From the field

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Aleppo – voices from the ground

Cut off from supplies and heavily bombarded, the people of in the Syrian city of Aleppo have borne the brunt of the fighting and have suffered far too much and too long in this bloody conflict. 
 
Since the end of July, when the fighting intensified in the city, there have been reports of attacks on schools and hospitals from the air and indiscriminate shelling and bombardment of civilian areas. Hundreds of people, including many children, have reportedly been killed. 
 
The city, which is divided in two parts (the West side of the city is under control of the government and the East side is under control of the opposition) has seen its main supply routes blocked by warring parties and thousands of civilians are cut off from food, water, and health care.
 
Since the encirclement of the eastern part of Aleppo by pro-government forces and its allies at the end of July, and the counter-attack by armed opposition groups, little to no aid has reached hundreds of thousands of people in need. The situation is harrowing, with the recent battles pushing already vulnerable people to the brink.
 

DAILY STRUGGLE 

 
“Just when you think the situation might improve, something new happens,” says Amjad*, a 33-year-old taxi driver who lives with his mother in West Aleppo. He spends most of his time driving around the city. 
 
“We got used to the destruction, the scene of people filling in jerry cans, and children carrying jerry cans heavier than them”.
 
Samah*, a 12-year-old girl, recently fled with her family from rural Aleppo, looking for safety and shelter in the city. Samah says: “I used to go to school, but now every day I go to collect water for my family. It’s easy to carry the jerry cans if they are empty, but it’s hard when they are filled with water.”
 
Faisal* (65) lives with his wife in their home in West Aleppo. Faisal has lived in his neighbourhood for more than 30 years, and never had to buy water.
 
He says: “I miss those days when we used to open the tap and get as much water as we wanted. The first thing you lose when you don’t have water is your dignity”. 
 
Faisal has two sons who left Syria. Instead of having water delivered to his home at a cost, Faisal walks two kilometres each day to fill half a jerry can. With his back pain and the distance, he can’t carry more than 10 litres of water.
 
“It is a daily struggle, but I have no other option. Our building is empty, all the neighbours left. I have to make this journey every day.”
 
Nada* (23) has three sons and lives with her relatives in East Aleppo. When her husband died in 2013, she wanted to reduce her expenses and she moved in with her relatives. Now five families share two rooms. 
 
“I am a desperate woman who took a desperate measure, but I had no choice,” says Nada. 
 
Amina* was also displaced inside East Aleppo, and moved with her daughter and two sons to her relatives’ house. 
 
Amina says: “I am tired. The only thing I have is the clothes I am wearing. Everything is expensive, cooking is a struggle, showering is a struggle. Everything is a struggle. There’s no electricity, I have no income, no skills and I can’t support my children and that’s frustrating. I can’t ask my poor relatives for support. We are all waiting for things to get better. We are waiting without hope.”
 
Dibeh* (27) has three children and lives with her family in a in a basement with two other families who have been displaced inside Aleppo. 
 
“I lost hope, and I feel that things will never improve,” says Dibeh. “I don’t have money and I lost everything. I can’t afford a jerry can. I would prefer to pay rent, buy milk and nappies for my two-year-old son. My husband is not working anymore and we have no income at all. We were filling water in old bottles and buckets. We are eating less and less food every day to save some money because things are getting worse.”
 
 
Children in West Aleppo fill jerry cans from a truck. Both sides of the divided city have been suffering from water cuts, since the fighting intensified at the end of July. Power cuts and damage to the infrastructure have meant that more than 1.6 million people have little to no access to the water system. Alternative solutions are local wells, and water trucking. All photos: Oxfam
 
 
Syrians who have been displaced by the fighting in Aleppo camp in a park in the Western side of the city, under government control. Thousands of civilians have taken shelter in parks, mosques, and schools on both sides of the city as the conflict rages on. Their humanitarian needs are increasing as food prices have increased, and access to healthcare and water is becoming more difficult. Photo: Oxfam
 

WHAT OXFAM IS DOING IN ALEPPO

 
Oxfam is helping to provide clean water across battle lines in eastern and western Aleppo as well as elsewhere in Syria. 
 
