After more than five years of war in Syria, 13.5 million people are in need of aid. Mercy Corps has one of the largest humanitarian operations inside Syria, helping families get the food and urgent supplies they need to survive. All photos: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps.
The constant bombing and shelling around their home in Aleppo city, the epicenter of Syria’s years-long civil war, was suddenly too much. Fearing for his family’s survival, Amir* grabbed his wife and seven children, and fled with them to the nearby countryside.
There, a local village took them in and helped them find a shelter. But Amir didn’t stop worrying.
Goods and services are both expensive and hard to come by in many war-battered areas in Syria. And Amir had just left what remained of his community and livelihood behind. How would he feed his family?
Amir found a temporary job working for a very low wage in effort to support his wife and children, but he could never provide his family with enough food or bread, a staple of the Syrian diet. They consumed three bags of bread a day before being displaced by the war. With the little money he was making in their new home, Amir couldn’t afford to even buy one.
“When we had no food to eat, we sent our children to borrow from neighbors,” Amir’s wife says.
“Or sometimes, we ate less so that our children could eat,” Amir adds.
That was before Mercy Corps started supplying his family with bread. As one of the largest non-governmental organizations working inside Syria, we help feed hundreds of thousands of people each month by supplying local bakeries with flour to bake bread and ensuring the most vulnerable people have access to it.
This assistance often provides a lifeline for desperate families: With the bread needs of his family covered, Amir can put his earnings toward other things, like formula for his youngest child.
“Now I do not worry too much about how or from where to secure bread,” he says. “I know that sometimes it is even difficult to find bread to buy due to shortages in the town, but now I receive bread near to my house.”
Why bread?One of the Arabic words for bread is “Aysh,” which is also the word for life.
Bread has always been a critical staple of the Syrian diet. Before the conflict, it was inexpensive and eaten with nearly every meal. Now, during this very tiring and traumatic time, access to bread helps provide many Syrian families with a sense of normalcy and stability.
It’s even become increasingly important to their well-being: Syrian families not receiving other food assistance reportedly get 40 percent of their calories from wheat, mainly bread. And, when paired with complementary items, like tomato paste, it provides a nutritionally-dense meal.
How does the bread program work?The bread program works in two ways to ensure that vulnerable, food-insecure families in Aleppo Governorate have access to this very important food.
The first part of the program provides flour to local bakeries to help them offset the rising cost of wheat inside Syria. We provide the flour through a contract that guarantees the price of bread for families in the area remains fixed and affordable.
Providing the flour directly to bakeries, instead of families, helps bolster the local economy. It also helps more people benefit from the program, because the burden of producing bread in their own homes would require electricity, gas, fuel, ingredients and other supplies many may not have access to.
Between March and September of 2016, we delivered over 5,000 metric tons of flour to 18 bakeries inside northern Syria. We continue to provide, on average, 660 metric tons per month, which supports an estimated 131,500 people.
Secondly, for vulnerable families like Amir’s, who can’t afford to purchase bread even at a low cost, we are implementing a voucher program so they can get it for free.
These families will receive a certain number of vouchers based on their level of need, which includes family size, which they can trade for bread when and where they need it most.
Why can’t people buy the food they need?Conflict decreases access to and availability of goods within local markets. In many violence-ridden areas in Syria, the movement of supplies and people is heavily restricted. That means vital goods, like food and medicine, can’t safely get in, and people can’t safely get out.
The limited food that is available is too expensive for many vulnerable families to purchase. Around 30 percent of people we recently interviewed stated they are forced to borrow food or buy it on credit, which pushes them into debt.
Additionally, many families have been displaced by violence more than once. Displacement limits people’s ability to earn an education, learn new skills or maintain livelihoods, both because these opportunities are scarce and because sheer survival — finding shelter, food and water — becomes the priority.
That’s why we contract the bakeries we work with to price bread at an affordable rate, so families can allocate the money they do have to savings, household improvements, fuel, medicine and education.
