Oct 19, 2021

Flooding in Cox's Bazar

Photo credit: Md. Alimul Islam/Concern Worldwide
Photo credit: Md. Alimul Islam/Concern Worldwide

This report has been adapted from an first-hand account of this summer's rainy season in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and Concern’s response by Alimul Islam, Project Manager for Emergency Response, Bangladesh

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The 2021 monsoon rains have caused chaos this week for the 900,000 Rohingya refugees living in the hilly, muddy camps at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Day after day, the rains have continued, and we’ve witnessed drains become streams become raging torrents.

And then last week, these rains sparked powerful floods, which have washed away people’s homes, food and livelihoods, and landslides, which have killed 20 people (including six children). For the Rohingya who fled conflict in the Rakhine State in 2017 and in just the last year have experienced raging camp fires and the COVID-19 pandemic, this is just the latest challenge.

Floods in this country are nothing new: 75% of Bangladesh sits below sea level. Last year’s floods submerged more than 25% of the country. But in the last two weeks, the rains have been even heavier than usual. For the last four years, I’ve worked in Cox’s Bazar with Concern and I’ve not seen anything like this before — it’s by far the worst.

We are now in an emergency situation. The refugee camp is built on hills, and due to this terrain flash floods have caused landslides. In one camp where Concern works, we lost five people in just one family. The flood waters have been very high: Around some people’s homes in the lowlands, it has reached four or five feet over their homes.

While the floodwaters recede reasonably quickly in some areas because of the closeness to the river and sea, the damage has been done. Family shelters and belongings have been destroyed by the water. They’ve lost cooking utensils, blankets, clothing, and dry food that they’ve been storing (including rice, pulses, and lentils). In some areas, the water doesn’t recede as quickly. Here, landslides have caused water-logging, as the fallen soil from the hills creates a dam. Worryingly, fresh water points and toilets were also damaged by the floods. There’s now a real risk of water-borne diseases.

As part of Concern’s work with people in the Rohingya camps and host communities, we provide support in the form of home gardens. It’s heartbreaking to see 70% of these gardens damaged in the wake of rains, floods, and water logging, especially in the harvest season as many have lost crops that they had yet to pick.

Concern is responding to the flooding by providing emergency dry food items such as rice cakes, sugar, biscuits, bread, honey, and bottled water. We’re also providing people with hygiene and health kits, and non-food items as requested by local authorities in response to the floods.

Most were not able to rebuild their shelters following the massive fire earlier this year in time to prepare for the rainy season, so they’ve had no protection against these floods, and are almost entirely dependent on organizations like Concern for basic necessities.

There’s a further complication in all of this with the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh. As of this writing, we are in the middle of a two-week, nationwide lockdown mandated by the government. On Monday, July 26, Bangladesh registered the highest number of new coronavirus cases and deaths within a single day.These lockdowns have also affected people in the local host community, who haven’t been able to work. Cox’s Bazar is a tourist area, and many of its inhabitants depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Those who didn’t lose their livelihoods to COVID-19 have lost them with lost livestock, poultry, and fish — or in their rice fields, which have been flooded during cultivation season.

We know the rains come each year, but this year has been like no other. Having overcome so much in the last several years, the Rohingya are beginning to rebuild once again, supported by organizations like Concern. We need to work together to make sure people are able to prepare in time for increasingly severe rains, support them in doing so, and help them recover when the unexpected happens.

Oct 4, 2021

Meet The Chalbi Salt Self-Help Group

Photo credit: Jennifer Nolan / Concern Worldwide
Photo credit: Jennifer Nolan / Concern Worldwide

As climate change, conflict, and the economic impacts of COVID-19 increasingly drive hunger around the world, it can be challenging to pause and celebrate successes. Today’s report on Concern’s response to the hunger crisis in East Africa features one such story – the result of a locally-led, contextually-sensitive approach to livelihood development that simultaneously addresses income security, nutrition, gender equality, and education to uplift a whole community.

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The Chalbi desert was once part of an extensive lake in northern Kenya. At around 38,600 square miles (slightly bigger than the state of Indiana), it’s aptly named: In Borana, the language spoken by the Gabra people who live in this region, “Chalbi” means “bare and salty.”