Oxfam is making available goods such as family hygiene kits, jerry cans, water tanks, water filters, chlorine tablets, and water testing kits for planned UN convoys out of Damascus and we hope that the proposed 48 hour ceasefire will allow delivery into Aleppo. 
 
A generator intended to ensure that water is pumped to the city, even when power supplies are cut off, has only been able to operate irregularly due to fuel shortages and engineers have been unable to carry out essential repairs to the water infrastructure due to the fighting. 
 
We have people on the ground in Aleppo who are trying to assess and meet the needs of water infrastructure and of water, sanitation and hygiene needs for displaced people – but until there is a cessation of fighting in the area, insecurity and lack of access make that very difficult. 
 

CEASEFIRE

 
While a proposed 48 hour ceasefire in Aleppo is welcome, it must not be a one-off. A fully-fledged sustained ceasefire in the conflict is necessary to get desperately-needed humanitarian aid into all areas of Aleppo; to deal with the scale of the suffering, devastation and destruction in the city; to ensure that essential repairs to the water and power supplies can be carried out; and to ensure the protection of civilians. 
 
Such a ceasefire is needed not just in Aleppo but also across all of Syria. Somehow, the conflict needs to be de-escalated by all parties and there must be an end to indiscriminate attacks or deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.
 
* All names have been changed to protect identities.
 

Facebook Live chat with Oxfam's Syria Crisis Response Manager

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World Humanitarian Day: The people behind emergency responses

"World Humanitarian Day is an annual reminder of the need to act to alleviate the suffering. It is also an occasion to honour the humanitarian workers and volunteers toiling on the frontlines of crises. I pay tribute to these dedicated women and men who brave danger to help others at far greater risk." — UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon

On this World Humanitarian Day, we recognise the people who work tirelessly to deliver crucial humanitarian support to families and communities around the world. Each year more than 30 million people flee their homes as a result of conflict and natural disaster and over 500,000 people are killed in war. Oxfam is currently working in emergencies in over 30 countries. Some are in the public eye; some are forgotten and out of the spotlight. Thanks to the continued dedication of humanitarian workers such as those featured below, we’re able to respond to wherever we’re needed.

Sara Zehl (29) from Germany volunteers as a team leader with Oxfam, managing the distribution in the Kara Tepe camp on the island of Lesvos.

Speaking about her decision to come to Greece, Sara says: “I was at home literally sat on the couch watching the news. And I just wanted to come over and help, both the people arriving and the Greek population too, to support everyone. So I left my job working in hotel management and flew over. I have been here for six months now and whilst it is hard seeing families in this situation, I am passionate about helping and trying to make a difference."

Colm Byrne, Oxfam Ireland's Humanitarian Manager, is pictured here during a monitoring visit to Malakal, South Sudan. This region was the first place where Colm was deployed as a humanitarian worker and so when the opportunity arose to return with Oxfam, Colm says he “couldn’t say no”.

Colm’s motivation to engage in humanitarian work stems from a moment many will remember - the 1984 famine in East Africa which inspired Band Aid and subsequently Live Aid.  Speaking about how his perspective on aid work has changed over time, Colm says: “I’ve learnt that being a humanitarian is broader than I originally thought. It’s not just about people on the front line. There are lots of ways of being a humanitarian – whether you’re an urban planner creating safe spaces for people to live or local fundraiser who generates vital income.” 

Marianna Kapelle is a member of Oxfam's gender and protection team in the Filippiada camp, Epirus Region, northwest Greece. Speaking about her work, Marianna says: “As a Protection Officer with Oxfam I spend most of my time in the camps, talking with the refugees mostly in Arabic, which is my passion and helps people to share their thoughts and feel more comfortable. Part of my role is to provide as much information as possible so people are able to make the best choices for themselves and their families. I am so grateful to be able to support people who are so resilient and brave, despite everything they have been through. Everyone has so much hope still and open-hearted smiles. This is something that inspires me every day."

