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Social Activist From Westport Creates Nonprofit To Help Syrian Refugees

Ken Bernhard tells the Westport Rotary Club about his new nonprofit The Syria Fund and about his trip last month to help refugees.
Ken Bernhard tells the Westport Rotary Club about his new nonprofit The Syria Fund and about his trip last month to help refugees. Photo Credit: Roy Fuchs

WESTPORT, Conn. — Westport attorney and social activist Ken Bernhard painted a bleak picture as he told the Westport Rotary Club on Tuesday about his recent trip to Jordan to provide assistance to Syrian refugee families.

“I would like to affirm that the situation is far worse than the news reports indicate,” Bernhard said in his speech.

Four years ago, before Syria’s civil war began, the country's population was 23 million. Since then, 220,000 people have been killed, 4 million have fled — mostly to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq — and 7.6 million are displaced internally, he said.

Bernhard’s story started with a May cocktail party conversation about the crisis with two young people who had studied in Damascus in 2012. Agreeing they should do something to help, Bernhard helped them establish The Syria Fund, a nonprofit to provide assistance to Syrian refugee families.

“I thought I would do most of the fundraising. Our goal was to raise $20,000," he said. "While I was beating up all my friends, my millennial associates raised a bit over half the $45,000 we received ... on this thing called Kickstarter, a social media site. … It’s a new world.”

The fund’s mission is to “restore dignity and enrich the lives of Syrian refugees and other vulnerable families by providing critically needed items and supporting small, well intended educational programs.”

Bernhard’s team went to Jordan in early October. “I never felt in any danger in the city,” he said. Syrian refugees enter Jordan through Camp Zaatari, a tent city of 2.5 square miles. It houses over 81,000 people, mostly “in squalor,” he said.

“Jordan is not welcoming the Syrians," he said of the situation. "They're being hospitable. They didn't want to make this a welcoming place, but they have no choice.”

Refugees who have the resources leave Jordan to join family members. Those who don’t are trapped “as the crisis just drags on,” he said. They find shelter wherever they can, in rooms with no heat and even in chicken coops.

Bernhard brought about $30,000 in cash on the trip. Though he was nervous, he preferred purchasing locally the essential personal and household items — shoes, blankets, coats and kitchen equipment, in addition to 1,500 large bags of powdered milk — they distributed to families living in the cities of Mafraq and Azraq.

They also helped to construct a community center schoolroom they plan to “fill with with books.” They also want to supply computers to help the children, many of whom have not been to school for a year or more, to resume their studies.

“There’s a sense that we’ve dumped this big problem on the Middle East and that we’re not stepping up," Bernhard said. "The case can be made that the West ought to give more aid. If not, it will come to our doorstep.”

He has a law office in Bridgeport and serves as the town attorney for Wilton and has previously served as town attorney for Weston and Westport.

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