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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

 

Oxfam shows 'We Care' in Zimbabwe

For families in many parts of the world household tasks such as laundry, cooking, cleaning, collecting water and caring for dependents take a huge amount of time and energy. Limited access to time-saving equipment, public infrastructure and services exacerbates this situation.

For women, domestic and care work is often heavy, inefficient and unequally distributed. Women globally spend, on average, more than twice as long as men on unpaid work – that can mean as much as five hours per day on household tasks like laundry and cooking, and on caring for children and family. It can mean less time spent learning new skills, earning money or taking an active role in the community. This limits women’s choices and undermines efforts to achieve gender equality and overcome poverty. Oxfam’s We Care initiative aims to change this.

Why Oxfam cares about care

Care has long been considered the responsibility of women. As a result, providing care falls disproportionately on their shoulders – limiting women’s time to learn, to earn or to take part in political and social activities of their choice. This is an issue in every country; however, the effects of unequal care are more extreme in poor communities. Tasks such as laundry and cooking can take most of the day when there is limited access to water and fuel, let alone washing machines or stoves. Drivers of poverty, such as lack of services and exposure to disasters, increase the demand for care work – preventing women’s empowerment and trapping families in poverty.

Ulita Mutambo said: “We started the ‘We Care’ programme in 2014, that’s when things changed for the better. At first my husband did not help me at all. I would do all the work on my own, carrying firewood from the mountains, fetching water from the borehole which is far from here. Things got better when he accepted to join the programme and started helping me. Now the work is lighter. 

“The chores that have to be done are laundry, fetching water, cooking, bathing the children, as well as working in the fields. When I had just got married I would do all the work, my husband would only help now and then. Now we help each other. While I do the washing, cooking or sweeping, my husband goes to fetch water. After that we go together to collect firewood. Getting help is good because now I get time to rest. Before we joined the programme I would never have time to rest.

“Now that I have free time, I can help my children with their homework. Before the We Care programme, I never had time to help my children with school work, so I am happy. I am also able to spend time with my children, getting closer to them. The programme has changed life a lot within this family. We now live together in harmony as a family.”

(Top) Ulita Mutambo (26) stands with her husband Muchineripi Sibanda (36), her son Blessing, 9, and Sandra, 6, outside their home in Ture Village, Zvishevane region, Zimbabwe. (Bottom left) Ulita with her daughter Sandra. (Bottom right) Ulita with her young nephew outside her home. Photos: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

(Top) Ulita and her husband Muchineripi walk to collect water from an Oxfam-built water pump just over 1km from their home. (Bottom left) Ulita and Muchineripi take a break from farming together in their corn field close to where they live. (Bottom right) Muchineripi helps Ulita with the laundry in a nearby river . Photos: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

(Top-Left) Ulita’s husband Muchineripi helps her hang up laundry outside their home. (Top right) Muchineripi with Sandra outside their home. (Bottom left) Ulita with her daughter Sandra. (Bottom right) Sandra relaxes in a wheelbarrow. Photos: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

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Yemen’s man-made catastrophe is forcing people to make stark live-or-die choices, warns new Oxfam report

Yemenis, already at tipping point after more than two years of war, are now being forced to choose between treating cholera and putting food on the table, said Oxfam in a new report published today, entitled Yemen: Catastrophic Cholera Crisis.

Sixty percent of the population in Yemen is in need of food, including 6.8 million people who are facing starvation. People who are then hit by cholera can only afford the costs of transportation, medicine and doctors’ fees by further reducing the amount of food they buy. Oxfam spoke to many families who have to rely on selling their personal belongings and going into debt in order to buy food and pay for cholera treatment. Seeking medical treatment is often the last resort, and many only do so when it is already too late.

Shane Stevenson, Oxfam’s Country Director in Yemen, said: “Each day that passes brings more suffering to the unbearable lives of the Yemeni people. The world is shamefully failing them. A new disaster after another is leading thousands of people to face stark live-or-die choices every day. What more needs to happen in Yemen for the international community to properly respond?”

