From the field

Jul 31, 2014

Jul Oxfam in Gaza: "the most difficult work I have ever done"

31
2014

Waseem is Oxfam Food Security and Livelihoods Officer in Gaza, where more than 200,000 people have fled their homes with nowhere safe to go. Oxfam is there providing vital water and sanitation, and food vouchers to help people cope with the crisis.

"I had to flee my house in Shujaiya in eastern Gaza two days before the terrible killing and massive destruction that happened there. I received three phone calls from the Israeli military warning me to leave the area but there was no safe place to go to in Gaza. I took my wife, children, brother and mother to a relative's house.

Above: Waseem at the food voucher distribution centre (left). Oxfam and local partner YEC are delivering safe water to more than 40,000 people who were forced to flee their homes. More than 215,000 people have now fled and have nowhere safe to go. Many are sheltering in schools - more than 100 of which have also been damaged by Israeli shelling and airstrikes. Oxfam teams deliver water to this school in Beach Refugee Camp. Photo: Iyad al Baba/Oxfam 

I've been working with our local partners to distribute food vouchers. Our partners have been exerting tremendous effort to deliver aid despite the dangers. This has been the most difficult work I have ever done. Imagine you are travelling in completely empty streets with only the sounds of explosions everywhere. I saw a tank shell falling on a house and completely burning it. My thoughts were shared between my family that I left behind and the people waiting for me to help them get food. We are talking about food, the most basic need for people to survive in dignity."

Last weekend a brief 12 hour cessation of hostilities was announced in Gaza. Oxfam teams were able to deliver more vital water and aid to people who have fled their homes and lost everything in the violence of the past few weeks. Soon afterwards, the violence resumed. A permanent ceasefire, and an end to the blockade of Gaza, is urgently needed before countless more lives are lost.

Oxfam's Arwa Mhanna travelled around Gaza City in the brief window of calm:

I went to see my family for the first time since the start of this crisis. They live just five minutes drive away, but it has been too dangerous to visit. My mother was so happy to see me. My niece (6) and nephew(9) jumped for joy. But when I asked them about the past few weeks they fell silent and just stared. 

So many children have been killed, injured or fled their homes these past weeks. Tens of thousands of children in Gaza will need psychological care for many years to deal with the horrors they have witnessed. I fear whole generations will be scarred for life.

Clockwise from top: During a brief cessation of hostilities, families returned to Shujaiya in eastern Gaza, scene of some of the heaviest Israeli bombing. Rescue workers and paramedics at the scene of an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. A young girl collects water for her family, surrounded by debris from the latest airstrikes. Photos: Iyad al Baba/Oxfam

And not only the children. I saw one of my Oxfam colleagues... it's only three weeks since I saw her last, but I hardly recognized her pale and exhausted face. She was still in shock as she told me how she fled the Israeli bombing around her home, running through streets of dead bodies and homes turned to rubble.

More than 215,000 people across Gaza have fled and sought refuge in schools, mosques, churches and hospitals. I went to Al Shifa hospital, where Oxfam and our local partners are delivering safe water to families sheltering there. They are in desperate conditions and have almost nothing - little food, water or shelter. But they have no other option. It's the safest place they could find, even though many hospitals and health clinics have also been bombed and shelled. I spoke with one of the doctors, who was completely exhausted after days treating dozens of injured civilians. His eyes were full of tears as he told me of the casualties and the conditions people are living in, and how he wished he could help them more. I had no words to express how I felt. 

Outside, the streets that have been empty for the past few weeks were full of people rushing around. Gaza's streets are always busy at this time of year as people prepare for the Eid Festival at the end of Ramadan, buying new clothes and chocolates and toys for their children. This time it was different. People took advantage of the brief calm to visit family and buy supplies before the bombs start to fall again. People searched for the dead and checked on their homes. In one area, dozens of dead bodies were pulled from beneath the rubble of destroyed buildings - they have been there for days as medical teams have been unable to access the area. I received heartbreaking news that an old colleague was killed when his ambulance was hit by an airstrike.

