The loveliest letter you'll ever read

Video: Brian Malone/Oxfam

Thurs, October 8th, 2015

Dear Oxfam,
I have done a yard-sale to raise funds for Syrian people who are refugees.
It is not nice for anyone to live in tents in cold. I just don’t agree with it.
From Grace (10) and Nina (9),
Cabra, Dublin 7.

Sometimes the most powerful words come from children. The above letter to our Dublin office accompanied a cheque for €32.41 for our Syrian emergency response. This donation is most welcome – it will help provide safe drinking water and other aid to Syrian refugees living in camps and experiencing the most difficult of times. But the letter’s message – about what’s fair and what’s right – is just as powerful.

Forced to leave their homes and everything they know behind, Syrian refugees have had to put normal life on hold indefinitely, living in camps and informal settlements many miles from home where basics like a warm place to sleep, enough food to eat and a school to go to are difficult to come by if not impossible.

Hearing about the challenges faced by the Syrian relatives of a family friend and watching coverage of the crisis on the news made Dubliners and best friends Grace and Nina want to help.

Above: Grace and Nina's letter to Oxfam. Grace and Nina telling us their story. A picture from the  girls' yard sale for Syrian refugees. Grace's mum, Susan.

“It was really sad and kind of scary for me, so I didn’t really want to look at it,” explains Grace. “But I kind of do now because I want to find out more.”

Grace’s mother Susan spoke to them about the situation faced by Syrian refugees.

“We have a friend whose family are living in the refugee camps near Syria who had to flee their homes,” Susan says. “I had an image in my head of children in the camps not wearing shoes around the time of it being winter and it really kind of hit home. They were freezing cold and they didn’t have the comforts of home in addition to all the trauma they were going through.

“So [Grace and Nina] came back then and said, ‘Yes, we’d like to give the money to Oxfam and to the refugees in the camps’.”

But the yard sale and all the work involved was very much Grace and Nina’s doing. As Susan says, “They’re a pair who come up with ideas and they’re always on a project of some kind or other.”

There was lots to do including posters to make and rice crispie buns to bake. The pair also parted with some favourite toys and the event was a big success.

Nina explains: “I didn’t think it was going to be a big yard sale but then when we were getting everything ready, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’”

The girls have been inspired by what they’ve achieved (they raised a total of €64.82 and divided the funds between Dogs for the Disabled and Oxfam Ireland), so watch this space!

“We want to help refugees even more,” says Grace, while Nina adds: “And doing the yard sale was really fun.”

Out of a total of 22 million people living in Syria before the crisis, more than half the population has been forced to flee their homes, including more than 4 million who have fled to neighbouring countries.

Above: Syrian refugee Ahmad carries his daughter Nour as they walk towards a registration centre for migrants and refugees in Presevo, in southern Serbia. He and the group he's walking with had already travelled for 20 kilometres that day. We have begun a new emergency programme in Serbia to help the thousands like Ahmad and Nour who are fleeing to safety. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Along with providing Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with clean drinking water and relief supplies like blankets and stoves, we are also helping families get the information they need about their rights and connecting them to medical, legal and support services. Other work includes building shower and toilet blocks in camps. We are also providing clean water in Syria itself.

We have also begun an emergency programme in Serbia providing clean water and sanitation to help some of the thousands fleeing to safety, including many Syrians, who will soon face a harsh Balkans winter. Meanwhile in Italy we have programmes providing asylum seekers who have been saved from the Mediterranean Sea with housing, food, psychological support, legal assistance and language classes. We continue to campaign and advocate for an immediate ceasefire and a sustainable and inclusive political solution to the conflict in Syria.

We are also highlighting the individual stories of refugees to make them more visible through the EUsaveLIVES joint campaign with the European Commission.

When we shared Grace and Nina’s letter with colleagues working on the Syria crisis emergency response, the message of support made their day.

To know that people like Grace and Nina care about what’s happening to Syrian refugees and want to help, inspires us all.

By highlighting unfairness and how to do something about it, as they have, the future can be better place.


“Not in my name…”

Dr. Enida Friel is Oxfam Ireland’s Programme Quality Manager.

The images of three-year-old Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on Turkish shores have shocked me to the core.

The images of asylum seekers walking along Hungarian railway lines to reach places of safety in Germany and parents holding scared children behind barbed wire across the Macedonian Greek border have brought back memories of refugee crises I worked in many years ago in Kosovo and West Africa.

