The White Helmets

Katie Nelson

Since 2011, Syria has been paralyzed by a gruesome civil war between the Assad regime, the Kurds, and rebel groups. The conflict has displaced more than 11 million (both internally and externally) as refugees, and killed nearly 500,000. In 2017 alone, the United Nations requested $8 billion in aid to put towards “the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.” As the fighting intensifies, it is Syrians themselves who feel its weight on their shoulders.

The Syrian Civil Defense (SCD) is at the forefront of the conflict. What started in 2012 as a makeshift series of rescue teams evolved into a more cohesive volunteer-based unit, now colloquially known as the “White Helmets.” The White Helmets come from all walks of life, from students and artisans, to doctors, engineers, and teachers. Their mission is simple: “To save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property.” The group primarily deals with the aftermath of governmental airstrikes, but at its core, the SCD is wholly dedicated to providing nonpartisan aid to nearly seven million Syrians. In addition to operating as a first-response unit, the White Helmets’ work spans across a multitude of sectors in the public sphere including distributing information, rewiring electrical cables, and checking the safety of affected buildings. The volunteers’ pledges to the pillars of “Humanity, Solidarity, [and] Impartiality” aligns them with the courageous values of the group, with one another, and adheres them to the betterment of Syria herself in her darkest hour.

In 2016, the White Helmets were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and won the year’s Right Livelihood Award for their service to the international community. That same year, Netflix released its documentary “The White Helmets” featuring the group, produced by the Oscar-nominated team behind “Virunga.” While key players in the battle have continuously flirted with peace negotiations, fighting in its current state seems to be at best an inconsistent ceasefire. Yet organizations like the White Helmets keep hope alive for millions and epitomizes altruistic volunteering.

To learn more about the White Helmets, please check out these links:



1. Durando, Jessica. “Syria’s civil war: Disturbing facts show cost of conflict.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, 14 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 July 2017.
2. “Syria: The worst humanitarian crisis of our time.” Amnesty International NZ. Amnesty International, 7 Apr. 2015. Web. 06 July 2017.
3. “Volunteers to Save Lives.” Volunteers to Save Lives | SCD. Web. 20 June 2017.
4. Campaign, The Syria. “Meet the heroes saving Syria.” Support the White Helmets. Web. 17 June 2017.
5. “Syria’s White Helmets win ‘alternative Nobel Prize’.” BBC News. BBC, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 23 June 2017.

Leveraging People, Products, and Innovation to Support the Refugee Crisis

This post was written by a guest blogger from Cisco, one of our clients. Erin Connor is Portfolio Manager for Critical Human Needs, Cisco Corporate Affairs, and Cisco Foundation. 

Today, an unprecedented 63.9 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced, and 21.3 million of those are refugees. From Syria to Afghanistan to Somalia, millions of men, women, and children are being forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution.

Often, they travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to settle in countries ill-equipped to handle the influx of those in need. The journey from Turkey to Greece, for example, is a treacherous one; refugees crossing the Mediterranean often travel in poorly-constructed rafts with little protection from the elements.

And when they arrive at their destinations, whether in Pakistan, Lebanon, or other countries, they’re often met with new challenges. In 2013, Lebanon’s population was 4.5 million, but the immigration of 1.1 million refugees increased the country’s population by a quarter. Turkey currently hosts 2.5 million refugees—the most of any country—but lacks many of the resources to cope with the added population.

The result? At least 40% of refugees in Lebanon live in inadequate accommodation, including makeshift shelters and informal settlements. Others face eviction or live in overcrowded apartments, unable to adapt to their new country’s standards of living. Many are unable to work due to local labor laws, while those in countries such as Greece are detained in camps where they wait hours in line for meals and can barely meet their most basic needs.

Fortunately, global problem solvers are coming together to make an impact in every corner of the globe. Cisco joins a growing list of companies and organizations applying digitization, collaboration, and innovation to solve what’s become one of the world’s most pressing issues.

At Cisco, we understand we must leverage core capability to achieve social impact. Since October 2015, we’ve taken a multi-pronged approach to our response, leveraging our people, products, and financial resources to provide over $4 million in support to the refugee crisis.

