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Oct 12, 2017

Mosul's next battle: Recovery

In the aftermath of the battle for Mosul, nearly 1.5 million people have been affected and the need is immense. Mercy Corps is distributing emergency supplies and cash to support families as they begin the hard work of recovery. All photos: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

Ayad’s children nap on the dirt floor inside their tent, dusty sandals splayed beside them. In this desert displacement camp, Ayad grieves that their lives have morphed into a series of water collection and food distributions, but they have nowhere else to go. Their home was razed nine months ago.

In Mosul city, Faiza fills a small plastic tub with what water she can spare, improvising a pool to keep her six grandchildren cool. The heat is sweltering in the bullet-pocked shelter they now share with five other groups, but Faiza can’t afford a fan. There is no work, and she’s been borrowing money just to keep her family fed.

In another neighborhood, Samer* sits in the cramped courtyard of his rented shelter trying to catch relief from the same heat. He rubs what is left of his tender legs — both of which were lost after hitting a roadside bomb — as his young children run circles around him. As he describes what they are facing, he calls to his wife for confirmation, but she doesn’t respond. The blast took her hearing.

“We were rich people once,” Samer says wearily. “We helped people in need. Now we are the ones who need help.”

‘They lost their humanity’
Before this — before the city fell to ISIS, before the excruciating battle to liberate it — Mosul was a historic, vibrant city where 2.5 million people built their lives.

Parents sent their boys and girls to school with colorful backpacks draped over their shoulders. People gathered on the banks of the Tigris river, laughing and roasting fresh fish on the tree-lined shore. Families packed streetside cafes. Students filed through the doors of the university library, thick textbooks wrapped in their arms. Men and women tended to the city as doctors, policemen and teachers. Centuries-old architecture peppered the skyline. Life was everywhere. People were happy.

That was before.

When the battle to reclaim Mosul began last October, after three years of rule under ISIS, the choice to stay or leave wasn’t an option as much as a gamble: flee and risk being shot by snipers, or stay and brace for the bombs.

“Some people prepared to stay and protect their property, and they did not want to jeopardize their lives and their kids’ lives,” says Hassan Waleed, Mercy Corps’ emergency response program manager for Mosul. “Others thought, ‘I’m dying either way. Let me take my chances and flee.’”

Access to vital necessities — fuel, water, electricity — was cut off. Basic foods reached exorbitant prices; 1 kilogram of rice alone cost $25 USD. No one — civilian or fighter — was safe from the daily onslaught of explosions and gunfire. Nearly a million people were forced from their homes, many of which were bombed and shelled with residents still inside.

By the time the city was declared liberated nine months later, it had suffered a battle so severe it has since been called the most brutal urban combat since World War II.

Because of the situation in Mosul, Bouchra’s children —one daughter and three sons, including 11-year-old Ahmed — haven’t been to school in more than two years. Her husband was shot during the battle for Mosul city, so it’s now up to her to put their lives back together.

Once-colorful city blocks lined with schools, churches and parks have been reduced to piles of rubble and twisted metal. Families have been severed. By some estimates, 40,000 people have been killed and many more injured.

Those who remain are left to salvage their lives in a city covered with 11 million tons of residential debris and so many leftover landmines the United Nations estimates it will take a decade to clear them.

This is the hard truth about war: to experience it is one thing, and to survive it is something else entirely.

“War always has a domino effect,” says Waleed. “It doesn’t end by announcing victory or liberating an area. People suffer. They will carry on wounds, physical and mental. People died — nothing will solve this.

“It takes a really big effort just to recover, to help those people come back to proper life and decent life. They are somehow breathing, walking and eating, but they lost their humanity, their idea of being a human.”

A lifeline of support
“I am so tired,” Marwa says.” Her husband, Thaa’er, has Parkinson’s disease and was severely injured in an explosion near their home. His poor health prevents him from working, and they have four children to support. “We have no money for medicine,” she says. “If there is food, I eat. If there isn’t food, I don’t eat.”

Across Mosul — and especially in the historic west side of the city — at least 8,500 homes have been leveled and many more are fragmented and in disrepair. Nearly 100 kilometers of roads are damaged. Public services, including water, electricity and medical care, are debilitated. Job opportunities are gone. And the need is enormous.

Of the 1.5 million people who have been affected, most, like Marwa, are struggling to meet every one of their basic needs.

“Every single household has a story that definitely will break your heart,” says Waleed. “The stories that you hear are horrible, horrifying. It’s beyond our imagination.”

Mercy Corps has been responding to the crisis in Mosul since the month after the first clashes began, aiding those who fled the violence and providing hygiene kits, cooking materials and shelter supplies to help them survive.

