Refugees

Art before ISIS

Little hands wrapped tightly around brushes, a small group of children paint scenes of greenery, homes and villages born from their memories of a time before ISIS. 

The excited chatter rises above the sound of pop music playing from a small stereo just outside the door. The children show each other their masterpieces and adult artists who have joined the group mentor and guide them to create their visions on paper.

A young girl from Hassansham camp enjoys Oxfam's painting workshop. Photo:TommyTrenchard/Oxfam

Sura, one of Oxfam’s public health promotion officers, sits with some of the youngest children. She shows them how to hold the paint brushes and urges them on as they slowly draw the shaky outlines of their pictures. It’s the last day of April and the children painting on canvases are in Hassansham camp – home to nearly 10,000 people who have fled the violence in and around the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Today Sura is helping run a fun painting workshop in Oxfam’s community centre in the camp. She is encouraging the children to paint positive scenes of their lives now, or their homes as they remember them, helping them pick bright colours to fill in the crooked lines.

“It’s really important to give the children a chance to have fun and do activities like painting together,” she explains. “Most of them have lived in Mosul under ISIS control for over two years and haven’t had a chance to do anything fun for a long time.”

Sura, Oxfam's Public Health Promotion Officer, helps some of the younger girls paint. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

Around the room, a few adults use easels to paint and sketch more elaborate scenes. Garbi Eunice (51), from Yarmouk, west Mosul, lives in Hassansham and volunteers with Oxfam. His symbolic picture of Mosul shows his home and the local mosque. “I drew a woman to represent Iraq – her hair is the flag,” he says, as he points to a picture pinned to the wall. “Her clothes are the hills and the river and her necklace is a map of the country. Her hands are clutching the rockets and keeping my city safe.”

Garbi’s drawing depicts Mosul and the Kurdistan region. It was important for him to show a united Iraq: “I drew birds to represent peace and I didn’t draw any clouds because they represent war; I want the skies to be clear.”

Sura says that it’s important for people to have a space where they can do positive and creative things, such as painting and drawing. “Now that they have left the bombing and the war they can start to think about nice things again,” she adds as she looks at the children working on their pictures. “These children are having a lovely day being here together having fun and that’s important for their well-being.”

A boy shows a picture he painted of his hometown, Hamdannia, which he remembers fondly. It shows the surrounding river and mountains. His hometown suffered extreme destruction at the hands of ISIS, and most families are yet to return. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

Oxfam started working in Hassansham after the camp opened in October 2016, supplying residents with water, blankets and other essential items. We also set up a casual work scheme as well as a protection programme. In May this year, we handed over most of our projects to a government agency before our staff moved to the Hamam Alil camp to work with new families from west Mosul. The painting workshop was one of a number of activities held by our teams to say goodbye to the camp volunteers and families. Our protection team will continue to work in Hassansham for the next nine months.

Yemen: The story of a war-affected people, strong in the face of adversity

A moving first-hand account of the effects of the conflict Yemen has been suffering over the past few years, but a call to remain hopeful that peace will come.

As the sun rises, covering the rocky mountains with a coat of gold, we are welcomed to Yemen by fishermen and dolphins jumping out of the blue water.

After a 14-hour boat journey from Djibouti, the view of Aden city in the early morning was a magical sight. At first, life in the city looked normal: road dividers were freshly painted, people were chatting while sipping red tea or having breakfast in small restaurants, young people were playing pool in the streets, and taxis were shouting to collect their passengers. However, as we moved into the city, buildings riddled with bullet holes appeared, several residential areas and hotels had collapsed rooves and cars were waiting in long queues for petrol.

Ghodrah and Taqeyah fill their jerry cans from the Oxfam water distribution point in Al-Dukm village, Lahj governorate. Credit: Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

This tableau of contrasts was telling the story of Aden.

The second day after our arrival, we travelled to Lahj with the Aden team. Our conversation kept switching between the work Oxfam does in Aden and other Southern governorates, and the destruction passing before our eyes, a terrible witness of the conflict Yemen has been suffering for the past few years.

