Maram, 27, spent two nights walking over the eastern Lebanon mountains with her kids after living under siege in the Syrian city of Homs. With her husband missing and no way to buy food, her only option was to become a refugee. This is her story. (Edited for space and clarity from a Mercy Corps staff interview with Maram in Lebanon). All photos: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps.
When my husband disappeared and my kids went hungry, leaving Syria became my only option.We were living under siege in the city of Homs. I was pregnant, and one day my husband went out to buy food and never came back.
We were not allowed to go anywhere. But one day they gave us permission to leave the city, with the condition that we couldn't have any papers on us so they knew we would come back. But with my husband lost, I took all of our family papers and hid them in one of my children's diapers.
A neighbor told me he was willing to get us from Al-Waer to Damascus. But when we reached Damascus he said, "If you want to get into Lebanon you have to pay me." But I didn't have any money — I was a pregnant woman with four children. He said, "Well if you don't pay me I cannot get you into Lebanon." So I decided to walk through the mountains myself.
I didn't know how to get to Lebanon — I only followed the lights. Whenever I saw a light I would follow it. The first time I went up the mountain with my children I got lost, so I went down again. Then I went up another direction, but I was met by the Syrian army and they turned me back. At this point, I had spent a night and a half on the mountain without any food. One of my children, Liham, was shaking from a fever.
The second night, we met the Lebanese army. They said, "Do you know that it's illegal to come here through the mountains?" I said, "I do know, but I don't have anywhere else to go and the man who was supposed to get us into Lebanon didn't get us in."
He said, "Are these your children?" I said yes, and one of the officers said to his commander, "Well we cannot just detain her, she's a pregnant woman with four children." Then the commander sent two officers to the supermarket to bring some food for the children. After we ate, the commander asked us where we were going in Lebanon. I told him that I have some relatives in the south, so they called a taxi to take us there.
At this point, I had spent a night and a half on the mountain without any food.
The plan was to live with my brother, but when I met him I saw he lived in a tiny room with his family. It was too small for all of us, and there was no food to put on the table. So the owner of the collective shelter offered to give me a room and said, "If you can find a job and pay the rent, I can help you. But meanwhile I'll be writing down the debts. And if you want to buy food for your children, there is a supermarket where you can take the food now and pay later."
I was pregnant. I wasn't able to work. For three months I wasn't able to pay the rent or the grocery bill. And then I had to give birth.
A life of desperationI gave birth in the government hospital in Saida. I had to stay for two months with my child — more time I wasn't able to work. I heard about a person who would lend me money, but I would have to pay back double what I borrowed. But I was in desperate need for money because I have a child that has a lot of medical needs.
I had a lot of debts and no support. I didn't have any information about where my husband was. And now I had a 2-month-old baby. A woman in our compound even came to me and said, "I could pay all of your debts, but in return I want your child because I couldn't have any children. I will raise her since you can’t, but she will be mine." It was a terrible situation.
My neighbor told me about an organization called Mercy Corps that could provide work for me if I contacted them. I told them I was in desperate need of work, so Mercy Corps connected me to a temporary job at a recycling factory. I started the next day.
When my temporary job ended, the owner of the facility told me he wanted to hire me based on my need. "Whenever we need extra hands," he said, "I'm going to put you at the top of the list." For another two months he called me three days per week to work and earn money.
This opportunity from Mercy Corps was great because I was able to pay some of my debts, buy medicine, and bring food to my family. But after a few months the owner said, "I'm really sorry, but we don't need anyone right now."
Meanwhile, I started asking around about where my husband was. People were telling me different things, and I was really confused. I even sent a letter to the ministry that said, "I'm married to a man named Wahid, and one day he went out and didn't come back. It's been five months and I haven't heard anything about him. If you know where he is, please let me know."
Back in Syria, Wahid had heard that we fled to Lebanon. When he arrived, I was so happy to see that he was still alive. I felt like this is the support I need — someone working with me to support this family.
‘I saw the missiles raining on us’I don't have any food here, just a small amount of rice and beans that I boil with spices. There is a spring close by that provides water, but it has a high level of calcium, so the children cannot drink too much of it. I tried to get vaccines for my child, but no one cared. I knocked on doors, but everyone refused. My child needs a lot of medical tests, but they cost around $700 and I cannot afford them.
Yesterday my son said, "Mom I want some ice cream," and I knew I couldn't afford to buy it. I told him no, that we couldn’t afford it, and he started crying. I cried all night because of that.
The message I want people to hear all over the world is that we are suffering. I only want my family to be able to meet their basic needs — food, water and shelter. It's been three years now that my children haven't had any schooling. This year I would like to register them in school. This is my only wish, to see them grow.
