Posts tagged Relief International

Stories from Syrian Refugees and the Most Precious Item They Left Behind

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.

Relief International’s Social Enterprise Intern, Isabelle De Larclause, Reports from the Field in Ghana

July 17, 2013


Isabelle updates us on her latest adventures as a Relief International intern in Ghana. Isabelle works directly with the retailers and producers of the Gyapa fuel-efficient cookstove, developed by Gyapa Enteprises to reduce charcoal consumption by up to 50 percent and dramatically reduce household air pollution, one of the largest risks of disease in developing countries. 


My big assignment has been ‘mapping’ retailers and producers in Ghana by taking photos and tagging them using the GPS function of my camera. I spent the first couple of days in the office getting to grips with the GPS function on my camera and how I could use it in order to create the network map of Gyapa cookstoves.



A Gyapa cookstove retailer in Ghana.


We went to Makola and Madina Market where we met various retailers of Gyapa cookstoves. This was my first experience of a Ghanaian market, having spent the last four and bit years living in Brighton, England with their famous South Lanes, I was fairly accustomed to narrow, weaving alleys and walkways, but Makola and Madina Market are on another level. With stock towering over you I’m not sure if someone with claustrophobia would be able to cope. For me, however, it was a great experience.



Evelyn sells Gyapa cookstoves in the Makola Market.


In Makola Market we met two wonderful retailers, Susie and Evelyn, and both gave fantastic interviews. After finishing the interviews with both Susie and Evelyn, we went across the city to Madina Market where we interviewed two further retailers and a commercial user. It was great to hear people say such positive things about Gyapa cookstoves. We finished the day by going to visit two end users of Gyapa and got interviews with them. It was great to hear opinions of Gyapa from end users, which are not affiliated with the manufacturing and production scheme. One of them gave such an amazing testimonial, we couldn’t quite believe it: “Gyapa is the best for every household.”


On Friday we took the two hour journey to Winneba, which is to the west of Accra, to visit Ekem. Ekem produces the clay liners, and this is what makes Gyapa so fuel efficient, as it retains the heat so users do not have to use as much charcoal. It was really interesting to hear what Ekem had to say, as he has worked with Gyapa Enterprises for ten years and so has been there right from the beginning. He described in great detail the processes behind making the clay liners, which is a critical part of the Gyapa cookstove.



Ekem, a Gyapa ceramicist in Winneba, at work producing clay liners for the Gyapa cookstove.


I also used this opportunity to gather GPS points. The aim is to plot where all the producers and retailers are, and the aim to plot all the retailers and producers so we can see the distribution of the stoves. It is a great way for everyone to see the impact the program has had, and is embedded into our website, so that everyone can see the faces of Gyapa!


It’s been a great time here in Ghana. I’ve had some great experiences meeting the various people that are a part of the Gyapa network. I am looking forward to more visits to retailers and producers, because it is these amazing people that make the Gyapa cookstove network so great.




See Issabelle’s GPS Google map project here.

Relief International’s Emergency Response Associate, Cody Garren, Reports From the Field in Jordan

July 8, 2013


Cody Garren recently paid a follow-up visit to Abu Salaam,* a Syrian father of eight whose family was forced to flee their home. Abu Salaam demonstrates an unwavering sense of resilience, strength and hope despite all the challenges his family has faced.



Above: Cody with the children of Abu Salaam’s extended family.


It is July in north Jordan, not far from the Syrian border. We have just left the town of Mafraq for another visit with one of the Syrian families living within the host community on the out skirts of town. You can see the tents as the car turns off of the highway and down the sun baked road as the hot desert wind carries a seemingly unending barrage of sand and dirt across our path. There is a small handful of children playing among the tents and keeping a tribe of goats from wondering too far off as we park the car.  As we get out of the car, two children slowly approach but keep their distance as one of the adults in the settlement comes to greet us.