The conflict has also devastated farmers. Aleppo Governorate is a fertile area that was once home to many agricultural livelihoods, including wheat farming, livestock herding and production of bread and dairy products. But in the past five-plus years of conflict, the price of many critical goods, like the seeds and tools required for farmers to maintain their livelihoods, has increased along with food costs.
Without these supplies, farmers are no longer able to produce food for their families or communities.
How are people getting the food they do have?Unfortunately, those who may have had assets before the conflict, like savings or livestock, have been forced to trade them for food.
In northern Syria, most families now rely on the generosity of other family and community members, humanitarian assistance or the small amounts of income they are able to generate, if they are able to generate anything at all.
The situation is also dire in other areas of the country. In 2014, residents of Yarmouk camp, in the city of Damascus, broke into a spice factory and boiled weeds, spices and water into a broth they survived on for months. We’ve also heard reports of people mixing glue from their shoes with flour to make crude, dark bread.
Mercy Corps is currently the largest provider of food aid in north Syria, outside of the United Nations. Many of the families we are helping tell us they have run out of money and we are now their only source of food.
What else can we do?In some of the same hard-hit areas where we operate the bread program, we are expanding livelihood support to help families meet their basic needs and decrease their reliance on aid.
Where possible, we plan to help people learn gardening skills so they can grow vegetables to feed their families and sell in local markets for income. We will also provide farmers with the supplies they need to restart or maintain their livelihoods.
Additionally, we deliver blankets, household items and other critical supplies to help those caught in the crossfire survive.
What is it like working on the ground in Syria?After more than five years, fighting on the ground and bombings from the air continue, with devastating effects on civilians and aid operations.
According to the United Nations, 16.5 million people inside Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and half a million people are living under siege, their access to necessities like food and medicine left to the whims of warring parties.
The country is an active war zone, and humanitarian principles are not respected within its borders. In the past few days, several thousand people were safely evacuated from Aleppo by bus, but according to the United Nations, 50,000 people - maybe more - are still trapped in the city. Over the weekend, Mercy Corps welcomed more than 1,000 people in the first wave of people evacuated from Aleppo to a welcome center outside the city.
Our teams are coordinating with numerous local aid agencies to stock welcome points with blankets, biscuits and water. We are seeing that most people left homes and most of their belongings behind and arrive with nothing. When people get off the buses, Mercy Corps and the aid agencies with whom we are coordinating, work with the new arrivals and determine what they need most right now. As temperatures hover at or below freezing, our first priority is to get people settled somewhere warm.
Our team members in Syria are incredibly brave, resilient and dedicated. And, despite the dangers, they stand ready to assist those in need for as long as it takes.
How you can help
*Name has been changed to protect identity and safety.
In Niger, 76 percent of girls are married by their 18th birthday. Mercy Corps is empowering girls like Dahara to change the narrative through safe spaces in their villages. All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.
When Dahara speaks, she speaks with a purpose: confident, eloquent hopes about her future and the things she wants out of life. She is young and driven, ready to claim her place in the world.
But not long ago, Dahara did something that put her entire future in jeopardy.
She turned 14.
Dahara lives in a small village in rural Niger. By almost any measure, it is one of the worst places in the world she could be an adolescent girl. In the 2014 United Nations Human Development Index, a list that measures basic human benchmarks like health, education and standard of living, Niger ranked last in the world.
To consider the weight of what Dahara is up against, imagine a group of 100 girls from Niger. Only 15 of them can read. Fewer than 10 of them have learned about HIV and AIDS. About half of them will have a baby before they are 18, and two-thirds of them will do it without a skilled attendant in the room. Four of them will die in childbirth.
And the majority of them will be married. Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, in part because of its widespread poverty. Three out of every four girls in Niger are married by their 18th birthday, many of them years earlier.
