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AARP Purpose Prize Winner Georgette Bennett Skip to content

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Georgette Bennett

Founder, Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees

The impact of this work has been profound and life-transforming. I’ve seen Syrians and Israelis rise above politics, suspicion, and hatred to work together, laugh together, and encounter each other as human beings rather than stereotypes.”

En español | I started this work in 2013 at the age of 67, when I saw in Syria’s crisis not only as a chance to alleviate terrible human suffering but also to build bridges that could contribute to the future stability of the region. The Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees provides basic items that people need — food, medicine, medical care, clean water, and warm clothing. We have delivered more than $130 million of humanitarian aid directly into Syria.

The problem I’m trying to solve

We’re trying to do a number of things simultaneously — the priority of those things changes year to year depending on what’s happening. Basically, we provide humanitarian aid in parts of Syria that are hard to access or that are having difficulties because of the geopolitical situation, and we have raised funds for organizations that provide direct services on the ground. If you can’t resettle refugees, you have to provide aid in place — that’s what we’re doing now. In previous years, we advocated for increased refugee admissions to the U.S. and Europe and focused on countering misinformation and fear that were driving public policy. 

The moment that sparked my passion

When I read the International Rescue Committee’s report on the Syrian crisis, which was issued in January 2013, I was absolutely stunned by the magnitude of this crisis and particularly hit by the gender violence. At the time no one was paying attention to what was happening in Syria — the country was forgotten by the world. I could not get Leviticus 19:16 — “Thou shalt not stand by idly while the blood of your neighbor cries out from the earth”— out of my head. I felt compelled to take action.

Advice to those who want to make a difference

Start with a needs assessment and focus on what’s doable. Find an angle that differs from what others are doing in the space you’re working in because there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. You’ll be much more successful carving out your own niche than competing with other organizations.

My late husband, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, was a pioneer in inter-religious relations and a world-renowned human rights activist. When he died in 1992, he left me with a son who was born seven weeks later. I was inspired to build on the work that Marc had been doing so I founded the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. My experience has given me the tools to create nonprofit organizations that address pressing crises and alleviate human suffering.

Why my approach is unique

I’m a great believer in tackling crises by focusing on what is doable rather than on the totality of the problem. We work directly with trusted local non-government organizations, which means there are no commissions to pay and 100 percent of our goods go to the intended beneficiaries, rather than being diverted to store shelves or sold illegally. Also, we uniquely saw the potential of Israel, which shares a border with the four countries most impacted by the crisis, to be used as a staging area for the outbound delivery of international humanitarian aid. The fact that MFA is a multi-faith organization brings a great deal of moral authority to bear on this. It’s about harnessing the power of the collective.

When I knew we were having an impact

The impact of this work has been profound and life-transforming. I’ve seen Syrians and Israelis rise above politics, suspicion, and hatred to work together, laugh together, and encounter each other as human beings rather than stereotypes. Through humanitarian diplomacy and aid, we were able to contribute to the stability of the region.  

What’s next for the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees

Because the Golan Channel has been shut down, we have rerouted our deliveries to northeast and northwest Syria, going through Turkey and Iraq. We haven’t missed a beat. The destruction and shifting political and military landscapes in both areas have left a big gap in international relief, increasing the need for our expanded efforts to bring aid to a war-ravaged population. Many people in Syria have been blinded or vision-impaired in the course of this war. Over the next two years, we’re working on a plan to deliver cutting-edge special glasses from Israel that will enable those whose vision has been impaired in the war to see. We also have started a women’s relief program, providing supplies for the medical needs of women and children.