In the wake of this disaster, we’re beside — and we’ll stay beside — families still in Mosul city with cash and support to meet their needs as they slowly begin the hard work of recovery.

Tens of thousands of people have so far received emergency funds to purchase medicine, clothing, shelter and other urgent priorities. The cash is a lifeline that brings not just immediate practical reprieve, but relief to stop worrying about today, and start thinking about tomorrow.

For people like Faiza, that makes all the difference.

Back in her family's shelter in east Mosul, she keeps one eye on the kids splashing in the makeshift plastic pool, and chases Yusuf, her 1-year-old grandson, around the next room.

“All day I’m running after them!” she says with a tired laugh.

Like so many others, Faiza lost everything in the conflict, not least of all her ability to support the people who depend on her. And with her grown children often out searching for work, daily childcare for the little ones falls to her — giving her plenty to worry about.

Now, at least, providing food and shelter isn’t one of them.

“This cash saved us,” Faiza says.

How you can help
We’re committed to helping Iraqis survive this crisis and rebuild their lives no matter how long as it takes. But we need your help. Here’s how you can join us:

  1. Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to Iraqi families and people in crisis around the world. Get your gift matched by your employer to double your impact.
  2. Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page and spread the word about the millions of people who need us.
  3. Sign our petition telling Congress not to cut international aid. Around the world, people are in need of lifesaving assistance. We must continue to support them.

*Name has been changed to protect identity and safety.


Aug 28, 2017

Refugees find healing in the wilderness

Mohammad Khaldoun prepares to begin his climb. Mercy Corps staff take Syrian refugee youth rock climbing, among other wilderness therapy activities. All photos Isidro Serrano Selva for Mercy Corps.

The Wadi Rum national park in Jordan is so otherworldly that filmmakers have used its red rock faces as a stand-in for the surface of Mars. But for one group of boys, the copper sands and granite cliffs really are a world away—from the lives they left behind, and the horrors of the Syrian war.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, more than 1 million Syrians, many of them young people, have fled to Jordan in pursuit of safety, security, and opportunity.

To help them adapt to their new community, Mercy Corps uses wilderness therapy, including activities like hiking and rock climbing, so Syrian and Jordanian youth can interact in the outdoors, away from the struggles of daily life.

“We go out into nature and do a lot of activities such as rock climbing, slack line and hiking,” says Monther Altiti with Mercy Corps Jordan. “We also do a lot of teamwork and trust-building. We do this because young people, and especially Syrians in host communities, they have nothing to do. Most of them, they dropped out from school, they have conflict with the law or they lost one of their parents in war, which is why we came up with this idea.”

At the base of the rock face, Jeronimo Candela, Operations Director of Mercy Corps Jordan, helps the boys buckle their helmets and clip their carabiners.

“In these communities, there are conflicts between the Jordanian community and [the boys from] Syria,” Candela says. “They feel invaded. And through these activities and working with young people, it’s a dynamic and positive way that the two cultures coexist at ease.”

Candela serves as belayer for the climbers, anchoring the long rope and spooling it through a carabiner clipped to his belt to provide slack as a Syrian boy gingerly makes his way up the rock face.

Getting outdoors helps young refugees release their negative emotions, improve their problem-solving, and literally get away from it all.

"Adolescent Syrian refugees often experience extreme conditions of conflict, gender based-violence, and abusive child labor,” says Hannah Hilleson, a Mercy Corps senior program officer. “By experiencing nature, these youth can reconnect, build trust of themselves and of others.”

This trust can be very hard to build in a new home.

“These guys have no way out of their village,” Candela says. “[Climbing] is open air, mountains, getting away from the city. You don't do it alone. You will always make friends.”

The camaraderie doesn’t end with the climb. Afterward, the boys reflect on how they can use their new skills in their personal lives.

“We try to learn communication skills and we learn to trust each other, how to work within a team,” Altiti says. “We also switch roles, so different people can get leadership experience.

“We feel it’s very important, in life, in school, and work, dealing with everyday issues. We reflect on the skills we’ve learned in the program and how we are going to implement them in our life.”

After the climb, Candela plays his guitar while the Syrian refugees and their new Jordanian friends drink tea together on a ledge beside a high cliff. Beneath them lay the vast valley floor, seemingly a world away.

“Being here with friends, and outdoors, you forget everything,” Candela says. “And it's what they need, these guys, because they have a lot of trauma behind them. With new memories and positive activities, they erase the other. I feel we are doing something good for them.”

