September 6, 2013
The Syria crisis has reached disastrous proportions and now over 2 million Syrians (half of whom are children) have been forced to flee their homes. Relief International has focused on protecting and assisting Syrian children and families since the start of the crisis.
Read these stories straight from the field and hearts of Syrian refugees. Hear firsthand what their hopes and challenges for the future are.
Above: Sabina,* a young woman with bullet on necklace. Sabina tells us, “When the days are hard, this reminds me of the life I left behind and I am able to push onward.”
On a silver chain around her neck, Sabina* wears a bullet that tore through her family’s house in Homs almost a year ago. She pulled it from the wall the night before her family left the house just after Eid last year. Sabina, a former chemistry student, her parents, two sisters, and five brothers traveled for a day until they reached the sprawling camp of Za’atari in Jordan — a place of little grace and increasing desperation. They left in a hurry, carrying few possessions but heavy with memories. “Home is best,” says Sabina. One brother stayed in Syria; the family doesn’t know when they will see him or their home again. They worry. Sabina has tried to cobble together a life in the uncertainty, seeking meaningful work and trying to continue her education. She says that the work she does with Relief International as a hygiene promoter gives her the satisfaction of knowing that she can help other people, other families, who fled the same conflict. She repeats how grateful she is to the Jordanian people and the Jordanian government, without whom her family would not be safe.
When Sabina holds the bullet around her neck, she says it reminds her of why she and her family had to run from Syria. “When the days are hard, this reminds me of the life I left behind and I am able to push onward.”
Above: Razan* tells us, “There is always hope. This must be the more powerful thing.”
Razan* is a busy woman. In Syria, she was a nurse and she also owned a small clothing boutique, as well as being a mother of four. Last year, she and her husband took her children, the six-year old twin boys, their five-year old brother, and the baby girl, just over a year and a half old, and fled the besieged city of Homs, fearing for their lives. Some of her family stayed in the city. “Some of my family in Homs are hostages or in prison there and I worry about them every day,” she says. She’s been able to talk with them regularly since coming to Jordan but continually fears for them in the ferocious fighting that has continued in Homs.
Now, living in Jordan, Razan spent two days in Za’atari refugee camp upon their arrival but promptly moved with her family to the city of Mafraq to try to find work and make a life for the children. “There are many challenges to overcome and living in the city is very difficult. We didn’t realize all the hardships we would face. My husband works, we have received a little help from our neighbors and small assistances from a local church, which has provided help with basic issues. It isn’t just non-food items or hygiene materials — they really care about us and have given us a good push to help get us moving forward,” she tells us.
She says that her, and the rest of the Syrian refugee community’s primary concern is for the education of the children, some of whom have missed up to two years of schooling due to the conflict. While there are other, more immediately pressing issues, Razan insists that the education of the children is the way to establish a future, a way to build hope.
Razan has found work with Relief International, which helps her support her family. It also gives her a sense of satisfaction and purpose. “RI is invested in this job- RI proved the community wrong- RI is not just here to take photos and leave.” She feels that she’s making a difference to her fellow Syrian refugees and takes pride in her work. “We [RI] have started to build strong friendships between Jordanians and Syrians in the communities…The structure of our teams being a combination of Jordanians and Syrians is not only a great way of relating to those we are able to provide assistance but is also a platform where peoples from two countries can come together to take this on.”
When Razan left Jordan she carried very little. At first, she insisted that the only thing she cared to take with her was the children. But finally, she remembered at the last minute, she was able to grab a miniature Quran; she says it gives her the strength and courage to face the future. Razan admits that life in Jordan isn’t easy but says, “There is always hope. This must be the more powerful thing. ”
Above: Rafeek* found work with RI — a turning point in his story. He has revived his love of learning and feels that he is earning an honest living and is able to pay for this own things, reclaiming his dignity.
Rafeek,* a 19-year-old originally from the area around Daraa in southern Syria, was studying in Damascus when the war cut him off from the future his education held. He is the youngest of three brothers, and the war brought fears for all three: his eldest brother defected from the Syrian Army, the middle brother was almost the age of military service. The family decided the young men would flee with their mother into Jordan. Once the brothers settled their mother into her tent in Za’atari, Rafeek and the next eldest brother returned to Syria, believing that the situation had stabilized enough for them to continue studying. But the situation became more volatile, not less, and again the brothers crossed back into Jordan, a necessary but devastating move.
“I used to see the world from the pages of a book, now there are no more books for me,” says Rafeek. He dreamed of a future he thought only education could bring. “My dreams stopped when I missed my baccalaureate exam,” he says.
