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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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Somaliland: a day in the life of a dedicated, small-town doctor

Jama Abdi Abdile is a roving physician in a small village in Somaliland, who does not allow limited access to medication and inadequate facilities to hinder his patient care.

Jama Banner, a doctor in Somaliland

Jama Abdi Abdile, a doctor in Gawsawayne, Somaliland, makes do with what he can to treat his patients, many whom are suffering from malnutrition. Photo: Allan Gigichi/Oxfam

Small-town doctors have the unenviable task of making house calls at odd hours to treat patients with all sorts of maladies, often operating as one-person medical teams. It’s a tough job no matter where you live, but even more complicated when there are no clinical facilities for miles and your access to medication is limited. These are the conditions under which Jama Abdi Abdile, 43, a roving doctor in Gawsawayne, Somaliland, practises.

Somaliland is suffering from a massive food crisis, part of a humanitarian emergency that is touching nearly 30 million lives in Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan. Across the Somaliland region, water levels have rapidly declined and widespread loss of livestock is devastating communities that depend upon them for milk, meat, and to earn a livelihood. 

Gawsawayne lacks a health centre and essential health services. Abdile is the only trained medical professional in his village, so his home doubles as his office. “This is a family home,” he says. “There is no dedicated health centre with all its facilities and separated care rooms.”

Mainly, he travels from house to house visiting patients and treating them with medications he has stockpiled in his home. Currently, there are 177 malnutrition cases, including pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, in his village. Every month, he reports, the number of cases has increased. In March, there were 84 people suffering from malnutrition in his town, mostly children.

“We have never been this busy,” he says. “There is constant pressure now and we have no transportation to go around and visit patients. There are so many difficulties, but I try to do what I can.”

The first week of April brought some relief. Oxfam began trucking clean water to households in the Sanaag region, including Gawsawayne. Now his village receives over 15,000 litres of water every day. The clean water has enabled Abdile to do his job more effectively.

Follow along as he walks us through a day in his life, gathering water, mixing medications, and visiting with patients.

Collecting clean water from Oxfam

Photo: Allan Gichicgi/Oxfam

Abdile collects clean water from an Oxfam-supplied water truck. Before Oxfam arrived, Abdile’s community sourced their water from a shallow spring that had grown filthy. An Oxfam Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) engineer called it the most contaminated water supply he has seen in 20 years of working for Oxfam.

Fighting dehyfration

Photo: Allan Gichicgi/Oxfam

Abdile mixes water with oral rehydration salts (ORS) syrup, which is used to fight dehydration.

“The Oxfam water has helped the whole community,” he says. “The health service takes a big chunk of this water. The mineral water we were using was from a faraway place and cost us a lot of money. It was difficult to mix with the syrup. The water provided by Oxfam is given to us free of charge. We are mixing up the ORS and everyone is drinking it.”

Providing life-saving medicine in Somaliland

Photo: Allan Gichicgi/Oxfam

Abdile sorts through the medications he stores at home. He notes that the water has made it easier for patients to swallow their medications. With villagers now drinking and cooking with clean water, he hopes that they are less likely to become ill.

Protecting the most vulnerable in Somaliland

Photo: Allan Gichicgi/Oxfam

Abdile checks on Zaymid Mohammad, 25. She is seven months pregnant with her ninth child and has been feeling tired and weak. The majority of Abdile’s patients are women and children. “Mothers and children are most vulnerable to diseases,” he says. “When people have immune deficiency, which is related to a lack of food and nutrition, they are vulnerable to all sorts of diseases.”

A devastating food crisis is threatening the lives of 30 million people across East Africa, Yemen and north-east Nigeria. We have already reached thousands of people with food, water, sanitation and support – but many more urgently need our help.

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Smart phones open up a new world in remote Tanzania

It’s 3am. My alarm goes off. I’m tempted to hit snooze but the feeling that I might miss a flight hits me. I quickly jump out of bed. I get ready and grab a taxi to the airport. I will be away from my house for three weeks…

Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Bill Marwa, a digital media coordinator with Oxfam in Tanzania. Pardon me – I should have started with the introductions. I will be writing about my work with Oxfam and how that is helping change people’s lives. I travel a lot so there’s always going to be something new. I want to show you my beautiful country, the people, our culture, and our foods.

Me - nice to meet you!

Me and a colleague of mine, Kefar, are heading to Kahama in northwestern Tanzania. We are going to train 22 activists to use smart phones to interview other residents in their villages about what information is important to them, how they can access it and how local government can be more transparent. After three days of training, they will go back to their wards and interview at least 60 people each. Their responses are automatically sent to us, which makes this a very quick and easy way to gather responses from more than 1,200 people. It’s going to be interesting.