Still, it's nothing compared to what I've seen in the war. I saw the missiles raining on us. Instead of raining water, it was raining missiles. Walking on a mountain with four children was nothing compared to that. It was that bad. We were not allowed to go out or in. We were under siege. Nothing could enter the city. We were trapped in our four walls, not able to do anything, just waiting to die.
One day recently, my husband and I were sitting together and I was feeling desperate. I told him that I needed to contact Mercy Corps again to find work. Right then, Hamad, a Mercy Corps staff member, called me. He said, "I’m working on an opportunity for you."
I cried for two hours out of happiness. Then I went to the market and asked for bread and yogurt.
The owner said, "How?" I said, "I found a job again."
How you can help
For millions of people from Africa to the Middle East, hunger is a daily reality. But, for some, the risk of starvation is even greater. People in four countries - South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria - have been threatened by famine this year. Photos: Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps, Peter Caton for Mercy Corps, Tom Saater for Mercy Corps.
For nearly a year, relentless conflict and natural disaster have put more than 20 million people in four countries across Africa and the Middle East at risk of starvation. For just as long, Mercy Corps has been dedicated to helping people in the hardest-hit communities survive, meet their emergency needs and build a foundation for eventual recovery.
Below, Mercy Corps team members from each of the famine-threatened countries report on the current situation, and what more needs to be done.
SOUTH SUDANEarlier this year, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, the first anywhere in the world in six years. While the country is no longer technically experiencing a famine, ongoing conflict continues to fuel displacement, loss of livelihoods and severe malnutrition. Our acting country director for South Sudan, Francesco Lanino, provides an update.
What is the food crisis like right now?
South Sudan entered the harvest season in September 2017 with 6 million people — 56 percent of the total population — estimated to be severely food insecure. Even though post-harvest gains are expected to reduce this number, an anticipated earlier than normal start of the lean season [when people run out of food before the next harvest] will result in an estimated 5.1 million people being classified as severely food insecure between January and March of 2018. Humanitarian assistance is critical in averting the situation deteriorating to catastrophic levels.
In the worst-case scenario — given the severity of the food security and nutrition situation observed during the 2017 lean season — continued conflict, humanitarian access constraints, climatic shocks and economic instability leading up to the 2018 lean season will likely result in famine conditions in multiple locations across South Sudan.
How is Mercy Corps planning to continue responding?
Mercy Corps will keep providing support to the most vulnerable South Sudanese. In Mundri East, where Mercy Corps distributed seeds and tools, our farmers managed to harvest enough to cover the food needs for the lean season and farm again for the next farming cycle. In Panjiyar, Mercy Corps distributed crops and vegetable kits to every single household, and we’ll continue to support people by delivering new seed kits during the coming lean season. Mercy Corps also distributed fishing kits to each family in Panjiyar, and will deliver training on how to properly dry and store fish.
Mercy Corps’ cash transfers program to support the most food insecure families will continue during the coming season. When the harvested food supplies are depleted during the lean season, Mercy Corps will provide cash assistance to enable people to purchase food supplies in the local market, where traders are also supported by Mercy Corps. And Mercy Corps will be running school feeding programs to guarantee at least 6,000 children get one meal per day.
What do you want the public to know as we move into the new year?
South Sudanese people cannot be abandoned. Support is needed more than ever. In 2018, Mercy Corps will continue enhancing the ability of at least 300,000 of the most vulnerable individuals — this is double the number from last year — to be able to cope with the effects of conflict and disease outbreak, while building resilience. Through this increased resilience, communities will be better able to cope with, adapt to and manage shocks and stresses in the future.
SOMALIASince January 2017, a dangerous combination of violence and severe drought have forced almost 1 million people to flee their homes, unable to grow food in their agricultural communities. Humanitarian interventions helped avert famine, but drought conditions persist and 3.1 million people still cannot meet their daily food needs. Our country director for Somalia, Abdikadir Mohamud, explains.
How has the food crisis changed in recent months?
The humanitarian response has been very proactive in trying to address the need. There are gaps, definitely, but the situation is not as alarming as before. The rains have just started — although not as strong as expected — but rains are not enough [for people to return to their homes]. The insecurity challenges are there. There is a lot of activity in terms of military and a lot of political instability. What we are finding is that people are going in and out of the camps to go see their places, but there is not much activity in terms of farming.
[We will] continue with provision of basic needs, which are water, rehabilitation of infrastructure — farm infrastructure or agricultural activities — and also trying to see how we can support those in camps. Our team is highly dedicated and committed to moving supplies and other aid services into the communities.