Colm Byrne, Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager, said: “This is no accidental disaster, it is a man-made catastrophe driven by national and international politics. The ongoing conflict has ruined Yemen’s economy, destroying people’s ability to make a living and devastating the health sector, which now is unable to properly respond to the cholera outbreak. Hunger, resulting directly from the effects of war, has made malnourished men, women and children even more vulnerable to the deadly disease.”

The war in Yemen has resulted in over 5,000 civilians being killed,  nearly half a million children becoming malnourished and now the world’s worst outbreak of cholera recorded in a single year, with a staggering half a million suspected cases since April 2017. Amidst this outbreak, which has affected all but one governorate in Yemen, nearly 2,000 people have died.

Oxfam’s report published describes how one family had to spend 15,000 Yemeni riyals (€50/£46), just to travel to the nearest cholera treatment centre – a fortune for many struggling families and that’s before doctors’ fees and medication.

Since July 2015 Oxfam has reached more than 1.2 million people in eight governorates of Yemen with water and sanitation services, cash assistance and food vouchers, including 430,000 people as part of its cholera response.

Oxfam Ireland is appealing to the public to donate to its hunger crisis appeal and support people facing famine in Yemen, as well as in East Africa, South Sudan and Nigeria: oxfamireland.org/hunger

ENDS

Contact:

Oxfam spokespeople in Ireland and in-country are available. To arrange an interview or request more information contact:

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Alice Dawson on 00353 (0) 83 198 1869 / alice.dawson@oxfamireland.org

NORTHERN IRELAND: Phillip Graham on 0044 (0) 7841 102535 / phillip.graham@oxfamireland.org

Notes to Editors:

1.     Link to Oxfam’s report: Yemen: Catastrophic Cholera Crisis” 

2.     Photos and stories are available.

3.     The revised 2017 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan requires $2.3 billion to target 12 million people, but is only 39% funded as 15 August 2017. 

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Oxfam providing clean water and hygiene kits to survivors of Sierra Leone mud slide

·         Oxfam spokespeople on the ground available for interview

Flooding and mudslides have killed more than 300 and left an estimated 3,000 people homeless on the outskirts of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.

Although affected residents are being relocated to accessible sites, it is thought that flooding in Freetown and elsewhere may make it difficult to reach others.

Oxfam is on the ground, providing clean water and hygiene kits to survivors. The aid agency initially plans to help almost 2,000 households amid concerns that continued heavy rains, overcrowding and inadequate water and sanitation systems will leave people extremely vulnerable to outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.  

Daniel Byrne, part of the Oxfam team that visited the worst affected areas, said: “We saw mass destruction – people were pulling bodies out with their bare hands. We didn’t see any survivors from the homes that had been submerged. Neighbours have been taking in people who have lost their homes. We spoke to one person who has taken 30 people into their home which has just three rooms.

“These are some of the poorest areas in Freetown. Water and sanitation in homes is at best very basic, but at worst non-existent. Overcrowding is a serious health risk and a potential breeding ground for the spread of disease.”

Oxfam’s Sierra Leone Country Director, Thynn Thynn Hlaing, said: “The disaster has left thousands of extremely poor people without a home. The city experiences floods every year but not on this scale. Oxfam is working with its partners in Freetown to help survivors and prevent any outbreaks of diseases."

ENDS

Oxfam spokespeople, including Oxfam’s Sierra Leone Country Director Thynn Thynn Hlaing and local staff member Daniel Byrne, are available for interview.

To arrange an interview or for more information, please contact:

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Alice Dawson on 00353 (0) 83 198 1869 / alice.dawson@oxfamireland.org

NORTHERN IRELAND: Phillip Graham on 0044 (0) 7841 102535 / phillip.graham@oxfamireland.org

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South Sudan's Independence Day should have been a celebration

Blog post by Christina Corbett, Oxfam Press Officer, South Sudan.