His name is Abu Baydin* and he invites us into his tent where we sit down for a cup of coffee.  Abu Baydin arrived here in Jordan with his wife and children in February of 2012. Through our discussion, we learn that he and his family followed his brother to north Jordan, where the spent the first four months sharing a prohibitively expensive apartment with other members of his extended family. After the forth month of living in the apartment, the prohibitively expensive rent forced the family group to seek shelter elsewhere.  It was at this time that the first tents were erected in what has now become a small family based community. As the summer pushes further into July and the heat continues to rise, access to water continues to be a growing problem. At roughly 20 Jordanian Dinars a day (almost 30 dollars) to provide water for the settlement, it is still an ongoing struggle to provide drinking water let alone water to bathe and keep clean the forty-some children that inhabit this settlement.



Above: One of the grandchildren of Abu Salaam’s extended family.


“As you can see, it is very difficult to keep the children clean; especially with the dust and the dirt that the summer wind constantly carries. We could clean them every two hours, if we had the water, and still have a difficult time keeping them clean,” says Abu Baydin.


It was at this point that Abu Salaam* arrived back at the settlement to meet with us. His posture as he greets us strong and proud although the stress and tension is apparent in the muscles of his face. He removes his hat as he invites us into his tent, dislodging dust and dirt from what has already been a long day of labor for him.


Abu Salaam begins by telling us of how he and his family made their way from Homs to Jordan. Abu Salaam arranged for passports for each of his family members so they could make the trip legally from Syria to Jordan. There was no figure given but he expresses that the total was very expensive. It took them ten days from the issue of passports to their arrival in Jordan, leaving behind their home, their car, the family run business that had supported Abu Salaam’s family very well for over ten years and the lush, green community they had called home. He comments that the family business, handmade wool goods, foods, honey, olives, aborigine and other foods preserved in olive oil that could be stored for long periods of time, was successful and able to provide a very good life for him and his family. When Abu Salaam was asked if he expects to return to Syria in the future, his initial response is simple but carries a lot of weight.


“We have nothing to go back to. Our shop is no longer, our car has been burned our home, along with seven others belonging to brothers and cousins, have all been plowed over by bulldozers to create an area for the Army to set up their tents.”



Above: One of the tents that the members of Abu Salaam’s family live in.


Following this remark, the question of difficulties he foresees in keeping his family here in Jordan is put forward.  There were two statements which did not take more than a moment to leave Abu Salaam’s lips; the first was the education of the children in the settlement.


‘’The most important thing is our children’s education. We want them to have access to an education that can provide the chance for a future but the current school system here is too crowded and there is no room for Syrian children to join classes.”


The second was the ability to find enough work to support the families. Right now it is forbidden Syrians to work in Jordan and when Syrians are able to find work under the table, they can only expect to earn 40 percent of the normal wage. If they are caught doing labor, they will only bring investigations and possibly time in prison into an already difficult situation for the families.


“It is a danger to work here. We have to remain hidden to maintain the security of our families and our livelihoods.”




As Relief International has watched this settlement grow over the months and with the continued struggle to provide water and food to what has seemed an ever expanding site, Abu Salaam is asked if he expects any future arrivals. He tells us that it is not possible for new arrivals here because there is no more family to join this community.


With this family centered tent community looking to dig in their heels and fight to survive here in North Jordan the subject of Ramadan, which is right around the corner, is brought up. For the briefest of moments, Abu Salaam seems lost in recollection before he tells us that he will not want to speak of Syrian Ramadan. The atmosphere of Ramadan is completely different in Syria, everything is hand made in Syria, and the food is fresh where here in Jordan, everything is processed.


“The food, the culture, the people; it was the perfect expression of what Ramadan is. Syria was well known for the way it celebrated Ramadan and, in the past, it was very common for Jordanians to travel to Syria to experience that. I don’t know what it will be like this year but we will make do with what we have.”


