Refugees

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Fatem and Khalil: One Syrian family’s journey to Europe

The majority of Syrian refugees who have reached Europe have had to take dangerous, sometimes fatal, journeys across land and sea. But this is a different story, one which shows that there are other ways of providing sanctuary to those fleeing the horrors of war.

Fatem recalls the fear she felt when war broke out in her hometown of Raqqa. “We were living in the heart of the conflict,” she says. “Every time we kissed each other goodnight we thought it could be the last time.” Her husband Khalil couldn’t work after the fighting started. Money became so tight that Fatem, who was expecting their first child, couldn’t even see a doctor. But the final straw came after the birth of their baby boy, Ahmed, and the couple realised that there was no milk in the shops to feed him. ”That was the moment when we clearly realised we couldn’t stay in Syria any more,” says Khalil. He decided to go to Lebanon to find a job and a home – his young family would then follow him. The most precious thing he took with him was a photo album showing happy memories – their wedding, their parents and their beautiful house. 

Fatem, and her husband Khalil and their two children arrive in Rome. Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

Khalil had to sleep on the streets on his first night in Lebanon. It was a sign – nothing in this country would be easy. For four years the family struggled to make ends meet in their adopted home, a small country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, and a place where 70 percent of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line. For Khalil, finding work as an electrician, plumber and painter was difficult, so he still had to borrow money to feed his family, which had grown with the birth of baby Mohamed. Their home was a small, dark room in a town in Mount Lebanon, an hour from Beirut. It was cold and the children often got sick.

One day, Khalil learned from a neighbour that there was a way of travelling to Italy, safely and legally, with a humanitarian visa. After much research, the family met with the Italian organisations working on the “Humanitarian Corridors” programme, an initiative which aims to prevent both dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and human trafficking. At first, Fatem was sceptical –she never thought they would be selected. But after a couple of interviews they got the good news.

Khalil and Fatem couldn’t sleep the night before their flight to Italy. They’d been counting down the days for months, their suitcases waiting in a corner of their tiny home. Torn by their situation, they shed tears of joy and sadness. They were leaving behind those with whom they had spent the past four years – their cousin’s family, who had welcomed them into their home during their first month in Lebanon, and their neighbours, most of whom were Syrian, and who’d also fled their homeland. Above all, they were moving further away from Syria.

The journey took 24 hours, starting in Beirut and ending in the Tuscan town of Cecina. When they arrived, two social workers from Oxfam brought them to their new temporary home – a flat with a garden. The family learned that they would get money for six months to buy food, medicine and other essentials. They would have WiFi in the apartment and get Italian language lessons. And they would receive help in applying for asylum and looking for work. At the end of the six months, the family would be considered self-sufficient.

“I never imagined we would end up living in Italy. I thought the war would only last for two or three years, but the situation just gets worse,” says Khalil, as he tunes into an Arabic television channel to get the latest news from Syria. “I hope people in Europe don’t think we are terrorists or extremists. We are here because we are running away from them, from the conflict.”

Fatem adds: “We want a future for our children. That is why we are willing to learn a new language and adapt to different customs.” When asked if they would like to go back to Syria when the war ends – if they would like this story to end where it began – Fatem replies: “Of course we will go back. But if a long time passes and my children feel established here, we will only go back to visit. The stability of our family comes first.”

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Keeping families together

Layla Mohammed* (39) and her family recently returned to their home in Bashir village in Iraq after two years on the move. The family were forced to leave everything behind when ISIS captured their village and fighting broke out.

In Iraq, Oxfam is helping families like Layla’s who have returned to their homes to get back on their feet and rebuild their lives through cash for work programmes and business grants.

We’ve installed water systems and toilets in camps for those forced to flee and distributed other vital supplies such as blankets and heaters. Oxfam has also helped run trauma centres in the eastern part of the besieged city of Mosul and we continue to support health centres with water and sanitation.

Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

Life was good before ISIS came. Layla and her husband had a two-storey house, livestock and a shop – they were able to provide for their children. Initially, they weren’t afraid of ISIS because Bashir was surrounded by police and military, and they thought they would be safe

When ISIS came, Layla’s husband was away working. He had told her to stay safe at home. She didn’t know what to do.

