Dear EU Leaders: Look at me

By Amal, Moria hotspot, Lesvos, Greece


Dear EU Leaders,

Spring has arrived- warming our bodies and our hearts. However, the refugee camp of Moria on the Greek Island of Lesvos, is still cold and prison-like. I have been in Moria for seven months now since I arrived in Europe, and there is only one thing I can be certain of is that I will be stuck here for a long time. I have requested asylum in Europe, but the next hearing for my case is 18 months away.

I invite all European politicians to visit us, to witness our hardship, and to see what life is like when your fate is in the hands of others – in your hands. Your hands are not tied – more humane migration policies can help us and give people here the protection, support and dignity they need and deserve. We need to #OpenTheIslands.

The EU-Turkey deal

My story is similar to those of millions of refugees from Syria and other countries. Conflict and persecution has torn our families apart, we had to leave our belongings behind, and our beautiful cities are no longer recognizable. We fled to survive and when we reached safety in Greece we were stopped and told to wait in inhumane conditions. That waiting has become living. While asylum seekers like me are waiting for their cases to be heard, our future is slipping away.

I am – we all are – trapped on Lesvos following the EU’s deal with Turkey, which was struck two years ago, in March 2016. As a direct result of the deal, Greece forces asylum seekers to stay on the island instead of being able to request asylum on the mainland or elsewhere in Europe.

The EU-Turkey deal has one main goal: to stop people from seeking asylum in Europe. But the effects of this deal on these people have been overlooked. They overlook the fact that a handful of bathrooms cannot be shared by the thousands who are forced to live in tents. That women and children face a real risk of sexual violence, abuse and harassment when they live in these overcrowded camps.

Lesvos, where Moria is, is a beautiful Greek island, but the camp is hell.

Being a refugee is not a choice

Every day I dream of going back home. But the place I call home is in ruins. When I think of home I think of my daily routine of working in a hospital in the morning and teaching English in the afternoon; I think of picnics in the park with my family over the weekends. Or just walking around Damascus, where I was born and raised.

Being a refugee is not a choice. I am stuck in Lesvos because I left my home when it became unsafe due to years of war.

If politicians came to visit Moria, I would ask them why they believe in policies that lead to overcrowded camps and insecurity for women and children. If European leaders came to visit Moria, I would ask them if they really think Moria is a place for people like me, like them. I would tell them that they have a responsibility to go home and remember us, remember what they see in Moria. I would ask them to let me rebuild my life.

Please send a tweet to Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and European leaders asking them to #OpenTheIslands

How can we go back to a Syria that no longer exists?

Authored by Shaheen Chughtai, Head of Campaigns, Policy & Communications, Oxfam Syria Crisis Response

Seven long years after the Syria crisis began, the situation remains bleak. Individual children, women and men continue to bear the brunt of a conflict marked by enormous human suffering, relentless destruction and a blatant disregard for human rights.

The harrowing news from Eastern Ghouta – the scene of intensified fighting in Syria’s brutal conflict – has pushed the war into the headlines again. Recent fighting in other areas, including Afrin, Idlib and Deir Ez-Zor continues to claim lives and leave families in desperate need of aid. During this protracted crisis, the broken lives of Syria’s women, men and children have too often been ignored.

Left: Hani*, 16, was displaced from East Ghouta in 2013, and now lives in a tent with his family of 8 in Herjalleh, Rural Damascus. Photo: Dania Kareh / Oxfam. Right: Wael* and Husam* return back from their daily journey to collect drinking water for their family from a nearby water fountain, Herjalleh.

While making a film about Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan for Oxfam, I was truly humbled by the courage and resilience of the people I met. However, many are only just surviving amid harsh conditions.

One mother from Homs, Jawaher, told me: “Our houses are gone, how can I go back to something which doesn’t exist anymore?” Their homes in Syrian cities and towns continue to be pummelled into rubble, or are now occupied by strangers.

