Twenty-one year old Yasmin accompanies children to the Makani Center, a Mercy Corps youth safe space in her refugee camp in Jordan. The youth program helps Syrian refugee adolescents develop communication, self-esteem, goal setting, team work and leadership skills, in addition to computer classes, physical activities and informal education. Yasmin says the children in refugee camps endure so much stress that the center is needed to give them a place to play and feel valuable. "We rebuild the routine they had in Syria here in Jordan, and treat the kids as though they are at home". All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.
About 90 minutes outside Amman, Jordan, as the sparse desert leads to the Syrian border, the wire-strewn gates of Zaatari refugee camp emerge from the emptiness. Zaatari has the architecture of a temporary city, with caravans and tents lined up in grids, but it has the permanence of a place forced to remain by uncontrollable circumstances.
Markets line the main roads, selling everything from dresses to produce. Satellite dishes sprout from the roofs of nearly every caravan. About 80,000 people live here, many of whom have been here since the beginning of the Syrian war.
To be a youth in camps like Zaatari and Azraq—another major camp an hour away—is to have your entire life put on hold. It means being out of school, away from friends, and often separated from family.
Youth in these camps have two choices: to let the stress of a life in crisis put them at risk of making harmful and dangerous choices, or to focus on building a future of peace and stability.
In Zaatari, Azraq, and several host communities, Mercy Corps operates what are called Makani Centers—meaning “my space” in Arabic. These centers are part informal school, part gym, and part social center.
Designed to serve boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon, the centers draw on the enthusiasm and expertise of adult Syrian refugees to provide academic support, teach skills like English and computers, and coach youth in life skills like communication, goal setting, and teamwork. The centers also offer popular physical education and exercise programs, including soccer, weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics and aerobics.
Omar Al-Tal is a Senior Field Coordinator for Mercy Corps’ child protection project in Jordan. These centers, he says, are not just important for young people’s physical and mental health—they give them a sense that they still have a future.
“When adolescents and youth have a vision they will dedicate their life to achieving it,” he says. “So our role basically is to help them build that vision, to help them to know themselves more, and to help them know the value that they have.
“The main point of our work is to stand in this point and to try to support them—to take all of this pressure and all of the trauma that they have and turn it to positive attitudes, to positive behaviors.”
The moment to reach these youth is now, Al-Tal says, when young men and women stand at a crossroads. If the right interventions reach them at the right time, then something amazing can happen: These years of conflict and disruption will forge a future generation that stands for peace.
“If we went back and looked at people who were leaders in peace and justice and in improving others’ lives—like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King—all of those people experienced hardship in their lives. Those hardships and experiences made them unique and made their voices heard when they talked about peace, when they talked about justice.
“My personal belief is that at some point a leader will show up for this world talking about peace, talking about children, talking about justice, and talking about security and safety, and maybe he is one of our beneficiaries now. Maybe he (she) is around us now. He (She) is someone who is living in silence, he (she) is someone who is perceiving things, he (she) is someone who is learning, and he (she) will give back all of these things to the world again. It’s going to happen.”
Mercy Corps is working with women in Niger, Ethiopia and around the world to help them overcome challenges, become leaders and drive lasting change in their communities. All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.
Souabayahaya sits on a wooden stool in her village in Niger and pours water into four metal bowls resting on the dusty ground. A small crowd of mothers sits in front of her watching intently, their children balanced in their laps.
“In our tradition, we make porridge, but this porridge is different from our traditional porridge because it contains some nutritious elements,” she tells the women as she mixes the water into powdered millet and roasted groundnuts, two locally-grown ingredients. “You can see that now that you’re giving this kind of food to your children, your children are not falling sick easily. They’re always in good health.”
She finishes mixing and hands the kids the porridge. “It is a bodybuilding food,” she says. “I mix it so the children can be well.”
In many places, traditional gender roles often restrict women to the home. Globally, women spend up to 10 times more time per day caring for children and the elderly than men do, and up to three hours more per day doing housework.
