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By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Watching a humanitarian crisis unfold from afar can often leave people feeling helpless, but three Americans in their mid-20s have done their small part in assisting Syrian refugees in Jordanian camps by providing portable lights.
The refugee crisis in countries surrounding Syria is becoming one of the most severe humanitarian concerns in recent history.
To date, more than 2.5 million Syrians have fled their country as a brutal civil war rages. Almost 1 million have gone to Lebanon, with Turkey taking more than 620,000 and Jordan accumulating more than 580,000.
While most refugees in Jordan have taken up residence in urban areas, more than 100,000 remain in the Zaatari refugee camp, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who runs the camp.
UNHCR has set up a massive camp on the scale of a small city, but there are still areas in the camp that the agency is unable to monitor when night falls.
When Max Holland and Ben Decker began exchanging emails months ago after being introduced by mutual friends, they discussed the refugee issue and, in particular, how women couldn’t go to the washroom in certain areas for fear of being assaulted in the dark.
The two teamed up with Elliot Talbert-Goldstein and began reaching out to NGOs working in the camp. They’ve now arranged for lights to be used in a Tae Kwon Do center, as well as in trauma centers and children’s libraries.
The light is a small LED panel that takes in solar energy and provides around 900 square feet of light.
But the journey to provide these lights was not as easy as the three first thought, despite Holland’s legal studies background and Decker’s experience with the NGO sector.
“We learned the lesson that if there is not something for everybody, then nobody gets it,” said Decker, speaking over Skype.
At first they crowd-funded a campaign of around $4,500 that let Holland come to the Middle East and buy the lights. Decker and Talbert-Goldstein, currently studying in Tel Aviv, were already in the region.
Around December 1, they were in Jordan. They soon after toured the camp and visited child-friendly spaces. But the lights hadn’t got through customs yet.
Despite being sent from the United States on November 2, by December 6 the supplies hadn’t arrived.
On December 15, they learned the lights were still in customs. By the end of December, they still hadn’t seen the lights. Yet, they carried on with their plan.
After initially trying to get their lights placed in areas that would benefit women, they quickly realized it wasn’t that simple.
“We worked with groups to find a place in the camp to help support women and children,” Decker said.
“At first we thought we could just give things to Zaatari,” said Holland, adding that they also had 30 pounds of donated school supplies ready to donate to the camp. They quickly learned that they had to have enough supplies for every classroom.
Eventually, the supplies made it to women and children’s centers.
While the trio faced troubles getting supplies distributed, they were adamant that no obstacle was too high.
“Everyone who saw our goals and that we wanted to make a difference was ultimately on our side,” said Decker.
Holland said many NGOs were blunt with them about the potential for their project to succeed. “Their bluntness was not dismissive, it was informative,” he said.
When they initially went to the camp they were told by an engineer at UNHCR that 90 percent of the camp was lit. They quickly learned, however, that if a use could be found then their lights could be used in the camp.
Now that they’ve found some success, they have decided to continue working together on future projects.
“Our initiative was not going to be continuous but seeing the opportunity for success available there is no reason not to continue,” said Holland.
If there is anything the trio wants to let the world take away from their success, it’s that “our ability to take an issue and make a significant impact was not difficult,” said Decker.
He added that they owe their success to the digital age and the use of crowd funding and other social media techniques.
“We are three relatively intellectual, capable guys and we care a little bit.”
Justin Salhani is The Atlantic Post’s Lebanon Correspondent based in Beirut. On Twitter @JustinSalhani