Physically safe in the Za’atari camp, the young men found themselves adrift in a crowded camp with nothing to do. Rafeek couldn’t leave the camp as he lacked proper identification papers and conditions in the camp were worsening as more and more refugees fled the fighting. He remembers, “The camp was growing so quickly that that they couldn’t keep up with arrivals. The nights were very cold and we had no electricity or heaters. There were no schools, we couldn’t do anything and life was very bad, very difficult. Day after day, we just had to adapt.”
Rafeek found work with RI — a turning point in his story. The rest of his family was able to move out of the camp and to Amman, partially thanks to his contributions. Rafeek decided to stay behind in the camp to continue his work with RI; in his capacity with the program he’s revived his love of learning as part of RI’s education program. He lives with the team, and feels that he’s earning an honest living and is able to pay for this own things, reclaiming his dignity.
Rafeek fled with very few possessions and he recalls what he left behind, saying, “I have left my thoughts, my hopes, my dreams and my soul in Syria. I have left everything.” He insists that despite the bombs and the violence he will go back to Syria to find his dreams where he left them, to find himself, and to make a future.
Above: Mimar* tells us about the most precious item he left behind, a jacket. He says, “[It] Isn’t even a nice jacket. I think it cost me $3 when I picked it up second hand, but I love that jacket. I wish I could have saved [it]. It’s funny the things we obsess over when we have everything.”
Mimar* spent a significant amount of time in Jordan before the Syrian conflict began. He says he had a good job for 23 years, working as a tile-layer and trading across the border. He liked the job and traveled often. Two years ago he came for work: he hasn’t been back since. While he was in Jordan, the fighting near his hometown of Homs forced his family to leave and try to join him in Jordan. During the long journey, his family experienced extreme trauma —- and a miraculous story. When they arrived at the border Mimar’s family was rounded up with a larger group of about 40 Syrians waiting to cross into Jordan. They were literally 10 feet from the border and asked to “wait until it was safe to cross.” Unfortunately, it was a trap, and soldiers arrived and imprisoned them. During the chaos of the arrest, Mimar’s fifteen year-old son was pulled away from the group. There, in front of his mother and within a few meters of the elusive safety of the Jordanian border, a soldier shot him in the head. Mimar’s family spent three days in prison, not knowing their son’s fate but assuming the worst. However, the boy had been taken to a Syrian hospital and survived his wound. He was reunited with his family when they were released from prison, and carried across the border by his family to join his father in Jordan. He remains partially paralyzed but the family is overjoyed to be together, safe.
Unlike the other refugees interviewed, Mimar was already in Jordan when the crises began to escalate. When he came for business two years ago he thought he would only be in Jordan for a short time, so he didn’t bring anything special from his home. When asked, he says he would have brought his favorite old jacket. When his wife was coming to join him with the children, he asked her to bring it, but in all of the chaos, she forgot it in Syria. “[It] Isn’t even a nice jacket. I think it cost me $3 when I picked it up second hand, but I love that jacket. I wish I could have saved [it]. It’s funny the things we obsess over when we have everything.”
Eight months ago Aleemah,* 28, left Syria thinking she would only be in Jordan for a short amount of time. Her home was burned, all of her possessions destroyed. Now she carries her most important belongings — pictures of her family, her home, and legal certificates — on her smartphone.
Aleemah has been working as a teacher with Relief International for over a month, and she says that while she misses her parents and siblings, the staff has become a surrogate family. She says she is grateful to the RI family, not only for helping her fight her loneliness and anxiety for her family, but also because the work gives her strength and hope to help other Syrians who have lost their homes. While she carries the pictures in her phone, she repeats that she carries Syria in her heart.
Above: Syrian refugee children at one of RI’s education centers in Jordan.
Asim* carries no keepsakes from home and tells his story by talking of others. In Syria he taught English. Even after the war came, he didn’t want to leave. He helped three other families, his brother and sister and their children, to move through Damascus to Jordan. It was for them, his nieces and nephews, that he left Syria and joined his family in Za’atari. He says that the children of the camp are scared of the dark, scared of the bombs and mortars that they heard. “So many of the children here have been severely traumatized by what they have been exposed to and they need psychosocial support. They have nightmares from hearing the bombs and mortars through the night.”