Our Tactical Operations engineers and Disaster Response team volunteers have carried out 10 two-week deployments in partnership with NetHope, and together, they’ve installed Merakibased Wi-Fi networks across 75 sites—64 of which are currently active—in Greece and Slovenia and provided remote technical support and equipment for installations in Serbia.

The networks have connected over 600,000 unique devices, allowing refugees to reach more than two million friends and family members through high-speed Internet connections. Using our cloud security software, we block an average of 2,000 cyber threats per day, guaranteeing secure connections for all users. Cisco has granted all of the Meraki equipment needed for these installations to NetHope and provided a supplemental cash grant of $100,000 to support their crisis informatics work, which streamlines their installation efforts.

Cisco has also provided $350,000 to Mercy Corps to support the development and scaling of a mobile-enabled Refugee Information Hub. Currently available in three countries and in three different languages, the hub provides refugees with critical information such as legal options and instructions on seeking asylum, safety information, and available social services. Today, more than 30 NGOs use the tool, which is expected to grow this year to include seven new countries.

On a company level, we understand leadership support and employee engagement drives global action and innovation. A Cisco team of volunteers in Hamburg, Germany worked in close collaboration with a number of ecosystem partners to develop and implement the Refugee First Response Center (RFRC). This innovation transformed shipping containers into doctors’ offices, equipped with Cisco technology that enables access to the Internet and real-time translation services with 750 medically trained interpreters collectively speaking 50 languages.

The original unit, launched in Hamburg in October 2015, caught the attention of a local private donor, who funded $1 million for the production of 10 additional units that have been produced and deployed to Red Cross camps throughout Hamburg. The 10 units average about 30 consultations a day and have provided over 18,000 medical video-supported consultations to date. Two RFRCs have been shipped to Lebanon and Greece for replication.

The Cisco team in Lebanon is working with the Ministry of Health and local NGO Beyond Association to implement RFRC and will include virtual psychosocial services. The RFRC in Greece plans to offer telemedicine services for specialties not available at the hotspots, facilitate remote examinations, interpretation services and video communication for separated families.


Seeing the success of the shipping containers led other organizations to expand on that idea. Deutsche Bahn, the largest shipping and logistics company in Europe partnered with Charité Hospital in Berlin to transform a former passenger bus into a mobile medical clinic – known as the DB medibus

Charité and Deutsche Bahn contacted Cisco, who volunteered to network the bus. Cisco outfitted it with secure wi-fi high-speed connectivity and video collaboration units to allow for translation services in 50 languages. Their first use case for the pilot phase is mass vaccinations to be delivered at refugee settlements in Berlin, and they have already provided 10,000 treatments since launching last fall.

We also recognize the critical importance of education and employment opportunities for refugees. Our Networking Academy in Germany has also committed to providing IT training to 35,000 refugees in Germany over the next three years, and are piloting projects with the International Labour Organization and local universities to train refugees in Turkey through Cisco’s Networking Academy.

Through our annual matching gift campaign in 2015, Cisco donated a total of $743,000 to more than 40 organizations aiding in the refugee crisis. As this crisis endures, Cisco Foundation continues to match employee donations to these organizations dollar for dollar. We know this is an issue close to the hearts of many employees, and viewing them as valuable partners in global problem solving has helped Cisco focus on how best to apply its technology expertise in the field.

Read this blog post here.

Donate to Mercy Corps here.

Why Germany is Not the Only Goldstar of the Syrian Crisis

From the website Dear Pamela: where Pamela Hawley answers questions from Duke University students about social innovations and nonprofits

Germany has been the gold star of helping Syria. The country accepted more than 500,000 refugees, and became the largest advocate for continuing to open the borders to help the refugee crisis. (The Guardian) Despite refusal from other European nations to comply and the emergence of some national push back to the presence of the refugees, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel publicly endorses a policy of open doors and has created programs to help and integrate the refugees. More than 6 billion euros will be devoted to the Syrians. (The Atlantic)

However, the focus on Germany’s involvement in the Syrian Refugee crisis overlooks many important other facts about the refugees, and the truly global scale of this crisis.

