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How Refugees Organize – and Don’t – to Help Themselves

Political Science
January 23, 2015

According to conservative estimates, close to 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 3 million people have escaped to Syria’s immediate neighbors: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Another 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria.

Daniel Masterson (Political Science) studies how these refugees help one another to survive. His research has taken him to the Middle East for extended periods.           

A great deal of research has looked at how to address the needs of refugees. Less literature studies how refugees organize to support themselves. My research explores how Syrian refugee communities establish and sustain mutually supportive institutions,” he explains. His dissertation, “Organizing in Exile: Collective Action in Syrian Refugee Communities,” is advised by Ellen Lust, Elisabeth Wood, and Allan Dafoe.

In Lebanon in the spring of 2014, Daniel discovered that some groups of Syrian refugees were able to organize strong social institutions, while others were not.

I found that numerous Syrians have tried and failed to organize with other Syrians. Some were derailed by the fear and trauma prevalent in the refugee community. Some faced opposition from local actors,” Daniel says. Others, however, successfully created legal education programs focused on refugees’ rights and “social insurance collectives,” whose members contribute a fixed sum to a communal pot. The money is given every month either to a contributing family that is in particular need or according to an agreed-upon rotation.

Many of those who set out to mobilize were respected community figures with a drive to help others, but such social cachet was not sufficient to guarantee success.”

To help him further understand what succeeds and what doesn’t, he plans to spend the 2015-2016 academic year in Lebanon, gathering evidence from case studies of social institutions and personal histories from individuals.

Daniel has been learning Arabic for the past ten years. He has lived in Cairo, Damascus, Sana’a, and Beirut for more than three years. He recently studied literature, history, and dialects at the Institut français du Proche-Orient in Beirut, which was in Damascus until 2012, when civil unrest forced it to relocate.

What led Daniel, who was born and raised in a small town in Maine (population: 16,400; 95% white) to study refugees? After graduating from Bates College in 2006, he worked as a research assistant for Samantha Power, who was then writing Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World, her 2009 biography of career UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. Power, a former Harvard professor, is currently America’s ambassador to the UN.

Reading daily about Sergio’s committed work with refugees made an impression on me, motivating me to move to Syria in spring 2007 to find a job with the UN,” Daniel says. It took him several months, but eventually he secured a position at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). He began working in the registration department, recording Iraqis’ stories of why they fled their homeland. “Day after day, the stories were devastating,” he recalls. “I heard stories nearly daily about deliberate violence and cruelty. In college, I had studied war as a product of systemic and structural features, but at UNHCR I confronted a very personal side of war. I heard stories of threats, kidnapping, torture, and murder. These acts did not flow from nameless, faceless, economic and political causes. Instead, individual people committed these acts against other individuals. I began a process of inquiry, seeking to understand what I had seen and heard in Syria.”

After some months, he transferred to a position working on food distribution. “Most of my time was spent speaking with the Iraqis who requested, but did not qualify for, food by UN standards — my job was to say ‘no.’ Despite all the best intentions, the UN food program left many of the hungry without assistance.”

Daniel and three of his colleagues decided to launch their own effort to provide food for Iraqi refugees in areas of Syria that the UN didn’t service. They raised money in the US, partnered with a Syrian NGO they knew to be reputable, and created “A Plate for All.”

We had extremely low operating costs, converting almost 100% of donations into direct food aid,” he says. “In retrospect, it was a simple aid model based largely on our on-the-ground relationships and knowledge. I think it did some good.” But they were forced to abandon their food-distribution program as a result of the Syrian revolution and subsequent civil war. “In addition to the logistical challenges, the US government imposed extensive sanctions on Syria in fall 2011, which decisively stopped our operations in the country.”

In 2009, Daniel enrolled at Harvard’s Kennedy School, intent on a career working for NGOs and international organizations.

I was not expecting to be drawn to research, but a series of relationships and courses changed my goals – most notably, conversations and classes with Robert Bates and Tarek Masoud,” (Yale PhD 2008, Political Science). The intellectual excitement combined with Daniel’s personal experiences in the Middle East led him to focus on the refugees of Syria and what they might do to help themselves and their country.

It may take generations for Syria to recover from its ongoing war. In many places, bitter social rifts will remain where vibrant communities once existed. The chances to rebuild communities and institutions will depend in large part on what is happening outside Syria. Schools, mosques, city community groups, and local civic organizations all play critical roles in organizing people for political and social aims. These institutions provide the labor power, finances, and communication networks indispensable for organized action. My research explores how these forms of action protect refugees now, and how they may serve to rebuild communities in Syria in the future.”

Life is not only about work. In his spare time, Daniel has been learning to play the oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument that resembles a lute. He also sings and plays guitar, among other instruments. He also enjoys time spent with his partner, Amelia Reese Masterson (MPH 2013). Amelia was a fellow at Yale Law School’s Gruber Program for Global Justice and Women’s Rights last year (, and is now Research Adviser for Nutrition and Food Security at International Medical Corps. She splits her time between Washington DC and Beirut.