Asim was able to leave the rough conditions in Za’atari and find a place in Mafraq. He was desperate for work and by happy accident found a place with Relief International. Stable with a place to live and an income, he turned his attention away from his own situation and back to the children. In the past, Asim taught adults but now he is dedicated to educating refugee children. He helps to prepare materials for English teachers in the education center who are trying to fill the gap left in the children’s education during the war, which for most is more than two years without formal schooling. Asim says the teachers live in tents here in the camp, adding, “We are trying to make a future for the children by offering them a good education. They are the future of Syria and without an education, there will be no future for these children or for the people of Syria — these children are the future of Syria.”
He finds the sparse, dry climate of northern Jordan a shock; he’s reminded of the fruit trees near his home and his last hope is to return to Syria. While he was still living in Syria, Asim tells us that his house was burned, almost a year ago along with everything inside. Everything was destroyed, leaving him with nothing as he fled his country. “The only thing I wish to do is visit my father’s grave. I haven’t been able to since before the revolution.” Asim’s parting comment is, “I hope I can help, I hope to give whatever support is necessary. These children may be the future makers, not future destroyers; we will do what we can to keep them safe.”
Take action and join Relief International’s efforts to help Syrian refugees. To find out how you can help and to donate, click here.
*Name has been changed.
June 16, 2013
Relief International’s Emergency Response Coordinator, Mary Ana McGlasson, shares a story of a Syrian father, Abu Salaam,* who she meet on her recent visit to Jordan.
Of the more than 500,000 Syrian refugees seeking safety in Jordan, more than 70 percent are living in what we call “the host community.” This means that regular Jordanian families open their homes or rent other non-traditional shelters or land to Syrian families so they can try to survive. Sometimes Relief International teams have found six or more families sharing a small two-bedroom apartment. Sometimes the families pay high rents for unfinished buildings (2-3 cement walls and an unfinished roof without water, plumbing, or electricity. Sometimes, our teams find families who have created their own spontaneous tented villages on the outskirts of town. This is the story of one such family.
Above: Abu Salaam’s grandchildren.
Mafraq is a small town not far from the Syrian border in Jordan. Until 2012, Mafraq was a sleepy border town, conservative by Jordanian standards, and a close-knit community of five to seven extended families. Over the past year, Mafraq has become one of the epicenters of the Syrian refugee crisis internationally, with the largest camp a few miles outside town, and untold numbers of Syrian families living hidden and huddled in storefronts, unfinished buildings, or in spontaneous tented settlements on their own.
As you are driving out of Mafraq, along the desert highway, sitting just behind an old gas station, you can see a small collection of uneven, handmade tents- first there were only three, then five, and so on. A few weeks later, when Relief International’s team stopped in for a regular visit, there were more than ten tents, a homemade outhouse, electrical connections, and a small communal kitchen.
Above: Abu Salaam’s family.
As we drive slowly down the very dusty path, dozens of children come out to greet us, soon followed by the mothers and fathers, and then the patriarch- Abu Salaam.* He is friendly, confident, and gracious, inviting us in for a cup of tea, thanking us each by name for our third visit in less than two weeks. I have an odd memory of the feeling I had when visiting my own grandfather- there is always a place for me at his table- there is always room for one more.
Above: Abu Salaam (far right) and RI field staff.
Abu Salaam* previously worked as a large-scale farmer on his family’s traditional lands near Hama. When the conflict began to escalate in February of 2012, Abu Salaam decided he needed to find a safer place for his large and ever-growing extended family. Abu Salaam has four grown sons and five grown daughters, each with their own families, ranging in size from three to ten children each.
They made the long journey from Hama to Jordan (around 150 miles) through many military checkpoints and countless risks in the winter of 2012, hoping for safety and a better life. What they found when they reached Jordan is that they had two options:
Struggle to survive on their own in Jordanian towns, unable to work and without basic services
Request to live inside the Za’atari Camp, now home to more than 120,000 refugees and the second largest refugee camp in the world
Abu Salaam chose to lead his family to Jordan, and he decided that fending for oneself was more dignified than teaching his family to take handouts inside a refugee camp where they would live an easier life in many ways with food and water rations, provided tents or trailers, easier access to free healthcare, and education for the younger children. For Abu Salaam, this was not an option.
“Teaching my children to beg and to hold out their hands is not the solution. At least here, I can teach them the values that make Syrians strong- the sense of family, the safety of living in community, and the way to work for survival.”
I asked Abu Salaam how he feels about the conditions:
“In Syria, I had a good life, because for generations my family worked the land. We had become quite well known in the region and were exporting to other countries. Now look at us- we live in conditions that are worse than animals in most countries.”
“We cannot work here due to the laws. So all we can do is beg or hold our hand out for assistance. People come and they ask a lot of questions, but no one ever returns with the things we say we need.”