The Ongoing Refugee Crisis
We seem to forget ongoing refugee status countries. In Iraq, more than 4.7 million have left their homes since the 1980s. Two million have exited. They’ve gone to Jordan and Lebanon, which brings me to the next point. (The Guardian)

The Crisis Will Quadruple: Twenty Million Need Help

While many people may be “getting tired” of hearing about Syria, we are not even close to nearing the end. More than 4.7 million Syrian refugees have fled. About a quarter are headed or heading to Europe. That leaves 75% of Syrians still in need of a new home. (Mercycorps)

A daunting, new, rushed move to a new land, new culture, with possible disrespect for their culture, fear of their religion and no work permit. Potential, temporary food supplies for their families – if they are lucky. Forget about school for their kids.

For those who might have the option of school, parents can be torn From one Syrian parent who had migrated to another country: “I have to ‘unbrainwash’ my ten-year-old every night. What they say in school about history and culture isn’t correct. I don’t like the way he is being taught to think.” (paraphrase)

Sometimes, there are dirty looks, fear or anger from the local town. “These people aren’t welcome, we don’t know their religion, they are taking my job, and there just isn’t enough.” This is the new “home” they are forced to seek. Three million Syrian refugees need it.

Yet 14 million Syrians in-country need safety, food, shelter, schooling and basic survival. That’s nearly 20 million – not 4 million, who need help. The crisis is quadruple.

So expect the refugees to keep coming.

We are Ignoring the True Leaders

We should be grateful for Germany’s efforts accepting 500,000 refugees. It is a grand, noble and right commitment. Yet why are we ignoring the countries who accept refugees ongoing, through no choice of their own? (The Atlantic)

More than 1.1 million refugees are in Lebanon, a population of 5 million. Twenty percent of their population will become Syrian. (The Atlantic)

More than 800,000 have fled to in Jordan, a population of 6.5 million. 12.3 percent of their population will become Syrian. (Mercycorps)

So while Germany is accepting 500,000, their population is 81 million. It’s only 0.625 percent of their people. And the number of migrants in total to Europe is about 400,000-500,000. That’s less than 1% of the EU population. (The Atlantic)

Countries such as Jordan and Lebanon are the true gold stars. They accepted refugees from the start. They are completely overwhelmed. Who has time for policy and political announcements?

They don’t have a choice. Refugees are streaming across the borders, programs or no programs. Food or no food, health care or no health care, school or no school. The refugees are radically changing a government’s policy and allocation of funds. It revolutionizes a country’s culture, heritage, and way of doing things. Neither Jordan nor Lebanon has a chance to plan or prepare. They have to accept this new normal, and now. (Mercycorps)

Be Grateful
And yet, we need to be grateful. Yes, we need to be grateful for there was a time when no borders were open.

If we look back to 1938, it was on the cusp of World War II. The Germans were aggressively advancing, invading country after country. They had just taken over Austria. Jews were massively exciting everywhere.

A conference was held in France on what to do. Country leaders were not only concerned about their freedom, but also about their ability to take in the Jewish refugees. Thirty-two country delegates were there. Yad Vashem describes the situation:

During the conference, it became painfully obvious that no country was willing to volunteer anything. The British delegate claimed that Britain was already fully populated and suffering from unemployment, so it could take in no refugees. His only offer consisted of British territories in East Africa, which could take in small numbers of refugees. The French delegate declared that France had reached “the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees.” Myron C. Taylor, the American delegate, allowed that the United States would make the previously unfilled quota for Germans and Austrians available to these new refugees. Other countries claimed the Depression as their excuse for not accepting refugees. Only the Dominican Republic, a tiny country in the West Indies, volunteered to take in refugees—in exchange for huge amounts of money. The Evian Conference, France (The Guardian)

Adopt Lebanon’s Courage
Thankfully, we aren’t facing such a draconian 1938. More countries are responding. Services are being set up. Some ongoing life integration programs are germinating. Especially now, given the increasing resistance to supporting the refugees, we need to continue to praising countries who are leading efforts and supporting organizations that have dedicated time and energy to ensuring the refugees receive the care they need.

So if Lebanon can accept that a quarter of their population are Syrians, then we can be courageous too. While I am not Catholic, I agree with Pope Francis:

“Every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe, take in one family.” (The Atlantic)

Jordan and Lebanon are the true gold stars. They take in the families.

Donate to help Syrian Refugees here and visit the Dear Pamela site!