Mercy Corps sees the opportunity to empower women around the world with resources and knowledge, so they can make positive choices about their homes — what they eat, when they go to the clinic, how they spend their money — that make their families healthier and their communities stronger.
In Niger, a country where the adult literacy rate is 15 percent and 44 percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition, we’re helping women like Souabayahaya lead the way to improved nutrition, health and hygiene in their villages.
We train “leader mothers” like her — Souabayahaya has seven children — to teach other village women important lessons about diet diversity, hygiene, infant care and cooking. Armed with knowledge, the women who attend the small group demonstrations share what they have learned with other mothers in the village, creating a network effect.
“[Before] they didn’t know that a porridge could be made from our crops here,” Souabayahaya says. “They didn’t know about exclusive nursing. They didn’t know about family planning. They did not know about mosquito nets. They did not know how to look after children. But now things have changed. There’s been a great, positive change.”
Another leader mother, 27-year-old Balkissa, agrees. Thanks to the leader mothers’ work, she says that more pregnant women in her village get regular health checkups and fewer children fall ill.
“Before this activity … you would find more than 50 women in a health center who had just taken their children there because they were sick,” Balkissa says. “But now you see things have gone far and everything works now. I’m very happy.”
Balkissa just completed a house inspection for Aichatou, a 27-year-old mother in her group. As she checked Aichatou’s house, constructed from wood thatching and mud bricks, she noted the firewood needed to be moved away from the house.
“She needs to take it away because mosquitos can go inside and hide, and at nighttime they can come out,” Balkissa says. And more mosquitos means an increased chance of her family contracting a mosquito-borne disease, like malaria.
Otherwise, the house looked good; Aichatou passed the inspection, which was a relief. She has seen the benefits of Balkissa’s teachings, and she was eager to demonstrate that she fully grasped them.
“Before, my child was sick from time to time,” Aichatou told Balkissa during the inspection. “But now, for months, he has never been sick.”
We’re helping women step up to lead their communities and build healthier families not only in the areas of nutrition, sanitation and infant care, but also finance.
In southeastern Ethiopia, 15 women aged 20 to 50 gather in a small shed just off the main road through the town of Kebribeyah. Surrounded by bags of wheat, the women circle up in front of a lockbox, which requires three keys: one each for the cashier, the chairman, and the secretary.
When everyone is present, the women turn their keys and open the box. Inside? The pile of money they’ve collected over the past several months.
The women meet once a week to save money through the savings group Mercy Corps helped them organize. This week, everyone in the group contributes an additional 15 birr (around 65 cents) into the pool, from which the women can take loans.
Access to even this small amount of money can be life-changing for these women and their families. By working together and pooling their money, they build themselves a financial safety net to cope with emergencies, and even fund new livelihoods.
Sahara, a 50-year-old widow and mother of seven, has been a member of the finance group for almost a year and a half. She borrowed 5,000 birr for two months to purchase bulk wheat and butter, which she resells in smaller quantities to support her family. She repaid the loan, and now the money is available for another woman to borrow.
“I was better off taking the loan,” Sahara says. “It increased my income and the quality of life of my household.”
Across Ethiopia, women who see such positive, immediate results from working together are motivated to step up and help their communities overcome other challenges, too.
Halima, a 19-year-old who lives with her son in a rural area outside Dire Dawa, began holding her own cooking demonstrations shortly after attending a Mercy Corps leader-mother demonstration in her village.
At home she began cooking porridge with oats, vegetables and beans for her baby, instead of the sugar water and butter mixture that is common, and she has seen first-hand how nutritious meals can improve a child’s health.
“Since I got a good benefit, I had a desire to share the information with other members of my community,” she says.
“I was inspired, so I started to take the lead to cook the food for the public and demonstrate cooking to the community. My next plan is to share the information on how to cook for my neighbors and other villages as well.”
Around the world, the training and resources women like Halima, Sahara and Aichatou receive through Mercy Corps are allowing them to improve their families’ lives and create change in their communities.