For parents with large families, marrying their children off young brings the hope of prosperity and a higher social status. But the reality for girls like Dahara is often a life of hard work and childbearing that begins far too early.
The freedom of childhood is replaced by a life of labor. The opportunity for education is gone for the burden of caring for a family.
Dahara wants more: a chance to finish school, a few more years to grow up with the girls around her. But the math is against her. Next year, she will turn 15 — the legal marrying age in Niger.
A safe space for girls
Child marriage, like most social issues in Niger, disproportionately impacts girls. While 60 percent of all adolescent girls in Niger are married, the number shrinks to only 3 percent for adolescent males. It sets off a chain reaction of inequality: Girls go to school fewer years than boys, are less likely to be able to read, and earn far less over their lifetimes.
It’s not only an issue of opportunity, but subordination: According to the 2016 UNICEF State of the World’s Children report, 27 percent of men in Niger said they felt justified in using violence against their wives for reasons like burning their food or neglecting their children. Women were more than twice as likely to agree.
“Girls are considered the weak sex, and men are considered the strong sex,” Dahara says. She is standing outside her home on a blistering Tuesday afternoon, discussing why she has decided to try to change the narrative.
Dahara is a member of one of three safe space groups for girls in her village, a place Mercy Corps provides where adolescent girls can be together to learn job skills, reading and writing, and hygiene and nutrition training.
The groups provide a protected place for girls to be together, but they also offer them something that’s hard to find anywhere else: a sense of empowerment. In these meetings, girls are shown that it’s possible for them to build a life for themselves.
They are encouraged to stay in school, to discover their own talents and abilities, and to not feel like they have to rush into marriage and start having children.
Since safe spaces started in this village, no girls have gotten engaged to be married before 18. "The girls are very happy. Even their parents are very happy about what we’re doing," Hadiza says.
“When a girl is married early and when she is pregnant, there is a consequence,” Dahara says. “The mother can die, or the baby can die.”
There is a good chance she has seen it happen: Girls in this village have died in childbirth before. Others have lived, but lost their infants.
At a safe space meeting earlier today, Dahara listened as her mentor, Hadiza, shared these important health-related reasons why girls shouldn’t get married so young. But she also heard something more powerful.
She heard another woman tell her it was OK for her to be herself.
“A man can have a farm, a car, a bicycle,” Hadiza told the girls, gathered together beneath a tree. “But you? You have to try and earn your own money. This is why you have to manage to find something to do. Don’t always depend on men.”
Creating her own opportunity
In a shady corner of her yard, Dahara kneels next to an iron kettle. Inside it, water and groundnuts boil over an open flame. As the August breeze moves in, the thick smell of smoke gives way to the floating aroma of sugar.
In an hour, the nuts will be a caramelized golden brown. Dahara will cool them, bag them, pack them, and then walk alone across her village into a crowd of men, where she will sell each bag for 25 Central African Francs — about 5 cents — and return with an empty bucket and a tired smile.
The money, like the business, is all hers. When the girls in Dahara’s safe space group were told to choose a skill, Dahara decided that she wanted to learn to start a business. She buys her supplies, does the labor, and manages the money, fitting it all around her schoolwork and housework.
Business these days is booming: she sells out in minutes.
“I feel very happy,” she says, “because I was trained to do an activity, and now I perform the activity and it works. I get money, and I feel happy.”
The money Dahara earns doesn’t just impact her. Because she’s able to save it, she can use it for things her mother no longer has to buy. Last year, Dahara was able to use savings from her business to buy her own new dress for a village feast.
That’s money her mother can now use to buy food, clothes and household items for Dahara’s seven brothers and sisters. This extra bit of help is critical during Niger’s lean season, when food is not yet ready to harvest and it can be hard to find enough to eat.
With every plastic bag of caramelized nuts, Dahara helps spark a new chain reaction: By deciding to take control of her future, she eased the burden on her family.