After seven years of conflict, the statistics are horrifying: at least 400,000 Syrians have been killed and over 13 million are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, including nearly three million people trapped in besieged and hard to reach areas, such as Eastern Ghouta. More than half of the population – nearly 12 million people – have fled from their homes, many of them several times. More than 5.6 million refugees are living in neighbouring countries, the majority in extreme poverty.

Jawaher, the refugee in Jordan who I interviewed for the film, told me her son had returned recently to Syria. From Idlib, he sends her text messages telling her the situation “is bad, very bad”. He has no heating despite the low temperatures and no aid has reached him yet. Aid agencies say they still cannot reach many people who need help.

Some aid does get through despite the challenges. Over the last year, Oxfam has helped an estimated two million people in Syria as well as refugees and the communities in which they are sheltering in Jordan and Lebanon. This has included providing safe drinking water, sanitation and vital food aid as well as helping refugees make a living.

Being a Syrian refugee is difficult, even if you manage to escape from Syria. Everyone who lives in the Jordanian capital, Amman, knows only too well about its high cost of living. Imagine being a Syrian refugee who needs to live, to eat, and to care for their children there. Despite efforts by the Jordanian authorities, many refugees – as well as members of the overstretched communities hosting them – are still unable to find work and rely on limited aid. This means the reality for many Syrian refugees, particularly the women in the region, is a life without meaningful work. What a terrible waste of talent.

Left: Ahmed, 34, a husband and a father of three children, is one of those who fled their homes fearing for their lives. Photo: Dania Kareh / Oxfam. Right: Layla, 35, is a mother of six little children. Her husband has been missing for about two years. Photo: Dania Kareh / Oxfam

One Syrian young refugee in Za’atari told us she is creating her own luck, developing her writing skills as a reporter for a magazine on the camp. Now 20, Abeer hopes she will return to Syria one day and she has made it her goal to give something back to her country because of the way ‘it has suffered and sacrificed’. She longs to write a story of Syrians rebuilding their country and starting over again. But how much longer will this conflict continue and at what cost? The international community has provided billions of dollars and euros in aid to the region in recent years. That welcome aid has helped to keep millions of Syrian refugees alive and alleviated their suffering – but it has not kept pace with the sheer scale of human need.

The continued violence, bloodshed and suffering in Syria represents a catastrophic failure by the international community. Attempts to reduce civilian loss of life and provide humanitarian aid to people trapped by the fighting have been repeatedly undermined by military operations.

Time is long overdue for world leaders to do more to protect and assist civilians and prioritise a political solution to the conflict. The people of Syria deserve no less.


*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Two wheels good: The bikes bringing Malawi’s girls to school

For some young people, the road to education can be long and arduous – quite literally. In Balaka District, southern Malawi, where many schoolgirls live up to 25km from the classroom, getting there used to be a struggle. There were no buses or cars to transport them to school – they had to walk.

The two-hour journeys on foot were exhausting. Many of the students couldn’t concentrate when they eventually arrived at school; others simply stayed at home despite being desperate to learn. Some would eventually drop out altogether.

It was a vicious cycle – one that Oxfam decided to tackle by distributing bikes to schoolgirls in the region. Esnat*, one of 30 students to receive a bicycle, used to make a five-hour roundtrip to school on foot. “The journey was hard,” says the 15-year-old pupil, who lives 25km from her school. “I would be tired and used to doze off in class.

Left: Esnat* with her Oxfam bike. Photo: Corinna Kern. Right: Zainab* was always late for school. Photo: Corinna Kern

“I would sleep when I got home, I didn’t study as I was too tried. My body and legs would ache; sometimes I would skip lessons. I was underperforming in my lessons because I was either absent or not concentrating.”

Since getting a bike, Esnat* no longer feels as tired and can study properly: “I am excited about my bike; I will be able to complete my education. Now it takes less than one hour to get to school. I start lessons with my friends so I feel equal to them.

“I want to be a nurse. I have had that passion ever since I was younger. I want to help the sick and my community because we don’t have many nurses. I want to earn money to help my family.”