We are talking about, for example, provision of food for school children, and also trucking water to the places that have not seen any rain yet. We are also doing cash-for-work activities so we can inject cash into the markets and the populations, so that they can afford to buy their food in different areas. Those who have severely lost their livestock, we're trying to restock livestock for them, and then also training community animal health workers to provide essential services.
What we really need people to know is that the situation is still the same in Somalia. As much as we give it hope, the needs are there. That has not changed. We still require international support. We require regional support. And we also require the public's support to make Somalia stable again.
The picture is that the situation in Somalia is dire, and we really need your support so that the Somali community, and the children of Somalia, can live through this calamity. Hopefully, by the new year, there is rain and people can do their farming. That is when we can talk about trying to see whether we can move people to recovery. Now we are only talking about how to save lives.
YEMENFamilies in Yemen are in dire need after years of war have crippled the economy, disrupted basic services and made essential supplies like food, medicine and fuel inaccessible. An estimated 17 million people do not have the food they need, and the United Nations reports the country is on the brink of the largest famine the world has seen in decades. Hannah Hilleson, senior program officer for the Middle East, shares more.
The food security situation in Yemen is extremely challenging. As a result of the ongoing conflict, food stores are limited, especially in remote parts of the country. The country imports most of its food, and access constraints into and out of the country limit the availability of nutritious foods.
What's interesting is that while limited, we are still seeing food available in many communities, though at an increased price. Yemen is also suffering from an ongoing banking and liquidity crisis, which means that while food stores may often be available, the average Yemeni may not have enough funds to purchase the food. The situation continues to evolve with the ongoing conflict and we continue to track it closely to ensure we are meeting the urgent needs of those most vulnerable.
Why is it important for people to continue caring about need in Yemen?
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and was already food insecure before the current conflict. As a result, the ongoing crisis is wreaking havoc on the Yemeni people and creating a number of follow-on effects that will continue to pose challenges for years to come.
For example, less variety and availability of nutritious food reduces a person's ability to combat health related issues. We saw this clearly in 2017, as cholera spread — and continues to spread — across Yemen. Additionally, during times of food insecurity, heads of households are forced to make really tough decisions for themselves and their families, including taking children out of school to reallocate those funds for food and skip or reduce the number of meals they consume.
What motivates you to keep doing this work?
The Mercy Corps Yemen team is absolutely remarkable. Their dedication to bettering their communities and serving those most vulnerable — while they are themselves also facing extreme challenges — never fails to amaze me. They are a constant motivation to do my very best so they can do theirs.
NIGERIAIn northeast Nigeria, the home of Boko Haram, violence has uprooted 1.7 million people from their homes and livelihoods, effectively robbing their ability to feed their families. As the Nigerian government has recently regained control of certain areas, it has paved the way for recovery while simultaneously unveiling the scale of need in communities that were previously inaccessible. Darius Radcliffe, our country director for Nigeria, reports.
The big message is famine has been averted as a result of the massive scale-up in humanitarian assistance. In areas where humanitarian organizations have intervened, collectively, they have made a tangible difference.
However, while internal displacement is beginning to curb, food insecurity amongst internally displaced people (IDPs) and host communities remains particularly high: 5.2 million people are still severely food insecure, and 2 million are currently receiving food assistance. Humanitarian access remains a major constraint — some areas facing emergency levels of food insecurity are completely inaccessible due to insecurity and logistical challenges.
The need is still there. There is still a response that is necessary — but it’s a different type of response we’re now looking at. Mercy Corps is continuing food vouchers and distributions to combat food insecurity, but we’re also expanding our approach to include early recovery and resilience efforts. That means supporting livelihood recovery activities and providing agricultural training to allow people and communities to become agents of their own recovery.
We are also expanding our conflict management efforts in the northeast to further strengthen and support communities as they recover from the crisis. We're continually trying to find solutions rather than just deliver humanitarian aid.
Why is it important for people to continue caring about need in Nigeria?
The crisis in Nigeria remains one of the largest humanitarian emergencies in the world. Without food assistance, many millions of people will suffer needlessly, and we risk slipping away from the early recovery seen in parts of the northeast.
In addition, the conflict is not abating. Over 80 percent of Borno state, the state most caught up in the crisis, is considered at high or very high risk. More needs to be done to access these people and assess their needs. And we need to help people affected by the conflict transition from dependence on humanitarian assistance to early recovery. Without these efforts, we risk food insecurity in the northeast becoming a chronic and intractable humanitarian issue for years to come, with significant ramifications for the safety and stability of the entire region.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
All photos: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps
As the war in Syria drags on and its humanitarian cost continues to grow, we are often most focused on the suffering of families who are still in desperate need. There are so many Syrian families who still need our help — and so many who have endured tragedy upon tragedy in their search for safety. And yet, in our work throughout the region, there are reasons to hope.