“My mother feels happy because she doesn’t have to buy me clothes,” she says. “I buy my clothes with my own money. This is something that has helped our life.”
Dahara is just one of many girls in this village who are learning to invest in their own futures. Saade, another girl in Dahara’s group, has been a member for two years.
“Boys can go out of the village and look for money and whatever they want to do,” she says. “But girls have to stay at home.”
In the safe space group, Saade learned about the risks of early marriage, the importance of staying in school, and ways she can keep herself and her future kids healthy. Now she has a new goal: to keep the cycle going by becoming a health worker or a teacher.
“If I become a teacher,” Saade says, “then I could teach my sisters and my brothers to break the barrier of illiteracy and ignorance.”
‘The will to learn’
It’s easy to see how the group has affected the lives of individual girls. But the impact can also be seen on the community: Since the group started, it is now against village rules to take a fiancée younger than 18. No girls here have registered to get married early.
That’s a huge difference, Hadiza says, and it’s happened in part because her mentorship focuses on the outside forces that influence the girls — including, if necessary, their parents.
“If we hear about a girl who is getting married earlier, we go to the parents and talk to them and tell [them] to wait two or three years more before she gets married,” Hadiza says. “They do not refuse. They accept.”
“We want our village to develop,” she says. “We want our village to have prosperity. All these young girls have the will to learn what I am teaching them.”
Hadiza smiles as she looks on inside Dahara's yard. Almost as quickly as Dahara opens for business, it’s over for the day. But there is still work to be done: millet to wash and pound, farm work to finish, siblings to care for. It will always be a life of work, but thanks to the support she’s found through Mercy Corps, it’s a life of her work.
With a sense of purpose comes the confidence to answer life’s big questions. And there’s one in particular that no longer weighs on her mind.
What would she say if a man asked her to marry him?
Dahara answers without a beat. “I would not accept,” she says.
Ziad owned a restaurant and a market in Syria, but was forced to leave it behind when the war started and he was kidnapped, tortured, and ransomed back to his family. He and his family left for Lebanon, where they seek an education for refugee children despite hunger, poverty and discrimination. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps.
The heat is stifling between the plastic walls of the room where Ziad stands. A rotating fan provides little relief from the hot, dry air.
A half circle of children is seated before him, each waiting cross-legged on the thin rugs that cover the concrete floor, with a blue notebook and a pencil placed neatly on their lap.
One plant, the fan, a couple of teddy bears and a whiteboard procured especially for these lessons decorate the small, modest room.
Paying no mind to the warmth, when Ziad asks a question, a cluster of small, eager hands shoot into the air. Class is in session today — and the children are hungry to participate.
There is just one thing: Ziad isn’t a teacher. This isn’t even a school.
This class is taking place in the main room of Ziad’s tent in an informal settlement in eastern Lebanon, where a couple hundred Syrian refugee families are trying to eek out a living in a setting ripe with hunger, poverty and discrimination.
As refugees, Ziad’s kids don’t have access to formal schooling. And, of all the challenges Ziad’s family is facing, this is the one he is most dogged to overcome.
“I just want one thing in this world,” he says, looking at his 7-year-old son, Simon, “only one thing. I don’t want anything else. That you and your siblings go to school and graduate and have a better life.”
Refugees face steep challenges in Lebanon
Over a million Syrians have flooded Lebanon since the start of the crisis in Syria, taking shelter in cities, neglected buildings and informal settlements, wherever they can find cover of some sort to protect them.
The settlement where Ziad lives lies at the end of a long, dusty, dirt road in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the country’s agricultural epicenter.
Here, surrounded by farmland, hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing war have occupied a compound of small, abandoned cinder block buildings. A tangle of makeshift tents like Ziad’s — concrete pads with tarps and blankets for walls — fill the spaces in between, housing the overflow of families seeking refuge.
Mercy Corps provides water and sanitation support, and is helping make rudimentary shelters safer and more livable. But, still, life here is difficult: hunger, unemployment and stress are constants for nearly everyone.