When the rain comes, the desert fills with shallow water and is frequented by wildlife including ostriches, zebras, and spotted hyenas. But when the rain disappears, the endless stretch of desert provides a unique opportunity for the nomadic Gabra tribe: Desert salt. This salt provides essential nutrients for livestock (it’s said to help animals grow healthier) and yield better produce. But not everyone has access to it, especially those living in the hills where Kenya borders Ethiopia. This is where the Chalbi Salt Self-Help Group comes in.

A group of 15 women embark on a two-day trip to collect salt from the desert, which is 12 miles away. They then sell the salt to local farmers and herders, who either mix it with water or let their animals lick it in its pure form. This salt provides a great source of income for these hard-working women, not only to buy food for their families but to also pool their income together into a Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) so that they can all invest in a better future.

Not all women can get access to banks or credit, which is a substantial barrier to escaping extreme poverty. With a VSLA, this group can do so on their own. Every Monday, the group meets and each member contributes 200 Kenyan shillings (a little under $2.00). They then lend a part of this savings to a woman who needs some extra funds for her business (such as seeds) or her family (such as an unforeseen medical expense). The money is paid back with a modest interest rate that is also added to the savings box and used to help the next woman who needs it, thereby continuing the cycle of support.

But it doesn’t stop there.

“We’re supporting girls’ education so they don’t fall behind,” says Doke, a member of the group. “If you educate a girl child and she pursues well in her studies, she will get somewhere. She not only supports her family, but the entire community can benefit.”

The Chalbi Salt Self-Help Group puts some of their profits towards supporting girls’ education in the area, recognizing that an education is key in helping the next generation build a pathway out of poverty. So far, the Chalbi Salt Self-Help Group has supported ten girls in their community, aged 11-14, by providing uniforms, exercise books and pens.

As a natural resource, desert salt is (naturally) unreliable. During the rainy season, it completely dissolves, leaving nothing behind. Members of the group recall one time getting caught in the rain while returning home with 100 bags of salt, their hard work put to waste without any shelter. Doke says she and the group began to panic during the long rainy season.

In response to this, Concern provided the funding needed to keep the Chalbi Salt group afloat through the season. A cash grant of 25,000 Kenyan shillings (approximately $225) helped to cover the lost income. We also led agricultural and business trainings with skills that the group members could use in periods of increasingly erratic weather in northern Kenya, where the climate crisis is being felt acutely.

With the money left over, Doke and her group invested in other non-weather-dependent businesses, such as buying and selling clothes. The group are now back on their feet and making exciting plans for more future investments, such as a vehicle to transport the salt quickly and safely. For now, though, their ambition and determination to support local women and girls shines through every step of their 12-mile journey.

Concern has spent nearly two decades in Kenya, working both in urban contexts of Nairobi and rural communities such as Doke’s. Last year, we worked with 74 communities to achieve self-sustaining livelihoods and lives, meaning that they no longer need to rely on us for support.

Thank you for supporting meaningful and lasting change in East African communities facing extreme poverty and hunger.

Aug 27, 2021

Beirut Port Explosion: One Year Later

Concern staff volunteering with clean-up in Beirut
Concern staff volunteering with clean-up in Beirut

Concern Worldwide UK’s Tania Khalil was in her hometown in Lebanon on the day of the 2020 Beirut port explosion. One year later, we share her account of how that day changed her life with you, a generous supporter of our vital work with in the region. Your gift strengthened Concern’s ability to help vulnerable communities in Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy and continues to do so to this day.

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I started working with Concern Worldwide UK in February 2020 as part of their Major Donor team in the London office. I was fortunate enough to have had the chance to visit Concern’s programs in northern Lebanon before starting my role in London. Seeing the work firsthand was a transformative experience, one that made all the difference in my commitment to join Concern’s global movement to end extreme poverty.

However, just a month into my new position, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in the UK, forcing us all into lockdown and working from home. Being Lebanese and having grown up in Beirut, I flew back to work from there. A few months went by, and as my work as a fundraiser continued I could see how vital it was to raise funds for Concern to deliver life-changing programs amid the impacts of COVID.