The 9th of July 2017 was Independence Day in South Sudan. A day that should have seen celebrations, festivities, smiles and laughter to mark six years of the world’s newest country. But not this year. Nor any year since the country’s conflict started in December 2013. It’s a time of sombre reflection.

South Sudan has spent the most recent half of its short life in conflict. The fighting has caused hunger so catastrophic that in February, the world’s first famine in six years – South Sudan’s lifespan - was declared.

I just got back from Padding, in northern Jonglei close to the Ethiopian border – a village in the ‘back of the back of beyond’, as one colleague told me. The village is so remote and inaccessible that food is dropped from planes and distributed by Oxfam staff on the ground to people in need. The last food drop was six months ago. This time the United Nations World Food Programme were delivering sorghum, beans, oil and fortified flour.

(L) Nyarek Kuajien spends her days in Pangob trying to cultivate a small patch of garden and collecting the leaves of trees and grass that grow during the rainy season. (R) Air food drop in northern Jonglei, South Sudan. Photo: Albert Gonzales/Oxfam

I met people who had come from Padding and around – people who had fled from fighting. I saw that people don’t care that the country is six years old – they only care whether their children will see six years of life, or if their struggle to feed their families will see them slide into starvation.

Padding routinely gets cut off from everywhere. It’s in the middle of a swamp that becomes wet and impassable during the rainy season. It takes a day to walk to Lankien, the nearest town and the nearest functioning market. But this market is under pressure. Sorghum – a staple, used to make “walwal”, a thick paste – has jumped in price from 700 South Sudanese Pounds (SSP) (€5/£4) in April 2017, to 13,000 SSP today. It is too much for people to afford even a handful.

Before March 2017 – when the brutal conflict between government and opposition forces hit this part of the country – 9,000 people were living in Padding village. Life was not bad. There were gardens that people cultivated, people had cattle. Now things are different.

Padding has nearly doubled in size with people who have fled from fighting. Nyarek Kuajien*, a mother who had fled with her nine children from Khorfulus, near Malakal, about 160km away, told me: “We saw the fighters coming and when they came we ran. We ran with nothing, absolutely nothing. We came to Pangob [a village near Padding] and told the village chief that we had run from fighting. He gave us some land to settle on.”

Now Nyarek spends her days trying to cultivate a small patch of garden and collecting the leaves of trees and grass that grow during the rainy season. She knows that some of the things she gathers make her children ill. “It can’t be good – but I just do whatever I can to keep life going. I get water from the swamp. When I was at home I had everything.”

Nyarek desperately wants water and food. She wants soap to clean clothes, even bed sheets to lie on – she wants the things that she had before the conflict started. Six years of independence means nothing to her. The last few years have taken more than they’ve given.

Until the South Sudanese have peace there will be nothing to celebrate. The governments of neighbouring countries and the wider international community must increase political pressure to stop this violent conflict. Oxfam will continue to work in the most difficult places – places where they have never seen such dire need. But aid alone won’t solve the problem.

Nyarek told me about her village and about returning there.

“I am not willing to go back,” she said. “People are no longer there. I don’t want to be alone.” The people of South Sudan must not be left alone.

Nyarek and her countrymen and women need the same international solidarity shown when the country was ushered into being. And they need it now more than ever before.

Following the power crisis that erupted in Juba in 2013, South Sudan has spiralled into a national, political and ethnic conflict, quickly spreading across many parts of the country and leading to the death of thousands of women, children and men.

Since then, 3.8 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to the brutal war. 7.5 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance. Over 45 per cent of the population – more than 5.5 million people – are severely hungry. Oxfam is racing to get food, water and hygiene items to the most vulnerable people, including thousands who have fled to remote islands in the middle of huge swamps. In 2016 we reached over 600,000 with emergency and longer-term support. We are also responding to the refugee crisis regionally in Uganda, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad.

What you can do now

Millions of men, women and children are in need of urgent help in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Yemen. We urgently need your help to feed families and help save lives.

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