Syria & Refugee Crisis

  • Every three seconds, someone flees their home because of violence, poverty or disaster. Millions of refugees – many of them children - are trying to survive on the move. Oxfam is working tirelessly to give vital support to those who’ve lost everything.

Searching for safety: lessons from Syria's refugees

What is life like for Syrian refugees in Lebanon? Oxfam conducted research to find out how safe refugees feel and to understand the challenges they face. For Oxfam researcher Nour Shawaf, it was a humbling process.

I thought I knew it all, I thought I had seen it, I thought I had read about it, I thought I had heard all their stories… After all, I am Lebanese, I have Syrian and Palestinian friends, I have been interacting with refugees on a regular basis for the past four years, I speak their language and I follow the news closely! Why would I not know it all?

Well I was definitely wrong. I knew nothing at all.

“Every time we went to a place the war would follow us.” She personified war and it scared me. My imagination took me beyond the discussion. I dropped my papers and just listened to her. The young woman sitting in front of me was my age. She had experienced multiple displacements and the war was following her. This was not just another research exercise, and this young woman talking to me was not just another story.

While carrying out Participatory Protection Research for Oxfam in Lebanon to explore the perceptions and expectations of refugees from Syria over the past, present and future, my own perceptions and expectations were altered. The stories refugees from Syria told left me completely shocked.

Reality struck me hard, especially when people started describing their routes from Syria to Lebanon. I had heard about the “mountain.” It is the word all refugees from Syria use to indicate they have come into the country through unofficial borders. But never had it occurred to me that the ‘mountain’ was a “death plateau.” People talked about walking for hours and days, being left by smugglers in the middle of nowhere, walking in the snow or under the sweltering sun, and having to leave their belongings en route to carry children and elderly on their backs when they could no longer walk.

Bekaa Valley informal refugee settlement in winter. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam 

They went through the “mountain” looking for safety from the bombings, the shelling and the airstrikes. There are neither bombings nor shelling nor airstrikes where they are now… but they have still not found safety!

The rampant fear and the deteriorating living conditions are obstacles that prevent them from feeling safe. Their inability to meet their basic needs, obtain legal statuses and avoid arrests, deprive them from the sense of safety they are longing for.

Though this came as no surprise to me, experiencing it along with the refugees who volunteered to participate in the research shifted my perspective. They explained to me the range of factors they had to worry about. If they leave home, they have to worry about the checkpoints. If they stay home they have to worry about raids. If they find a job they have to worry about inspectors along with different forms of exploitation. If they don’t find a job they have to worry about meeting their families’ basic needs.

In their own words, their quest to find safety is costing them their dignity: “When you are displaced you start ignoring your dignity to find safety”. When an older Lebanese woman made the aforementioned statement, she summarised everything the refugees were trying to tell me in one sentence. The times may have changed, but the experience of displacement remains the same.

A portrait of Jemaa Al Halayal and his two-year-old daughter, Lebanon. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Despite the dire conditions and the lack of better prospects, Ahmad told me: “We won’t lose hope”. Ahmad is a 22-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs. He fled his hometown at the very beginning of the war. He had always dreamt of becoming a Computer Engineer. Although his dreams have not unfolded so far, he is striving to achieve the best given the current circumstances. He says: “Even if you are a refugee, you must have a message, a mission. I want to serve my country, my people. I hope I can spread a positive message.”

As part of our research we invited participants to take photos. The above photo was taken by Ahmad (of his former home), as it reminds him of his past. I sometimes tend to forget that Ahmad was not a refugee before 2013 and that he led a different life. This photo is my constant reminder.

People like Ahmad are what keeps me going, that much I know!

Posted by Nour Shawaf, Protection Research and Policy Advisor for Oxfam in Lebanon

 

As Syria conflict drags on, sustainable Oxfam project provides clean water in Salamiyah

One of every two Syrians has a story of displacement to tell. Half the population has been pushed by the relentless war out of their homes to safer, quieter locations. But for many of these people, safety doesn’t mean an end to their woes.

Before the war, Kousay*, 14, lived with his family in Rural Idlib. For the past three years, he has been staying with relatives in Salamiyah, in Rural Hama. “My father was a butcher. Now he is out of work. So I had to leave school and find a job,” said the young boy, who earns about $35 per month working in a car repair shop, and is the sole bread-winner of the family.

Salamiyah, located 33 kilometres south-east of the city of Hama, had a population of 150,000 before the conflict. With Syrians displaced from Homs, Rural Hama and other areas, the city now hosts three times that many people. East Salamiyah city gets its water from the Al-Qantara pumping station, which is situated in the west of the city, and is under control of armed groups.

Top-Left: Kousay*, 14, is one of the 35,000 residents in Salamiyah who have benefited from an Oxfam water treatment unit which was originally installed in June 2015.  Top-Right: After being displaced to Salamiyah with his family from Al-Hassakah in 2015, 12-year-old Marwanalso* benefited from the Oxfam water treatment unit. Bottom: In June 2015, Oxfam installed a water treatment unit to provide clean drinking water to an estimated 35,000 residents in Salamiyah - Rural Hama. In June 2017, Oxfam provided the local water establishment with equipment to maintain the unit. Photos: Dania Karah/Oxfam

This pumping station has been in a conflict area since 2013, and the water has been cut off frequently by parties controlling the area. According to the Salamiyah municipality, the water was deliberately cut off from the main source 24 times during the last eight months, forcing people to rely on water trucked to the area, as the only other source was a few boreholes containing unusable sulphurous water.