He tells us that there is a saying here in the Middle East- “Your eyes can see it but your eyes cannot touch it”. He will make arrangements to avoid the markets, to avoid seeing what he will not be able to touch or provide for his family.


His only response regarding Iftar is: “We will make this a good Fast and we will be satisfied with Iftar even if it is very simple. This is our destiny, even if what we have is very little.”


When asked if he believes he has made the right decision in bringing his family to Jordan, he does not hesitate in his response.


“We traveled for security. We don’t think about what will happen here-we don’t care about the atmosphere. We came from a place where women and children are killed. It was not a choice to travel here, not a decision, it was a need.”


He urges the world to take Syria as an example of what demonstrations and talk of freedom without patience and thoughts of security and safety. Here in Jordan, it is very secure, but the rush to demonstrations can lead to death and destruction for so many.



Above: Abu Salaam’s grandson and Cody.


“We need people with sympathy, who understand the problems we deal with every day. People who understand that even small help will go so far here.”


As this visit draws to a close, Abu Salaam makes the comment of titling their story “A Stricken Family”, as he speaks of hope.  Saying that hope has to be practical and based on something that is real.


“Someone must speak to us and feel with us in order to help us. Many NGOs have built hopes for a future but none have come through, nothing has backed the promises of money or materials or water. Relief International has been the only one that continues to visit us as well as provide our families with assistance. RI has been the only NGO to give us hope- practical hope.”




*Names have been changed.


Join us and give Syrian families hope for a brighter future, donate here. 

A “Note From the Field” From Madina in Afghanistan

June 27, 2013


Meet Madina. Our field team in Afghanistan recently shared her story. We couldn’t help but be inspired by her resilience and motivation despite all the challenges she has faced. Read her story and learn how her life improved after she received a loan from her community’s ‘Sanduk’ (savings box) established through RI’s program.


Madina’s story:


“I am Madina, 35, and I live in the Chakhansoor District. My family left Iran and moved to Afghanistan around 30 years ago, at that time I was five or six years old.”


 “At first I did not ask for money from the community savings box, but I changed my mind and I took the decision to ask for a loan from community savings box. I went to our Community Development Council (CDC) and asked to borrow money. The CDC savings box cashier told me they did not have enough money now because of the other loans, but they would ask the community members to contribute to the box and that two of their borrowers will start to repay as well. So after two weeks, the CDC chairperson sent a message to tell me that they have money to lend me. I borrowed 3,700 Afghani Notes (about 74 USD) and I agreed to pay back the amount in five installments during five months.”



Above: Madina and her family.


“I purchased Baluchi embroidery materials and three chickens. Now, the embroidery income is getting better. I also gather hen’s eggs and have hatched new chickens - I have 16 now. My daughters are also attending school with the other children in the village. I was able to receive a National ID card for myself and my children from Chakansoor District with the help of the CDC who had succeeded to establish an office for ID cards locally so we don’t have to spend money to travel to the provincial capital.”


“I would like to thank our CDC members and those who helped us in this hard situation. Our CDC members are very supportive and sympathetic; they are also honorable and respected in the community and they have understanding of how we can get the assistance we need.”


Relief International’s program strengthens links between the Afghan people and their local governments. This includes assisting local village governing bodies called Community Development Councils (CDCs). Through savings boxes established by CDCs, women such as Madina are given the opportunity to obtain loans to rebuild their livelihoods and sources of income. To learn more, please click here.


The Government Transparency Fund is funded by the UK government.

A “Note From the Field” From Omid in Afghanistan

June 25, 2013

Our field team in Afghanistan recently shared the story of Omid, 12, a boy from Afghanistan who always dreamed of going to school. With help from his village’s Community Development Council (CDC), strengthened through the assistance of RI, Omid was finally able to attend school.



Above: Omid and his father.


Omid’s story:


“My name is Omid, I am 12 years old and live in Haji Shah Jan village in Kang District, in Nimroz Province. When I came back (to Afghanistan from Iran) and I saw the school in our village, I started crying and asked my parents to enroll me in the school. My mother convinced my father, she knew it was my dream. My father agreed and the day after he and I went to meet the head of the school.”