Relief International has a project providing essential hygiene items like soap, laundry powder, diapers, baby clothing, and water storage devices for the most vulnerable families. In a perfect world, we could also provide the refrigerator they need to store the scarce food they are able to obtain in the scorching desert. In a perfect world, we could provide them with enough water to support the large family for one month so that the older children were not forced to go work on adjacent farms instead of enrolling in school.
Abu Salaam told me repeatedly, “You provide us with what we need to survive, but we will never forget the way you sit with us and hear our stories. This is the most important thing you bring to us. You remind us that we have not been forgotten.”
Above: One of Abu Salaam’s grandchildren excited to use the toothbrush provided in the hygiene kit his family received from RI.
Above: A RI hygiene education session with Abu Salaam’s family.
By the time of my last visit in May, Abu Salaam had welcomed several more of his children, recently arrived from behind the front lines, to join his mini-camp behind the gas station.
I asked him if he felt he made the right decision. His reply moved me and I will never forget it.
“Dignity and Honesty- they are always the better choice. If I fail to teach my children this, what kind of father am I?”
*Name has been changed.
To learn more about RI’s programs assisting Syrian refugee families in Jordan and Lebanon, please click here.
January 22, 2013
The Relief International team recently received this “note from the field” from a camp meeting in the Zam Zam Refugee Camp in Darfur, Sudan, where RI is helping women and families rebuild their livelihoods.
During a meeting of our staff and some members of the community in Zam Zam, the topic of the most important and basic needs of the people came up. This topic spurred a heated and passionate discussion among many of the women in Zam Zam. As they all sat in a circle, with enthusiasm, our staff member started jotting down notes as the women voiced their requests and their concerns about their community’s future.
Together, Relief International and the women of the Zam Zam Camp outlined these basic needs for us to take note of. Simply glancing at their needs, we are humbled.
Some of these basic requests are things that we take for granted as they are readily available to us here at home. Everyone in the world should have the right to these basic necessities. We share this list with you to highlight the resilience and strength of these women.
The note reads (translated from Arabic to the best of our capacity):
“In the name of God the Merciful”
“Demands of newly displaced people from the area of "immigrants" to the Zam Zam Camp”
“1 - Widening the narrow roads, at the time of fire, roads become dangerous
2 - Improving the level of health in the new camp
3 - Educating children and giving attention to adult literacy
4 - Building latrines in the new camp
5 - Building 5 [grain] mills and peeler (scaler)
6 - Providing building materials, blankets and tents
7 - Providing kitchen utensils and clothes”
8 - Providing groceries and food supplies due to the lack of firewood for cooking
9 - Provide generators for lighting the camp
10 - Providing drilling equipment
11 - Providing the basic essential needs of the people in their daily lives”
January 18, 2013
The Emergency Response Coordinator, Mary Ana McGlasson, reports from the field in the Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan, where Relief International is providing life-saving relief.
Syria. I don’t know why it grabbed my attention so quickly-with so many disasters and tragedies happening around the world simultaneously, why did this one weigh so heavily on my mind? In the wake of the Arab Spring, there were plenty of stories of triumph and tragedy, but somehow, I found this one occupying a lot of my quiet thoughts. In August, the total numbers of refugees went from a steady trickle to a full-blown population exodus, doubling the numbers of refugees fleeing regionally, and forcing countless Syrians to run for safety within the country’s borders. By September, it was widely believed that there was no safe place for civilians inside Syria.
In the photo above, Mary Ana and and a little girl she met while working in the Za’atari Camp.
In response to this rapid influx of refugees, I deployed to Jordan to assess the situation within the newly-built Za’atari Camp and urban communities of Jordan near the Syrian border. Despite working day and night with little sleep, I found myself with constant motivation, and an unexplainable connection to the 15-month old crisis. It felt so good to actually be doing something, instead of sitting by and watching what could be one of the greatest tragedies in recent history.
I have now spent most of the past several months on the ground here in Jordan. The refugees here are middle-class, primarily educated people. Until weeks or months ago, they had modern houses with cars, bathrooms, kitchens. Now they live in tents, in the cold and windy desert, with winter worsening every day. Many people have shoes that are worn through from a long and difficult journey and they have no winter clothes.
Each day, when I walk through the camp, I am always shocked by two things: the harsh conditions of the camp and the unwavering generosity and hospitality of the people living here. Despite living through incredible tragedy and violence, often losing more than a few family members along their treacherous journey, I was invited into countless homes and I drank literally dozens of cups of tea and coffee. Sitting and drinking tea and listening to stories of survival, while sharing a quiet moment of solidarity is certainly one of the most important things I can do with my time.
