5 Times Social Media Inspired Empathy for the Plight of Refugees

From Twitter hashtags to Facebook posts, we recount the most memorable aid efforts this year.

Syrian refugee Abdul Halim al-Attar, right, was photographed selling pens on the streets of Beirut and later received nearly $100,000 in crowdfunding for his family. (Photo: Gissur Simonarson/Twitter)

Dec 28, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Thousands of refugees have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe this year—a phenomenon that caught the attention of people around the world via Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts, and fund-raising campaigns in 2015.

Here, we recount five of the most memorable that moved us to empathize with refugees every step of the journey.

1. The Death of a Toddler

The image was impossible to ignore. The three-year-old boy in the red T-shirt lay lifeless, facedown in the sand after washing ashore on the Turkish coastline in early September. Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi (initially misidentified and better known on social media as Aylan) drowned in the Mediterranean along with his mother and brother when the family’s boat capsized on their way to the Greek island of Kos. The photos captured by a Turkish press photographer immediately garnered international attention—researchers from the University of Sheffield, Columbia University, and Google’s News Lab estimate that the image reached nearly 20 million people in just 12 hours.

But the horrific image did more than dominate newspaper headlines and Twitter feeds—it changed the way many people thought of the refugee crisis and elicited an outpouring of monetary support to international aid groups. Within two weeks of the photo’s appearance, the United States Fund for UNICEF reported a 636 percent surge in donations, and other charities reported similar upticks. The image also changed how we talk about the crisis. Its release correlated with a rise in the use of the word refugee rather than migrant, the Google News Lab report shows.

2. #BuyPens

Abdul Halim al-Attar was selling pens on the street in Beirut, his sleeping four-year-old daughter, Reem, draped over his shoulder, when a stranger photographed the image that would drastically change his life. After journalist Gissur Simonarson tweeted the photo from the popular Twitter account Conflict News, he become inundated with requests from people looking to help.

The resulting fund-raising campaign has garnered roughly $200,000—money that has allowed the refugee family to start over and build a new life in Beirut. Earlier this month, The Associated Press reported that al-Attar now runs three businesses—a bakery, a kebab shop, and a small restaurant—and employs 16 Syrian refugees.

3. The Scientist and His Family

Several years ago, bombs struck the home of a Syrian scientist, killing seven members of his family and nine others, leading him to flee to Turkey. The world learned of his plight via Humans of New York, the photo blog where his story went viral on Facebook this month. A campaign launched by actor Edward Norton on Crowdrise, the fund-raising platform he cofounded, took in more than $450,000 for the Syrian refugee and his family within a week.

“If we don’t welcome people like this into our communities and empower his dream of making an impact with his life, then we’re not the country we tell ourselves we are,” Norton wrote on the campaign page. The unnamed scientist and his remaining family planned to relocate to Troy, Michigan, at the time the photograph was taken, leading President Barack Obama to post on Facebook that “the great people of Michigan will embrace you.”


(1/7) “My parents were supportive of my education, but they didn’t direct me. My father was a farmer and my mother was...

Posted by Humans of New York on Tuesday, December 8, 2015

4. Kickstarters First Charity

The crowdfunding website Kickstarter has been used to successfully finance thousands of projects, from high-tech gadgets like video-game consoles to seemingly ordinary passions like potato salad. So when the Obama administration in October turned to American companies to create solutions for helping refugees, Kickstarter answered the call by partnering with the United Nations refugee agency for its first charity effort.

The Kickstarter campaign wasn’t traditional in a number of ways. There was no funding goal, backers could contribute as many times as they liked, and there were no awards or other incentives for donors, aside from the desire to provide food, water, shelter, and clothing to the more than half a million refugees who have fled their homes this year alone in search of better lives. The campaign raised more than $1 million from more than 16,000 people within the first 24 hours and $1.77 million total.

5. The Tweets That Exposed What Its Really Like to Resettle

A week after a series of terrorist attacks shook Paris, Republicans in the House of Representatives responded by passing a bill that would make it tougher for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to be admitted into the United States.

But the process of resettling into the United States as a refugee is already incredibly complex and well vetted. Perhaps nothing conveyed that better than a series of tweets fired off by Bosnian American writer Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura a day after the House passed the bill. Buljusmic-Kustura was 12 years old when her family arrived in the United States after fleeing war and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, she told Yahoo News. Her tweets helped shed light on the extensive system of checks and balances, from detailed interviews with a U.N. agency to the submission of documents such as birth certificates, report cards, passports, and even old utility bills. The messages were retweeted hundreds of times each and garnered an outpouring of support.