For them or for me?

My fingers hovered over the keyboard, impatiently waiting as my brain spun through a million excuses for adding the line to my resume. Yet it kept returning to the same thought: this feels wrong. My limited vocabulary couldn’t produce the perfect word for what exactly it was that I was doing, but I eventually settled on “feeling exploitative,” and shut my laptop. My resume would just have to wait a little longer, while I took some much-needed time to reflect.

Ever since the Syrian crisis had broken out, there was no shortage of activism in the Syrian-American community. New organizations, non-profits, and networks sprung up like desert flowers after a rain shower. Many of these new organizations were doing excellent work and were absolutely critical in the humanitarian and political realms of the conflict.

Nonetheless, too often I found myself walking a thin tightrope, between helping the Syrians across the ocean, and helping myself by using new leadership positions and organizations as a resume builder. Unfortunately, I had continued to grope along, unsure which side I was on, but assuming I was okay either way. It was all beneficial in the end, right?

I finally found balance when I came to the realization that no, it is not all beneficial. Not only was there the possibility that I was too focused on myself, but this very point, this insincere intention which had most likely led to this rapid and uncontrolled growth in the number of organizations is actually detrimental to aiding Syrians.

When the focus is split between helping Syrians and gaining the title of “CEO,” we lose sight of what Syrians actually need and what truly benefits them. For instance, do Syrians really need a new organization doing the same thing as another? Or would they rather have more resources in the first organization providing the service? The UN refugee branch, UNHCR, met only half of its funding appeal this year and had to cut services to many refugees. The UNHCR has its own set of problems, but it is also active in almost all camps and is the main provider of food assistance to thousands of refugees. I’m not saying every Syrian-American should only donate to the UNHCR, but there is power in being unified and pooling resources, rather than splitting them in too many directions.

Additionally, the rush in creating a new non-profit or organization might also mean that proper research beforehand is neglected, and then the organization is not built on a solid foundation. Or, whoever founds an organization may assign themselves an “important” role that they might not necessarily be qualified for. I often find that a sound business model, transparency, professionalism and other significant aspects of a successful organization can be lacking in Syrian-American organizations. This leads to poor functioning which then causes inefficacy and sometimes the misuse of funds, which even I myself am shamefully guilty of.

Of course, these issues are not reserved to just Syrian-American groups, but can be found in many other national non-profits as well. Again though, it’s a symptom of derailment of the true mission, not to mention the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), which research has found to be problematic in a variety of ways – another reason why Syrian-Americans should pause before embarking on the creation of a new one.

To be clear, this desire to own or be part of a new organization, club, non-profit or travel on a service trip is not always born of pure narcissism (although it sometimes is, which is arguably even more dangerous), but is more often a symptom of pride and the product of competition among Syrian-Americans as to who is doing the “most” for Syria, as judged by the titles and positions of power we hold. Interestingly, there are stories of Muslims during the Prophet Muhammad’s time who competed in generosity, but never for positions or titles (there is a valuable lesson within this, but not enough space in this post to go into it).

Even then though, this isn’t a conscious motivator and is rarely, if ever, the sole motivation: but that’s why the need for self-reflection is so dire. Having multiple motivators is natural, but again, it’s a very thin tightrope to walk if you aren’t continuously checking yourself. As the famous line goes, “With great power [to help], comes great responsibility.”

Even day-to-day activism (and not starting a whole new non-profit), can seem tricky to navigate. As a college student, I am deep into the resume-building process. So my brain is naturally traversing through questions like, “Is it exploitive if I include my activism on my resume?” “Am I ‘using’ the Syrian people and this crisis to further my career?” “If I do add it, what specific aspects should I and should I not write about?”

After much thought, I finally came to four sets of questions that help me decide whether my intentions with an organization or position are sincere, and if I should add the experience to my resume:

  1. Am I creating a space to elevate Syrian voices, or am I taking up space from them?
  2. If I am starting a new club or organization, is it born of a true need? Or is it born of a desire for my own org? If it is from a perceived need, what research have I done to back up this claim?
  3. How and why did I come to this position? Am I truly qualified for it and the best person to do the job? Is the position itself necessary or did I just create it for my resume?
  4. Am I benefiting from this in a personal manner, or am I taking advantage of this as a resume/qualification builder? If the latter, is this necessary? To help answer if it’s necessary, think: if I gained a skill from this experience that I don’t have on my resume already and is relevant to my career, then I should include it. If not, then this activism should be done solely for the Syrians (and God).

For Syrian-American organizations already in place, I suggest starting with the following questions. A warning though, these take a tremendous amount of honest self-reflection:

  • Is what my organization doing already done by another organization? Can I join with them and pool our resources? Why or why not?
  • How many of our employees are Syrians, and how many aren’t/are Syrian-Americans? (they should be at least equal). This goes along with the idea that we are attempting to empower and uplift the Syrians, rather than ourselves.
  • At speaking engagements, who is usually speaking? Are we bringing Syrians to tell their stories, or are we just giving ourselves a platform?
  • If we have an award ceremony, to whom are most of the awards going to? It is nice to recognize generous donors, but again, we don’t want to place too much of an emphasis on anyone other than the Syrians.
  • If I am a leader in an organization or non-profit, how and why did I get this role? Am I in it simply because I founded this organization? Am I truly qualified to be in this role?
  • Are we consistently reviewing our programs and sincerely asking Syrians for their feedback? If we are not actually getting our job done, we may need to change some things.

In the end, these questions can certainly help in reflecting on how much of our activism is self-serving or not, but I don’t claim them to be the perfect solution. I think to discover that, we’ll need to work together as a community.

My intention in writing this piece is to open up an honest dialogue on the exploitation of crises for personal gain and how this may be manifest (consciously or unconsciously) in the Syrian-American community. I want to be clear that this is not a condemnation of all Syrian-American activism or an attack on anyone or any org.


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