In many tents, mothers have fashioned small shrines with photos of sons, daughters, and husbands in the corner, and they share with me stories of separation or worse. They share openly about the things they have seen and experienced, and it is important for them to help me understand that just weeks or months ago, they were living in houses with bathrooms and nice kitchens. One woman, Hanna*, traveled to the camp without her husband, 8 months pregnant, and with four other children by her side. She explained to me that she finds it difficult every day to learn how to live without the support of her husband, and without running water, winter clothing, privacy, and a sense of safety. “I don’t know how to live like this- in Syria, I had a nice house, a car, and a big kitchen. Now I share a kitchen with 20 other families, and my children cry because they are cold at night.”
During the New Year, families took time to pause and be thankful, but always with the caveat that they hope in 2014 they will be celebrating again in Syria with reunited families. “Isha’allah,” or “God willing,” they say, with brave faces, choking back tears.
We can hope, together-we can all hope that the crisis is resolved and the Syrian people can return to their homes to rebuild and live peacefully. But in the meantime, Relief International is doing everything we can to reduce suffering and provide hope.
What would you do if you were traumatized, cold, and out of your element, in a foreign place, with only icy water to wash yourself? There are at least 3500 families (about 17,500 people) without sufficient hygiene items-soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, etc. Yet, you are not permitted to leave the camp to go to the normal market in the neighboring town, and while there is a substantial market growing up within the camp, the available cash to make purchases is extremely low, and the price of soap is relatively high (almost $5 per bar of soap, compared with an average daily wage of $10 per day for those few who can find paid work within the camp, which is probably less than 1 percent.)
All I can offer now is my own inexhaustible passion and labor for this cause, and a small bar of soap. They need shoes, socks, mittens, underwear…heaters, fuel, and hope.
To learn more about RI’s life-saving relief programs assisting Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, please click here.
*Name has been changed.
March, 30 2012
Today’s photo update from Relief International volunteer and Deputy Community Service Coordinator, Bashir Mohamed, reporting from the field:
This girl is grinding Sorghum as part of routine meal preparation. Her name is Sarina and she is nine years old. The baby she is carrying is one of her twin nephews, Younis.
Sarina’s family, including her father Bell, mother Saima, and twin nephews, Younis and Julliet, arrived in Doro four months ago. They had fled from Belila, which is located in the Blue Nile State of Sudan, because of the increasing violence and conflict in the community.
Sarina is grinding Sorghum in the picture below.
March 22, 2012
Today’s update from Relief International Volunteer and Deputy Community Service Coordinator, Bashir Mohamed, reporting from the field:
This photo was taken during one of my meetings with the Sheikh of Balila (Balila is a sub-section of the Doro refugee camp) as he signed a list of approved tent recipients. Sheikhs are local elders who serve as community and/or religious leaders, much like chiefs and tribal representatives.
The photo below shows the Sheikh of Balila busy looking over assessment documents which he is signing.
My meeting with the Sheikh of Balila is part of a process that Relief International engages in along with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to collaborate with sheikhs who are representatives of refugees. One of the things we collaborate on is informing the sheikhs of tent assessments and their corresponding criteria to be conducted in the camp. The purpose of these tent assessments is to find out how many families, many of whom are newly arrived refugees, are in need of shelter.
Relief International and UNHCR look to the sheikhs to give approval and advice to conduct aid assessments in their communities. Working closely with community leaders is important so that Relief International can learn about what families in camps like Doro need most.
Once we have completed the assessment and created a list of families who need shelter, we take this list of beneficiaries back to the sheikhs for verification and signature.
March 6, 2012
Relief International aid worker Tiare Cross reports from the Doro Refugee Camp. Here is her post from today and photo update.
Today in Doro Refugee Camp, children’s activities started. I came upon this mob of exuberant children in the camp jumping rope. There were only ten jump ropes for approximately 100 plus children, but they were enjoying themselves in groups taking turns with the rope.
The photo above shows all the excited children that showed up for children’s activities today.
It is great to see kids smiling and playing, especially after they have made a hard journey from Blue Nile State to the refugee camp in Doro. Daily life for kids is not easy, many of the boys fish during the day at the river, bringing home a much needed protein source for their families. The girls spend most of the day bringing water and cooking for their families, as well as looking after other children. School starts in April here in South Sudan, and we know that getting children back to school is a top priority for the refugee families.
Below is a photo of child refugees jumping rope at the Doro Refugee Camp where Relief International is working.