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Syrian refugees cut off from news, but it’s changing

Syrian refugees eat their lunch outside their tents at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Syrian refugees eat their lunch outside their tents at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon. AP Photo/Bilal Hussein
Syrian refugees eat their lunch outside their tents at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon. AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

Syrian refugees are not getting accurate and timely information that will help them survive. The onset of winter required relief organizations to distribute supplies that will help keep people warm during the cold months. Without a way to communicate plans, the organizations have a hard time doing their work.

Information networks are vital to all communities. New challenges arise when they breakdown or do not exist. Bridging information gaps helps the relief effort and, more importantly, the people affected by a given crisis.

“Providing people with information helps people become agents of their own survival rather than passive recipients of aid,” said Alison Campbell, Humanitarian Partnerships Manager for Internews.

Research published by Internews in November showed that Syrian refugees are cut off from reliable information networks. Efforts are underway to solve the problem, but a lack of trust and understanding by the refugees undermines progress.

Refugees in Lebanon described their confusion caused by misinformation. Internews found that it negatively affects the ability of some refugees to access much needed aid. Some of the refugees say that false information led them to leave Syria and said they would not have left if they knew better.

The survey found that refugees rely on SMS messages and other people to gather information. It is hardly an efficient way for refugees living in roughly 1,300 locations across Lebanon to know what is happening.

A new partnership hopes to support the development of news and information networks for Syrian Refugees.

The pilot program, called Tawasul, aims to fix the problem. A collaboration between The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Internews, Tawsul, translates to ‘connection,’ will establish platforms from radio to social media to kiosks that will enable the spread of information between the refugees. It will establish two-way communication channels that will allow aid agencies and refugees to inform each other.

The IRC has been involved in the relief work for the Syrian crisis since the beginning. Most of its work focused on immediate needs like food, water and shelter. As the problem dragged on and more people continued to leave the country, staff started to ask what else can be done.

From these conversations emerged the realization that the networks that spread news and information within communities are destroyed when people are uprooted from their homes.

Hussein digs outside his tent near Amman to prevent flooding.
Hussein digs outside his tent near Amman to prevent flooding.
Oxfam International

“Poor information flows between aid workers and refugees is a real challenge. We need to invest in strategies that can help refugees make their own decisions and become agents in their own survival,” said Bob Kitchen, Director of IRC Emergency Response.

Fortunately for the IRC, an organization had been working for years to call attention to the importance of information in a relief situation. Established in 1982, Internews has worked for three decades to ensure that communities around the world can access and share local news. It believes that information has the power to transform communities.

There will be some experimentation and learning while developing Tawasul. Syrians, for example, do not use radio as an information source in their everyday lives. Stations will be introduced with the hopes that people will tune in, but it is possible that they will not work. A culture of radio will not be build overnight, admits Campbell, but there is hope it can take hold over time.

“Our task in large part will be how to make the word of mouth phenomenon work for us,” explained Campbell.

Programs will have to be targeted. Radio may work for some groups and not for others. Facebook is a popular communication tool for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Tawasul will have to consider ways to use videos and pictures to reach the people who used social media for their information gathering and sharing.

Supporting the spread of information will make it easier for the IRC to do its work. Refugees will know about distributions and services available. It also means that the IRC will learn what refugee populations think of their work, good and bad.

And they see it as a good thing.

“We have to be conscious that this can be messy. When you ask people for opinions you have to be ready to hear what you are not prepared to hear,” admitted IRC project leader Kirk Day. “We have to be ready for increased demand and to adjust programs.”

Other organizations are starting conversations with Internews to build better information services for Syrian refugees. There is still a ways to go before talk turns into action.

“The UN has had [information services]on the agenda since August, but we don’t see a real attempt of proper coordination of having this up at top,” said Campbell.

More organizations have to get on board, but Internews is optimistic about its partnership with the IRC. The relief organization more acutely recognizes the importance of information as a way to increase the impact of its work.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]