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Palestinians Have Turned to Crowdfunding Platforms for Survival

Palestinians gather to receive food donated by a charity to break the fast on the second day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on March 12, 2024. Credit - Majdi Fathi—NurPhoto / Getty Images

In December, Tareq watched his entire life in Gaza get reduced to rubble. “The school I attended since first grade, the street I walked on daily, my neighborhood—they all collapsed into memory,” the 16-year-old tells TIME. With a sinking feeling, he realized that no immediate ceasefire would be brokered in the Israel-Hamas war, and the only way he could escape the horror was by evacuating Gaza. “I never imagined being forced to leave home, but it felt inevitable, like a cruel twist of fate,” he says.

U.N.-backed global monitors have issued warnings that “mass death is now imminent” in the besieged territory with acute food shortages exceeding famine levels. For most Palestinians like Tareq (who asked his last name be withheld for safety purposes), fleeing Gaza is seen as the only way to escape Israel’s bombardment, which has now entered into its fifth month.

But evacuation is not an easy or affordable feat. The only official way to cross the Rafah border, the sole crossing point between Egypt and the occupied territories, is with Israeli approval. The border is currently under an Egyptian-Israeli blockade, and evacuation is permitted only to foreign passport holders or seriously wounded patients.

Under a parallel, informal system, however, Palestinians can pay travel brokers in Egypt to get on a list of people approved for permits to leave. The fees for evacuation are often exorbitant sums ranging from $6,000 to $12,000 per person, and those looking to flee must also navigate scammers and misinformation with no guarantee of success, according to sources who spoke with TIME, as well as recent media reports.

As a result, more Palestinians have increasingly turned to online crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe or JustGiving. A GoFundMe spokesperson told TIME that the platform has seen more than 12,000 active fundraisers for Palestinians in Gaza launched since Oct. 7, collectively raising $77 million to date. In addition to evacuation efforts, these campaigns have also been launched to fund access to humanitarian relief such as medical care and food, particularly as funding to formal aid organizations like UNRWA has been cut in various countries.

Read More: U.N. Security Council Passes Gaza Ceasefire Resolution After U.S. Abstains for the First Time

That is how Tareq—who fled his home in November with his parents and three younger siblings after it was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes—found money for his family’s escape. After taking refuge in a U.N. shelter, he launched an online campaign on GoFundMe in December with a fundraising goal of $25,000—enough money to cover his entire family’s entrance fees to Egypt and temporary living expenses. A family friend in New Orleans helped set up the fundraiser; an aunt in Canada became the recipient for the donations to transfer the money to the family directly.

“Thank you very much for your generosity, solidarity, and kindness, your support is much appreciated and encouraged,” Tareq wrote on his fundraising page. “Your donation will make an essential impact on me and my family to live safely and have a better future.”

Crowdfunding for survival

Over the past two decades, online crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe and JustGiving have become vital sources for mutual aid and charity efforts to raise funds for everything ranging from medical emergencies and hunger relief to small business loans. In the Ukraine war, they have been essential in co-funding Ukraine’s defense campaign against Russia. “Ukrainians elevated crowdfunding’s significance to match the existential threat they face,” wrote Olga Boichak, a senior lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney.

Because the platform can only be used in 19 countries, however, many of the Gaza-related campaigns are set up in Europe or North America. While some campaigns, such as Tareq's, are led by friends and relatives who live abroad and want to help on the ground, others have been created by activists or as collaborations between charities who rally a well-established network of donors and friends on social media or via public appeals.

In every crowdfunding case, Palestinians will rely on contacts abroad to help set up the campaign and receive donations on their behalf. In return, the platform benefits from the campaigns by charging donors 30 cents per contribution and keeping 2.9% of the total donation. “As fundraising for Gaza increases, we will continue to dedicate more resources to helping people help each other,” the GoFundMe spokesperson told TIME.