We land in Mwanza and spend a night there before driving to Kahama. This is about a five-hour drive. We are chatting in the car and listening to loads of Bongo Flava – Tanzanian music.

Kefar will train the activists on an initiative to make local government more transparent called the Open Government Partnerships. I will train them on how to use smart phones and particularly how to collect data using an app called Mobenzi.

My colleague Kefar asking how many people had used a smart phone before

Kefar asks how many of the activists have used a smart phone before. Only four people out of the 22 participants raise their hands. This hits me, but equally motivates me. I will have to change my strategy to start with basic things like how to scroll through pages, search, etc before we move on to the Mobenzi tool itself. It’s going to be fine, I say to myself.

We do a quick Google search for ‘Mbogwe’ district, and the activists are excited with the results. Realising that they can do a lot with search, most of them will be glued to their phones for the next hour doing different searches. I walk out for a cup of coffee. When I get back to the room one of the activists, Gabriel, is playing a speech by one of the prominent members of parliament to the rest of the room. I say to myself, what have I got these people into?

After three days, everyone is confident to use the phones and they all have understood the questions. We distribute the smart phones and the activists go back to their villages to begin the data collection.

Me and Kefar are hopeful that the activists will get on with the new technology and that responses will start flowing in soon. In my next post I’ll let you know how they get on…

Cheers,

Bill

This blog was originally published on Broad Street. To read other blog posts by Bill Marwa and go behind-the-scenes with other Oxfam staff around the world, please visit: http://oxfamblogs.org/broadstreet/
 

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How pineapples are lifting a community out of poverty in Rwanda

Initiatives like the Tazamurance co-operative in Rwanda give female farmers financial independence and optimism for the future.

There was a time when women in Rwanda reaped few rewards from farming – even though they did most of the work. Over the years, however, your support has lifted some of these women out of poverty and given them the incentive to keep growing.

One Rwandan success story is the Tuzamurane Co-operative, which specialises in pineapple farming. Tuzamurane, which means ‘lift up one another’, was set up ten years ago to give female farmers horticultural skills and access to markets and savings schemes.

Valerie Mukangerero’s life has turned around since she joined the co-operative six years ago. Before that, she couldn’t afford to buy a pineapple. Now, though, Valerie (53, pictured below), is earning enough to support her family.

“I had five children plus my husband and me,” says Valerie. “We had limited resources; it was difficult getting enough food.”

Valerie Mukangerero, Rwanda

Valerie Mukangerero walks to her pineapple farm in Rwamurema village in eastern Rwanda. Photo: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

All she could buy from the 1,000RWF (€1.15/£0.97) she used to make from selling her old crops (beans, cassava and sweet potatoes) was salt, and kerosene for her lamp. There was nothing left for her family.

“Then I would go back home feeling sad, regretful and saying, ‘I could have bought such and such’, but because of lack of resources, I did not buy it. I wanted to buy fabric, a skirt, shoes; the children at home also needed clothes.

“Then came Mutuelle (health insurance). It was difficult for me to pay for the health insurance. To get treated at the hospital, every child has to pay 3,000 RWF (€3.45/£2.92).”

Paying for healthcare meant Valerie was forced to cut her food bills: “There was a time when they [her family] were hungry. They did not have breakfast and I had to look hard to get lunch for them. I felt sad because when you see a hungry child in your eyes, how can you be happy?”

As soon as she joined the co-operative, however, Valerie realised that things would improve.

“At the first harvest, I earned a little money and I bought small pieces of land. Each time I got 10,000 RWF (€11.45/£9.71), I could buy a few metres and so on. All of my land is a result of the co-operative.”

“I have also built my house. I used to have a small house. After getting money, I added extra rooms and extended it,” says Valerie, who also bought a cow from her earnings.

These days, when Valerie wants to buy something, she does just that: “What makes me proud in life is when I buy clothes or food when my children need it and when I can afford school uniforms without worrying.”

But Valerie’s ambition doesn’t end there – she wants to buy even more land and keep her children in school. With your continued support, she says, life will get even better.

Tuzamurane Co-operative memebers, Rwanda

Theresie Nyirantozi, Valerie Mukangerero, Christine Bangiwiha, Josepha Ayinkamiye and Mukeshimana Leocadie from the Tuzamurane Co-operative. Photo: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

Thank you for helping initiatives like the Tuzamurane Co-operative which give female farmers like Valerie financial independence and optimism for the future.

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