Rendered numb from the news of a devastating earthquake in his home country, it took just an hour before Tohid Najafi, a Detroit-based Iranian medical professional, launched a Facebook fundraiser.
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The quake, which struck along the Iran-Iraq border on Nov. 13, was the deadliest earthquake of 2017, killing at least 530 people and leaving about 7,500 injured and tens of thousands with no homes or infrastructure.
Relying on over 63,000 members of his “Persian Americans” Facebook group, Najafi set up the personal fundraiser “Raise to Support the Victims of Earthquake in Iran,” with a goal of raising $110,000 from Nov. 13 to Dec. 13.
“I didn’t know if I could reach the goal, but I knew what I had to worry about the most was how to send money to Iran once it was raised,” Najafi told ABC News.
Sanctions against Iran have made banking transactions with the country very tough, especially, as nongovernmental organization (NGO) activists say, upon natural crises. According to the U.S. Treasury, Americans are not authorized “to transfer financial donations directly to Iran or nongovernmental organizations in Iran.” But experts say anyone can apply for the licence that allows transactions.
The day after the earthquake, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., referred to the horrific earthquake in Iran on Twitter, saying, “I hope and expect that the United States will assist in disaster relief efforts for Iran as we did in 2003 and 2012.”
I hope and expect that the United States will assist in disaster relief efforts for Iran, as we did in 2003 and 2012. At a time of growing tension between our two countries, this would be an important act of friendship.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) November 13, 2017
The same day as the quake Najafi emailed the U.S. Treasury to apply for the required licence needed for doing transaction with Iran.
“I knew it would take time, but I hoped, regarding the situation, they would expedite my case,” he said.
The next morning he woke up to a surprise. His fundraiser had already raised $80,000 over about eight hours.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening, and at the same time I worried about the next step -- the transaction,” he said.
The response he got from the Treasury disappointed him.
Najafi was told he would need to receive approval for transactions by going through the process of getting a licence from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a much longer and arduous process.
“It can take months. ... It is harder if you are an individual without much previous involvement in such efforts,” said Richard Nephew, a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University, who formerly worked as Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State. Although Nephew confirmed consequences of the sanctions on the NGO activities, he said it is “proportional to the risks.”
The U.S. Treasury declined to comment on the specific licensing request, telling ABC News, “We encourage those who seek to assist with disaster recovery to donate through an established nongovernmental organization in order to ensure that they comply with OFAC regulations.”
Explaining the reason, the spokesperson added, “Elements within the government of Iran have a long track record of malign behavior, which includes a lack of transparency and inadequate controls on money laundering and terrorist financing.”
But identifying “established nongovernmental organizations” which comply with the OFAC is not something international donors would easily know how to do during breaking news.
“When there are a lot of doubts and suspicions involved, many may even give up donating,” said Milad Bakhshayesh, 27, an Iranian Ph.D student in economics at Columbia University, who made a donation via the Child Foundation on Facebook.
“It would be specifically tough for foreigners to trust and donate, with all the negative propaganda they hear about Iran.”
Speeding up donations
For Shiva Shahmohammadi, 28, speed should be the highest priority when it comes to donations after natural disasters.
“Fast donations can save lives,” she said.
Shahmohammadi is an Iranian journalism student at Illinois University, who moved to the U.S. last August.
“I still have my account inside Iran and used that to help,” she said. “But that would be a challenge for the international donors without a local account there.”
It was bittersweet when Najafi realized his fundraiser hit $200,000 on just the second day.
“It was great, but it was a huge responsibility, too, as donors wanted their money to be sent quickly,” he said.
Najafi reached out to Facebook for help -- but, to his surprise, Facebook shut down the fundraiser with no explanation.
“I was totally confused, shocked and disappointed,” Najafi said. “Some donors got angry. Some even thought I was a fraud.”
Najafi said his first impression was that Facebook shut down the fundraiser due to the sanctions. But the case had another turn.
As Facebook explained, the problem was money had to be raised for a nonprofit, while Najafi’s campaign had been a personal one.
Meanwhile, Najafi received messages from some NGOs active in the earthquake-hit zones in Iran telling him they could receive and send the money to Iran on behalf of his campaign. Moms Against Poverty was one of them. The San Francisco Bay area-based nonprofit is active in providing aid and infrastructure in many countries, and is one of the few NGOs that can transfer money to Iran.
But Najafi no longer had access to the fund -- it was with Facebook.
When Facebook wrote to Najafi on Nov. 16, asking him to discuss the case, he eagerly accepted.
While Facebook had to return the contributions back to the donors, based on its internal regulations and its security policies, the social network decided to make a donation of the same amount on behalf of the campaign.
“We refunded all donors and made a $200,000 donation to Dr. Tohid Najafi's nonprofit of choice ... to honor the amount and spirit of what the community intended with his fundraiser,” a Facebook spokesperson told ABC News.
Najafi was thrilled with the news.
“Finally I had some good news to tell my donors,” he said.
All he needed to do was to introduce a nonprofit to Facebook to receive the donation. Moms Against Poverty was the obvious choice.
“Despite all the bad news we were getting from people’s suffering in Iran,” said Delfarib Fanaie, cofounder of Moms Against Poverty. “Facebook’s measure was a heartwarming move.”