Stories of poverty and hardship are not uncommon for the millions of refugees around the world, particularly for the wave of refugees fleeing Syria. There are 1.3 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone and most of them struggle to find work.
In 2015, a photo of a Syrian refugee selling pens to passing motorists in the scorching heat while carrying his sleeping daughter over his shoulder went viral. The picture was taken on the streets of Beirut were more than a million refugees have fled to escape fighting in their cities.
Once a chocolate-maker at a sweets factory in Damascus, the single father, Abdul Halim al-Attar, struggled to find work in the Lebanese capital. It turned out that he could not find a full-time job since 2011 because of the civil war. Selling pens to students and professionals in downtown Beirut earned Abdul a couple of dollars a day at best.
His photo was widely shared on social media as an example of the plight that Syrian refugees face. Abdul’s facial expression in the picture was what got netizens the most – he looked desperate, on the verge of tears, as if those blue plastic pens were all he had in the world.
Gissur Simonarson, the founder of Conflict News, who first posted the picture on Twitter, was flooded with requests to help Abdul.
He had then launched a crowdfunding campaign called #BuyPens on Indiegogo which aimed to lift Abdul’s family out of poverty. Donations came flooding in, with more than 190,000 dollars donated from across the world.
Now, things have improved for the 33-year-old. Since the campaign, Abdul’s 9-year-old daughter returned to school after three years and his family moved from the one-bedroom flat they all shared to a two-bedroom apartment in an unfinished building overlooking the highway in southern Beirut.
Thanks also to the crowdfunding campaign, Abdul now owns three businesses and employs 16 other Syrian refugees. He opened a bakery, a kebab shop, and a small restaurant.
Now that he has settled into his new life, he feels like a real part of the community, rather than an outsider.
Not everyone’s story becomes viral but the success of the #BuyPens campaign shows the power of empathy to fuel an individual to change their own fortunes and improve their community.
The goal for the world is to give everyone the opportunities Abdul has had so that refugees can rebuild their lives and create thriving communities.