As a medical doctor on the frontline, I saw malnourished and unvaccinated children dying of preventable diseases; their mothers holding them in their arms with incredible dignity. I saw fathers feeling hopeless that they could not protect their families from danger.

But I also saw failure of governments to act and vested interests – political and economic – taking precedence over humanity.

All of this eventually became too much to bear, so after six years of this kind of work, I decided to move to Ireland and help in a different way: I joined Oxfam Ireland.

As a non-Irish national, I experienced the warmest welcome by Irish people. Over the ten years I have been living here, I have learned about the plight of Irish immigrants throughout the decades and the wonderful Irish tradition of solidarity with people in need, like the people I’d served overseas.

I became a proud Irish citizen seven years ago.
It is therefore with regret, as an Irish citizen, that I observed our government’s reluctance at first to take on more refugees in Ireland following the crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean.

Each time confusing messages were being given by our Taoiseach, Tánaiste and other ministers, I kept thinking, “this is not the Irish people I know, and not what the Irish people want: this is not in my name…”

However, today, when I spoke to Oxfam colleagues in Italy who are on the frontline providing life-saving support to refugees like the children, women and men that have flooded our screens and newspapers, I was proud to say that Oxfam Ireland and its Irish supporters are here to help.

During my time in the field, I sometimes had the chance to chat with children coming to our clinics and I would ask them what they would like to become when they grow up. I remember the very first time I asked this question and the little boy, the same age then as my own son is now, said a doctor.

I flattered myself thinking that I was his inspiration. But with time I realised that, despite circumstances, they were people with the same hope and dreams as me. Mothers and fathers who wanted the same things that I want for my children.

Ireland can and must help. Irish people, the people who are donating to Oxfam Ireland and signing our petition, want to see an end to this unnecessary and yet preventable human suffering. They don’t want what’s happening now – in the Mediterranean shores, across Europe, in Syria or beyond.

This is not in their name. This is not in my name.

If you can, please help by donating to Oxfam Ireland’s Refugee Crisis Appeal.

If you live in the Republic of Ireland, please sign Oxfam Ireland’s petition and send an email to An Taoiseach Enda Kenny demanding that Ireland increases the number of refugees we accept and leads by example at the upcoming emergency EU Ministerial meeting on September 14th.

This will send a strong message to our government that this is not in in our name.

Posted In:

World Refugee Day: The People Behind The Statistics

The number of refugees and people displaced by conflict has surpassed that reached during the Second World War. 

Each of the people who comprise the staggering number of 59.5 million has a name but they are often faceless.

Working alongside the European Commission’s Office for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), we want to make them visible.

To mark World Refugee Day (Saturday June 20th), Oxfam Ireland volunteers in Belfast and Dublin have been highlighting the people behind the statistics to #MakeThemVisible.

It’s part of the EUsaveLives campaign to raise awareness of the individual stories of refugees and displaced people from countries like Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Tweet your support on World Refugee Day 2015 with #MakeThemVisible.

For more information on the project, click here and visit


Lights, Camera…Take Action!

Films that inspire us to make a change

Movies have an astronomical impact on our society. Our most critically acclaimed movies often have strong political and social messages, about equality, freedom, environmental justice and capitalism. Analyse your favourite film, there will undoubtedly be a subliminal message underlying those Hollywood effects. Somehow when its packaged up for the silver screen it is easier to break through and get us thinking about the world we live in, what’s really going on …and what it could be like.


Films have powerful effects on our aspirations and actions. One woman can fight the multi-million capitalist system to save the health of her neighbours; one small robot can change how we treat our precious planet before it’s too late. The way we respond to movies affects our awareness of events and people in our world, Erin Brockovich (2000) and WALL.E (2008) are no exception.

Filmmakers have expanded the horizon of what’s possible; they teach us about the lives of the brave, the bold and the outrageous. Underlying the entertaining story and actors, important paradigms are at play. Hotel Rwanda (2004) tells the real story of the choice faced by one hotel manager when his country was collapsing into genocide around him. It’s not without controversy but the film directed by Belfast-born director Terry George, puts us in the position of what would we do and what do we do faced with turmoil and violence?