OXFAM IS THERE

In such a volatile and insecure environment, Oxfam continues to provide water, improved sanitation and basic hygiene assistance to more than 130,000 affected individuals in Lahj governorate. The team sometimes travels for more than two to three hours to reach the target location. Community engagement is thus key to deliver assistance. Our staff along with community based volunteers consults affected community as well as key leaders to identify the intervention. The affected community not only participates in water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion activities, but also works closely with host communities to ensure that social harmony is maintained.  

In Lahj, the focus is to rebuild the water supply system to help both displaced people as well as local communities, and Oxfam works with the local water and sanitation authority to ensure the sustainability and viability of the rehabilitated system. Displaced people in these areas used to collect water only once in a week because of the long distances they had to walk to reach the wells. Now, both Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and host communities can access water on a daily basis.

Meeting community members made it clear that war has impacted everyone, and they all share their grief and pain and support each other. The strong bond between displaced people and host communities despite their high level of hardship also indicates that Yemeni people have come a long way through several wars and conflict and are therefore more resilient.

Water tank built by Oxfam in Al-Jalilah village, in Al-Dhale governorate. Credit: Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

HUNGER IS RAMPANT

The impact of war and conflict in Aden and surrounding governorates is very high. More than two million people were affected since the beginning of the crisis. Food insecurity in Lahj, Abyan and Al Dhale is rising.

The tragedy and suffering of Abdullah, a 70-year-old man who had to flee Abyan during the peak of the war, speaks for itself. He does believe that peace will return back to Yemen, but to survive, he had to mortgage his pension card to feed his family. There are many invisible people like him who would like to see peace come back to Yemen so their impoverished lives can improve.

DISPLACEMENT CRISIS

Resilient host communities initially provided spaces to people on the move, but now those displaced have started settling down in barren land areas on their own as well. Water, food and healthcare remain the top three priorities. Hardship has reached such a level that people are willing to mortgage anything and everything they can. Basic services and utilities including water, education and health have been halted to a greater extent and this increases stress on affected communities. 

Oxfam Yemen Country Director, Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, visits the pumping room in Al-Roweed village, as part of the water project Oxfam implemented in the area. Also there, Al-Melah district Manager and members of the water management committee. Credit: Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

FIGHTING CHOLERA

Saleema* is community health volunteer who works with Oxfam and is a true agent for change. She raises awareness with the affected communities on the importance of clean and safe water.  She visits houses and speaks to women, elders and young girls to ensure key health messages are understood and applied. Increasing numbers of young people like Saleema are supporting affected communities to rebuild their lives and to help build social cohesion. 

RESILIENCE IN THE FACE OF DARKNESS

As we returned from Lahj, the smell and taste of Mindi (local chicken and rice meal) and local paratha (wheat based chapati) reminded us that the Yemeni are resilient, standing strong in the face of adversity.

As the Apollo boat departed Aden after sunset, with the noise of waves gushing in and the darkness setting in, we remembered that a beautiful sunrise would welcome us upon arrival at our next destination. We remain hopeful that peace will arise in Yemen after the war’s darkness.

Please help us support people facing famine in Yemen and beyond by donating to our hunger crisis appeal.

Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam Yemen’s Country Director.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Yemen is in the grip of a runaway cholera epidemic that is killing one person nearly every hour and if not contained will threaten the lives of thousands of people in the coming months. We're calling for a massive aid effort and an immediate ceasefire to allow health and aid workers to tackle the outbreak.

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“Hi, I am Hazem, I hope you haven’t forgotten me yet.”

Forced migration separates families. It wrenches children from their parents and grandparents, separates siblings, forces partners to live apart, and destroys extended family networks. Over the past months, Oxfam has interviewed people that have been stranded in Greece and asked them to share their experiences during their perilous journeys to Europe and the separation from their family. The right to family life and the protection of the family is a shared value that cuts across cultures.

