syrian people. 

Too often, organizations with a faith-based mandate say so specifically within their mission statements – sometimes, even in the organization name. For example – organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and Compassion International are pretty straightforward about their religious affiliation.

However, when it comes to organizations that don’t center around a faith-based mandate – but still have a Muslim founder or board members – there’s an entirely new issue. Regardless of the mandate, there’s an inherent assumption by the general public and various sectors that we are somehow a faith-based organization – even when our mandate and mission clearly state something else.

I can’t remember whether NuDay Syria has ever been called a Muslim NGO – formally or otherwise. It’s a notion that begs being investigated now, more than ever, in our current humanitarian climate.

I find myself asking the question of how an NGO based in the West – founded and/or staffed by American Muslims – goes about being defined. Should it work in a conflict zone where the majority identifies as Muslim? Who makes the final call, especially when it comes to folks within government, researchers, the public, and donors? Are we in need of redefining or creating an entirely new relief sector?

In the case of NuDay Syria, we focus on inculcating empowerment and aid with dignity to the mothers and children inside Syria. Even without mention of faith, because I am visibly Muslim, the assumption is laid upon the organization – a double standard that begs discussion.

Furthermore, it’s time to start examining why the assumption is made that civilians in Muslim majority countries want anything other than what we want here in the West: peace, freedom, safe shelter, education, and food.

The Syrian humanitarian crisis is a result of the nation’s citizens standing up for their basic rights of freedom and democracy. Somehow, though, that doesn’t matter to those on the outside. They’ve deemed the relief initiatives of NGOs like NuDay Syria to be solely faith-based. That, in turn, leads to the destructive assumption that the impetus behind the NGO’s work isn’t because there’s an actual humanitarian crisis taking place.  Couple that with the fact that our work primarily takes place in a Muslim-majority nation, and the stigma becomes almost impossible to shake off.

I could go ahead and flipped this assumption on its head: should I, as a Muslim, assume that other NGOs in the West always have some nefarious, secret faith-based mission? That they are, in fact, out to proselytize the Muslims they’re meant to serve – even if the organization name isn’t religious?

When I first formed NuDay Syria in 2013, I did so carefully and conscientiously. I recognized that despite good intentions, careful evaluations, strict documentation and distribution requirements, our material support and program development would always be under a different, more strenuous kind of scrutiny.

And we have been.

Day after day, there remains little to no talk around why there remains a raging conflict in Syria, no discussion around how Syrians are resisting daily, if not hourly, the onslaught of violence from both extremists and dictators. Instead, there remains an almost petulant, disgraceful focus on labeling and devaluing the NGOs working day and night – risking everything we have – to ensure that Syrian civilians receive support and relief. Regardless of our work, we are identified as merely Muslim-focused NGOs, which comes with the assumption that we lack consciousness of where our aid is headed or who is benefiting.

To sum it up: it’s assumed that we share different goals from NGOs without Muslim founders.

It’s more than just on the level of organizations – this double standard is personal. As a Syrian, it was recently brought to my attention that my name is on several lists within Syria – despite my having never lived there – preventing my ever entering the country under the current government. My crime? The years of work providing aid and relief to Syrians of all backgrounds. As an American, my organization – and others focused on serving Syrians – is treated with suspicion within the United States. With no rationale, our work – given its geographic location – is associated with extremists – harming our impact and efforts.

It’s past time to continue pretending that our fear of others does not exist. Such a detrimental attitude holds back constructive efforts to bring this nation together to support purposeful humanitarian relief efforts within Muslim-majority conflict zones.

It’s a fear that can only be eradicated with frank education, outreach, and conversations – as well as engagement on a community level – that supports diverse aid efforts led by Americans of all faith backgrounds working together to help those affected by a major crisis – even if that crisis is taking place within a Muslim-majority country.

Ultimately, fear holds our world’s future back – no matter where we live. To reach peace, we must break down irrational feelings of distrust and fear – it is only then that we can begin to heal.

Check out The Tempest’s ongoing coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis