From the field

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There’s no place like home: keeping hope alive for the children of Syria

Above: Oxfam’s Helena O’Donnell with Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. 1 million Syrians have left their home country for Lebanon since the war began.

“Bubbles my dog and my Xbox” was the emphatic response of one young Cork schoolboy when asked what he would miss most from home. 

“Minecraft… my bedroom… my trampoline” and “my football” were the other homely comforts for the boys of Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown, Cork.

I was speaking to the boys about their homes, what they loved most about being at home and what it must feel like for the Syrian children who have had to leave their homes due to war and conflict.  

It’s a very sad story to speak to young children about. The war in Syria is in its fifth year and much of the country is now in ruins.

Almost 4 million Syrians have had to flee their country, with over 1 million of these moving to live in refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon.

On an unusually stormy day in May I was welcomed to Cork by the pupils of Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh, who were eager to hear about the Syrian children they had heard about on the news. The heavy hailstones and rushing wind in the deserted school yard set the mood for the sombre discussion ahead of me. 

Loaded with large colour photographs of Syrian children and stories of the families I had met when visiting refugee camps in Lebanon earlier this year, I struggled to think of how I might explain to primary school children the impact of war on boys and girls the same age as themselves.

I shouldn’t have worried. From the moment I arrived, I was greeted with cheers, energy and positivity from the 1st to 6th class boys who were delighted to have the chance to leave their classrooms and convene in their sports hall to talk about soccer, how much they love it, how much Syrian children love soccer and how their pre-loved jerseys would be put to good use by an emerging football team in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

Above: Oxfam’s Helena O’Donnell with some of the pupils of Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown, Cork, who organised a shipment of sports gear for Syrian refugee children living in Lebanon after hearing news reports about them.

Earlier this year, the big-hearted pupils had been inspired by news reports about Syrian refugee children living in Lebanon and decided to come together and collect all their pre-loved and unused sports jerseys and soccer boots and send them over on a sponsored shipment to the boys and girls of the Al Jalil children’s centre in Beqaa Valley. 

When I visited the centre in March, the bright-eyed Syrian children I met told me, through a translator, that they were very happy there and loved to play soccer, play group games like musical chairs and take turns in the arts and crafts room. As I laughed and joked with them it had struck me how much they had seen in their short lives and reflected on how serious a conflict it was to have driven them this huge distance from their homes in Syria.

The Oxfam-funded centre tries to give refugee children, frequently homeless, a space to enjoy the pastimes they loved so much back home. It helps Syrian children, traumatised by what they have seen, to restore some normality and fun to their lives. 

Above: Refugee children at the Oxfam-supported Al Jalil children’s centre in Beqaa Valley in Lebanon where activities like soccer and art provide a respite from the day-to-day challenges of being so far from home.

The centre has had huge success forming a mixed gender soccer team. As you can see from my pictures, the boys from Bishopstown, Co Cork are delighted to have the chance to help bring a sense of hope and fun for the refugee children.  

As we mark World Refugee Day this Saturday (July 20th), we would like to say a huge well done to everyone at Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh. They have raised vital awareness in their own community about the situation facing Syrian refugees and shown solidarity with displaced communities who have escaped the violence in Syria.

*Thank you to the EU which funded the media trip to Lebanon which generated the news reports mentioned in this article, part of the EUsaveLives campaign. For more information on the project, click here  and visit www.eusavelives.org

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The spirit of Vanuatu

Vanuatu-Efate-Pang Pang Village-Mark, Oxfam staff, hands voucher to cyclone survivor. Photo: Groovy Banana/OxfamAUS

About three months ago, on the morning of 14 March 2015, I opened the door of my home in Port Vila slowly, not sure what I would see outside after Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam had screeched its way across our beautiful Vanuatu. At the time I thought, and wrote, that our world would be quite different out there. And it was. My first impression was of the physical devastation. My second (just a few minutes later) was that somehow we now had a cat in our garden! The phrase “raining cats and dogs” came to mind. We named it “Cat Five” and took care of it, but that’s another story for another day.

None of us in Vanuatu could imagine what a Category 5 cyclone would do to Vanuatu. Our Oxfam team tried to. We had to prepare and work with our partner organisations to prepare for something, the impact of which we were really not sure of as the country had little experience of a cyclone of this magnitude. None of us were too sure about how we and the whole of Vanuatu would respond to whatever Pam did to our country and people.

 

Only a few minutes out of my home’s door, I had a good sense of both. Large parts of Vanuatu had been devastated. It was, quite simply, bad. Pam had been cruel to our country in many ways. She had ripped large pieces of it to shreds leaving it looking naked and fragile; and leaving many of us feeling that way too. Pam had killed mercifully few for the magnitude of her force. But the people of Vanuatu were already out there, taking control of their own fate, making sure that Pam’s “control” was not allowed to settle over us or hold us back for a moment longer than it could.

In the early days after Pam, we only had ourselves to rely on. The outside world was cut away; and most of the many beautiful islands that make up Vanuatu were isolated from each other too. This didn’t stop families, friends, communities, organisations, government departments and our amazing team of Oxfamers just getting down to work and starting to make things better in whatever way possible. It was amazing to watch and an incredible privilege to be part of. Like the rest of Vanuatu, our Oxfam team emerged safely, a little dazed and tired, but ready to get on with whatever needed to be done.

Much has been said of the amazing Vanuatu response across all forms of media and in early pieces of research. Resilience was what people called it as soon as they could give it a name. That label, for me, quickly became too commonly used — taking away the “something special” that I felt and saw happening in Vanuatu. But what else could it have been? I searched my (very tired) brain for other ways to describe it, to give it a title which had a deeper sense of specialness for me. No luck. And then I looked at synonyms for resilience and there hidden among terms such as elasticity, buoyancy, hardiness and toughness was a word that fitted better: spirit. A simple term, but one which captured the essence of what I was seeing and feeling among our Oxfam team and the general population — a spirit that was strong, positive, realistic, practical under stress and located somewhere deep in the fabric of the people of Vanuatu, deep in their culture and traditions, deep in their hearts and minds.

Three months on and this spirit has done, and keeps doing, amazing things. And it is everywhere. Thanks to the amazing support of people across the world, we were able to launch a solid response to Cyclone Pam. Our team has grown, as has our work at Oxfam. While the initial “surge” needed us to bring in specialist skills from across the world, we have also been able to tap into the amazing spirit and talent of the people of Vanuatu.

I have worked with and watched young Ni-Vanuatu people new to Oxfam absorb the Oxfam values — that are so central to what we do — with ease and enthusiasm. Likewise, I am experiencing Oxfam learn and grow from the spirit of these young people — a deeply valuable and rewarding exchange and a privilege; an unanticipated gift from Pam.

Alice at Vanuatu-Efate-Matarisu village. Evelyn signs list to get emergency voucher. Philemon, community leader. Sandi and three sons, Wilkins, William and Philip n front of their house damaged by cycline Pam. Photos: Groovy Banana/OxfamAUS
 

We have done much. Our Oxfam teams provided life-saving emergency water to communities directly after Pam struck. We have built new longer-term relationships in our recovery work, some with remote communities on small islands. On Epi Island, Oxfam teams were the first to arrive in some communities and provided much needed emergency supplies, and, importantly, a sense that the world out there cared for them. We have continued our work there and on Efate Island. Our expert skills in technical water system restoration have done amazing things, as has our pioneering work in emergency food security, livelihoods and public health and hygiene education. Our partners too have worked hard with us to engage in all of this work. Always making sure that gender, protection of vulnerable community members and sound monitoring, evaluation, learning and accountability mechanisms are core to whatever we do. Together with this, the incredible work that has gone into our coordination role of the Vanuatu Humanitarian Team has been recognised as significant in the response to Cyclone Pam.

Today I look out over Port Vila, from our offices on the hill above the bay, and it is clear that the land is responding to the spirit — healing itself and sharing this with the rest of the world. The green is returning, plants are growing, flowers are dotting the place with tentative colour, markets are reopening, homes are being rebuilt, smiles are getting bigger and children are at school again. Gone are the constant sounds of chain saws cutting away at the trees that fell across our roads and buildings. Gone too are the clouds and smells of heavy smoke that hung across the city when people could only dispose of the debris by burning it. The warped and crushed metal of roofs have been cleared, signs are back up and shattered windows replaced. The harbor is no longer silent, and likewise the airport — we hear the horns of the boats and ships, see their twinkling lights again at night, and hear the flights come in and out of the airport almost as they used to. Somehow, these have become good sounds. Businesses are rebuilding and customers and tourists are returning to enjoy our special place on the planet. Lessons are being learnt and shared, government is working to respond in ways they consider best, and donors, local not-for-profit agencies and international agencies such as Oxfam are doing whatever they can to support. It is an amazing journey.

Of course, all of this will be documented in copious research and evaluation reports. Pages of paper. Some of the work will be critiqued and some applauded depending on the time and audience. This is all normal in the cycle of events after a cyclone of this magnitude. But through these formal processes we should never lose sight of that special spirit, the simple (but, at the same time complex and often elusive) “something special” that has carried us to the point we are at, and will carry Vanuatu beyond this point too.

As the anniversaries of Cyclone Pam come and go we need to continue to embrace the spirit we have experienced; the sprit that has always and will always be at the core of what makes Vanuatu and her people get up, dust themselves off and get on with life in such amazing ways. I said in the early days that there were lessons for the world in this — there have been and will be. Watch this space!

Colin Collett van Rooyen is Oxfam Vanuatu's Country Director. 

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‘A yes vote in Ireland will give us hope for LGBT rights in Zimbabwe’

Oxfam Ireland is supporting a ‘Yes’ vote in Republic of Ireland’s marriage referendum on May 22nd because we believe that equality and human rights belong to us all, regardless of sexual orientation. These rights include the right to marry the person you love. We work with civil society organisations and citizen activists to build a social movement for justice and equality on a broad range of issues, including gay rights.

Brian Malone, Oxfam Ireland’s Digital Coordinator, recently visited Zimbabwe and met with an Oxfam supported, feminist collective of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women called Voice of the Voiceless (VOVO). 

The LGBT community in Zimbabwe are denounced by their aggressively homophobic government. Homosexuality is a crime under Zimbabwean law with a one-year prison sentence for sexual relations between men. Hate speech, beatings, arbitrary arrests and even ‘corrective’ rape are rife.

Supported by Oxfam, VOVO provides a safe space for LBT women to connect, share stories and raise the visibility of women’s issues within the broader LGBT community. Sian Masuko, Oxfam Women’s Rights Programme Manager in Zimbabwe, explains that, for many of them, VOVO meetings are the only time these women feel safe enough to be who they really are.

Some are private, invite only gatherings where members feel safe to share their stories openly. Other events are more public like last year’s courageous feminist ‘transect’ walk around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, highlighting the areas where LBT women don’t feel safe.

“We went to the Central Police Station and a trans woman spoke because she had been arrested. She spoke about how difficult it is to be free and to be who you are and how you are constantly attacked on the basis of your identity. That was a bit of a risky one so we had to stand at a slight distance.”

Carol and Sku, bravely agree to share their experiences of being gay in Zimbabwe. Sku is wearing a purple t-shirt with, ‘Women Who Are Not Afraid to Use the F-word – Feminism’, written on it. Carol makes a joke about not wanting to be on camera – not for personal, security reasons but because she thinks she “looks like a pirate” today. 

“I think Zimbabwe would have a lot of ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’,” Carol says. “You’re always in character. It takes a toll on the mind. Sometimes it’s just making it through the day and saying ok I didn’t get arrested. I got home after sunset and no-one mugged me. No one spiked my drink at the bar. No one sent me threatening messages.”

In the middle of all this oppression, Sian tells me there’s also a lot of laughter and celebration.

“I think for VOVO this year there was a shift to say, ‘You know what? We’re actually not going to apologise for who we are anymore. We’re going to start to celebrate’. Because what we see as a good, positive, democratic society is a celebration of diversity and not a society where you have to apologise for who you are, and are always having to cut corners or trying to pretend.” 

Above: VOVO members dance in the streets of Bulawayo, t-shirts emblazoned with the message: 'Women who are not afraid to use the F-word - FEMINISM'. Photos: Sian Masuko/Oxfam.

Irish Marriage Equality Referendum

I told Carol and Sku about the gay rights movement in Ireland and we watched Panti's Noble Call. Then I told them how, on May 22nd, voters in the Republic of Ireland will take part in a national referendum on legalising same-sex marriage, i.e. allowing gay and lesbian couples the right to civil marriage. As it currently stands, lesbian and gay couples cannot get married and do not have equal status under the Irish Constitution.

I was curious to know how they feel when they see LGBT communities in other countries taking strides towards equality – left behind or hopeful?

For Sku, it’s the latter. “It shows us that, yeah, you can fight for something and something can actually come out of it,” she explains. “So it’s a good thing, it’s showing us that as time goes on maybe things can change here in Zim too.”

“It’s very inspiring that you’re actually at that stage in Ireland,” Carol adds. “I’m actually looking forward to hearing how that I goes. If I were Irish I would definitely say yes!... I hope the desired outcome becomes the actual outcome.”

A Yes vote in the referendum won’t just be a leap forward for human rights in Ireland. It will send a message of hope to members of the LGBT community all over the world that inequality can be challenged, that positive change can happen.

Use your voice for equality – Vote YES on May 22nd.