“[My husband] told me to stay but I saw people escaping…My eldest daughter understood what was going on and she was afraid. I was afraid because they were shooting and bombing so I took my children and went to Taza, the next town. My husband called me and told me that I did well to escape. I kept thinking it was the end of our lives and they would kill us.”

Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

The battle for Bashir destroyed Layla’s home and over 100 of her friends and neighbours have never been seen again. Layla fled Taza shortly after arriving as ISIS were en route to claim it too. She lived in a mosque for seven months and then an empty school building for two months. Finally she settled with her family in a cattle shed in another village called Leylan.

“We stayed in the cattle stable for a year. The neighbours helped us and gave us food. We were strangers there but they helped us anyway. The stable was small…dirty and had scorpions. I could only think of my house in Bashir, which was clean.” 

Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

Layla was worried about her family and their future. She had decided not to send her son to the local school because she believed that they were going to return home any day. As a result, he missed out on a year of his education. Worse still, food was very scarce – and her children were starving. 

“We had nothing to feed the children, I only had sugar and water to give them. They were starving. When we were escaping from Taza I found a sack of bread someone had left for their cattle and I took it and gave it to the children to eat.”

Only one thing kept her going: “Every day that I was displaced I was living to come home.”

Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

When Bashir was retaken, Layla told her husband that she wanted to go home. But when the family returned, they couldn’t go near the house because it was littered with mines. The army had to clear the site before she could start rebuilding her home – and her life.

The first time she saw her house, Layla cried for a long time. Then she set her mind to transforming a pile of rubble into a home: “I was waking my husband up at 5am every day and I lifted the concrete blocks myself. People respected me for it in the community…They said I am doing a lot to rebuild my own house. I am happy to be home because it’s my home; even if I only eat bread I am happy to be back. I never thought I would get to come back.”

Layla and her family, who feature in our virtual reality content from Iraq, got to experience a virtual reality trip to Tanzania for themselves when Oxfam brought the head set to their home in Bashir in Iraq. Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

Last year, Oxfam launched the Right to Refuge campaign to put pressure on governments ahead of the first UN summit on refugees and migration. An incredible 32,000 people from across the island of Ireland joined us by signing our petition calling on the Irish and UK governments to do more to protect refugees and migrants.

The summit marked the start of a long process to agree a new global plan for refugees and migrants which will be announced in 2018. And while some progress has been made, it isn’t enough. What we urgently need now is action.

We are expanding our Right to Refuge campaign to call on governments to immediately do more to welcome and protect those seeking safety and to reunite families that have been torn apart as they flee from war, persecution or disaster. As part of this, we have developed a virtual reality environment where you can experience what life is like for Layla for yourself throughout this summer at various shopping centres, festivals and events throughout the island of Ireland. To find out more about our locations, please email info@oxfamireland.org.

Please take a moment to ask your government to protect the right to refuge.

*Name changed to protect identity

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The face of famine and hunger: ‘I give them tea and water to fill their stomachs’

At a site for displaced people in Pulka, northeast Nigeria, families arrive daily seeking safety, shelter, food, and clean water. 

Numbers tell only part of the story. Behind the statistics lies the anguish of parents struggling to keep their families alive.

Across Africa and in parts of the southern Arabian Peninsula a massive hunger crisis is threatening the lives of 30 million people. Some of them in an area of South Sudan are already enduring famine conditions.

Photo: Tom Saater/Oxfam

The scale of this disaster is shocking. But numbers have a way of numbing us. They can be too massive to personalise—until you listen to the stark words of a father unable to earn enough to feed his family or hear the anguish of a mother too hungry herself to produce milk for her newborn. With stories, statistics hit home.

In the photo essay below, you’ll meet some of the people struggling to survive the conflicts, drought, and terrible hunger crisis those events have triggered.

Fekri

Photo: Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

Fekri, 40, pictured here with an Oxfam-supplied hygiene kit, is a father of four living in Al-Jalilah, Yemen. “Life is difficult these days,” he says. “We cannot afford all the essential items. More than half of our money is spent on water.” 