Challenging, Heartfelt Times

By CEO Pamela Hawley

Today, our world seems filled with challenges. Most conversations start with the state of our government, fear for our future, our families and freedoms. We’re facing a tough time in our country and the world. But we must hold to constructive hope.  

We must hold to what we can do, in our hearts, minds and actions.

We’ll take on one area in this discussion. The U.N. recognizes more than 65,000 refugees — but we know there are many more. So, we need to support refugees, human rights, basic freedoms, at home and everywhere. But it doesn’t stop there.

Further, we need to also support host countries. For example, in Lebanon now — more than 50% of students in the schools are Syrian. It’s nearly breaking the Lebanese systems. We need help with refugee absorption, including financial stability, healthcare, and neighborhood integration. It also includes refugees simply feeling welcomed, and host countries feeling they have new friends and partners to strengthen their communities. 

Border host countries don’t decide how many refugees they take in. People just flow over the borders. People in serious need, people who face daily threats to their lives and children — every day. You don’t put a quota on that. You have to accept them, and you do. So, these countries need support, too. They have amazing courage as the make-up of their country is changing every day.

So, at UniversalGiving, we’ll take a strong tack on all the above that focuses on what you can do in a small way. People are so overwhelmed and we want to help lift the oppression. We can be a positive force that uplifts people. What we suggest allows people to make a difference right now: small acts, such as simply smiling at others, helping someone across the street, or even cleaning up after someone spills something! That is an action, and it’s free to all, and immediately “givable.” On the same front, what you do with your hands is equally important. You can take simple, practical, profound actions. You can tap on a new neighbor’s door from El Salvador and write a note to welcome them if they have newly arrived. You can cook a meal for a new teacher who has arrived from Sri Lanka.

We can be depressed and scared and angry — and you pass those thoughts on to someone. Or you can pass on peace. What you do with your mind can have a profound impact. Therefore, we can bring a peaceful mind to every conversation, and a peaceful action in every moment of your day. We can expect the best, and act for the best, for a better world. 

Syrian Conflict

By Trevor Sipos

The Syrian civil war is a complicated violent conflict that seems to have no end in sight. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, displaced around 11 million and has gotten countless countries involved in both aid and fighting.  Accommodating these millions of Syrians has been difficult, as they need shelter, food and supplies. Not to mention the question of where you find the space to place camps for all of these refugees.

The start of the Civil War began with peaceful pro-democracy protests against the Syrian_Demonstration_Douma_Damascus_08-04-2011regime of Bashar Al Assad after teenagers were killed for painting revolutionary signs. Protestors were met with violence by the Syrian government and this eventually led to rebels fighting back against the regime. The conflict is complicated because it is not just people fighting against the government. The rebels are the majority Sunni Muslims and the Shia Alawite sect backs Bashar Al Assad’s government. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) is also involved fighting the Sunnis vying for control over Syria.

Around 4.4 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq while 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria. Turkey itself holds around 2.5 million refugees but it’s camps can only hold 200,000. This makes living conditions for many refugees in Turkey cramped as sometimes hundreds will sleep packed next to each other under a single roof. Living conditions for refugees in Turkey can often be unsanitary and dangerous.  There are even reports that Turkey is deporting refugees back into Syria with permission from Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan.

In Lebanon there are no camps for Syrian refugees. Refugees either live in rented housing or with nomadic camps or hosted with families. Schools are being set up for Syrian children but a large number of children are forced to work to provide for their families who are sometimes not legally allowed to work. Refugees sometimes live in homes with no heat or running water. Disease can easily be spread under unsanitary living conditions and without needed medical supplies can turn deadly.

Europe is also receiving a vast number of migrants and refugees primarily coming from Syria. Over 350,000 Syrians applied to seek asylum in Europe in 2015. In 2015, Europe claimed 1,321,560 migrants and refugees. These refugees often travel by sea to Europe in what can sometimes be a dangerous journey. Relocating these individuals in new countries can be difficult, as proper housing is needed.

The NGO Mercy Corps is assisting millions of Syrian refugees across countries. They are on the ground providing emergency relief to Syrians. With your support they are able to provide clean water, sanitation, food and shelter that is crucial to their survival. Other NGO’s helping include World Food Program and International Medical Corps. The Syrian conflict is a crisis but there are solutions to helping refugees who are in need of assistance.