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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

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Famine in South Sudan has ceased, but hunger has spread

Written by Corrie Sissons, Oxfam's Food Security and Emergency Livelihoods Coordinator in South Sudan

The recent declaration that famine in South Sudan has been halted was rightly celebrated.  Any steps towards ending the catastrophic humanitarian crisis facing South Sudan are welcome, as the war torn country marked its sixth birthday last Sunday (9th July 2017). 

However, dig deeper than the headlines and it becomes clear that hunger is actually getting worse almost everywhere in the country. How do we applaud the collective effort to end famine including the very generous public donations, yet simultaneously highlight that this does not herald a significant improvement in an ongoing food crisis? Life is more desperate now than ever for millions of people. 

Above: Top Left - Mothers in South Sudan fled their homes with their children to find safety. Photo: Corrie Sissons/Oxfam. Top-right & Bottom - Oxfam has been helping island and mainland communities to set up vegetable gardens both to boost their own diets and to build up their livelihoods. Photo: Tim Bierley/Oxfam

Famine is a technical description, declared if certain specific conditions are observed. But for individuals, hunger is hunger. Just because we call it something else it does not mean that people have enough to eat again or that help is no longer required. People are suffering however it is designated and we still have so much work to do. 

Although things have become less severe in those famine affected areas, the scale of the food crisis across other parts of South Sudan has exploded. Since the famine was declared in February, ongoing conflict and its consequences – people fleeing their homes, economic decline and poor harvests – have left one million more people facing severe food shortages. If predictions are correct, by the end of July 2017, half of the entire South Sudanese population will live without knowing how they can feed their families from one evening to the next. 

There are still approximately 45,000 people who live in what are described ‘famine-like conditions’ in South Sudan. This essentially means conditions are catastrophically bad but the data for the area they live in doesn’t match technical requirements for it to be called a famine. Forced to flee their homes and fields, people have also missed the planting season. Even when they stay, many are too afraid to tend to fields. So seeds do not grow and harvests are smaller and smaller each year that this situation continues. The conflict is not only robbing people of the food on their plates now, but also in the future.

For  example in the former Jonglei state, a recent upsurge in fighting has forced more than 200,000 people from their homes, disrupting lives and obstructing access to the aid when they need it the most. People are walking for days to flee the fighting, with only wild foods to eat along the way.  

Famine and the unacceptable levels of hunger are direct consequences of the decisions made by those with the power to stop the war. As South Sudan marks six years of independence, it is critical that life-saving assistance is combined with diplomatic efforts to bring warring parties back to the table to revive negotiations for peace. It is clear that only real and lasting peace can bring people back from the brink of starvation. Until that happens, we must continue giving vital aid to stop the situation getting even worse.

Right now Oxfam is there in South Sudan, urgently working to get live-saving aid like food and water to those in need, as well as hygiene supplies to stop the spread of deadly disease. It cannot be clearer to those on the ground: South Sudan is not having a moment of respite in its food crisis. Hunger is spiralling out of control. 

Corrie Sissons is Oxfam's Food Security and Emergency Livelihoods Coordinator in South Sudan

 
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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

 

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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.

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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.”

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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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Time is the most precious gift of all: Meet some of our inspiring volunteers

For over 50 years, Oxfam Ireland has had the pleasure of hosting countless generous and giving volunteers who put their heart and soul into contributing in a positive way to their local community, their local Oxfam and further afield. These volunteers give the most precious gift of all - their time, to give back to their community and to help organisations like Oxfam Ireland run smoothly and raise money to run life-saving programmes to help vulnerable people in poverty. The funds raised from our shops help to implement Oxfam initiatives such as providing clean water and sanitation in refugee camps and helping to protect and empower women farmers in Tanzania through our livelihoods programme. 

Our Oxfam volunteers are at the heart of our organisation and without their time, effort and selfless generosity, our organisation would not run as effectively as it does, providing essential aid to those who need it. 

Oxfam wants to highlight some of the volunteers who are part of our Oxfam family, striving to make the world a more just and fair place. Here are the faces of some of our volunteers, who have kindly shared their stories. We hope that you can see a little bit of yourself in each and every one of them.

