Icelander's campaign makes pen-selling Syrian single dad a wealthy man

Marian Männi
, reporter
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Abdul, a refugee from Syria, was in the right place at the right time. A photo taken of him became a global hit and by now the single father of two has been donated over €142,000. What will he do with the money? Underneath, an Icelander behind the campaign Gissur Simonarson talks to Postimees.

Mr Simonarson, dwelling in Oslo, Norway, has never been to Lebanon. He knows Abdul (35) having spotted a photo of him in social media. On it, Abdul is selling pens with a bare footed daughter asleep over his shoulder.

Shared, the photo gained such a feedback that Mr Simonarson decided to open for Abdul a support platform – for donators to send him money. Now, Abdul with his daughter aged four and a son of nine are richer by gifts of thousands and these past three days all Mr Simonarson can do is talk to journalists.

-Where did you find the photo?

I am following lots of tweets from [conflict] areas and I found this photo. I sought out the man who shared it but even he wasn’t the author. I never found the photographer. No matter the media attention, I never learned who it is. Weird.

-Are you planning to go to Lebanon now and hand the money to Abdul personally?

We have lots of plans. We thought to go there after three months, to make a video of how his life has changed and what has happened meanwhile. We were also thinking he might come to Norway to get the money. We haven’t decided yet.

-By now, you have collected over €137,000 (above $154,000). That’s over 3,000 percent more than you originally intended. Crazy, isn’t it?

Yes, the campaign is totally out of control. I never would have thought… I hoped we’d get some €4,500 ($5,000) so they’d be able to buy new clothes and live a little better.

-Who have the donators been?

They’ve been from all over the world. The last time I checked it was over 4,000 people from 105 nations.

-The campaign ends in 11 days. What does Abdul intend to do with the money?

We are now communicating regularly with him. He wants to educate his children. At the moment, none goes to school. He also wants to set up an aid organisation to help other Syrian refugees in similar situations. At the moment, however, he is unable to open a bank account being a refugee. So it’s rather complicated. We have also been talking about maybe having to buy him a shop. If we just hand him all the money just like this, it will finally run out. I think it would be good to set up something that would provide a stable income.

-Abdul wants to return to Syria. So if you’d buy him a house in the Lebanese capital Beirut, would it fit him?

He definitely wants to go back to Syria. Naturally, we will take the decision together with him and see what he wishes to do. We want him to have options. Let him see what fits him best.

-So will he have the final say?

Sure. The people are giving to him. Many are asking if I should not do other things as well with the money, but I think this would be unfair towards the people who want to help this man. That would be backing off from what we promised as we set out. The good thing is that he [Abdul] himself wants to help others with this money.

-What did he do before arriving in Lebanon?

He worked at a chocolate factory in Syria, and before the war was living at Yarmouk refugee camp, Damascus [the largest unofficial Palestinian refugee camp in Syria – M. M.].

-Is he a Palestinian, actually?

Yes, but with Syrian citizenship.

-You take a great interest in the refugee crisis in Europe and Middle-East. But this is just one life you were able to save. What about the others?

We have been thinking about that, especially in light of the great media coverage. I work at a web development company. Me and the founder of the company have quite many ideas. We have been thinking of new radical ways of distributing the aid. And to have more involvement, making both receiving and granting the donations easier: that these would not go through the large non-profit associations but straight to the people. With all this media coverage, perhaps we can help more than one. We do not want to invest a totally new platform. Facebook, for instance, would be a good existing platform. One idea is for Facebook to have the option «add a friend in need». They could visit the refugee camps, add pictures and write the stories of these people. But this is just one idea.

-Dou you think this grassroots people-to-people is the very key to solve the refugee crisis?

I think it is one of several solutions. The governments have been rather passive, they are largely ignoring the crisis. Meanwhile, there are lots of people who care and want to help, but are unable to do it. So if we make it simple and fast, where a definite refugee or refugee camp can be helped, that would open up many options.

-How will you make sure your initiative will not become another non-profit organisation promising to help while mere 10–30 percent reaches those in need?

Technology will help, such as already exists actually. Like the platform Kiva – a loans based system allowing to send the money straight to the mobile phones of those in need.  

-Abdul was lucky, had his picture taken. How will you ensure the donations would not depend on one being in the right place at the right time?

We have not settled the details yet. But you could also support a refugee camp near you. Like when you live in Germany and know of a camp nearby, you could send the money to them. There are so many crowdfunding campaigns for computer games, for instance. They get millions of dollars and nobody says a thing. But now a refugee up and gets €150,000 dollars so why is this a problem?

-You’ve got negative feedback?

Yeah, sure! In comments to the Yahoo article they are saying he will be supporting the Islamic State and attacks against Americans. They say all kinds of crazy stuff.

-Have some contacted you personally? Like man why are you giving money to someone you don’t even know the background of?

Yeah, sure. But we did identify him before we initiated the campaign. A lady in a Lebanese aid organisation met him and his kids. She communicated with them and saw where they lived. She made sure Abdul was not some man who just stole somebody else’s child. We have received letters saying nice you did the campaign but now it has grown too big and is no longer responsible. They think that more people should partake of the money. I agree, but meanwhile there are lots of people who are not refugees yet receive much more money. Nobody says a thing about them.

-Perhaps they feel Abdul hasn’t done anything to deserve this?

Possibly. But on the one hand it is so wonderful to see so many people putting money together to help one person. This proves people can help and change lives. On the other hand, it is unfair. But, regrettably, this is what the world is like. It is almost impossible to help all. A greater mobilisation from governments would be needed, that they cut general costs of aid organisations.

-Must only money be donated? Could it not also be knowledge, skills, and things?

At the moment, it is only money as this is easier to send. I am alone, see, and would be unable to manage that. It’s simply wonderful what can be done by Internet and computers. You can connect people all over the world. I feel the world of the web has not been engaged enough in this crisis.

-Ironically, the very Iceland and Norway you are closely linked to do not stand out too much, lately, when it comes to helping refugees.

Very few governments are helping. At long last Germany is now openly accepting refugees. Which is good.

But this is no solution to bring them all here. We should deal with the roots of the problem.

I think this will become a national security issue for Europe, so something will definitely have to be done. But it does not look like Germany, France or UK are interested at all to intervene militarily. But it is needed, if we want to stop the refugee crisis.