Social media finds Syrian refugee, provides dad a new start

Gissur Simonarson's photo of Abdul selling pens on the streets of Beirut as he cradled his sleeping daughter struck a chord with more than 6,000 of  Simonarson's Twitter followers.

Story highlights

  • Photo of man in Beirut selling pens on the street strikes a chord with social media users
  • They located the man, a Syrian refugee, and raised thousands of dollars for him

(CNN)It was almost another tragedy.

But with a boost from social media, an anonymous pen seller in Beirut, Lebanon became a Syrian refugee success story.
    When Gissur Simonarson, an activist from Oslo, Norway, posted a photo last week of a father selling pens on the streets of Beirut as he cradled his sleeping daughter, he struck a chord with more than 6,000 followers.
    "It's a terribly emotional picture," Simonarson told CNN. "You see the look in his face and just the way he holds the pens out, as if those pens are everything he has in the world."
    Within hours, requests poured in from around the world to help the merchant in the photo. But Simonarson did not know who the man was or who took the photograph.
    That's where social media came in, with the activists asking others to help Simonarson locate the anonymous pen seller with #BuyPens.
    After a two-day search and lots of help, Simonarson located Abdul. "Finally found him," the activist wrote on Twitter. "Been a lot of work, but it was worth it! Now lets help them!"
    The single father of two was overwhelmed to learn he was the subject of an international search. His 4-year-old daughter, seen sleeping in the photograph, was excited and asked to take a selfie with Carol Malouf, one of the activists who helped find the family.
    "Reem came to me, hugged me & asked to take a selfie," Malouf wrote on Twitter. "What a lovely lively child. A modest home full of love.
    The social media campaign immediately made good on its promise to help Abdul, who fled from his home in Yarmouk, one of the most beleaguered places in Syria.
    Simonarson set up a crowdfunding page urging users to collect $5,000 for the struggling family of three.
    Within just 30 minutes, the #BuyPens campign reached its goal.
    "I think that this campaign proves that humanity is not lost just yet =)," Simonarson tweeted to followers as he urged them to keep giving online.
    It was rare to see a success story growing out of the civil war in Syrian that has left at least 220,000 people dead and much of the country decimated.
    In 24 hours, nearly 3,000 people had raised more than $80,000.
    "When he (Abdul) heard the amount, he just broke down and started crying," Simonarson says, "He was so thankful and he kept saying thank you for all your generosity."
    Abdul says he can finally send his two children to school with the money. The 35-year-old, who once worked at a chocolate factory before war broke out in his native Syria, also says he wants to help other refugees with the donated money.
    He is one of 4 million registered refugees, many struggling to survive across Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
    "Thank you to everyone who put a smile on the face of Reem and her father," one social media user wrote in Arabic, "We have accomplished something with this case. Please look for more cases like this."