Ahmed and Dolah

Photo: Moayed Al Shaibani/Oxfam

Ahmed, 45, and Dolah, 40, live in Khamer City, Yemen, with their eight children. Their sole source of income is Ahmed’s cobbling, but most days, he returns from the market empty-handed. Dolah goes begging at the market, hoping to collect some money or bread for the children, but she’s usually faced with verbal harassment. They hope that the war will end soon so that their children can sleep safely, free of hunger. 

Majok

Photo: Bruno Bierrenbach Feder

Majok is waiting to register for a World Food Programme distribution later in the month. He is one of hundreds of people moving from the islands to the mainland in Nyal, South Sudan, in search of food and safety. Younger family members had to help carry him during the one-and-a-half-hour trek through the swamps to make sure he was physically present for registration. 

Deqa

Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

Eighteen days before this photo of Deqa was taken in Somaliland in northern Somalia, she gave birth to her sixth child, a son who has been experiencing stomach troubles. At the moment, Daqa, who is 26, is on her own: Her husband is away tending to a goat and the single camel they have left from their herd of 200. “We eat once a day—only rice,” she said. It’s not nearly enough to meet the needs of her growing children. “I give them tea and water to fill their stomachs,” Deqa added.

Adan

Photo:Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

“Water is our main worry,” said Adan, a 58-year-old herder who has resettled in the Garadag district of Somaliland in northern Somalia with his five children. The family has moved many times in the past six months in a constant search for water. “We came here because we wanted to be closer to a water point, but the women have just got back and the water they collected is so hard and salty that we cannot even use it to dissolve milk powder. We cannot give milk to our children,” he said.

Yana

Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

When Boko Haram attacked her village in Nigeria during a wedding—taking the bride and other women—Yana, 27, fled with her four children. She now lives in the Kawar Mali ward in Maidiguiri, once the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency before the army expelled the group. Today, thousands of people displaced by the violence have found refuge in the area.

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Bloom 2017 - A World Beyond Walls

Friday, May 26th: In recent years, new border walls and fences have materialised across the world. In total, there are now 63 borders where walls or fences separate neighbouring countries. Most of them have been constructed within the European Union. At this year’s Bloom festival (Thursday June 1st to Monday June 5th in Dublin's Phoenix Park), Oxfam Ireland and GOAL are pushing back against the border wall.

Our joint Bloom garden will open a window into ‘A World Beyond Walls’ highlighting the need for a more inclusive global society, at a time of growing division across the world.

Oxfam GOAL garden at Bloom 2017

Designed by Niall Maxwell, the Oxfam Ireland and GOAL Garden will be a vibrant, community space at the imagined location of a former border wall.

Some of the concrete-like slabs have been removed from the structure and placed in front of the old wall to create the form and function of a garden, or social space, to be enjoyed by all.

What were once parts of an oppressive obstruction will become communal seating areas where the weary can rest, where children can play, where families can picnic, and where artists can perform.

Through a grit-gravel surface, a diverse planting scheme will soften the harsh concrete angles of the garden, and a light airy canopy of trees will provide shelter and shade.

‘The Oxfam Ireland and GOAL Garden – A World Beyond Walls’ will be a space for all members of society to enjoy in a spirit of harmony and unity.

Right to Refuge campaign

We’re inviting visitors to Bloom to support our Right to Refuge campaign – we’re calling upon the Irish government to remove the barriers that tear families seeking refuge apart and to allow families to come safely to this country.

Right now, refugee children over the age of 18 are separated from parents and younger siblings, grandparents are separated from grandchildren and children travelling alone cannot reach extended family settled in Ireland who want to welcome and protect them. If you would like to learn more about this campaign, please talk to the Oxfam Ireland team at the Oxfam and GOAL Garden, or visit the Oxfam Campaigns Tent, which is located in the Conservation Zone. Using virtual reality headsets, visitors to the tent can experience the life of a woman in Iraq forced to flee her home.

To vote for the Oxfam and GOAL garden, text GARDEN8 to 51500 (standard SMS rates apply). Vote before 13:00hrs on Monday, 5th June. Votes after this time will not be counted but text votes may be charged. Please follow the voting instructions exactly or your vote may not come through. ONE vote per person per garden only. SMS Provider: Puca, +353 1 499 5939. Votes open to ROI & NI residents only.
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Behind the five million ‘Syrian refugee’ tags are individual stories of love, loss, and hope

A smile lights up her honey-colored eyes. Delicate gold droplets dangle from her small ears. Her name—Warda—means rose in Arabic. She could have been a carefree 18-year-old law student in London, an aspiring actress in Paris, or a trendy blogger in NYC.