“The principal told us that because I was disabled and in a wheelchair, it would not be possible to enroll me in his school. He said they don’t register disabled children because it would be very complicated for both teachers and students, and said I didn’t need to study because I was paraplegic.  My father and I insisted but the head of school refused. I cried a lot, first in front of the teachers and the principle and then on the way back home.”


“A year later, the members of our Community Development Council (CDC) asked the community members to attend a consultation meeting where the majority of the community was. The chairman encouraged the attendants to register their children in school. My father raised my case, saying he tried to enroll me in school but that the head of the school refused because I was disabled. The CDC said they just got trainings about disability from Relief International and that they learnt a lot about the rights of people living with disabilities, and that one of them is the right for education. He asked my father to be ready with me for the next morning, that he will go with us to visit the school.”


“The next morning, the chairman and deputy chairman of our CDC came, along with three other elders from our village. We all went together to the school and met the principal. He told us the number of students increased a lot, and because I was disabled it would cause a lot of problems for the teachers, that I would bother them and other students. Our community members argued rationally with the head of school, telling him what the rights of disabled persons were, the international agreements Afghanistan signed, and the duties of the government. They finally convinced him to accept me, as well as to enroll my young brother who is now helping me at the same time.”


Omid’s father tells local Relief International staff that Omid is happier since he has been attending school. The teachers and the principal have praised him for his hard work and Omid has become a role model to his peers and the community. Omid’s father is really thankful to his community and the CDC of his village for the support in helping his son realize his dream.


Relief International’s program strengthens the links between the Afghan people and their local governments (such as Community Development Councils CDCs ). Through our program, we have facilitated dialogues and training on the rights of disabled persons that has resulted in the founding of a disabled network in the Nimroz province and in government assistance to the disabled through hospital vouchers. To learn more about Relief International’s program, please click here.


The Government Transparency Fund is funded by the UK government.

Relief International’s Emergency Response Coordinator, Mary Ana McGlasson, Reports from the Field in Jordan

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?”


Mary Ana


*Name has been changed.


To learn more about RI’s programs assisting Syrian refugee families in Jordan and Lebanon, please click here.

Relief International’s Social Enterprise Intern, Isabelle Savin De Larclause, Reports from the Field in Ghana

June 14, 2013


Relief International’s Social Enterprise intern, Isabelle Savin De Larclause, reports from the field in Ghana where she is working with Gyapa Enterprises, a social enterprise initiative of Relief International. Isabelle offers an intimate look into the lives of the local Gyapa fuel-efficient cookstove manufacturers who are central to Relief International’s project.


I have been in Ghana so far for around three months, working with the Relief International social enterprise project, Gyapa Enterprises. The central product to the Gyapa Enterprises initiative is the Gyapa fuel-efficient cookstove. Gyapa Enterprises launched in 2002 with its Gyapa fuel-efficient cookstove, which reduces our customer’s charcoal consumption by up to 50 percent. This not only saves money but dramatically reduces household air pollution, one of the largest risks of disease in developing counties. 


I have managed to visit most production sites around Ghana, and a lot of our retailers. A lot of exciting things have happened whilst I have been here, so it has been a great time to be involved in the project.



Above: Kwame making a Gyapa liner on his potter’s wheel.



Above: A Gyapa liner being formed.


One of the great things I love about the work that happens here in the Ghana is how we support local livelihoods. Through visiting producers of the Gyapa cookstove I have learnt about the different ways Relief International has supported them and helped to expand their business. When I went to Kumasi in the Ashanti Region, I visited Kwame, a ceramist. Through loans and grants, Kwame has been able to grow his production. A significant investment into Kwame’s business allowed him to become connected to electricity, which in turn doubled his monthly output.



