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3 ways you can donate to help Syrian refugees

A Syrian refugee in Lebanon.
A Syrian refugee in Lebanon.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As I've read grim headlines about the refugee crisis in Syria, I've wondered what I can do to help. As a nation, the most important thing we can do to help the refugees is to let more of them come to the United States. But as individuals, we can also provide financial resources to alleviate the suffering of people trapped in refugee camps or struggling to adjust to new lives far from the places they used to call home.

Ordinarily, smart donors look for charities with track records of providing high-quality and cost-effective services and deep ties to the communities they're serving. But in the chaos of the Syrian civil war, it's hard to find organizations that fit the bill — the war has ravaged civil society, and by definition no one was helping Syrian war refugees before the war began.

So as an international donor, your options are to give to large, global organizations with infrastructure that allows them to operate anywhere in the world — or to give to grassroots groups that have been founded (or dramatically expanded) in the wake of the war.

I already knew about big, well-regarded global organizations like the International Rescue Committee — and they're well worth supporting. But I wanted to find out if there were other, less well-known groups worthy of support. To find good options, I scoured the web for recommendations and talked to Manal Omar, an expert at the United States Institute for Peace. Here are three highly regarded organizations that are helping people displaced by the Syrian conflict.

Syria Relief and Development

When I asked Omar for her recommendations, Syria Relief and Development was the first group she mentioned. Founded by a father-daughter team of Syrian Americans, the group provides food, health care, education, and other services to refugees in Syria.

"One of my biggest concerns with larger groups is that by the time it gets to Syria it's passed through the hands of so many subcontractors that it doesn't get to the people who need the help in the way you imagine," Omar says. She argues that SRD is different.

"I've met with both founders. I know them," she says. And because both founders were born in Syria, she argues, they're well-positioned to monitor how the money is used and ensure that it reaches the people who need it.

The group is relatively small, having raised about $4 million in cash and $11 million in in-kind contributions in 2014.

Syrian American Medical Society Foundation

The Syrian American Medical Society is an association of Syrian-American medical professionals that long predated the Syrian civil war. But the group has dramatically accelerated its humanitarian efforts since the conflict began.

SAMS Foundation

The SAMS Foundation says it operates a network of 96 medical facilities all over Syria (and in nearby countries), providing services ranging from trauma care to dentistry, directly aiding more than 1 million Syrians in 2014.

The SAMS Foundation has been growing rapidly. It raised $11.7 million in cash contributions and grants in 2014, up from $1.8 million two years earlier. You can read the group's annual report here.

Mercy Corps

Omar says that among the big international groups aiding Syrian refugees, her favorite is Mercy Corps. Mercy Corps provides humanitarian services around the world, so your donation won't necessarily go to Syrian refugees specifically. However, the group says it "provided food, water, shelter, and clothing to 2.5 million people affected by the war in Syria" in 2014 — and, of course, refugees in other parts of the world need help too.

Omar likes Mercy Corps because it's sensitive to the ways providing relief to refugees can create tension with surrounding communities. For example, she said, "People will want to fund Christians who are a target of these conflicts. What happens is that as aid is increased, it makes them more of a target."

In other cases, aid groups may provide services to refugees in a country like Jordan or Lebanon while doing nothing to help equally poor non-refugees in the surrounding community. That can cause resentment and conflict between refugees and natives. Omar says that Mercy Corps — and Syria Relief and Development — are careful about avoiding these kinds of harmful dynamics.

Mercy Corps raised $383 million worldwide in 2014.