Vincent Malasador was part of Oxfam’s rapid assessment team that responded in the immediate aftermath to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. Vincent’s dedication to the cause is clear when he describes a typical work day: “We would wake up very early, take our lunch at sundown and take our sleep hours past midnight; this was the life we had to live so that we could provide the support that the struggling communities needed to survive.”

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“I never thought I’d be a refugee”: From Aleppo to Belfast

“I never thought I’d be a refugee.”
 
So says Ahmad Alissa, a Syrian refugee now living in Belfast who volunteers at Oxfam’s shop on Botanic Avenue. 
 
Born in Aleppo, Ahmad is from a family of four brothers and five sisters who had a comfortable life thanks to their large olive grove farm and also from a business producing materials for the construction industry. 
 
“We had to leave Syria quickly, it took a short time,” he says. Now Syria is empty.” 
 
“When I first left Syria, I thought I’d be a refugee for a maximum of one year… maybe two years,” Ahmad continues. “But that dream is gone now. Now it seems Belfast and Northern Ireland is my home.
 
“When I was first a refugee, I had to learn Turkish, so I learnt Turkish. Then I had to learn Greek. Now I hope English is the last language I will have to learn.” 
 
Ahmad was speaking after the screening of a documentary called District Zero at the Belfast Film Festival’s Better World Fringe section organised by the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies (CADA NI), an umbrella group of large and small charities based in Northern Ireland, working to tackle poverty and its root causes around the world. 
 
 
 
The story of a Syrian refugee who begins a new life in Jordan’s Zaatari camp is the focus of District Zero, a documentary film co-produced by Oxfam and the European Commission. The film focuses on Maamun Al-Wadi – one of almost 60 million refugees and displaced people worldwide – who runs a mobile phone shop in Jordan’s Zaatari camp. Maamun fixes mobile phones and helps fellow refugees print off photos of happier times. Photos by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
 
District Zero – a film co-produced by Oxfam and the European Commission – tells the story of Maamun, a Syrian refugee who begins a new life in fixing mobile phones and helps fellow refugees print off photos of happier times.
 
In almost five years Syria has become the epicentre of a massive humanitarian catastrophe, causing 4.6 million people to flee the country for their lives and 6.8 million more to be displaced internally.
 
While each refugee’s story is different – for example, unlike the film’s protagonist, Ahmad left Syria before the conflict because of political persecution, and was never in a refugee camp – the documentary does reflect some heart-breaking universal truths behind the refugee experience. 
 
“No-one wants to be a refugee,” says Colm Byrne, who as Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager has visited refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. “How desperate do you have to be to get into one of those boats looking to cross the Mediterranean? People want to thrive. In Zaatari camp, the people revert to doing what they do at home. They want to move forward, they want to grow.”
 
Ahmad agreed: “Nobody is happy to leave their home. When I was living in a peaceful Syria, I never imagined I would be a refugee. It’s a reminder that, in the wrong circumstances, anyone could end up as a refugee.
 
“Many of the people shown in the film come from lives not dissimilar to people I have met here in Northern Ireland – with families and friends, jobs and homes,” added Ahmad.
 
While Colm agreed with one of the audience members who suggested that the film depicted the best possible refugee experience – with good conditions and economic opportunities – he said: “District Zero shows the heart-breaking reality of refugees in the world. This is as good as it gets for refugees in terms of facilities. You can meet people’s material needs, but in a crisis people want a human connection and a connection to home.
 
“But this fascinating film does take us into the often invisible world of refugees: a world of chaos and uprootedness. It shows us the complex human realities of people who have been driven to extremes, but who, against many odds, still have hope.” 
 
The film gives a face to the daily drama of millions of people and shows that behind every number and every statistic, there is a story to be told. The title of the film evokes the idea of the lives of Zaatari’s inhabitants being suspended or stuck at a ‘Point Zero’ because of the ongoing war in Syria. 
 