The death toll has now passed 1,000, with thousands more injured - the vast majority of them civilians. The numbers are huge, but they are more than statistics - these are real people who had families and friends, jobs and dreams. Everyone in Gaza is affected. 

There is such pain in my heart to see so many people going through so much suffering, with no chance to escape. But I still hope that this will end soon. The ceasefire lasted only 12 hours, and as I write the violence has returned. On Monday, Al Shifa hospital - where I met so many brave people - was hit, with many casualties being reported. I don't know if the people I met are alive or dead. 

The killing must stop for good.  I hope the world is listening to the mothers, fathers and children of Gaza and will help bring peace before more of them are killed. 

Oxfam's Arwa Mhanna on Eid in Gaza

Jul 23, 2014

Jul A child killed every hour in Gaza

23
2014

Gaza – a place where a child is being killed every hour, where 600 Palestinians have died and where 3,500 have been injured. Of the dead, 74% are civilians, including 147 children. More than 120,000 people have fled their homes but the borders are shut and people have nowhere safe to go.

44% of Gaza territory has now been declared areas that people must leave. The remaining 56% is also dangerous and faces frequent airstrikes.

Around 1.2 million people – two thirds of Gaza's population – have no or very limited access to water and sanitation services. At least 18 medical facilities have been hit by airstrikes and shelling, including hospitals, ambulances and health clinics, while 90 schools have been damaged by shelling.

Half of Gaza's bakeries are not operating and have stocks to last one more week. More than 135,000 people need food assistance. And at least 116,000 children need psychosocial care after their homes have been destroyed or they have had to flee or had family members killed.

These stark figures show how the conflict in Gaza and Israel is having particularly devastating consequences for civilians in Gaza, affecting every aspect of life. Gaza has been under Israeli blockade for the past seven years, which has devastated the economy, left most people unable to leave, and restricted access to essential services. The latest violence is making a dire situation even worse, and will have an impact on people's lives and livelihoods for a long time to come.

Oxfam condemns all attacks on civilians by all sides, and is calling for an immediate ceasefire. Long term peace and security for Palestinians and Israelis alike will only come with a lasting solution that ends the blockade and ensures people in Gaza can have basic rights. The below photos by Mohammed Al Baba show what life is now like for people in Gaza:

The ongoing airstrikes have destroyed everything from family's homes to fishermen's boats, water systems to health centres. These agricultural greenhouses in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, used to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and pumpkins. They were destroyed in strikes earlier this week.

Dozens of fishing boats and more than 1,000 nets have been destroyed. Sabri Bakr's family has been fishing for generations and it is his only source of income. "Before this military operation started, the situation was already very bad. Now my boat is totally burnt and I have nothing at all. I really do not know what will I do now, or how I will even provide food to my children.” 
 
Years of restrictions on fishermen's movement have left them struggling to make a living. Under the blockade they are only allowed a maximum of six nautical miles out at sea, and are frequently shot at or arrested by the Israeli navy even within the so-called "fishing zone." Oxfam supports fishermen in Gaza with equipment and technical advice.
 
 
Doctors at the Oxfam-supported Al Awda Hospital in northern Gaza treat a young boy. The hospital is struggling to cope and faces chronic shortages of fuel, with Gaza suffering 12-16 hour daily power cuts under the blockade. "About 40 percent of the casualties we've treated are children, and our medical staff are working 24-hour shifts. If more fuel is not available the hospital will have to shut down many of its services," said Ahmed Manna, Al Awda's Medical Director.
 
 
One of Gaza's busiest streets stands empty. Many shops and factories have closed and people are scared to go out. Su'ad, a mother of six, works at a food processing unit supported by Oxfam, producing pastries and other baked goods. 
 