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Nepal now facing a double disaster

Just over two weeks since a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, there has been a second major quake.

Our teams there are rapidly assessing the situation. They include Dubliner Colm Byrne, who experienced the quake in Chautara (approx. 40km from the epicentre). 

Chautara is in the Sindhupalchowk province, the region worst affected by the first earthquake on April 25. Colm says people were afraid of the aftershocks and landslides that could follow.

“It was very powerful,” Colm says. “The ground was shaking and buildings were collapsing. I’ve also seen people being carried on stretchers.”

Oxfam is helping over 60,000 people over seven districts in Nepal, delivering clean water, emergency toilets, shelter, food assistance and hygiene kits. Reaching communities in the country’s rural districts has been challenging and initial reports suggest fresh landslides have cut off some areas.

Colm and his colleagues were fortunate not to have been beside buildings when the earthquake struck at around 12:35 Nepali time (approx. 07:50 Irish time). They were very shaken but immediately got back to work. Their concern is for those thousands of families who must now cope with what is a double disaster.

It was already a race against time to reach people before the monsoon season arrived at the beginning of June. It’s now more vital than ever for us to be able to reach as many people as possible.

“People are shocked and scared by what’s happened. They are too afraid to sleep in their homes so one of things Oxfam is trying to do is to provide spaces for people to sleep outdoors,” Colm says.

“One of the big challenges is that this is a hugely mountainous country with very few large, flat open air spaces where people can gather safely. We’ve just done an assessment this afternoon to find alternative locations.

“Whilst we don’t yet know the full extent of this second major earthquake, we do know that the people of Nepal will need much more support to help them put their lives back together.”

Thousands of you have already generously donated to this crisis and your money is helping to provide immediate aid to those in desperate need. If you haven't done so already, you can donate here, in your local Oxfam shop or by calling 1850 30 40 55.

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Horror not over yet for the people of Nepal

Colm Byrne, Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager, travels to Nepal to help people affected by the devastating earthquake, he describes the horror people are going through and knows what to expect when he gets there.

People trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Hospitals overwhelmed, with nowhere to put the dead bodies and forced to treat huge number of injuries outside. Homes reduced to a pile of rubble.

Roads and bridges damaged, with tons of rubble blocking the streets and alleys of Kathmandu and roads out of the capital practically impassable. Water supply pipes, electricity generating sub-stations, treatment plants – all these things vital for life are affected – and food, water, fuel and medicines in short-supply.

This what it is like to be on the ground in Nepal right now.

People are scared. Not only for missing loved ones, or their child’s next meal, or at what point in the future they might begin to recover the life they once knew, but also because of the threats that remain.

Scores of aftershocks hitting level 4 on the Richter scale following Saturday’s 7.9 magnitude earthquake means that most survivors are afraid to go into their homes because they fear more aftershocks or even another major tremor.

They have been gathering in open spaces and on roadsides, with one Oxfam colleague telling us how she saw families trying to bed down for the night on a football field.

The weather is bad and predicted to become worse. An Oxfam colleague says from now onwards people will start skipping meals and to rely on friends and relatives for support.

Some will be moving to areas they consider safer, where they will set up camps. Others will choose to stay close to their belongings and shattered homes, perhaps waiting for missing relatives. They will start selling assets in "distress sales".

They will use what food, cash and property they have just to get by. They will start borrowing. Many poor Nepalese will already be in debt.

The earthquake has struck a country that was already vulnerable. Half of Nepal’s 28m population don’t have access to proper sanitation and live below the poverty line, with around one-in-three of them in severe poverty.

Their ability to cope with a major disaster is crippled by the lack of economic and social infrastructure that people in richer nations take for granted. Many thousands of Nepalese are going to need a great deal of help. Following the earthquake, the government of Nepal has called for international assistance.

Oxfam’s team in Nepal is assessing the humanitarian needs following the devastating earthquake. We’ve already been flying in supplies. I will be there for the next month to lead the response, working with our local partners in Nepal and the Nepalese government.

We have already been working in Nepal for a number of years which means our team there are able to respond quickly, with your help. The need for donations is urgent. Providing shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation is critical.

Oxfam hopes to provide water for people from deep bore wells – most Nepalese got their water from tankers that delivered water to their homes but they can’t get through because of the destruction and rubble blocking roads.

Other urgent needs will be medicines, food supplies and restoring the power and communications infrastructure. Roads must be cleared so that vital aid can get through.

Please support the people of Nepal in their darkest hours.

Thank you.

Colm Byrne is Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager. To support our emergency appeal, donate here or your local Oxfam shop.

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