Three days have passed since a powerful earthquake hit western Iran, and despite the efforts of relief teams working on behalf the government, the Revolutionary Guards, the army and the Basij, people are still looking for their loved ones under the rubble. In many parts of the stricken area, people have no access to basic necessities. According to Iranian officials, more than 500 people have been killed and close to 8,000 have been injured.
Since the news broke, Iranians abroad have been looking for ways to help the people most badly affected by the quake and its aftermath.
On 9:48pm on Sunday, November 12, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake shook western Iran and northwest Iraq. Some villages in the western province Kermanshah, which sits on the border with Iraq, have been completely destroyed, and many towns have suffered a high number of casualties. In the 24 hours immediately after the quake, people in these areas were cut off from electricity, water, and gas supplies. Today, access to fuel and water is still very limited, with many homes still without electricity and gas. People are going hungry. Government agencies, relief organizations and groups of individuals are struggling to cope with the scale of the destruction and need. Relief workers have been unable to reach some of the villages most affected due to bad roads.
According to journalists and relief workers on the scene, there is a desperate need for medicine, blankets, warm clothing, heaters, milk powder and bottles for milk, women’s underwear and sanitary napkins. By day, survivors search frantically for their loved ones. By night, many people in this mountainous region have been forced to sleep out in the cold.
A Lack of Trust in Government Agencies
Meanwhile, the lack of trust in the government’s relief operations is mounting. People hardest hit are frustrated by how long it is taking for even the most basic necessities to arrive, and have complained of discrimination when it comes to the allocation of these goods and services.
Although government agencies including the Red Crescent have warned people not to travel to Kermanshah to try to help, many Iranians have set out for the region armed with donations and non-monetary contributions. And some relief workers on the scene say manpower is in desperately short supply for such a major disaster that people from other towns and provinces might be able to help.
Iranians abroad have expressed their frustration and desire to help. Some independent relief efforts have appealed for donations on social media sites, and many people have shared sensitive information such as bank details in an effort to help — leading to security concerns and worries that donations could go to groups not necessarily working to support quake survivors.
Although Iran’s Red Crescent is a member of the International Red Cross and the umbrella Red Crescent Movement and receives money from outside Iran as well as from inside the country, many Iranians abroad have a deep mistrust of any agency that comes under the supervision of the government.
On November 14, the US Department of the Treasury made an official announcement for those in the US who want to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people.
“In light of the tragic earthquake in Iran, we would like to highlight some of the ways in which Americans can provide humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people, consistent with the Iran-related sanctions administered by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC),” the announcement read.
And US Virtual Embassy Iran posted the following:
“General License E (GLE) [PDF], issued by OFAC in 2013, authorizes non-governmental organizations to export services to Iran in support of the provision of relief services related to natural disasters, the provision of donated health-related services, and the distribution of donated articles (such as food, clothing, and medicine) intended to be used to relieve human suffering in Iran.”
In addition, GLE authorizes transfers of up to $500,000 per 12-month period in support of these activities, subject to certain conditions Donations of food, clothing, and medicine, when intended to be used to relieve human suffering, are exempt from the sanctions on trade between the United States and Iran, as long as the donations are not being sent to the Government of Iran or any Iranian individual or entity on the List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons.”
The Iranian Red Crescent and other Iranian entities do not fall under sanctions. (Further information on Iran-related sanctions administered by OFAC, including specific guidance and FAQs, can be found on this site.) The Iranian Red Crescent Organization has listed the following accounts for people who want to make cash contributions in different currencies:
- Rial: Account # 99999 with Melli, Mellat, Saderat, Refah, Maskan, Dey, Tejarat, Sepah, Parsian, Shahr, Ayandeh, and Resalat banks.
- Euro: Account # 800300 with Bank Melli.
- Dollar: Account # 702070 with Bank Melli and account # 1404440 with Bank Mellat.
The Imam Ali Relief Society, an Iranian student NGO, published a set of account numbers for Iranians in North America but late on November 14, it asked donors to stop depositing funds in these accounts until further notice because the high volume of donations might lead to the accounts being blocked.
Iranians in Europe can make their donations through the European-Iranian Trade Bank AG (EIHB or Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank in German), which is located in Hamburg. It should be noted, however, that certain small amounts are not accepted due to the costs of transactions and taxes on money transfers.
Below is the information for this account:
A number journalists, human rights activists and well-known figures, some of whom are originally from Kermanshah, have started to collect donations and gained the trust of many Iranians outside the country. Among them is Nahid Husseini, a university professor in the UK who comes from Kermanshah; several of her relatives have been injured. Husseini says that a day on from posting her bank and PayPal account details on social networks, she collected close to £3,000 (close to US$4,000). Over the last two days she has used these contributions to send food and water to Sarpol-e Zahab, the hardest-hit town in the province.
Human rights activist and Kerman native Kaveh Kermanshahi has collected contributions from Iranians outside the country and sent them directly to relief workers. Since Monday, he has raised €2,000 ($US 2,345). “We really do it through personal connections,” he says. “People who trust me deposit their money in the bank account and I transfer it to Kermanshah. A friend has traveled to Kermanshah. I deposit the money into his German bank account and he hands over an equivalent amount to volunteers in Kermanshah.”
Some Iranians have successfully used social networks for fundraising. In just one case, a Facebook page succeeded in raising close to $100,000 from around 3,000 contributors.
Again, there are people who have raised doubts about these individual efforts to raise money. “I know more than 30 private groups and individuals inside and outside Iran who are collecting cash donations for the quake victims,” wrote Iranian journalist Arash Bahmani, who lives in Spain. “But who audits them?” Those who defend private efforts say there is no other option because of the government's record in the past.
Of course, many of the sites actively fundraising have encountered problems in the US because of sanctions. Khashayar Joneidi, a reporter for BBC Persian in Washington D.C., tweeted that under sanctions laws, some sites operating in the US have been shut down.
The Government’s Past Record
One of the reasons people, both inside and outside Iran, do not trust government agencies is because they have learned from past experience. In December 2003, one of the deadliest earthquakes in Iranian history hit the southern city of Bam, which had been a major tourist attraction up until then. The 6.6-magnitude quake killed more than 26,000 people and injured up to 30,000. Many people from both inside and outside of Iran sent contributions and donations, and yet many quake victims reported that they received little or no help. In one example, it was alleged that other countries donated well-equipped tents, but that they never made their way to the people who desperately needed them — though this report has not been confirmed. So, with the recent earthquake in Kermanshah and the ensuing relief efforts, many people prefer to trust individuals rather than the Islamic Republic and its official efforts.
In addition to cash contributions to individuals or to agencies such as the Red Crescent Organization, the Red Crescent has also called for people to donate to shelters and relief centers in the province. Despite these efforts, there are still many remote villages that have been buried beneath the rubble, and have yet to be recovered. It is likely that the number of casualties will continue to rise.