Above: Ben, a site leader at a new metal manufacturing site in Sunyani that produces Gyapa cookstoves.



Above: The Sunyani manufacturing site. We have provided loans and grants to develop their site to become the centre of the Brong-Ahafo region’s Gyapa network. This has allowed for a new structure to be built which will allow for many workers to make the metal liners of our fuel- efficient Gyapa cookstove.


While I was in Kumasi, we also visited Ben in Sunyani, who will be our site leader at a new metal manufacturing site. Currently, we are closely working with a team of metal artisans in Sunyani located in the Brong-Ahafo region of Ghana. We are supporting their growth to become a leading production site of our Gyapa cookstoves. We have provided loans and grants to develop their site to become the centre of the Brong-Ahafo region’s Gyapa network. This has allowed for a new structure to be built which will allow for many workers to make the metal liners of our fuel efficient cookstove.





Above: Isabelle with local Relief International staff in Ghana.


To learn more about the Gyapa fuel-efficient cookstove and our Gyapa Enterprise initiative, please click here.

Relief International’s Peace Corps Volunteer, Monica Jeannormil, Reflects on Her Experience with the Ghana Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Project

June 7, 2013


Monica Jeannormil reflects on her yearlong experience working with Relief International’s Ghana Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Project (GWASH), a USAID-financed initiative that improves community rural health through the provision of physical facilities, behavior change communications, and capacity building at the household, community, school, local government and local NGO levels.


For the past year, I have served as one of seven Peace Corps volunteers seconded to the Ghana WASH Project though a partnership between Peace Corps Ghana and the U.S. Agency for International Development. I initially began my Peace Corps Service as a Development Advisor in Segou, Mali, but in April 2012, due to a coup d’état, myself and over 200 hundred Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated to Ghana.



Above: Monica and one of the families she met while working closely alongside Ghanaian communities.


Working for GWASH, I was initially charged with capturing photo and global positioning system (GPS) data on the project’s facilities for monitoring and evaluation purposes to support the development of the GWASH project map. I was also tasked with writing success stories and lesson learned documents to assess and highlight the impacts of the project. These responsibilities provided me the rare opportunity of working closely with local non-government organizations (LNGOs), project field staff, office staff, and the beneficiaries impacted by our project.

GWASH has a working environment that engages the team to use their unique skills to assist in achieving the goal of better water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in Ghana and also improving their sustainability through behavior change communication. In support of the mapping project, I find myself in the field working with our local NGOs that are responsible for triggering our beneficiaries; these activities enabled me to transfer my professional and educational skills to the local NGOs i.e., time management, relationship building, and follow-up.

Also, GWASH  enables the team to submit ideas that will improve the process of delivering our goals. Partnering with LNGOs staff, I conducted community inspections and verified the level of progress made at each facility in the community, bringing back valuable information which helped the project become more responsive to the needs of our stakeholders and beneficiaries.




Above: Mrs. Kweku Abbam, who lives in the rural community of Kyiren in Ghana, received a household latrine that was built through the GWASH project.


Working with the GWASH project has increased my awareness of the need for local capacity building and the importance of monitoring, evaluating, and implementing feedback during every step of a project or program. I now more than ever understand the importance of exchanging knowledge with the communities that I work because it builds a relationship built on mutual partnership that creates sustainability and growth.




See the GWASH Project’s impact through the construction of water and sanitation facilities in five regions across Ghana in our project map.

A “Note From The Field” from Women in the Zam Zam Refugee Camp, Darfur, Sudan

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”


 of newly displaced people from the area of "immigrants" to the Zam Zam Camp”

 - 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
 - Building latrines in the new camp
5 - Building
 5 [grain] mills and peeler (scaler) 
 - 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” 

Relief International’s Emergency Response Coordinator, Mary Ana McGlasson, Reports from the Field in the Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

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.  


Mary Ana


To learn more about RI’s life-saving relief programs assisting Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, please click here.


*Name has been changed.