"My children and I are barely able to sleep due to the continuous airstrikes. We are in the middle of Ramadan – the holy month – which is usually our busiest and most profitable time of the year as people spend more money on food and gifts for relatives. This time last year we made $1,000 a week. But since the bombing started we haven't been able to sell anything. Three of my children go to college and their tuition fees depend on the money I make during Ramadan." 
 
 
Amid the rising casualties, the Oxfam-supported Al Awda Hospital continues to deliver babies. The hospital is the only one in north Gaza with a specialized obstetric unit for pregnant women. Abeer Al Madhoun gave birth to a healthy young boy this week: "I was so scared to be targeted on my way to the hospital. During the delivery I heard bombs falling around the hospital. I was scared that my baby would be hurt. I'm thankful to the medical teams who are doing everything possible despite the danger surrounding them. My happiness is mixed with fear and sad feelings for the children who have lost their lives." 
 
 
Children in Rafah, southern Gaza, collect water from one of the working public taps. Numerous water systems and wells have been badly damaged in the airstrikes. Sewage plants have also been damaged, with millions of litres of raw sewage spilling into streets, farms and the sea. Even before the current escalation around 90 percent of water in Gaza was already unsafe to drink. The outflow of sewage risks further contaminating water supplies, increasing the threat of disease. Oxfam teams are running public health campaigns to try and reduce the risk.
 
 
Meleh Al Shaer grows pumpkins on his farm in the southern Gaza Strip. The farm was completely destroyed a few days ago. Thousands of farmers like Meleh have lost large amounts of land and produce – something it will take a long time to recover from. Oxfam supports farmers in Gaza with agricultural equipment and specialist advice. 
 
 
Some shops have managed to stay open. Oxfam is providing food vouchers to hundreds of families who have been forced to flee their homes – so that they can buy food to eat and to support local businesses and trade.

'The drones never leave Gaza skies...'

Listen to Oxfam's Arwa Mhanna daily diaries on living under the shadow of drones in Gaza. Recorded: 15 July 2014

"I hope everyone will be able to spend the rest of Ramadan in peace..."

Listen to Oxfam's Arwa Mhanna in Gaza on the struggle to observe Ramadan under siege. Recorded: 16 July 2014

May 2, 2014

May An incredible story of survival against all the odds in South Sudan

2
2014

A major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in South Sudan where more than a million people have been forced from their homes by fighting. These people need water, food and protection from the violence. Below is one mother’s incredible story of survival against all the odds.

Martha Nyandit (42) and her six children are amongst the thousands of people who have fled several rounds of violent and bloody fighting in and around the town of Bor in Jonglei state.

With gunshots ringing through the night, Martha only had time to pick up a few things – 300 South Sudanese pounds (€50/£40), some clothes and 10 kilos of sorghum grain before fleeing to an island in the middle of the river Nile.  

The island was no paradise. It was the first stop on a journey clouded by hunger.  

Clockwise from top: Portrait of Martha Nyandit, South Sudan. Martha shows us her registration card. Martha waits for food at a distribution. 
Photos: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam
 

The precious grain she had managed to rescue was whole and so needed to be ground by a hand grinder or a grinding stone, neither of which anyone among the hundreds of people on the island had with them.  With nothing else to eat, Martha had to boil the grain whole.

“For the adults and the older children this was okay but the small children couldn’t eat it, they complained it was tough and hard.” 

Asked how she coped with hungry children, she says: “It was a challenge and honestly, I had no method of coping with them.  But some of the others hiding had some food which they shared with my children.  I thank God for this help.”

Eventually the grain and what little else others had brought ran out. The families became so desperate for food that they would travel back to the mainland in dug-out canoes, risking their lives under the sound of artillery fire to find the next meal. Then one morning, when these canoes were waiting on the shore for their owners to return, some armed soldiers stole them and crossed back over the river to the island where Martha, her family and many others were hiding.

