The pen-seller of Beirut

By Joel Gunter
BBC News

image captionThe image of Abdul trying to sell pens moved thousands of people to donate

It is a poignant image: a man on the street in Beirut, visibly distressed, with his daughter over his shoulder, holding out a handful of cheap pens for sale.

The man is Abdul Halim Attar, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk in Syria, and his daughter is called Reem. We know this because an Icelandic man, Gissur Simonarson, tracked him down.

Mr Simonarson, who helps run the news site Conflict News, saw the picture online and posted it on Twitter, and it struck a chord. He set out to find the pen seller and within half-an-hour, with some help from local journalists and activists in Lebanon, he identified him.

Then on Thursday Mr Simonarson started a Twitter account and an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, aiming to raise $5,000 (£3,200) in 15 days for Abdul and his daughter. He reached his target in just 30 minutes and at the time of writing the campaign had raised $60,752 in 22 hours. It shows no sign of slowing down.

"I am surprised that it got such an unbelievable amount of attention," he says. "It's all happened so fast it's difficult to recognise what's going on. The money is going to be huge, it's gone to a whole other level."

The UN estimates that Lebanon will be home to nearly 1.9 million Syrian refugees by the end of the year, all of them in dire need of support. There are more than 4 million Syrian refugees in all. But all of the money raised by this campaign, and it seems highly likely to pass the $100,000 mark, will go to one man.

"I've thought a lot about this," says Mr Simonarson. "But people have sent this money to go to this man, I feel like it would be wrong to say I'm going to take this chunk for here and this chunk for here."

He says he has also thought about how the funds should be transferred to Abdul.

"I don't know if giving him the cash up front is the best idea, I'm no expert in this," he says. "I've been thinking about setting up a fund instead, so he gets some sort of monthly allowance."

But he is unsure how exactly the fund would be run. He suggests a local activist in Lebanon who helped find Abdul could step in.

Mr Simonarson does not have any experience in fundraising or disbursing money to refugees - Indiegogo allows anyone to become a fundraiser and vast sums of money can pour in unexpectedly.

In June, a partly humorous campaign to crowdfund Greece's debt payment started by a Londoner raised nearly $2.2 million. And back in February, a beautician from Gateshead set up a funding page to raise £500 ($770) for an elderly man who was mugged. She eventually closed the fund after it topped £329,000 ($505,000).

Mr Simonarson concedes that at some point he would have to reconsider giving all the money to Abdul. "But I'm not sure what amount that is," he says, "$250,000, $500,000?"

"It's a kind of double edged sword, it's all happened so fast it's difficult to recognise what's going on." If it were to reach half a million, he says, it would be a good idea to direct some of it to related charities.

Stephen Hale, chief executive at fundraising charity Refugee Action, told the BBC that Mr Attar's story was a powerful one and "should inspire our leaders to match the public's generosity".

"We urgently need more safe and legal routes, including increased resettlement programmes, for people fleeing conflicts in countries like Syria. The powerful story of Abdul and his family remind us all of the human faces behind the tragic headlines," he said.

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees says the agency needs $5.5bn (£3.6bn) to help the millions Syrian refugees and the countries hosting them - but it has received less than a quarter of that amount.

For one man, the money raised by Mr Simonarson has the potential to change everything. When Mr Attar was told what had happened, he broke down in tears. He says he wants to use the money to put his two daughters through school and to help other Syrian refugees.

And Mr Simonarson wants to use the goodwill shown towards Abdul to raise money for others in the region's many refugee camps. "Sometimes you need a spark to ignite people's inner compassion and then take it further to help more people," he says.

But how easy is that without someone like Mr Attar for people on social media to connect to?

"It's a fair concern," he says. "Of course it's better to help more than just one person.

"But I think a lot of people just want to see someone's life change."