“Conflict has forced people to live in these camps with an uncertain future. They remain stuck in limbo, unsure when they will be able to reunite with their families, or go back to their homeland,” Colm added.
 
Also on the panel discussion, chaired by blogger Alan Meban, was Monica McWilliams, a Professor of Women's Studies at Ulster University of Ulster and a renowned expert on women in conflict. Monica has been involved in capacity building of Syrian women's groups in Geneva to bring women's voices into the negotiation process. 
 
Monica told the audience: “When in conflict woman are thrown into extraordinary circumstances and they do extraordinary things. The courage, resilience and coping skills shown in the film touches your heart.
 
“When I saw the baby in the film I wondered, what life it will have in the next four years or the next eight years? Will it have a better life than its mother? Is its father still alive?”
 
 
Clockwise from top: From left: Blogger and panel chair Alan Meban; Ahmad Alissa, with his daughter Sara; Oxfam Ireland Campaigns and Advocacy Executive Christine McCartney, co-organiser and Chair of CADA NI; Monica McWilliams, an expert on women in conflict; Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager Colm Byrne. Photo by Kevin Doherty. Ahmad Alissa, a Syrian refugee now living in Belfast, spoke as part of the post-screening panel discussion. Photo by Conor Meikleham. Colm Byrne spoke as part of the panel discussion following the film premiere. Photo by Kevin Doherty 
 
 
To wrap up the event each panellist was asked to recommend a course of action for the international community on Syria and what we here in Ireland, north and south, need to do.
 
Colm Byrne said: “The concept of humanitarianism is one we hold dear yet we’re not responding to the crisis correctly. Europe’s response to the refugee crisis does not reflect a focus based on humanity, it’s a security response. The deal between the EU and Turkey deal is ill-thought through and illegal, contrary to the spirit of international and humanitarian law.
 
“Wealthy states only accommodate 10% of refugees. We have to accept our fair share. We need to directly engage with our politicians to find solutions, to physically open our arms. As communities, rights holders and voters we need to put pressure on our leaders to do our fair share.
 
“And we need to build on our experience of conflict here in Ireland and what we’ve learnt from that.”
 
Monica McWilliams added: “In the future my grandchildren may ask me, ‘Where were you when they were using chemical weapons in Syria? What did the world stand up and say?’
 
“So we need to keep working on a humanitarian and political response using the 1325 National Consultative Group implementing the UN Security Council Resolutions on women, peace and security. And we need to keep Syria high up on the media’s agenda.”
 
Addressing the audience, Ahmad said: “All of you here have seen now what’s happening in Syria. You need to tell your friends and family, everybody must know.”
 
Phillip Graham is a Media and Communications Executive with Oxfam Ireland.
 
The District Zero film is part of the ‘EUsaveLIVES – You Save Lives’ campaign by Oxfam and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), which aims to raise awareness on the lives of almost 60 million refugees and displaced people worldwide.
 
 

District Zero trailer

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Building back stronger in Nepal, one year on

Oxfam has provided water and sanitation in temporary schools in Gorkha, Nepal, after many were destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

On 25 April 2015, Nepal was struck by the first of two major earthquakes that left nearly 9,000 people dead and destroyed or damaged more than 850,000 homes.

I was in Nepal in the immediate aftermath of the first quake and saw first-hand the difference your donation made as we were able to provide clean water, sanitation, emergency shelter materials, food and other vital relief.

Your donation has helped not only provide immediate aid like shelter, blankets and clean water but also now the hope of a return to normality.

Critically, your support also means that Oxfam can continue to support affected communities throughout what will be a long road to recovery.

Over the last year, Oxfam’s response has benefitted 481,900 people in seven of the worst-hit districts of Nepal with:

  • 49,978 emergency shelters
  • 13,097 winter kits including blankets and thermal mats to provide protection in freezing temperatures
  • 54,365 hygiene kits to enable people drink and wash safely Installation of more than 150 large clean water storage tanks
  • Over 7,000 toilets or latrines
  • 2,300 cash grants, tools and training to help families rebuild their livelihoods
  • Cash-for-work programmes for over 20,400 families

Bimala, Gana and Netra are just some of the thousands of people supported at the most challenging of times. Their stories are powerful examples of how your support has enabled Oxfam to rebuild communities, restore livelihoods and help people return to normality, stronger and better prepared than before. 