People who were separated from their family talked to Oxfam about the severe impacts separation has on their lives and wrote letters to their loved ones in other EU member states.

Abdul

Abdul from Herat, Afghanistan, hopes to reunite with his wife and son in Germany. He wrote a heart-warming letter to them, while he waits for his family reunification request to be processed in Epirus.

“Greetings to my wife Zahra Ahmadi and to my dear son Mohamad Taha Jan that are now in the city of Hamburg, Germany. I hope both of you are in good health and spirit. I hope one day I will be next to you and once again we live together. May God protect both of you.

With respect,

Abdul Algafar Ahmadi

 

Abdul, a refugee from Herat in Afghanistan, who fled to Epirus, Greece. Photo: Felipe Jacome/Oxfam

Najat

Najat fled with only a few members of her family from the town of Afrin in Northern Syria, and she now lives in Epirus, in Greece. She hopes to reunite with her oldest son who arrived in Germany in 2016.

“My dear son Mohannad,

How are you? How is your health?

I am your mother in Greece. Thank God that we are OK, nothing is missing, except seeing you and your brothers. How’s your health, and everything else?

Let me know about yourself.”

The EU and its member states, including Ireland, are failing to protect the right to family life for migrants, including refugees, as the new policy brief of Oxfam ‘Dear Family’ showcases. Their policies and practices are tearing families apart, forcing them to continue living apart after being separated during displacement and exposing people to risks.

The ‘MikriPoli’ Community Centre is based in Ioannina, the North-west region of Greece where Oxfam operates. Itwas established in March 2016 by Terre des Hommes and Oxfam, thanks to the support from European Union emergency support funding (ECHO). The centre helps provide cross-cultural communication and simultaneously supports people who arrive in Greece seeking safety and dignity.

Najat fled with only a few members of her family from Afrin in Northern Syria, to Epirus in Greece. Photo: Felipe Jacome/Oxfam. 

Hazem

Hazem is a 20-year-old Syrian asylum seeker who lives in Greece, and who also works in the Mikri Poli Community Centre. Hazem shared his feelings about the separation of his family, and sends a powerful message to European governments:

“I am almost 20 and I live in an apartment in Ioannina, working as an interpreter/cultural mediator for an NGO called Terre des Hommes. My main work is in the community centre in Ioannina.

 “I am in touch with my family, my mum, who has stayed with my little brother back in Syria, my brothers, who are in Germany, and my sister, who lives in a camp in Konitsa. I haven’t seen my brothers for two years and my mum for almost 1 year and a half. My mum and my brother are still in Syria. We couldn’t find a way for them to join us in Europe or even to be in a safe site [in Syria]. Now, they are a bit safe because of the ceasefire in Idlib. But anyway, this is not a permanent solution, it is a painkiller!

“Honestly, I miss my mum the most, I miss her hugs, her presence inside our home, her delicious food, and everything related to her. I am still stuck in Greece having a sharp desire to continue my studies in medicine which were interrupted due to conflict and study also about cultures and religions, how they affect each other, and how to approach people from different backgrounds. I want to take the next step and learn a new language and integrate with the society. It is still hard to feel stable. I am worried about the rest of my family and this is a sharp challenge.

“Regarding that, I have something to say to the European governments: We are still human, please, support the family reunification more and give it more importance. Because people are suffering from family dispersion and I am one of them.”

Hazem is a 20-year-old asylum seeker now living in Greece. Photo: Angelos Sioulas/Oxfam

How will the EU respond to Hazem and so many others like him?

As well as working to give practical support to people forced to flee, Oxfam has been campaigning for changes in the law to help people find safe and legal routes to escape from war and persecution, and measures to help families torn apart be united and find safety together.

Find out more information about Oxfam’s Right to Refuge – Keep Families Together campaign. You can read Oxfam’s new policy brief on refugee family reunion in Ireland here and the full ‘Dear Family’ report here. Find out more about Oxfam’s humanitarian response in Greece here.

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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.”

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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