In The Pursuit of Happiness (2006), Will Smith tells his son not to practice basketball as he himself was never good at it. Discouraged, his son walks away from the court. The father follows, “You got a dream, you gotta protect it”. How can filmmakers turn an instance of self-doubt into a social campaign? Movies like these make us profoundly aware of rigid social systems we are creating to prevent social and financial equality, often in the countries where it is needed most.

What do Philadelphia (1993), The Green Mile (1999) and Forest Gump (1994) have in common? Apart from Tom Hanks, they teach us of the need to become aware and to act. What better way to create change than to highlight severe discrimination against a minority, or an individual ability to change history.

At the heart of the fast-paced, effects-heavy Avatar (2009), there is a message about social equality and harmony with the earth, and further, what we consider to be human and civilised.

Other movies shed a light on complex real-life situations and structural problems - as Syriana (2005) shows how oil money can drive political and power struggles or Blood Diamond (2006) reveals the links between civil war and the global trade in precious stones.

Some messages remind us of our troubled past, Selma (2014) and Gandhi (1982) embrace political activism with an individual stamp. The power of films to create a stir cannot be underestimated, whether a sci-fi, a historical depiction, or even a Disney cartoon, movies can have strong messages which we can use to make the world better - one film at a time!

Join us this April at The Better Film Fringe, part of Belfast Film Festival, brought to you by Oxfam and the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies.

Hotel Rwanda with Terry George Q&A - Buy Tickets

The Island President – one man’s journey to make the world wake up to climate change - Buy Tickets

Better World Campaign Workshop - Sign up

And join the conversation: what movies have inspired you to act and think differently about the world?

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Celebrating the Female Food Heroes of Nigeria

Breakfast in Lagos, the same as the day before, two large slices of boiled yam (a root vegetable) with spicy egg sauce. Surprisingly it actually works as a breakfast and my stomach has been fine. The strong spices make the bland yam edible and I find myself enjoying the combination. Lunch and dinner will be more spicy soups and sauces along with fish or other meat and eaten with various porridges made from cassava and other crops. Nigeria, like the rest of West Africa, has a strong culinary history with a wide variety of dishes prepared from indigenous crops. Nigeria also has the hottest, spiciest food of any country in the world. If you have never tried it and especially if you have blocked sinuses, you need to try proper Nigerian hot pepper soup.

I was in Lagos for the 2014 Female Food Hero awards, a competition that began in Tanzania. These 12 great rural women came from all over Nigeria and were selected from more than 1,200 nominations. They, along with millions of other women, grow the crops, care for the livestock and in the end produce the food that makes up the exciting Nigerian cuisine I was enjoying. These 12 women spent a week together in Lagos in the build-up to the final award ceremony and announcement of the overall winners. In the past two years the awards were held only in certain states among women farmers that Oxfam and partners worked with, but this year for the first time it has become a national competition open to all women involved with primary food production.

During the week, the women joined together in morning exercises with Tony the trainer, who also works as a model and actor. They had training sessions with different people on a range of topics relevant for women and for farmers. They held discussions and went on field trips. To the end, even in celebrating the eventual winners, they demonstrated a unity that this large and complex country sometimes lacks. 

Clockwise from top-left: Catfish at urban fish farm in Lagos – this visit showed how nutritious food can be produced and made into a good business, even with limited space. An exhibition of farmer produce set up during the award ceremony. The 12 finalists of 2014 competition join winners from previous years and a representative of the farmers organisation on a field trip. From left to right: second runner-up Chinasa Asonye; first runner-up Monica Maigari; and Female Food Hero 2014 Marian Buhari. From left to right: Oxfam’s Acting Nigeria Country Director Evelyne Mere; first runner-up Monica Maigari; overall winner Marian Buhari; second runner-up Chinasa Asonye; Oxfam Food and Land Rights Advisor Marc Wegerif. The finalists visit the Tropical Naturals Ltd factory which turns agricultural products like shea butter and honey and turn them into creams and products for export.

These women also underwent health checks and received healthy living advice. Stress management was one of the favourite topics. There are so many stresses that rural women face that they are normally expected to simply cope with themselves. They learnt they have a right to care for themselves and be cared for. There were also meetings with celebrities, actors, singers and women leaders. There were dramas that the women themselves prepared and as well as the hard work, lighter moments and lots of singing. The whole process was filmed and is being produced into a series of TV programmes. 