On August 4, 2020, my life as I knew it changed forever. My family and I were caught up in the world’s biggest non-nuclear blast ever recorded. I am grateful to be at my desk today, as many of my friends are in intensive care in hospital and may not live to tell their story.

THE DAY OF THE BEIRUT PORT EXPLOSION

I was working with my colleague in a café in Beirut; an ancient city scarred by war, but one that is vibrant, welcoming, and full of life. Around 5:40 pm, I ordered an Uber to meet my father for a sunset drink by the sea. Upon arrival, I tipped the driver. He smiled, thanked me on behalf of his young ones, and off he went.

As I walked towards the sea, I spotted my father. All of a sudden, I heard the sound of an aircraft rushing towards us — VRRRRRRR. This was not like a passenger plane flying overhead, but much closer, much faster. The ground beneath me started to shake and I screamed, “It’s an earthquake!” A woman next to me pulled her daughter out from the water and screamed “Its war!”

I heard a BOOM and fell to the ground as a pink mushroom cloud began spreading above me, eating the city alive. Memories of a double-bomb I barely survived in 2008 resurfaced. Around me, shattered glass was flying from neighboring buildings, children were in tears, and my father was panicking about my brother’s whereabouts. But all I could think about was my mom, and that this was the end. I could feel it in my gut; an overwhelming feeling of acceptance washed over me, and I said a little prayer. Everyone around me was panicking, but I felt more peaceful in comparison.

I picked up my broken phone and sent my mom a voice memo, thinking that she was away from the blast: “Mom, I’m safe, I’m safe. Are you?”

For 45 minutes, I did not hear from her. I called home, no answer. People around us were terrified to move, and terrified to stay. There we were, the famously resilient Lebanese people caught in yet another injustice. Once I was able to connect to the internet and follow the news, it became clear that where I was standing made the difference between life and death.

Mom finally answered the phone; she was being carried home and a doctor was on his way to attend to her injuries (small particles of shattered glass under her skin, particularly around her legs, feet, and hands because she fell to the floor during the blast). I was not to worry. Thankfully, all my family survived and were ok. However, the following day, my mom buried her best friend.

ALIVE FOR A REASON

Some people say they escaped death, but I feel like it was death that escaped me. If I am alive today, it is for a reason. As a 29-year-old Lebanese woman, I survived this.

In 2005, while on my way back from a school trip, I survived the blast that brought Lebanon to its knees. In 2006, I survived a war that destroyed my country, and fled to neighboring Syria for shelter.

In the years to follow, I survived a series of bombings and assassinations that killed many people in Lebanon. It seems to me that, if you are Lebanese and alive today, it is for a reason.

By working with Concern, I can make a difference to those that have also been affected by tragedies such as this, as well as other humanitarian crises across the world. Concern is responding to the explosion, handing out shelter and dignity kits to families affected, and has launched an appeal to raise more money so that we can reach more people.

Being there on the ground, I can tell you that the team in Lebanon haven’t had a moment of rest since the blast, working around the clock to ensure that no home, and no person, is left without essentials. I want to show respect and appreciation for my colleagues in Lebanon.

I may not know the reason I am alive today; but what I do know is that life is short, and it is what you make of the time you have on this earth that really matters. Help someone in need every single day.

CONCERN IN LEBANON TODAY

Following the August 2020 Beirut port explosion, Concern Lebanon team members responded as Tania describes above. However the blast is just one of the many recent events in Lebanon that have left the country in a very complex situation that could threaten to become a deeper crisis.

“The economic crisis, currency devaluation, and associated high inflation; and massive vulnerability among Lebanese populations coupled with the protection needs of Syrian refugees and migrant workers has created a very complex and challenging environment in which to operate,” explained country director Anita Shah in March of this year. Concern is responding to the furthest behind in Lebanon, both in host communities and among refugee settlements, with psychosocial and livelihood support, health and hygiene programs to slow the spread of COVID-19, and by expanding access to quality education.

 
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