To alleviate water shortages, in June 2015 Oxfam installed a water treatment unit on one of the boreholes using a Reverse Osmosis system to provide safe drinking water for an estimated 35,000 residents in East Salamiyah, including almost a third who had been internally displaced. The Reverse Osmosis system removes the hydrogen sulphide gas, the bad smell and the solids from the water to produce clean drinking water to be pumped to the city's main water reservoir.

While the conflict raged on, it was important for this project to be sustainable, in order to guarantee the water flow. In June 2017 Oxfam provided the local water establishment with equipment such as spare parts, and pipes, to be able to maintain the unit. The main aim was to improve people’s access to safe and adequate drinking water. The system can operate up to 20 hours per day, providing 50,000 litres of water per hour depending on the available electricity and fuel.

With their limited income, Kousay’s family of five used to buy water from private water tanking at €3/£2 per 1M3 = 1,000 L once per week to avoid the undrinkable sulphurous water provided by local boreholes. Almost one-third of their monthly income went into this expense. ‘’When we came first to As-Salamiah, we only had hot water which has a distinct rotten egg smell, but since this unit start to operate the situation became better. [Now] drinking water reaches our house once a week,’’ said Kousay.

Marwan*,12, was displaced from Al-Hassakah when the Syrian government lost control of large areas of the city to ISIS in 2015 and now lives with his father, mother and four brothers and sisters in Rural Salamiyah. Their family is relatively lucky, as the father is still around and can support them. “We found a small house with no furniture in Salamiyah, and my father works in a nearby factory,” said Marwan.

At first, Marwan*’s family had to rely on trucked drinking water, which they needed to buy twice a week. Now, they can rely on the clean water provided by the Oxfam system.

*Names changed to protect identities

Coldplay in Dublin: stand in solidarity with refugees

Rock band Coldplay arrive in Dublin this weekend to play Saturday’s massive gig in Croke Park as part of their latest tour – and Oxfam Ireland will be there too…

The members of Coldplay have been among Oxfam's most high profile and vocal supporters of the last decade. The band have used their worldwide success to help Oxfam campaign in over 50 countries. As they set off on their Head Full of Dreams world tour, Coldplay again invited Oxfam to join them, including Saturday’s gig in Dublin.

So we’ll be there in Croke Park, asking Coldplay fans to join together in solidarity with some of the most vulnerable people on the planet – those people displaced by conflict and disaster.

Because people that have been forced to flee often have a head full of dreams too, but for different reasons. They often leave with little more than the clothes on their backs, but they carry with them hopes for a better future for themselves and their families, safe from terrifying natural disasters, extreme hardship and brutal wars.

65.6 million people have fled conflict and persecution in countries such as Syria, South Sudan and Yemen. This is the highest figure since the Second World War. The greater number of them are displaced within their own countries, rather than refugees crossing international borders. Almost 20 million more have fled environmental disaster.

Across the world, displaced people are facing incredible odds. For example, in Syria, 11 million people have been forced to abandon their homes, and millions more are in desperate need of help. After six years of violence, many are in need of medical treatment and other support.

MARIAM’S STORY

This includes people like Mariam Bazerbashi. When continuing violence made her home in Damascus too dangerous, Mariam travelled for seven days to Presevo in Serbia with her children.

Mariam, 29, in Preševo, Serbia after escaping from the conflict in Damascus with her two sons Ali*, 7, and Abbas*, 4. Ali suffer from muscular dystrophy and can’t walk. Mariam’s husband is still in Syria. (*Children’s names have been changed to protect their identity.) Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam.

“I’m here with my children alone. My husband is still in Syria. My son has a muscular disease and can’t walk. I’ve carried him all the way from Syria but today I was given a wheelchair for him.”

But it doesn't have to be this way. We have been providing support to more than 6.7 million people in conflict-affected countries in the past year. We are working on the ground in countries like Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen to help displaced families with immediate basic needs such as clean water, shelter, food and work – but we need to uphold our commitment to welcome and protect refugees and immigrants here too.

As well as working to give practical support to people forced to flee, we have been campaigning for changes in the law here, to help displaced people in Ireland and the UK.

Strict rules are forcing refugee families to live apart, trapping them in different countries to their loved ones and making it harder for them to be brought together. These rules target vulnerable people who are seeking safety after fleeing unfathomable violence and loss. We're calling on global leaders – including the Irish and UK governments – to do more to ensure that people forced to flee can do so safely and legally and to reunite families torn apart.

We can't turn our backs on families who have fled violence and persecution. Together, with your support, we'll keep pushing until refugees get the protection and support they need.

By taking our Right to Refuge: Keep Families Together action, you’ll be helping us put public pressure on our governments to do more to help people find safe and legal routes to escape from war and persecution, and help families torn apart be united and find safety together.

That is why Oxfam is asking Coldplay fans in Croke Park and beyond to stand together in solidarity and support of those fleeing to safety. Together we’ll show that they are not alone, and make sure world leaders know that we won’t stand by while people suffer. We will stand as one.

SolidaritY

So far 30,000 Coldplay fans have joined us by signing up and wearing their Stand As One Coldplay tour wristband to show their support to those in Syria and all over the world who are fleeing conflict.

Chris Martin and Coldplay at Glastonbury. Photos: Coldplay/R42

Whether you’re at the Coldplay concert in Dublin (be sure to come find us and say hello!) or reading this from your front room, you can be part of our global movement. Take a stand with Oxfam by joining our call to action here.

And if you’d like to hear more about what’s happening on the day at Croke Park, follow @OxfamIreland, using any or all of the hashtags #ColdplayDublin, #StandAsOne and #RighttoRefuge.

To read more about Coldplay’s past work and support for Oxfam, visit https://www.oxfam.org/en/ambassadors/coldplay

 

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.

Pages