Refugee children, programs at risk as fundraising dollars run low: musician Tom Cochrane

Canadian musician Tom Cochrane has returned from Lebanon where he visited children and families living in refugee camps just as the UN marks World Refugee Day.

About half of those affected by the crisis in Syria are children, UN refugee agency says

Syrian refugee children receive gifts as volunteers entertain them inside a housing compound in Sidon, southern Lebanon, on June 12. The UN Refugee Agency marks World Refugee Day today. (Ali Hashisho/Reuters)

Tom Cochrane turns his phone around to give a glimpse of where he's sitting — the middle of Lebanon's farming heartland that's now home to settlements of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

A Syrian mother and her sons smile and wave from a group of shacks and tarps. They're among the ones who will be part of the upwards of 30,000 Syrians settled in Canada by the end of this year.

When Cochrane visited them this week, someone had been playing his classic song Life is a Highway.

It was a moment of connection during a visit that impressed upon the Canadian musician the importance of the West making enduring connections to all refugees, not just the ones who may settle in Canada or elsewhere one day.

After all, most just want to go home, he said.

"If there is going to be peace in our world, it's got to start with the kids and they have to know that the West cares and they have to know that we care," he told The Canadian Press.

Cochrane was in Lebanon to help draw attention to the issue; he's been working alongside World Vision for years, one of many celebrities who've long lent their star power to promoting humanitarian causes.

About half of those affected by the Syrian crisis are children. World Vision and others help fund education programs but the money is running out, putting the programs and the children they help at risk.

World Refugee Day

6 years ago
Duration 1:06
In 2015, 65 million people were displaced, sought asylum or became a refugee because of conflict.

In an interview with CBC News Network on Monday, Cochrane said he was moved by the stories he heard from 10-12 year-old refugee children he visited in "child-friendly areas" inside a refugee camp in Lebanon.

"It just allows them to be kids in the safety of these areas that are like classrooms and they learn the basics of schooling ... and they're going to lose the funding for some of those in a month and a half, two months, like this Canadian one we were in.

"It was a pretty overwhelming experience," Cochrane said. "They relay these stories with this passion and then they break down and cry.

"We're compassionate people, so we have to help them sustain themselves until they can get on their feet. Help them keep a sense of hope and dignity."

"Canadians are doing a great job. There is a certain amount of donor fatigue though."

The award-winning musician urged Canadians to give what they can to non-governmental organizations, even if it's just "a couple of dollars a month."

"They need that continued support," Cochrane said, adding that, "we can't turn our backs because the problem touches us all."

But much has changed since the days a single star-studded concert could raise millions in a matter of hours for relief, including the scope and size of the need.

An estimated 60 million people are now displaced by conflict and climate change, the highest number since the Second World War.

New fundraising awareness campaign

World Refugee Day on Monday provided an opportunity for one organization to try something new.

Months ago, the Humanitarian Coalition, representing five agencies, began reaching out to others to create a fundraising and awareness campaign using June 20 as an artificial deadline to attach some urgency to the need for people to help, taking a page from matching campaigns used by the federal government in recent years.

The cross-agency effort united behind a single website, worldrefugeeday.com, and then went on to get support from the private sector, everyone from media companies who agreed to run ads to PayPal, which agreed to waive its fees for every gift to the campaign. The Canadian Teachers Federation is promoting the campaign among its members and so is home store Rona.

One activity is the ability to "donate" via a YouTube message. People can videotape messages of support for refugees and then "donate" them to the campaign where they will be shared on Monday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already posted one of his own as part of a digital twist on the old radio telethon.

Trudeau said in a video statement posted on social media to mark World Refugee Day, that Canadians ought to reflect "on how lucky we are to live in a safe, open and prosperous country that is Canada."

"Let us use this day to strengthen our resolve and bolster our efforts. And let's continue to show the world that Canada is truly, the compassionate, generous country that we know it to be."

Over 27,500 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, when the Trudeau government was sworn into power, according to the most recent figures posted on the government's web site.

International assistance

"The old ways of doing things are inadequate. We need to do more and we need to differently," said Nicolas Moyer,  executive director of the Humanitarian Coalition.

"Fundamentally, the competitive fundraising model we've had for decades, it's going to have to cease."

The campaign was developed prior to the federal government's launch of a review of international assistance, but the challenge facing aid agencies and governments is being explored through that as well.

Iraqi children, who fled from Mosul because of Islamic State violence, pose for a photograph at a refugee camp in the Makhmour area near Mosul, Iraq, on June 15. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

In a time of scarce dollars and scattered attention, there needs to be more thought given to how aid can be both more efficient and more effective, said Kevin Dunbar, emergency director for CARE Canada, which is leading his agency's response to the review.

"At the moment there is a lot of focus, as rightly so, on deliverables, on outputs, on how much food have you distributed, how much cash have you distributed," he said.

"If we really want to change the world and change power dynamics, that means building civil society."

The review remains open for comments until the end of July. It's expected to produce a new focus for Canada's international aid policy by next year.

With files from CBC's Susana Mas