BIMALA’S STORY

Bimala Balami can piece her life back together after participating in an Oxfam cash-for-work programme in Kathmandu Valley. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

Bimala Balami’s life was devastated by the earthquake, which destroyed her home in Dachi Nkali municipality, in the Kathmandu valley. Bimala recalls: “My mind went completely numb. I couldn’t think. I only cared about my baby. I just wanted to protect my child.

“After the earthquake people didn’t know what they would do or how they would earn. Oxfam came in and now the women in the village know they can provide for their families.”

On the hillside fields where her local community grow rice, wheat, mustard, peas, cucumber and other vegetables, the irrigation channel that provides water for the crops was badly damaged as a result of a landslide triggered by the earthquake.

Oxfam has responded with your support by paying groups of 30 women, including Bimala, to construct a new irrigation channel. This provides the women with an income and the community with prospects of a substantive harvest.

Bimala is part of the group working on the new channel. “I like the job that I am doing because I know it is for the welfare of my entire village. People do need proper irrigation for their fields and I know that. If I don’t do this work people won’t even be able to eat.”

For people like Bimala, trying to piece their lives back together after the earthquake, cash-for-work projects such as this make the critical difference between hope and despair. It creates opportunity to rebuild not only individual lives but also that of whole communities at the same time.

In all we have organised 25 similar cash for work programmes in the area where Bimala lives involving 600 people, including clearing debris and repairing roads damaged by the earthquakes and subsequent tremors. Across our response, over 20,000 households have benefitted from such schemes.

GANA'S STORY

Gana Butrai received livelihood support in the form of a small business grant from Oxfam. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

We have supported women across four districts with financial support in the form of cash grants to enable them to restart their businesses and get their livelihoods back on track, including shop-keeper Gana Butrai.

“The day the earthquake happened I was actually in my shop,” she recalls. “The only thing I was thinking was will I live or will I die. I didn’t look at my watch but it felt as though it went on for at least half an hour. The ground felt like it was shaking for almost an entire day.

“The building was damaged in the earthquake; it used to have a top floor but it fell down and the wall on the left fell down as well.

“I had to ask people to come and help me but I couldn’t retrieve all of the items and lots of them expired. So I had to start again, reconstructing the entire space. Things have become a lot easier since Oxfam has helped.

“The first help that Oxfam gave me was a grant of 4,000 rupees and since then they have helped me with material support. I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart.” 

NETRA’S STORY

Business is now booming for trader Netra Parajuli after Oxfam’s support. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam.

We are distributing vouchers so people can buy what they need to restart their farms, businesses and kitchen gardens – which is good news for traders like Netra Parajuli. Before the earthquake, Netra ran a thriving shop in Lamosanghu, but like thousands of others, his livelihood was destroyed in the disaster.

“Everything started moving and we all started running towards the door. Slabs of concrete were falling all around us. I thought they would kill me.

“I couldn’t breathe; there was dust everywhere. I tried to see someone around me but I couldn’t see anyone. I thought I was dead. Suddenly a wall broke and I saw light. I ran towards it.

“Everything was under the debris. We couldn’t even dig the dead people out. I started breaking the concrete so that we could pull people out. That day I pulled four people alive from the rubble. They were trapped and I could hear them crying. I had no idea how many people had died then.”

With the stock he salvaged, Netra has managed to set up a temporary shop, and thanks to Oxfam’s voucher scheme, business is now back on track.

“I’ve had almost 900 people come to my shop because of the vouchers being distributed. The most popular items have been the spade, then hoe and then the watering can. If people’s tools are damaged, I repair them. I make the hoes myself.”