Zahid, a volunteer at Oxfam Home on King’s Inn Street, Dublin on coming full circle with Oxfam

Zahid has become part of the furniture at Oxfam Home on King’s Inn Street, having given five years of hard work and dedication as a volunteer. Photo: Maria Gillan

Zahid, a student at the IBEC College in Temple Bar comes from Bangladesh and describes himself as a conscientious person. He previously worked with Oxfam, volunteering to help distribute life-saving emergency aid provided by Oxfam in Bangladesh after his country was affected by natural disasters.

Zahid says: “If a big flood happens then people lose their homes, they lose everything, they don’t have any money to buy food. They don’t have any place to stay so we help them by giving them shelter and by providing some food, or whatever else they need.”

Having previously worked with Oxfam in his home country, Zahid was motivated to continue working with the organisation when he first came to Dublin, and he has come full circle in terms of seeing how Oxfam provides life-saving aid to those in need. Zahid has now been working in the furniture shop on King’s Inn shop for 5 years from the first day the shop opened.

”I like talking and communicating with people and asking them about their lives. It’s like a daily routine for me. I like how every day is like a new start, different things happen every day.”

Zahid is not just a volunteer with Oxfam but volunteers with Saint Vincent de Paul too. “I love to have a chat with the local people, and ask about their daily routine,” he says. “It’s nice to see that you know all the Finglas local people and the customers at King’s Inn Street too. They really love me. They know which days I am working and if they don’t see me they keep asking, ‘Where is he, where is he?’” he laughs.

Zahid’s conscientious and generous spirit is not only seen by the customers in the shops that he meets daily but by his own friends and family too: “If any of my friends asks for help, if I’m able to do it, I just do it straight away. If I am able to do what you ask of me, then I can never say no, I can do it for you. I like to help others - you can say it’s a part of my character.”

Emmet James Driver: A volunteer campaigner on behalf of refugees

Emmet, volunteering on behalf of Oxfam’s Right to Refuge campaign at Longitude festival in Marlay Park. Photo: Maria Gillan

Emmet shared his story about how he became a volunteer campaigner with Oxfam Ireland and the importance of changing negative mind-sets surrounding refugees. 

Emmet’s campaigning role began when he was walking down the street one day and was approached by an Oxfam campaigner named Shazia who asked him to sign a petition. As he walked on by in a hurry, she called out: “It’s just a petition and it’s just about equality!” After hearing about the petition, he immediately signed up and when he received a follow up phone call to ask if he could become a regular supporter, he said: 

“Look, guys, I don’t have any money…but I’ve got lots of time. Do you want some time?”

When asked if he would be interested in supporting Oxfam’s Right to Refuge campaign, calling on the Irish Government to do more to protect and support refugees, Emmet replied: “Absolutely, yes I would”.

Emmet’s passion and commitment to campaigning on the refugee crisis comes from a personal story of his own:

“When I was in college I had a friend who was Palestinian who was seeking asylum here in Ireland, and he was seeking asylum for two and a half years and was denied. And then he was ordered to be deported. At that point I was so unbelievably angry because, as Irish people, we have travelled to every single corner of this planet over the last seven hundred years and every single place we went we were accepted and every single place we still go to now, people are proud to say ‘I have Irish blood’.

“In Ireland, I believe we have a sort of genetic memory of the hardships of our past. What’s frustrating is that we are not taking in as many refugees as we can, and when we do take people in, we put them into a completely inadequate situation which is Direct Provision. Then when it comes to people seeking asylum, there’s a massive long list of people and they are not allowed to work and they’re not allowed to do anything while they are seeking asylum and then they can still be denied and then deported.”

Emmet strongly believes that due to our own personal history of emigration on this island we have a responsibility to help those in need, bringing to mind a famous quote displayed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”.

“That is what Ireland should be, because we did just that. We did it for years, even centuries, Irish people travelling abroad and we owe it to the world to offer that back. We should take people in, give them a home and be friendly to them, and welcome them into our society and into our culture as well. Anytime, I see that not happening, I get very, very passionate and I get very, very angry. Which is why, when I heard about the Right to Refuge campaign I said yes. We have to do more, to lobby our governments to provide refugees with a safe place to call home, and that’s what this campaign is about and this is what volunteering is about.”

Emmet remarks that one of the most rewarding parts of his role is when you change someone’s mind-set or when people realise the importance of the work that volunteers do:

“You’ll thank a person for signing the petition and they’ll look you in the eye and they’ll say, “No, thank YOU - you are the one doing the work.