“The armed men came ashore and started shooting, so we quickly ran down into the reeds where they couldn’t see us. They didn’t know where exactly we were so they sprayed bullets into the reeds.”

Martha’s 11-year old son Kuol was injured by the gunfire when a bullet grazed the skin on his ankle, a lucky escape as she said several people were shot dead.  At that point, with the soldiers on the island, Martha and the children had no place to hide but in the river itself.

Clockwise from top: Martha Nyandit collects dirty drinking water. Martha talks to Oxfam's Grace Cahill. Martha grinds sorghum grain - a meal for her children. Photos: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam
 

“I knew I had to get us down into the water for us to be safe.  The water came up to my chest, I had one child on my back, the baby around my neck and one floating on my arm. The others were able to go on their own.”  

Martha explained to my colleague Grace Cahill, how along with several other families, they spent the entire day in hiding between the river and its bank, trying to make as little noise as possible in case they were caught by the soldiers.  Martha had to go to extraordinary lengths to keep her young children quiet.

“Kur (aged four) kept asking me where his elder siblings had gone off on their own.  He kept screaming ‘Where’s my brother? Where’s my brother gone?’ I needed to keep him quiet so lay on top of him on the shore. He had mud all over his face but it stopped the sound of him crying.  I told him he must stop asking questions because we need to survive.”

After a day spent submerged in the water, with the sound of fighting on the island and nothing to eat, the families managed to telephone relatives already in Mingkaman camp, home to thousands of displaced families like Martha’s, and got a barge sent after dark to rescue them. 

In Mingkaman the family arrived with nothing, Martha told me how she had lost the 300 South Sudanese Pounds and all of the family’s clothes in their escape from the island.  But upon arrival, Martha discovered it wasn’t just clothes and money the family had lost.

“I had been asking if my husband was alive since January but people refused to answer me straight.  It was not until a few weeks ago, here in MIngkaman, that a cousin came to bring me the news that he was killed.”

Martha’s husband was a soldier in the South Sudanese government army when he was pulled into action and killed in the town of Bor.

Clockwise from top: Martha and her family. Oxfam staff measure out food for Martha at a distribution. Martha waits for food to be distributed. Photos: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam
 

“Now I feel like it was recent even though he has been dead for three months. I used to wake up needing to get on with my day, needing to get on with things but I felt so weary, I couldn’t get things done, I needed to know where he was.”

Martha recalled with sadness how it was her husband who had built their home back in Bor where they had two thatched huts and one smaller shelter they used as a kitchen. The family also took care of eight of their own goats.  

At the moment, Martha and her six children only eat twice a day, rather than a normal three times a day.

“We eat once around 11 and 12 in the morning when I cook porridge and again between 6 and 7 in the evening.  When the food is scarce I give breakfast to the children and then I eat only once.”

“When there’s no food I ask for a loan or I beg from my neighbours who have fewer children and so might have some of their ration leftover.

“Sometimes I feel so weak I worry I will not have enough milk for the baby.  Sometimes I’m so weak I feel like I’m going to collapse; I can’t see when I stand up.

“Maybe one day people will see vulnerable people like us and decide to help more.” 

Asked about how she managed to be so resilient, she simply replied: “But it’s the responsibility of a single mother to put up and wait for better times.”

Better times must come soon for this family who had already been through so much in last few months on their search for safety. 

We are now supporting Martha and 95,000 other people in Mingkaman, distributing enough food to feed a family for a month. Every family receives two 50kg bags of sorghum grain, 10.5 kg of lentils and 7 litres of oil. 

In addition to food, seed and tool distribution, we are also providing a full water and sanitation response – treating water directly from the Nile so it’s safe to drink, building latrines, distributing soap and teaching people simple methods for good hygiene.

We are also calling on the international community to step up diplomatic efforts to promote peace talks and saves lives with a massive injection of emergency aid.

Until then, this rapidly worsening crisis threatens to become an even larger catastrophe. 