Only around half of primary school-age Syrian children in Lebanon are enrolled in formal education. And, in the Bekaa Valley, attendance is even lower: 36 percent.
Despite the government’s efforts to include Syrian youth in the public education system, obstacles like transportation fees, safety concerns, language barriers and discrimination keep many children from enrolling.
Living in poverty, and without access to school or other safe spaces to grow and develop, countless young refugees are fated to sit idle in their shelters or work to support their families.
Too often, there simply isn’t anything else for them to do.
Why education is critical for refugee children
But as his settlement’s “shaweesh” (its informal leader), Ziad feels a great responsibility to care for the men, women and children living here. It’s the Syrian way, he says.
And so, when the public school his bright and curious son Simon was attending in Lebanon ran out of space for him last year, Ziad didn’t waver. He decided to teach lessons himself.
And not just for his son, but for all the children in his settlement who were missing out on their education.
“The first thing I taught them was the alphabet, how to read, and how to write,” Ziad says. “Something very, very important so their generation is not completely lost.”
“I also teach them the seasons, all the basic things. And I try my best to revive their memories of what they have learned in Syria, so they don’t forget.”
In an environment without structure and opportunity, the school sessions Ziad hosts in his tent provide a small amount of hope and security.
Only half of young refugees attend primary school around the world. Only 25 percent are enrolled in secondary school. And a dismal 1 percent have access to education beyond that.
But, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), education during displacement is vital. It can promote social cohesion, support emotional healing, offer safety and prepare young people to rebuild their communities and pursue productive lives.
It can also foster peace: The Global Partnership for Education states the risk of a young person engaging in violent conflict is reduced by 20 percent for every year of education attained.
Ziad sees first-hand what is at stake and is desperate to instill in his children a different destiny.
“If they live in this depression, this darkness, this will reflect when they’re adults,” he says. “Right now, we are in a state of war. They might hear things, they might see things that would affect them negatively. They might become violent when they grow up.”
“So in giving them this hope, in telling them that life has its ups and downs … it’s going to give them an effort so they can do something in their future.”
Breeding hope, one lesson at a time
Since starting his school, Ziad can’t walk through the slapdash streets of the settlement without collecting a pack of kids, blue notebooks in hand and ready to learn, on his way.
He has somehow managed to secure markers, pens and other basic supplies, and hosts class twice a week from the main room of his tent.
Traditional lessons range from Arabic and arithmetic, to the seasons, the nutritional value of oranges and the difference between a river and the sea.
“I don’t really have a curriculum, but I try my best to keep them learning, to keep teaching them something, so they are always learning something,” Ziad says.
For his students, he has become an anchor in an otherwise volatile existence, and the close attention he gives to them is just as valuable as the academic lessons he offers.
By encouraging the children to draw, Ziad is able to find out what they’re thinking about and how they’re feeling, making it a point to engage those who are reliving traumatic memories.
“I have children who draw their houses in war situations, like war planes and people dying,” he says. "[The drawings] help me understand the person I am dealing with.”
If today is a bad day, he tells the kids, tomorrow will be better. Some days you will be happy, like when you go to a wedding, and some days you will be sad, like when you go to a funeral. You just have to trust that you will be OK in the end.
“The importance is not just teaching subjects, but teaching hope,” he says. “If you don’t give children hope, it’s the same as losing a whole generation, because this is all they have. The future is all they have.”
How we help send refugee kids to class
Mercy Corps strives to ensure young refugees don’t lose their futures to conflict. We build temporary learning spaces and distribute school supplies for kids who have been displaced from their schools and communities.
We work to ensure the most vulnerable children, like those with disabilities, have transportation and resources to continue their education.
And our youth centers and child-friendly spaces give children living in displacement camps and host communities safe places to heal, learn and develop new skills. Learn more: A brighter future starts with an education.