You can help:

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us meet the urgent needs of Syrian refugees and build stronger tomorrows within their host communities.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page to spread the word about the millions who need us.
Jul 17, 2017

Why we're not giving up on South Sudan

South Sudan has been mired in a violent civil war since 2013, displacing nearly 2 million people within the country. Mercy Corps is on the ground providing resources like cash, water, livelihood support, fishing kits and seeds to help people meet their urgent needs. All photos by Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps.

I’m on a dusty road just outside our Mercy Corps offices in Nyal, South Sudan. It’s hot, and my skin is burning under the midday sun. As I look around, I replay the same sentence over and over in my head: “A better world is possible.” But I’m finding it hard to keep that focus.

It can be tough to remain hopeful and optimistic when you are faced with so much need. Lines of people have formed outside our office — families who have walked five or six hours to receive a cash distribution we are running that day. They will receive the equivalent of $16 every two months so they can feed their families during South Sudan’s lean season.

They are vulnerable, innocent people who didn’t ask for war, but are caught up in a conflict that threatens their very existence.

Outside the office, I meet Thulnaath, who left her village at 3 a.m. with her 6-month-old baby and 6-year-old daughter, Rebecca. Rebecca is quiet and listless, so I ask if she is alright. Her mom says she hasn’t eaten today and won’t eat until they get home again.

“As a mother, we are suffering a lot because of the famine in the area,” Thulnaath tells me. “When the child is crying and you have no food to give, it hurts you as a mother.”

For anyone looking on, it may seem strange that we have the power to decide if someone is able to eat today or not. But in South Sudan, where 1.7 million people are experiencing extreme levels of hunger, our interventions can mean the difference between life and death.

Mercy Corps is providing cash payments to help families cope with the crisis the country is facing, but the cash is just a starting point. Mercy Corps is also providing fishing and vegetable kits, including seed and crop kits so that families who have had to flee their homes because of conflict are able to recover and build towards the future.

The conflict in South Sudan began in December 2013, and since then the situation worsens day by day. Cholera outbreaks occur frequently because there is not enough clean water or hygiene supplies, and there is also rampant hyperinflation. A meal that would have cost 25 South Sudanese pounds two years ago costs 500 today. Regularly missing one or two meals is a dangerous pattern that can quickly lead to malnutrition, or worse. South Sudan has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world.

I step to the side, taking shade under a mango tree. There I start to wonder: In these dire moments when peace seems so distant, is it enough to believe a better world is possible?

Mercy Corps has been working in South Sudan since 1995. Last year, when horrific attacks occurred in the capital, Juba, and many organizations left, Mercy Corps chose to stay. When South Sudan topped Afghanistan as the most dangerous place in the world for aid workers to do their jobs, we persevered.

Over the last few months, in response to the outbreak of famine and widespread threat of starvation across the country, we have increased our staff numbers to 165.

We are not giving up on South Sudan. We are not going anywhere.

It is this commitment that makes me so proud of our work in this country. The story of Mercy Corps in South Sudan isn’t just about the people we are helping — it’s also about our heroic team members who are the backbone of our work.

Our team members face intense difficulties and have to walk a tightrope to remain impartial in the midst of a civil war. Almost every South Sudanese staff member I speak with has family that has fled for safety and food. Perhaps they are now in Uganda, or in refugee settlements in Kenya.

Fuel is expensive. Communities are hard to reach — sometimes only by wading through waist-deep swamps. Every day, their own security is at risk. Despite this, our team members have stayed here in South Sudan, committed to supporting their country.

The work we do there is built upon their commitment and optimism. Many have not given up hope that their families will be able to return one day in the future.

When I see our team’s commitment and passion, it makes me believe in the power of possibility.

I also feel it when I see the impact we have on the lives of vulnerable people — people like Bayak and Linydit, sisters-in-law who are in their eighties. One is blind, and the other partially blind. They walked hours today to reach the cash distribution in Nyal.

They tell of their village being burned in 2015, and how they are living under metal sheeting. But they also tell me that the cash they are receiving will make a big difference to them.

“We are going to buy soup and slippers and eat dried fish,” Linydit says.

As I prepare to leave South Sudan, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Nelson Mandela quotes: “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other — not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

It is this opportunity — to help people in South Sudan and around the world survive and build a stronger future — that drives Mercy Corps to continue this work, even in the darkest of circumstances.

We can see a better world. We know it’s there, and we want everyone else to see it, too.

How you can help
We're not giving up on South Sudan — but we need your help. You can help us provide urgent assistance and reach the millions of people in South Sudan and beyond who need our help.

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide lifesaving assistance to people facing crisis in South Sudan and around the world.
  • Sign the petition. Tell Congress to reject extreme cuts to humanitarian aid. Around the world, people are in need of lifesaving assistance. We must continue to support them.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page to spread the word about the millions who need us.


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