Please donate here, call 1850 30 40 55 (Republic of Ireland) or 0800 0 30 40 55 (Northern Ireland) or go to your local Oxfam shop.

Colm Byrne is Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager. He is working in South Sudan on our emergency response.

Oxfam's Colm Byrne in South Sudan

Apr 1, 2014

Apr 5 critical things we learned from the latest IPCC report on climate change

1
2014

Yesterday leading international experts on climate change, the IPCC, presented their latest report on the impacts of climate change on humanity, and what we can do about it. It’s a lengthy report, so we’ve boiled it down to Oxfam's five key takeaways on climate change and hunger.

1. Climate change: the impacts on crops are worse than we thought.

Climate change has already meant declines in global yields of staple crops, and it is set to get worse.

Not so long ago, some people suggested crops could actually grow better because of climate change. Not any more. The IPCC is clear that we are already seeing the effect of climate change on food production. That will come as no surprise to farmers like Vladimir or Auntie Jacoba. But what is more striking is that the IPCC finds that climate change has meant significant declines not just in some areas in developing countries, but in aggregate global yields for staple crops like wheat and maize. Harvests will continue to be hit hard in the future, both in developing countries and in major crop exporters, at the same time as demand for crops is expected to rise rapidly. That doesn't add up to a more food secure future for our planet.

2. Climate change also means higher food prices for most people.

Most people will feel the impact of climate change on food through the price they pay at their local market or supermarket.

In the years since the last IPCC report, there have been 3 global food price spikes, each linked in part to extreme weather that hit harvests hard. The IPCC gives a cautious estimate that food prices may rise due to climate change by 3-84% by 2050. Oxfam expects food prices to approximately double by 2030, with around half due to climate change, with further spikes linked to extreme weather to come on top of that. That's a massive problem for anyone spending upwards of 50% of their income on food, but increasingly we'll all feel the pinch of higher prices for things like premium coffee or chocolate.

3. Without action, climate change will reverse the fight against hunger – perhaps by several decades.

Right now hunger levels worldwide are going down, though not nearly fast enough. But the IPCC cites studies which project a reversal of this progress. 

By 2050 an extra 50 million people – that's the population of Spain – could be at risk of hunger because of climate change, and an extra 25 million under-fives malnourished – that's the same as all the under-fives in the US and Canada combined. Availability of calories per person is set to fall lower than the levels in 2000. If we are serious about getting to zero hunger by 2025 and staying there, we need a huge increase in climate action – both in adaptation and cutting emissions.

 

 

4. It is not too late to act, but we need to get serious about adaptation.

We must over-come major adaptation deficits to cope with climate impacts on food in the near-term. 

Eradicating hunger by 2025 will take a massive increase in efforts to adapt our food systems to climate change. But as we outlined in a briefing last week, the world is currently woefully unprepared. The IPCC for the first time recognises a funding gap between the finance needed for adaptation – in the order of $100bn per year – and the amounts that are actually flowing (something Oxfam has long shouted about). The countries that have done most to cause climate change should help to pay this bill in poorer countries. But Oxfam estimates countries have received only around 2% of the money they need from the adaptation funds provided to them in the three years since the Copenhagen climate summit.

5. We must cut greenhouse gas emissions now.

Unless we cut greenhouse gas emissions now too, we will surpass our capacity to adapt in the second half of this century. The IPCC is clear that adaptation alone will not be enough. 

By 2050, on our current path, risks to food security in many countries will pass “beyond projected adaptive capacity”. This means there is little we can do to prevent permanent and irreversible damage to food production or the means by which people can buy food. The IPCC suggests this will result in “large risks to food security, globally and regionally” and may mean “current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilizations”. 

Oxfam is starting to see the limits to adaptation in our own work even today. In Zimbabwe, a previously successful irrigation scheme that has helped farmers to thrive in spite of more erratic rainfall hit the buffers when water levels dropped too low as a result of extreme drought. The IPCC describes the biological temperature limits of crops, beyond which they simply will not grow. The implication is clear: unless we rapidly reduce our emissions now, alongside a huge increase in adaptation efforts, runaway climate change will end our chances of winning the fight against hunger. Will ours be the generation to let that happen?