As refugees have sought shelter in neighboring countries and resources have been stretched thin, Mercy Corps has been there to help refugees build new lives and help host communities come together with their new neighbors. Because of caring people like you, our response has kept growing — and now, there are so many ways we are working together to help Syrian refugee families.
Mercy Corps' supporters are the key to helping Syrian refugees build better lives.
1. Giving youth a chance to grow
In the coastal Lebanese city of Saida, a diverse group of young coaches — some Syrian refugees themselves — are gathered together to drink coffee and attend a training. Soon, at this Mercy Corps Bussma Center, they will be teaching adolescent refugees and Lebanese youth dancing, cooking, photography, language and barber skills.
This youth center is just one of many in the region, and the goal is to make young Syrian refugees feel less alone, and connect them to others in the community. Coaches Manar, Mohammed and Mahmoud have a contagious energy, and they want nothing more than to give vulnerable young people the chance at a better future.
Mahmoud is a first-time coach and will be teaching photography when the center opens. “I’m really excited,” he says. “These children are under stress, under pressure. They can find ways to express themselves and have a voice.”
Manar, a Syrian refugee who has been a language coach for three years already at other Bussma Centers, finds joy in connecting the young people in her classes. “I’m teaching them things to enhance their relationships with other people,” she says. “Now they have friends, and importantly, friends from different backgrounds. It’s something beautiful, and it means I did something good in my life.”
When the center is bustling with teens and staffed by passionate coaches, it will be a place of refuge, relief and possibility. For young refugees who face a future full of uncertainty, this center may be the difference between despair and hope.
2. Helping families get the healthcare they need
Way up in the hills of Lebanon, close to 7,000 Syrian refugees live near the town of Hasbaya, where a small hospital does its best to serve the 20,000 Lebanese people who live there and the relatively new influx of refugees. Dr. Ibrahim, who runs the hospital, has a reason to be proud — because of Mercy Corps’ help, his hospital is running smoothly again.
As Dr. Ibrahim explains, this small but busy hospital had been suffering from issues with their water supply. The filtration system wasn’t working properly, putting services at risk, and the hospital was even forced to buy bottled water for patients to drink. The repairs were becoming costly and the hospital didn’t have the resources to replace the system.
Nearly everything in the hospital relies on clean and safe water: the kitchen, the operating room, the laundry, the sterilization center — even patients being able to bathe themselves. A hospital doesn’t run without clean water. “It was our duty to provide clean water. We were really in desperate need to fix the water,” says Dr. Ibrahim.
The Mercy Corps team in Lebanon saw how important this hospital was, for Syrian refugees and locals, and decided to step in to help. With a brand new water filtration system up and running, the hospital is once again a safe place for refugees to get the medical care they need. “We are thankful to Mercy Corps,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “Now that the water is working, it’s making our lives a lot easier.”
3. Helping communities come together
Since the war in Syria began in 2011, millions of refugees have flooded into neighboring countries seeking safe shelter and refuge. With such a massive shift in population, tensions are seemingly inevitable. That’s why across the region, Mercy Corps brings Syrian refugees and their host community neighbors together to participate in conflict resolution trainings.
Through this program, refugees and community members learn together how to solve conflicts productively and how to improve their now-shared community. But the trainings aren’t all business — a key part of the program focuses on encouraging the two groups to come together, get to know each other, and see each other as individuals.
Alyamama is a Syrian refugee who participated in the program and has become a leader for other Syrians, particularly women, in her community in Lebanon. At the end of the training, her group decided that what their community needed most of all was a library and community center — a public place where people could gather to learn and grow. “We decided it was very important to have a cultural center, including a library, that benefits both Lebanese and Syrians,” says Alyamama.
Alyamama is excited to be a part of something that is bigger than herself. “At the center we will have the opportunity to teach women new skills and how to be independent with what they have,” she says. And she’s grateful for the Mercy Corps program that started it all. “The most beautiful thing about the program was meeting people from other villages. We all came together.”
4. Empowering youth to create change
Watching Islam play with his team, outfitted in sleek black and white uniforms, you might think this is a soccer field in Europe somewhere — but just beyond the edges of the bright green astroturf is desert as far as the eye can see. Islam, 15, and his family are refugees who now call the Azraq refugee camp home.