Another schoolgirl who benefitted from Oxfam’s bike project is 14-year-old Alice*, who also wants to be a nurse. Describing her old commute to school as a “bad experience”, she says: “I would go to school on Monday but then on a Tuesday I would be absent as I was so sick and tired. I would miss one day a week and go in four days. I forced myself to go. I was arriving at school so tired. I couldn’t concentrate as had I no time to rest. I tried to work hard but I was just so tired.

Left: Girls from Chembera secondary school, Chembera village, Balaka District, with their bicycles. Photo: Corinna Kern. Right: Alice* used to get sick regularly. Photo: Corinna Kern

“We got the bikes two weeks ago. I felt excited and hoped that I would do better in class. Now I travel the same distance but I am not as tired. I still leave at 6am but now I get to school at 6.30am. I am hopeful that I will finish my education and get a good job.”

Before she got her bike, Zainab* – who lives 18km from school – was always late for class and often missed out on exams. “I was so tired, I would spend lots of time stopping on the way to rest my legs so I would be late for school,” says Zainab* (15). “I would miss out on exams and there was no way to make up classes. If you missed a lesson that lesson would be gone. Now I don’t miss any lessons.”

*Names changed

International Women's Day

Now more than a century old, International Women’s Day is as important as ever before. After all, it’s not just the one day of the year that we celebrate the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women; it’s also a time to reflect on their ongoing struggle for gender equality.

On this International Women’s Day, we would like to introduce you to some of the awe-inspiring women we are proud to stand with and support through our work:

Top-Left: Jennifer with her mentor Tsungai Shonhai. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam. Top-Right: Women’s group leader Kausar Rajput. Photo: Irina Werning/Oxfam. Bottom: Ghozlan is a Syrian refugee living in Za’atari Camp. Photo: Alixandra Buck/Oxfam

In Zimbabwe, Tsungai Shonhai works with young people living with and affected by HIV. The 64-year-old mentor works with the Oxfam Ireland-supported Bethany Project, which promotes the wellbeing of these vulnerable young people through support groups, HIV testing and counselling. Tsungai’s job isn’t easy, but her efforts are greatly appreciated by Jennifer.

The 15 year old, who was born HIV-positive, used to isolate herself from her community in case anyone found out about her condition. But her life has been transformed by the project and the work of women like Tsungai. “The support groups gave me courage, confidence and hope to manage my condition,” she says. “I am now confident, my self-esteem boosted, I now participate in the school netball team.”

Kausar Rajput is a women's group leader in Sindh province, Pakistan. Kausar (50), who also chairs the local health committee, helps women access small loans to start businesses in their homes. She does all of this as part of an Oxfam project called Raising Her Voice, which aims to help women in Pakistan overcome the barriers that keep them in poverty.

“I was a councillor before coming to this project and I was a housewife,” said Kausar. “My husband died, that was years ago and I have brought up my children by myself. By the grace of God I don't face problems now – I go out and solve other problems for other people.”

Ghozlan is one of around 45 Syrian women involved in Oxfam’s Greenhouse project in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Many refugees in Jordan can’t find work and rely on limited aid. Finding work is even more challenging for these women who are encouraged to work in the home. When they do go out to work, they face harassment, rumours and discrimination. 

In response, Oxfam opened four greenhouses in Za’atari camp last year, and encouraged women to get involved. Ghozlan was one of those who joined the project, and quickly learned new horticultural skills. She is even making a little money from the produce she sells in local communities. For Ghozlan, however, it is the support from her new friends that is invaluable. “I met some women here,” she said. “When we talk together about our concerns we feel some relief.”


Rehema Mayuya is a change maker. Photo: BMF Production

Rehema Mayuya, from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, lived with a violent husband until she became involved with the We Can campaign, which is part-funded by Oxfam Ireland. 

The campaign’s aim is to end violence against women, challenging the attitudes and behaviours that facilitate it. Rehema is now a change maker, someone who speaks out against domestic violence to make her community safer.
“I’m a totally different person now,” says Rehema. As a woman, I need to stand strong, fight for my rights and protect the rights of women who are subjected to violence.”