Mar 27, 2014

Mar Sharon Corr’s mum was and always will be her hero

27
2014

Oxfam Ireland Ambassador Sharon Corr is convinced her mother could have been a successful singer if she’d had the opportunity – but the social norms meant she had to stay home to raise her family.

“My mum grew up in an era where women were more or less dictated to - you must go to work because your brothers need to go to university, you must leave work because you are married and your job is now to look after your husband and have kids,” said Sharon.

Sharon is currently in the US on a world tour with her new album The Same Sun and said the title track was inspired by her trip to Tanzania visiting Oxfam’s women’s rights programmes.

Clockwise from top: Sharon Corr attends an event in Mgeta village organised as part of our We Can campaign to combat domestic violence. This social movement recruits ‘change-makers’, people who pledge to change their attitudes and behaviours towards violence against women. Sharon wears a traditional African headscarf presented to her by local women from Iyenge village. Sharon gets ready to play traditional Irish music for locals in Kimamba village. All photos by Barry McCall/Oxfam

Sharon is now supporting our Female Heroes campaign, which encourages people across the island of Ireland to celebrate the inspirational women in their lives.

“Going to Tanzania was a truly life-changing experience. It reinforced for me the power of women to change the world. No matter what challenges they might face and the obstacles in their way, women will do everything they can to overcome them for the good of their family and community,” Sharon said.

“My mother was a beautiful singer and I believe if she had had half the chance she could have really reached for the stars but she stayed at home and looked after us and she took great pride in that - making our clothes, cooking wonderful dinners - she did everything for us and gave us a wonderful childhood.

“She also taught us to follow our dreams. I don't believe you can put a value on that - she gave us wings so we could fly and dreamed of great things for us and I am so glad that she saw our success.

“To me a hero is someone who stands up for what she believes in, who puts the greater good ahead of herself and inspires others because of her strength, her kindness and her courage.” Sharon said.

“We’ve made a lot of strides in Ireland over the years towards equality between the sexes. But we must never take this for granted, nor forgot the women who made this possible from the suffragettes to the feminist movement. Our daughters will grow up with opportunities our grandmothers could only have dreamt of.

“Despite the many advances, women still struggle with sexism in many areas of life. My own experience in the music industry has been a largely positive one, yet there is still so much more focus on woman’s appearance compared to men rather than on her talent and abilities as a performer.

“But there are many strong women both on stage and behind the scenes, along with the fans themselves, who are changing the dynamic,” said Sharon.

Clockwise from top: Our ambassador Sharon Corr meets Female Food Heroes winner Ester Jerome Mtegule at her home in Lyenge village.  Rice farmer Halima Shida shares a moment with Sharon Corr outside her home in Kimamba village. Sharon Corr meets last year’s finalists (from left to right) Mwandiwe Makame, Anna Oloshiro and the winner Ester Jerome Mtegule, along with Oxfam Ireland’s Monica Gorman, at the launch of the 2012 Female Food Heroes competition. All photos by Barry McCall/Oxfam

“Seeing the difference our support can make, I would encourage people throughout Ireland - North and South - to celebrate the women who have made a difference in their lives with an Oxfam Heroes card, gift or event.

“We all know heroes, but how often have you told someone that they’re yours? Not only is it a beautiful way to say thanks to a female hero in your life, but you’ll also make a positive difference to women living in extreme poverty worldwide.

“Heroes change the world in big ways and in small. My motto is that we do not need to do great things, just little things with great love.

Celebrate your Hero this Mother's Day with one of our special gifts. 100% of the profits go to supporting Oxfam's work with women worldwide.  You can see more from Sharon's trip to Tanzania in the video below.

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