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2017-02-09 15:26:09
Crowdfunding Helps Rescue Refugees Upended by Travel Ban

Trapped in an airport terminal in Jordan by President Trump’s travel ban, Hanan Isweiri fretted that as a Libyan citizen she would not be able to return to her husband and three children in Colorado. She wondered if she could complete the doctorate she had worked toward for seven years. Most of all, she feared for her 1-year-old son, who was having an allergic reaction but was not permitted to leave the airport.

Just about the only thing she did not have to worry about — despite staying in airport hotels in Jordan and Turkey, and repeatedly booking and rebooking intercontinental flights in those chaotic early days — was money. Friends had set up a GoFundMe web page, raising $5,366 to help defray the significant costs she incurred as a result of the ban.

“Some friends do a fund-raising site for me, and I believe without this I would never make it,” said Ms. Isweiri, 41, who made it back to Colorado on Sunday, two days after a federal judge put a halt, for now, on the travel ban.

After Mr. Trump’s executive order, individual lawyers volunteered their time and expertise at airports around the country. Large organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, which had seen a boom in fund-raising after Mr. Trump’s election victory, have helped mount legal challenges.

But the financial dislocation for ordinary people like Ms. Isweiri, a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University who was in Libya for her father’s funeral when Mr. Trump signed off on the ban, was enormous. In dozens of cases, crowdfunding sites allowed friends, neighbors and complete strangers to fill the gap and cover the expenses that otherwise might have unwound the financial security of immigrants and residents affected by the ban.

Because of the decentralized nature of the campaigns, it is hard to say exactly how many have started since the change in immigration policy. But the largest crowdfunding site, GoFundMe, and a company it recently acquired, CrowdRise, have seen more than 50 new campaigns that have raised nearly $1.5 million related to the executive order, which halted travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days and barred Syrian refugees indefinitely. An appeals court in San Francisco is reviewing the order.

YouCaring, a smaller GoFundMe competitor, is also hosting several campaigns, including one that has raised nearly $7,000 for a Syrian woman who had been approved to resettle in Little Rock, Ark. A British site, CrowdJustice, sped up its opening in the United States after Mr. Trump’s executive order. The first American campaign on the site raised $36,000 to pay for the lawyers of two Yemeni brothers who were deported after arriving at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

In just the last few years, crowdfunding has increasingly become a regular part of the public response to humanitarian crises like floods, mass shootings or, in this case, the fallout from a presidential order.

GoFundMe has, on its own, helped attract more than $3.4 billion in donations from 30 million donors since it was founded in 2010 — more than what has been pledged on well-known crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, which focus more on helping entrepreneurs and artists.

“We are the social safety net for everyone who falls through the cracks,” said Rob Solomon, the chief executive of GoFundMe, which is based in Redwood City, just south of San Francisco. “No matter how great the NGOs and government agencies are, a lot of people will fall through the cracks.”

GoFundMe takes 5 percent of the funds raised for administrative fees and an additional 2.9 percent for credit card processing. It defends the fees by pointing to the costs involved in maintaining the site, and building systems for vetting potential fund-raising campaigns. YouCaring charges 3 percent for credit card processing.

These campaigns have been dogged by questions about whether they represent the most efficient way to get money to people in need of help. Existing charities have complained that crowdfunding has siphoned money to the saddest personal stories, as opposed to the established institutions that provide broad support after emergencies. The sites have also faced criticism over their level of oversight to ensure that money ends up where it is supposed to go.

Ethan Mollick, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied crowdfunding, said the individual nature of the campaigns could lower the level of accountability around spending.

When Eric Martinez and Jen Thorson, the founders of the company Modjoul, realized that their employee Nazanin Zinouri, a recent Ph.D. graduate of Clemson University, was trapped in her native Iran, they set up a GoFundMe page with a $30,000 goal to help get her back, and were met with criticism over what some users of the site perceived as a very high figure.

“You’ve already raised $12,000 in 2 mere days, what is that for?” a user, under the name Kimba Essence, asked in a post last week. “Where is the disclosure on what you are doing with $12,000?”

Mr. Martinez said that people were underestimating the costs — not just for all the international cellphone calls, printing bills for legal filings and the $3,200 for same-day flights from Tehran to Frankfurt to Boston, but also for an immigration lawyer to work on her case in what was expected to be a protracted legal battle. Also anticipated: months of car and rent payments while she waited without a job to get back into the country. (She made it back this past Sunday.)

“Everybody said too much money, so we lowered it” to $15,000, Mr. Martinez said. “The only negative about it is the trolls come on,” he added. “The uneducated, espousing their views, not knowing what it takes.”

But trolls can also spur fund-raising. After someone on Twitter told the actor and former White House employee Kal Penn, “You don’t belong in this country,” he went on CrowdRise and asked for $2,500 for the International Rescue Committee. He ended up raising over $800,000.

Lawyers in Dallas, who set up a “war room” at the local airport to help detained travelers, raised $34,000 to pay for the expenses associated with the operation. Another $25,000 was raised for a Yemeni girl separated from her family.

Mr. Mollick said the sites had been a promising new venue for fund-raising because they allow for a wider array of innovative approaches to emergencies, in ways that offer donors a more personal sense of investment.

“The crowd tends to select a greater variety of things, things that can be really good or really bad,” he said. “With expert money, you tend to get the same result every time.”