Now, they can begin to realize the future they may have only dreamed about. Sahara sends her children to school. Aichatou hopes that her children will study to become “health agents.” And Halima aspires that her son will grow up healthy, and become an engineer.
Empowered by her experiences, Halima is confident that the work she and other women do will continue to improve lives.
“If I demonstrate and take the lead, the community is eager to learn,” Halima says.
How you can help
You are an important part of the solution. When we work together, we can help even more people stay healthy, support their families and forge ahead to a better, stronger future.
Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc on rural and coastal communities, blowing over crops, flooding fields and homes, and making life more difficult and dangerous for many. With teams already living and working across the country, Mercy Corps was on the ground before, during and after the hurricane, ready to assist those that lost homes and possessions in the storm. All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.
Hurricane Matthew made landfall on October 4th with 145-mile-per-hour winds and heavy rain, causing flooding and severe damage to homes and fields. The storm blocked or flooded roads, limited communications and washed-out bridges, leaving already vulnerable communities inaccessible in the days after the disaster. As the winds fell and the rains ceded, we saw widespread destruction to roads and buildings, and crops and livestock were wiped out, which the majority of Haitians depend on to survive.
Haiti is the poorest country in the northern hemisphere, and many families were still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced nearly 2.3 million more. Around 60,000 people were still living in displacement camps when they were battered by Hurricane Matthew last fall.
In Arcahaie, one of our program areas, approximately 80 percent of banana crops were destroyed by winds and seawater flooding. These crops supported some 20,000 families.
The majority of Haitians rely solely on farming for food and income, and they have been hit hard: Hurricane Matthew came on the heels of the country’s worst drought in 50 years. Even before the hurricane, many people had not yet fully recovered and lacked access to the food they needed to survive.
Additionally, with many families lacking access to clean water in the aftermath of the storm, the spread of cholera is a serious threat. The country has already experienced high rates of the waterborne illness — and the significant flooding and rain brought by Hurricane Matthew significantly increase the risk of it spreading.
Mercy Corps’ emergency responseWith 32 team members already on the ground in Haiti, our team had been bracing for the storm and preparing to respond, including organizing assessment teams to deploy to hard-hit areas after the storm passed. Before the hurricane arrived, Mercy Corps team members were worried about how few people knew there was a storm coming, and reached out to farmers associations and community groups to spread the word and encourage people to seek shelter. As soon as planes were cleared for landing, our emergency response team joined their colleagues in Haiti to assess the damage and immediately begin providing clean water and other items to those in need.
Three months after the storm hit, Mercy Corps continues to address the immediate needs of people affected by Hurricane Matthew. Since October, Mercy Corps has been providing water to people in need and we are now reaching five communities. We are also shifting our focus to rehabilitating water systems to replace the water trucking to create a permanent solution to water needs and to reach a broader range of communities. To prevent the spread of cholera and other waterborne diseases, hygiene promotion is an ongoing activity and hygiene kits are now being distributed to reach 3,000 households with soap and safe water treatment solutions. Messages are tailored to address Haiti’s specific needs, including proper hand washing, latrine usage, and how to treat and protect water to ensure the long-term health of the community members.
Mercy Corps is also gearing up for cash distribution to over 20,000 families before the end of January. The equivalent of US$60 will be distributed to the families identified as the most vulnerable, providing each recipient with the dignity to make their own decisions and choices about what they need and when. Additionally, the cash is spent within the local economy - typically with small businesses and market traders who have also faced incredible setbacks in the wake of the hurricane. Not only will people be able to prioritize their own needs, but they are also participating in their own recovery - infusing funds into their local economy is empowering and it allows community members to take ownership of their rebuilding efforts.
Your support is making a differenceDespite the strength of the hurricane and the extent of the damage, Haitians are ready to continue the rebuilding process with clean water, healthy families, cash transfers and working markets. With so many people losing their homes, land and belongings, your support is critical to helping them recover and build back stronger.