Oxfam has distributed over 6,000 vouchers to help people buy agricultural tools and supplies, with each voucher worth 2,000 rupees (around €17/£13). The distribution supports not only the people receiving the vouchers, enabling them to restart their kitchen gardens and farms, they also support local traders and store owners like Netra and reignite the local economy.

A further distribution is planned to commence soon, supporting local communities with livestock and grain storage through cash grants. In addition to direct assistance, Oxfam is advocating with national and local authorities in Nepal for the roll-out of a recovery process and plan that ensures no-one is left behind – especially women and other marginalised communities with limited resources or opportunities even before this crisis and who are now only more vulnerable.

We are urging a reconstruction effort that builds back better, creating a fairer, more equal and inclusive society than before.

Colm Byrne is Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager.

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‘If those corporations were paying their dues my friend would not have died’

Clockwise from left: Cecillia, Stella and Getrude - tax justice activists, campaigning to change the policies and structures that allow rich individuals and multinational companies to avoid paying the tax they owe. Photos: Mark Bushnell/Oxfam
 
Scandals like the recently released Panama Papers show the enormous lengths people, from government officials, big businesses, celebrities and the wealthy elite, will go to avoid paying tax. 
 
The whole world has been talking about the leaked documents and those named for tax dodging – often through perfectly legal loopholes that deny poor countries of billions needed for essential services like health and education. 
 
But there are also people going to extraordinary lengths to tackle the inequality that keeps people poor and to make tax fair for everyone. 
 
People like Ene Agbo from Nigeria, Cecillia Mulenga from Zambia, Gertrude Chirwa from Malawi and Stella Agara from Kenya but working in Malawi – four inspiring women who are taking on the tax dodgers and who we are delighted to be hosting in Ireland this weekend. 
 
The four activists are currently travelling around Europe meeting with the public, decision-makers and Oxfam supporters to share first-hand how tax dodging is harming people and communities. 
 
You are invited to join us in Dublin and Belfast to hear for yourself why tackling the global toxic tax system matters and to catch their contagious energy and passion for the fight against tax dodging.  
 
Cecillia told us: “You should be around in Zambia when we are doing campaigning – it’s one of the best days…!”
 
She has a very personal reason for getting angry about public funds lost to tax dodging. A good friend of hers died when she was eight months pregnant because there were no health facilities.  
 
Cecillia says: “If those corporations were paying their dues my friend would not have died. They would have built a hospital; they would have built a better road in that same area. That would have helped her and kept her alive.”

Meet Cecillia

Stella said the lengths some firms go to avoid paying tax in Malawi is mind-blowing: “It is the order of the day for small business to pay more tax than multinational companies, yet multinational companies are making billions out of Malawi,” she says. 
 
Stella believes that this corporate tax dodging is driving inequality in Malawi: “For me I have seen people enjoy very wealthy lives…and I have seen people who are very poor, who don’t ever put on shoes – that is when you have seen poverty.”

Meet Stella

Gertrude is 22 years old and raises awareness about tax injustice in the community, particularly with young people. She believes it’s down to ordinary citizens to do something about tax dodging. 
 
Gertrude says: “When I learnt about it, I got really angry and motivated at the same time…I need to do something about it, I need to make others also aware there are a lot of tax injustices happening in our country and that we can do something, particularly the youth.  
 
“What I say to the campaigners in the rest of the world is: let’s keep up the good work, let’s keep fighting for tax justice – if we don’t do it, then who will?”

Meet Gertrude

While the headlines and the hype can make tax dodging seem complex, it is refreshing to hear from real people with real passion about what is happening on the ground – and to realise we are all connected in a global push to take on the tax dodgers and make change for good. 
 

JOIN US:

 
 
 

LIVE STREAM:

 
If you can't make the events in Dublin or Belfast, we will be doing our first ever social media live stream talk and Q&A with these activists, on Facebook and Periscope, this Saturday (April 16) at 4pm. Keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter for more info and to join our chat on Saturday.

Christine McCartney is a Campaigns and Advocacy Executive with Oxfam Ireland

Oxfam Ireland's tax justice project is funded by the European Union

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