Just before last Christmas, Mansour Shouman, a Palestinian-Canadian journalist based in Doha, started a crowdfunding campaign with a team to raise $1.2 million for urgent humanitarian needs like food, water, clothing, tents, and hygienic products. The 39-year-old has so far raised just over $1 million in donations toward the goal.

Shouman, who has over 300,000 followers on Instagram, says he began fundraising shortly after making videos about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. “A lot of people responded by asking how they could help,” he says. “So we started slowly creating a way in which people would donate through different means to support different projects in Gaza.”

Much of the money raised by Shouman’s fundraiser has been sent to local charities in Gaza, like the Palestinian Ethan Society for Community Development, who then purchase mattresses, tents, water, food, and redistribute the funds in the form of cash donations. Shouman says the focus has also shifted from the south to northern Gaza, where the famine has grown worse with each day. “We want to ensure that we can feed the starving population there,” he says.

In early February, a group of U.S.-based activists started a grassroots movement called Operation Olive Branch, or OOB, to help with the overwhelming number of crowdfunding requests from Palestinian families. So far, OOB has assisted close to 800 families to reach their fundraising goals.

“The families behind the fundraisers are experiencing acute starvation, illness, and trauma more extreme than any of us can imagine,” the group told TIME, adding that its role was to “center and amplify families’ direct aid requests by tapping the talents of a large and growing network of social media activists.”

But it adds that while fundraising platforms like GoFundMe have been “key to the autonomy and fundraising success of Gazan families” with the help of the diaspora who can act as beneficiaries to assist their affairs remotely, “having direct access to their donations would make a life-saving difference for these families.”

Challenges persist

Despite the rising popularity of crowdfunding as a means of aid, many campaigns remain underfunded. 24-year-old Noor Hammad was once a nutritionist in Deir al-Balah, but now, she is desperate to escape Gaza after her home was heavily bombarded and she gave birth to her daughter in Rafah in January. “I lost everything in this war,” she said in a WhatsApp message. “I need to leave because I have a baby now, I need money to buy food for her.” To help Hammad, a Sydney-based journalist set up a GoFundMe campaign earlier this month to raise $27,000, which will be sent to Hammad’s brother in Sweden. So far, the fundraiser has raised just $2,580.

Read More: Famine May Already Be Unfolding in Gaza, Experts Warn

Even when campaigns raise enough funds, other challenges in ensuring Gazans can access and receive the money persist, especially as Western governments have introduced sanctions against Hamas. As a result, GoFundMe and other crowdfunding platforms are now required to comply by asking organizers for extensive information about to whom, and where, the money is going. Any individuals or groups who don’t pass a test screening for money laundering or terrorist financing are likely to be put on government-run lists.

These processes have slowed aid efforts, according to a report by The Verge, which found that organizers and donors had been dealing with “heavy-handed moderation” and “inconsistent policies.” In response, GoFundMe issued a notice in March explaining how organizers could get around the extra red tape and avoid any delays, adding that it would comply with laws and regulations to “make the flow of funds from donors to beneficiaries as fast as possible.”

The means through which money is transferred to Gazans is also complicated. A few wire services like Western Union are still operating in the besieged territory, but for many, a more viable option is to have the money sent to someone outside Gaza who can withdraw the cash and travel to Egypt. There, the money is paid to brokers who facilitate evacuations.

In February, Tareq and his family raised $20,000 and were finally able to leave for Egypt, where they are currently seeking refuge. But now, the 16-year-old says he needs to find the money to relocate to Canada, where his family can apply for asylum. Above all, the 11th grader—who was months ago participating in international student competitions—hopes to re-enroll in school to complete his education. He plans to make a new GoFundMe campaign in the coming weeks to raise money for the cost of visa applications, flights, and other expenses.

“The GoFundMe really helped with the evacuation and I am full of hope for the future,” he says. “But the circumstances have led Gazans to crowdfund because they lost a lot, and they continue to lose a lot”.

Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com.