New report links family separation to anxiety and depression in refugees in Ireland

Refugees living in Ireland who were forced to leave their family members behind experience depression and anxiety, often not knowing where their loved ones are or if they are safe, said the Irish Refugee Council, Nasc and Oxfam Ireland in a report launched today.

The report – “A family belongs together” – highlights how being separated from family impedes integration into Irish society, with refugees unable to concentrate on things like improving their language skills, education or securing employment while worrying about the safety and whereabouts of their spouse, children, parents, siblings or other dependents.

The report contains first-person testimonies from nine refugees now living in Ireland after fleeing conflict and persecution in Syria, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Sudan and West Africa.

One woman, forced to flee or face death, had to leave her children in the care of her best friend because she didn’t have enough money to take them with her. Upon arriving in Ireland without her family, she continued to suffer with depression and high blood pressure. She said: “I didn’t know where my children where, I was ill, I had depression, my blood pressure, I was always in hospital, I thought I was going to die, I didn’t know where my children where.”

The Irish Refugee Council, Nasc and Oxfam Ireland are calling on the Irish Government to amend the International Protection Act 2015 to expand the definition of family to include adults who are dependent on the family unit prior to flight, including, parents, siblings, in-laws and any other dependent relative.

They are joined by the Civil Engagement Group of Senators who, in July 2017, introduced The International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 to the Seanad. The Bill received cross-party support, despite opposition from the government and will go through the Fourth Stage in the Seanad today. If it progresses, it presents a real opportunity to change the legislation in support of refugee families.

Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland Chief Executive, said: “These harrowing stories of people escaping unimaginable suffering only to be met with more upon reaching a safety that separates them from the people that matter most, underpins what we already know – it’s time to right the wrong of the International Protection Act 2015 and keep families forced to flee together. We couldn’t rebuild our lives and learn to call a foreign country home without our partner, parents, children and those that depend on us by our sides – and neither can they.”

Fiona Finn, CEO of Nasc, said: “We know from years of experience working with refugees, the anxiety, fear and guilt that can overwhelm them knowing they are safe while their loved ones are still in danger. We also know the joy and sense of wholeness families feel when they are reunited - life can begin again. The current family reunification provisions in the International Protection Act force people to make impossible, unimaginable choices between some family members and others. We can fix this by restoring the family reunification laws that have served both us and our refugee communities well for almost two decades.”

Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council said: “Family reunification is a critically important piece of providing refuge to people. We have seen the peace that comes when people who depend on each other are reunited in safety. This is often the only way refugees can truly integrate and begin to think about learning a new language, going to a new school or getting a job. We must ensure our family reunification laws make this a reality for all refugee families in Ireland.”


Notes to the Editor:

- Download the full report – “A family belongs together”: Refugees’ experiences of family reunification in Ireland

- Drawing from the experience of those most affected by the policy, the Irish Refugee Council, Nasc and Oxfam Ireland are calling on the Irish government to act now and support family reunification by:

  • Amending the International Protection Act 2015 to expand the definition of family to include young adults who are dependent on the family unit prior to flight, parents, siblings, in-laws and any other dependent relative. At the very least, the Minister of Justice’s discretionary power to reunite dependants should be reinstated as per the 1996 Refugee Act.
  • Introducing legal aid for people seeking refugee family reunion through increased funding to the Legal Aid Board by the Department of Justice.
  • Waiving the income requirements for those who have received international protection who apply for family reunification through non-EEA general administration mechanisms.
  • Amending the International Protection Act 2015 to include a statutory right of appeal for family reunification applications which have been refused at first instance. At present, the only legal recourse open to unsuccessful family reunification applicants is judicial review.

- This report is based on nine semi-structured interviews with Irish-based refugees, all of whom have experienced family separation or family reunification. It is complemented by an interview with a resettlement worker who has practical experience with the Irish asylum system. The interviewees with international protection status come from a range of countries and are all over the age of 18. Once the interviews were completed, they were transcribed and analysed, with key themes identified. To ensure protection and privacy, identities have been anonymised. Interviewees are distinguished by an interview letter and their country or region of origin. The gender breakdown of the interviewees with international protection is seven men and two women.