“I find that every single person out there has the ability within them to understand the issues we’re talking about, they just have to relate it back to something they are familiar with, back to something that they can understand. And then it suddenly dawns on them that these refugees aren’t these foreign figures, they are human beings and we should give them a place to live and feel safe.”

Alex Clyde, a volunteer in Oxfam’s Belfast office on embracing opportunities

Alex is pictured at Oxfam’s office in Belfast where she volunteered as a Campaigns and Advocacy Assistant. Photo: Maria Gillan

Alex volunteered as a Campaigns and Advocacy Assistant, working in Oxfam’s office in Belfast. She first became interested in volunteering with Oxfam while pursuing her Master’s Degree in Peace and Conflict Studies at Magee University in Derry and wanted to gain work experience in the charity sector:

“Finding work in the charity sector is not easy. But I became interested in working with Oxfam as Oxfam create campaigns, not just to raise money but to actually do something to create real change to benefit those that need it. Oxfam provided me with the chance to gain work experience for a full year and I was interested in getting experience in events management and the campaigns and advocacy side of Oxfam’s work.

“I got to organise events like Culture Night, getting people involved in events, sorting out insurance matters, alongside communications work. I learned loads, it’s hectic but it’s so much fun.”

Alongside her work with Oxfam, Alex volunteers with local charities that benefit refugees, and stresses the importance of welcoming refugees into our communities:

“I believe reintegration for refugees into communities is so important and so I also do work with other organisations who deal with this. Refugees only survive on about £30 a week here, with full families living on that little per week. 

“I’ve sat down with refugees and heard their stories, some of them can be heart-breaking and make you realise the little things we take for granted. Something as simple as a guy that I was talking to from Sri Lanka whose child wanted to go swimming and he finds it hard because he can’t send his child to the swimming pool. This is because they barely have enough to feed themselves, let alone afford those activities.”

Having worked with organisations that deal directly with refugees, Alex has had first-hand accounts of refugees’ individual experiences since leaving their home countries and settling into their new home in Northern Ireland:

“I think that doing the simple things with people, like taking them out for a coffee, the little things, really welcome them into the country. They are going to settle into a really different culture so it’s so important for us to welcome them as best as we can. Going to events are great to let them know you are there but they really need the day to day interaction, asking how they are doing and so on.”

Outside of her role at Oxfam, Alex’s work and research involves dealing with the mental health issues refugees experience, especially in relation to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and living in conflict:

“Imagine fleeing conflict and dealing with the trauma of it, then moving to another country and feeling like an outcast, it can be so damaging for them. Volunteering or having a job enables you to make friends, to get to know people, have a real purpose and create a real identity. So I think working in a volunteer capacity can be great for refugees too.”

Having worked with many local organisations, Alex knows the value of volunteering:

“With volunteering, I really feel like I’m giving back. I mean, we’re really lucky. I really recognise this, especially as a woman. I can go to school to get a full education, I can wear trousers, I can drive a car. There’s just so many things that we can do that others can’t. I have so much going for me that I feel it’s important to provide other people with that opportunity and I would definitely encourage more people to volunteer. I think that all graduates of Social Science should be made to take a year out and do something like volunteer, (such as with Oxfam!), or helping out in a foreign country. It really gives you a different perspective on the world and makes you more open-minded.”

Family matters: Chloe and Johnnie Chu, volunteers at Oxfam Books in Dublin

Siblings Chloe and Johnnie pose in front of the wide range of books available in Oxfam Books on Parliament Street shop in Dublin. Photo: Maria Gillan

Chloe and Johnnie from Dublin are brother and sister and have been dedicated volunteers in Oxfam Books on Parliament Street for a number of years. Johnnie was the first member of his family to volunteer his time with Oxfam and after seeing how much her brother enjoyed his time there, Chloe started volunteering for a few hours once a week, to give something back: 

“A normal work shift is about four hours,” says Chloe. “But I always wish it could be longer because it is amazing to see so many people of all ages take an interest in books and helping charity.” 

Chloe and Johnnie both love books and love meeting the interesting customers who visit the shop, as well as immersing themselves in the extensive range of unique books that can be found there. 

Chloe and Johnnie aren’t the only members of the Chu family who selflessly give their time to volunteer with Oxfam. When Chloe’s older sister moved to England she also volunteered with Oxfam over there too.