The field trips included a visit to the inspiring factory of Tropical Naturals Ltd. They take agricultural products like shea butter and honey and turn them into creams and products like the famous Dudu-Oson black soap that is sold in Nigeria and exported. The dynamic Chief Executive Officer, Abiola Ogunrinde, stressed to the women the importance of adding value to all their agricultural products in order to get a greater return as farmers and for the nation.

An urban fish farm showed how nutritious food could be produced and made into a good business, even with limited space in a densely populated urban area. Some of the finalists are already involved with fish farming, others were inspired to start.

Nigeria is now the largest economy in Africa with 180 million people and famous for its oil industry, but agriculture remains a vital part of the economy. Agriculture makes up more than 30% of the economic activity and importantly 70% of all employment. Women provide most of the labour in the sector, but get little recognition and little support, something that these awards are working to change.

By highlighting the importance of women’s contribution to food production and the economy, the Female Food Hero awards help increase public support for women involved with food production. The awards also show the challenges women face, through the stories of the female food heroes themselves, told by themselves. We are asking for the creation of a more supportive environment for women food producers. Look what they have done despite all the challenges they face and imagine what they could do with a more enabling environment. The responses have been good and other women food producers have also been inspired.

On Friday 20th November the hall at the hotel was crowded and sometimes chaotic during an exciting celebration of the Ogbonge (strong, heroic, magnificent) Nigerian Women Food Heroes of 2014. As many speakers stressed, all the finalists are good representatives of the millions of hard-working women who produce most of the food in Nigeria. But everyone also wanted to know who would be the winner and walk away with the largest prizes.

Above, left-right: Some of the produce made by first runner-up Monica Maigari. Previous Female Food Hero award winner Gloria works out in the gym. Tony puts the women farmers through their paces in the gym. 

Guests included government officials, NGOs, farmer organisation representatives and private sector representatives. Jennifer Abuah of OLAM Nigeria Ltd noted that of 10,000 cocoa farmers they work with on sustainable cocoa production, only 500 are women. “We know they are there, but they are not visible”, she said. “Women don’t own their land, they are farming the land that belongs to the men in their families and women are doing so many other things besides farming.”

Karima Babangida, the Head of Gender and Youth in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, announced the winners for 2014, but not before she praised the “12 very beautiful hard-working women” who made it to the finals. She also committed the Ministry to providing start-up kits with fish for all the finalists to start or expand fish farming. 

The second runner-up was Chinasa Asonye from Lagos state. A young married woman with three children, she has gone from only cultivating ofada rice to now processing and packaging the rice, for which she gets a much better return. Chinasa leased land from Lagos state government under the Rice for Jobs Initiative and has also branched into fish farming. Last year, she harvested 31 sacks of rice and 5.2 tons of catfish.

The first runner-up was Monica Maigari from Kaduna state. She is a mother of four and farms soybeans, maize, guinea corn, rice, poultry and goats. In 2013, she produced and sold 34 sacks of grains, 130 birds, 360 crates of layers and eight goats.

It was hard to get any picture of the winner, Marian Buhari, when she was announced as people crowded around with cameras to capture the moment. Marian is from Kwara state. She is married with five children and farms cucumbers, maize, cassava, melons, tomatoes, cabbage and fish. She was assisted by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to get started in fish farming with catfish fingerlings (young fish) and two bags of fish feed. Now in 2014, she harvested over 150 tons of produce. Like Chinasa, she had also relied on renting other people’s land for her production.

The best speakers of the day were the women farmers themselves. The past winners shared how much the awards had meant to them, including their activities as ambassadors for women farmers that had taken them to national events and international events in the United States and African Union meetings in Ethiopia. This year’s finalists called for women to get better access to inputs, machinery, finance and land with secure rights. 

As the finalists often chanted:

Ogbonge Women, Our Future! Ogbonge Women, Our Farmers! Ogbonge Women, Our Nigeria!

Marc Wegerif is a South African, currently based in Tanzania, who has worked on development and human rights issues in a range of organisations for over 25 years and has a Masters in Land and Agrarian Studies from the University of the Western Cape. Marc has focused on land rights issues for much of his professional life and is currently Food and Land Rights Advisor with Oxfam Ireland. In this role Marc is involved with international advocacy and running several multi-country projects. He is married with two daughters. This blog is a personal reflection and the views expressed are not necessarily those of Oxfam. 


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