The man in the photo appeared to be on the edge of tears. With a little brunette girl sitting on one arm, her sleeping head slumped over his shoulder, he grimaced at the fistful of ballpoint pens that had become his lifeline.
Abdul Halim al-Attar, 33, fled the war in Syria more than three years ago, moving first to Egypt and then to Lebanon. His wife returned to the country just months after their departure, but al-Attar resisted; he didn’t want to go back to a place where he saw no future for their kids, a 9-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter.
Day after day, al-Attar relied on selling pens and other small items to support his family, peddling these modest wares to motorists. It was in this stance, on Beirut’s scorching summer streets, that a passing photographer snapped his photo.
At the time, al-Attar was receiving the equivalent of 36 dollars a month from the UN Refugee Agency and supplementing that with painstaking sales — enough for a rundown apartment and the bare necessities, but not to send his son to school.
Then came the photo.
Like so many popular Internet items, its provenance is unknown. What is clear, however, is that it resonated and was shared widely on social media after it surfaced this summer, gaining that ever-coveted “viral” status without its subject even becoming aware of it.
One of those eager sharers was Gissur Simonarson, a Norway-based developer who runs a website that monitors news events in conflict areas. Simonarson tweeted al-Attar’s photo from the site’s account, which has over 100,000 followers, and he immediately received responses from people who wanted to help.
The photo had compelled Simonarson to act because he is a young father himself.
“Seeing him there with his daughter,” he said in a phone interview with The Washington Post, “how hard it was to support her — it’s heartbreaking to see that.”
So Simonarson thought there might be a way to use his social media following for good. First, he verified through followers in Lebanon that the man in the photo really existed. Then, Simonarson launched an Indiegogo campaign with the goal of raising $5,000 for al-Attar.
That’s how much he received in the first 30 minutes. Within a couple of hours, the figure had increased to $15,000. By the end of the 15-day period set for the campaign, Simonarson had raised $188,685 from over 7,000 contributors who were moved by the photo of al-Attar and his daughter, Reem.
“In the beginning, [al-Attar] was overwhelmed,” Simonarson said. “He was very nervous, because people were approaching him on the streets and he didn’t know what was happening. Now he’s just very thankful.”
Simonarson and his team, which includes a Lebanon-based aid worker who served as a point of contact to al-Attar, were also worried that the refugee family’s safety would be compromised once people found out about the campaign’s success. They worked with the local UN Refugee Agency office to make sure he was not in danger.
The money al-Attar received from strangers — $191,000 in all after a few late contributions — has allowed him to leave the pens behind for more lucrative business prospects. Now he owns three different businesses on the same block: a bakery, a small restaurant and a kebab shop.
He and his children have also moved into a larger apartment, the Associated Press reports. It’s sparse and overlooks a noisy highway, but al-Attar is proud of his daughter’s new toys: plastic kitchenware, a miniature swing set and a plush bear.
Al-Attar’s son, who was out of school for three years, is now getting an education again.
“Not only did my life change, but also lives of my children and the lives of people in Syria whom I helped,” al-Attar told the AP. His businesses employ 16 Syrian refugees, and he has also given $25,000 of the donations to friends and family back home.
Complications with international money transfers, however, have prevented the total sum of the donations from reaching al-Attar.
Precluding related fees, al-Attar has received all of the donations that were made by credit card, about $90,000. But around $75,000 that was given through Paypal remains in limbo, as Paypal declines to operate in Lebanon. (The company has not publicly disclosed its rationale for prohibiting its service in certain countries, but Simonarson believes that in this case it is to prevent terrorist funding through Lebanon.)
While Simonarson and his team were able to transfer the Paypal funds to an account in Dubai from which it can be converted into credit, Paypal only allows users to withdraw $500 every month. Simonarson has been in touch with the website to explain the situation, but he said no resolution has thus far been reached.
The funds al-Attar has received already makes him luckier than most refugees in Lebanon, where 30 percent of the roughly 1.2 million registered Syrian migrants are unemployed, and 60 percent of the children are not in school. A 2014 assessment from the International Labour Organization found that Syrian refugees in Lebanon suffered from low wages and harsh working conditions at disproportionate rates.
Back in Syria, al-Attar lived in a Palestinian refugee camp and worked at a chocolate factory, according to the AP. Al-Attar is Palestinian and does not have Syrian citizenship, although he is from Syria.
Now he’s earning a steady income from his businesses selling fresh bread and shawarmas to local working class families. By his own admission, al-Attar has plenty of reasons to follow the directive on a bright piece of clothing he was photographed in last month, a T-shirt that read: “Stay positive.”
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