“There is a running joke in the family that our younger sister is going to start working here too,” laughs Johnnie. “That would make it four members of the family who volunteer with Oxfam!”

Chloe adds: “The main reason why I volunteer is because I love the idea that I am helping someone and that makes me really happy. And with every book donated or sold, that means I’ve done a successful job and we’ve all made a joint effort to help people in need – and that is what’s important.”

50 years of commitment: Kay Rogers, former Oxfam Ireland Board member and volunteer in the Belfast office

Kay stands beside a picture displaying Oxfam’s message of ‘Hope’, a message that Oxfam’s programmes strive to provide to people in need. Photo: Maria Gillan 

If there’s one lady who can be given a badge for dedication and long-term support for Oxfam’s work, it’s Kay Rogers. Kay has been an irreplaceable volunteer with Oxfam for almost 50 years and is a prime example of someone who displays real selflessness and commitment to helping those less fortunate. She is also responsible for helping to develop Oxfam’s first presence in Northern Ireland and has served in countless ways: as a volunteer Board member, a shop volunteer, an office intern, a spokesperson and a fundraiser.  

One of the best experiences that Kay has had was a trip to Tanzania to see the work that Oxfam does there and the impact it was having on the lives of people living in poverty:

“I was lucky enough to go on a week-long trip to Tanzania with Oxfam, where we visited many types of projects with small farmers. For example, we visited Kiwokukie, which was a women’s organisation that was founded by women in response to the HIV and AIDS crisis at that time. We also visited a small-scale farmer’s organisation too, where I got to see the positive impact that Oxfam initiatives have had first-hand. And it’s extraordinary, you know, for me, being an old luddite who rages against technology, to see how actually providing small-scale farmers with a mobile phone meant that they could find out the price of produce that day so they knew whether or not it was worth their while hauling their produce on a bicycle into the market or if they were going to be ripped off by traders. So if they knew they were going to get a decent price, it was worth their while going.

“I could see the benefits of these simple things first-hand. I could see progress. I saw the impact our work truly has.”

In the 50 years that Kay has been involved in Oxfam, she has seen it grow and evolve, alongside raising her family and working as a nurse in her community: “A few years ago, I was thinking of giving up as I had other important commitments and a friend of mine said to me, you’ll never do that because Oxfam runs through your veins.”

Kay understand the importance of volunteers and that’s why she has enjoyed the work she has done lately in the office which is about recognition and awards for volunteers, many of whom have been working in Oxfam shops for 20 or more years. 

“Volunteers give a gift of time and I think that just summarises it. They give the gift of their time and in return for that they need to have recognition, they need to have people say thank you. Volunteering is an opportunity to give something back to your community and you get something in return also – a new batch of friends, something positive to keep you busy, while also raising money for projects in the developing world.”

Philip O’Brien, a volunteer at Oxfam Portlaoise, on the importance of giving back

Philip, sits by the till in Oxfam’s shop in Portlaoise, where he serves customers each day. Photo: Maria Gillan

Philip was a mechanical engineer by trade, working for almost 40 years. However finding out he had cancer changed his outlook on life: “After getting over the cancer, my attitude became more positive. And it was my positive attitude that helped me get through it. I learned not to take life so seriously, and I now appreciate life so much more. I need to have a laugh so working here is great for me - we have great fun.”

“I enjoy meeting people and giving back to society. And after nearly dying, it made me realise to live for the moment and want to give back in some way. Going from working all my life to not working was a big adjustment, especially for my brain to handle.

“I don’t take life for granted in any way anymore. I’ve learned not to jump into situations too quickly and rush myself. Laughter is the best medicine. I’m a messer, I love to have the craic with people who come in to the shop.”

Volunteering with Oxfam has helped Philip to remain positive and make a difference in his community:

“I intend to work at the Oxfam Portlaoise shop for as long as possible,” he says. “Volunteering is positive for your mental state and a great way to pass the time while helping those who need it.”

Oxfam has many exciting opportunities for people who would like to make a difference and join a global movement of people who won’t live with poverty. If you would like to volunteer or find out more information on volunteering, click here.

Maria Gillan, author of this post, volunteered her time and talent to Oxfam Ireland to collate these stories as part of her university studies. We’re grateful for the energy and enthusiasm she gave to highlighting the names, faces and stories of some of our wonderful volunteers.

 

 

 

 

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