Instead, Warda lives in a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. She is pregnant with her second child and lives with her 23-year-old husband Hassan. Warda is dressed in black from head to toe, in mourning for her mother who was killed 10 days ago in Homs when a missile flattened the family home. Her earrings are her last personal belonging.

Behind her smile is a storm of grief, questions and hopes that never let up. The young woman is one of five million Syrians who have fled their war-torn country and are registered as refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries—a number that is more than the population of Ireland. Half of the pre-war population of 22 million has been uprooted. A quarter has crossed borders in search for safety. Warda was 13 when she left her home area in Homs governorate. She has not seen her father since.

“Last time I saw my mother, she came to spend a month. But she left before my first child was born,” says Warda, scrolling through photos on her mobile phone. She shows me a picture of her mother Hanane, beaming as she stands next to her on her wedding day. Warda was dressed in white, her hair in an elaborate up-do, her eyes lined with kohl. “We got married here in the camp. There was dancing and singing. Life has to go on,” she says.

But her life is anything but normal. Her son Jaafar is now 13 months old. Like so many Syrian children born in Lebanon, he has no official papers, and hence no nationality. Jaafar is neither Syrian nor Lebanese. Would his own country even allow him back in after the war?

The lack of documentation for newborns resulting from the amount and cost of red tape is one of many challenges Syrian refugees face in neighboring countries such as Lebanon. They have little-to-no access to the job market, they contract debts to complement the little humanitarian aid they receive, they don’t have full access to education, and they live with the constant fear of deportation.

Yet those who have turned towards rich third countries have either found closed doors when they attempted to travel, or have risked their lives on rickety boats to reach the shores of Europe. Five million refugees now live in limbo, waiting for an elusive peace to go back home or for an improbable plane ticket to Europe or North America. That’s half a million people spread across dozens of cities around the world. In Lebanon, one in five inhabitants is now a refugee.

Not far from Warda’s tent, in another informal settlement built on privately-owned agricultural land, Abou Imad, 53, sips tea while waiting for the young men and women of his family to come back from a day in the fields. Bent in two under the baking sun, they would have harvested onions or planted potatoes for less than $10 per day. Next to him, his two youngest girls sit quietly. Though they had a spot in the local school—the Lebanese government having opened public schools to around half of the Syrian children—they stopped going because their father can’t afford the bus ride. “What will happen to this generation?” he asks. “That’s what worries me most. They are growing up to be illiterate. We, the older generation, have nothing left to lose. But them?”

Abou Imad thought he had seen it all. A soldier in the Syrian army that fought in the Lebanon civil war (1975-1990), he went on to become a truck driver criss-crossing the Middle East and delivering goods to US-occupied Iraq in 2004. In 2010, he settled in his hometown of Raqqa, but little did he know that the terrorist group ISIS would drive him out of what became a few years later the heart of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria.

“Look at this woman. Dressed like this, she would not have been able to stick her head out of the door. They would have killed her,” he says pointing to his new daughter-in-law, Ahlam, which means dreams in Arabic. A fresh-faced, raven-haired young Syrian woman wearing a red dress, she left Raqqa a few months ago. She took a perilous journey through Iraq and Jordan to reach Lebanon and marry Abou Imad’s son. Now a refugee, she has been embraced by her new family, and can live without the threat of extremism.

But Abou Imad’s heart stayed in Syria and he wants to see his homeland even just one last time. “You see how big the ocean is? Even the smallest fish, after travelling far and wide, will come back to rest under that same rock it was born under.”

The names in this story have been changed to protect the security of the individuals.

We are providing lifesaving aid to displaced people in the Middle East, and we’re helping families meet some of their basic needs as they travel beyond the region to seek safety.

The entry posted by Joelle Bassoul (@JoBassoul), Oxfam Media advisor, Syria Response, on 3 April 2017.

Photo: Warda, with her child Jaafar and husband Hassan, lives in a tent in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley after leaving her home in Syria. Credit: Joelle Bassoul/Oxfam

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