Like so many others, Islam’s transition to life as a refugee in a new place was anything but easy. There are many minority groups living in Azraq, including refugees now, and tensions were high. Before Mercy Corps helped the community build this soccer field, the kids had nowhere to play. “I was lonely and I didn’t know anyone,” says Islam.
Before the field was built, many of the adult community members participated in Mercy Corps’ conflict resolution training. The outcome of their hard work has helped Islam adjust to his new community. His best friend is Jordanian, and it’s clear they are happiest on the soccer field. They play every day in the summer and on weekends during the school year, and he’s grateful for his new team. “I feel like I own my own power when I put on my jersey,” he says.
The camaraderie of Islam’s team has had a ripple effect — as the kids get to know each other through sport, so do the parents, and Islam says that the whole community has changed for the better. “They start to know each other and love each other,” he says. It’s amazing to see just how much positivity and change a single soccer field can create.
5. Giving parents and kids a place to gather
Not far from Islam’s soccer field in Azraq is a new playground — another product of this community’s hard work in conflict resolution training. Hilda and her three young children, Renad, Majeda and Yazan are at ease here, and the kids love to play on the new swings and jungle gym.
Hilda’s husband is still in Syria, and she made the difficult decision to leave with the children. She had never left home alone before. She ended up in Azraq town, lonely and struggling to take care of the kids on her own. After a tough year in their new home, Hilda began to reach out and get to know her neighbors. She also applied to join the conflict resolution training.
Since making those changes, Hilda says her life has improved dramatically. “I’m very happy to be a part of this success,” she says. “The relationships between communities have become so much stronger.” She brings her young kids to this playground at least three times a week, and says it’s so much easier to get to know her neighbors now that they have a common space to meet and relax.
Hilda says that this playground - and Mercy Corps - has had an impact on her life. “Now I don’t feel like a refugee,” she says with a smile. When her two daughters are asked through a translator if they are proud of their mom’s hard work, they reply in unison in English: “Yes!”
6. Helping kids with disabilities stay in school
Life in a refugee camp isn’t easy for anyone. But for children with disabilities, everyday tasks like going to fetch water, or getting to school, can feel impossible. Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp is huge, with only rough dirt roads and pathways separating the sprawl of tents and other services like playgrounds and classrooms.
Because of these difficulties, children like Ahmad, who suffers from a form of cerebral palsy, often stay home — isolated, lonely and unable to continue their education. Mercy Corps saw the need to help children like Ahmad, and developed a program to identify children with disabilities in the camp and make sure they have everything they need to get to school and keep up with their studies.
For Ahmad, that meant a new wheelchair and special teachers who work with him after school to help him make progress in his studies. The wheelchair he received isn’t just any wheelchair. Mercy Corps staff noticed that because of their disabilities or small stature, often the students in the camp were getting by with wheelchairs, desks or other equipment that didn’t fit properly.
With only an idea and collected recycled materials, the Mercy Corps team started a small workshop to create customized equipment for their students. When we visited the tiny shop, a young boy whose wheelchair broke was being measured for a new one — one that would be customized just for him.
7. Helping women transform their communities
Inside a small building in the Jordanian town of Kharja, not far from the Syrian border, a bubbly Jordanian woman, Leila, and her quieter close friend - and Syrian refugee - Lena, have built Kharja's first women's gym.
Previously, the nearest gym took two hours round trip to get to, and so the community leaders, even the men, agreed that a gym for local women is what the community needed most of all. Together with Mercy Corps and their local conflict resolution group, Leila and Lena went to action. “Every project has people who go against it, but we rallied them to our side,” Leila says with a charming smile. They explained that the negotiation skills they learned during the training helped persuade anyone in the community who was unsure of their idea.
Now, the gym is open and welcoming to all women in the community. “Women should dedicate time to themselves,” Lena says. Leila jumps in to echo her sentiments: “As community leaders we are trying to empower women. We are brainstorming with both women and men together.”
The gym includes exercise equipment and a brightly lit room for exercise classes. In the summer months, the women who use the gym get together every month to go on excursions to some of Jordan’s historic places. In the winter, they gather as a group to chat and relax.
The seeds of change start small. And right here, in a town near the Syrian border, Leila and Lena’s project is in full bloom.
You’re transforming lives around the world
These stories of progress in Jordan and Lebanon are just a sliver of the incredible work that people like you make possible in more than 40 countries around the world. Because of your support, we are helping families survive crisis and overcome hardship — and empowering them to build better lives and transform their own communities.
Thank you for supporting Mercy Corps’ work around the world. Together, we can transform lives and be there for those who need us most.