Mercy Corps joined other international organizations, world leaders and private sector copmanies for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit to address a humanitarian system that is no longer capable of meeting exponentially growing needs in a world facing a confluence of displacement, crisis and fragility. Sami, a 15 year-old Syrian refugee, joined Mercy Corps to provide a first-hand account of his experience as a refugee. All photos: Peter Biro for Mercy Corps.
Sami was nervous at first, but his voice grew steady as he described how he fled his home in Aleppo to start a new life in Gaziantep, Turkey.
“We had to leave everything behind and say goodbye to the city we love,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t sad because I did not realize that we would not be returning, and I didn’t know how hard it would be. It was difficult for me to start a new life in this city – I missed my home, I often felt alone, and it was difficult to make new friends."
At 15, Sami was the youngest of five youth panelists who participated in a side event at the World Humanitarian Summit, “Empowering Youth Affected by the Syria Crisis,” co-organized by Mercy Corps, UNICEF, and other partners of the No Lost Generation initiative. The goal of the event was to give young people an opportunity to engage directly with the decision-makers who are creating programs to respond to the needs of Syrian refugee youth and adolescents.
The 200-person room was packed. In attendance were several high-level figures who joined the panel discussion to respond directly to concerns the youth expressed, including Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director, Hikmet Eskan, CEO of Western Union, Baroness Verma, Undersecretary for DFID, and Bekir Gür, senior advisor to the Turkish Minister of Education.
Yet you could have heard a pin drop as we listened to their powerful stories. They spoke of violence and bullying in schools, early marriage, child labor, families being displaced and separated, and their enormous struggles to access education.
“I dropped out of school because I was bullied by kids who thought I didn’t belong in their school and beaten by teachers who thought this was the only way to teach us how to behave,” said Ahmed, 17, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee now living in Lebanon, and another member of the youth panel.
At the same time, their determination, empathy, talent and humor was uplifting and energizing – and highlighted the potential of this young generation to build a better future for themselves and their families.
Why focus on teens?
Adolescence is a critical stage of development. Living through trauma and upheaval during this time period has placed Syrian youth and adolescents at a crossroads.
Before the war, more than 70 percent of Syrian adolescents were enrolled in secondary school, and 95 percent of the country could read. With the Syria crisis now well into its sixth year, UNICEF estimates that half of Syrian children, roughly 2.6 million, are not accessing education opportunities across Syria and the region.
Read our report: Age of Unrest: Syrian Refugee Youth at the Crossroads
In a 2015 survey, more than half of Syrian refugee children in Turkey had witnessed someone get attacked or shot at; even more had experienced a death in the family. Almost half already showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
This side event at the World Humanitarian Summit was organized as part of the No Lost Generation initiative, a combined effort of United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and international donors to ensure that the 4 million Syrian and other vulnerable children and youth in the region have the chance to learn, recover, and contribute to their communities.
It also was a chance to show youth not as the problem, but rather the solution; it demonstrated positive power of youth and the critical role young people play in enabling the countries where they live to thrive.
Tackling the trauma of the Syrian crisis
Mercy Corps programs are built to tap the positive power of youth. Through our adolescent programs in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, we are helping young people develop the skills and characteristics that will help them long into the future, such as empathy, critical thinking skills, the ability to set short- and long-term goals, as well as form healthy relationships and create community projects that promote non-violence.
Sami participated in Mercy Corps’ Smart Art program, which brings together Syrian and Turkish youth to design and create murals throughout the city of Gaziantep. The goal is to build social cohesion and reduce conflict between Syrian and Turkish youth through art projects.
Sami said the Smart Art program helped him feel motivated. Learn more about Sami
“Even though Syrian youth have faced a lot of challenges, we can do a lot to reach our goals,” he said. “Yes, we want to return to our country, but we also want to feel accepted in our community here.”
Ahmed, the Palestinian-Syrian refugee who dropped out of school in Lebanon, highlighted the need for informal education opportunities.
“When I signed up at Mercy Corps’ Bussma Center, I started classes in English and computers and car repair, and made a lot of friends. We stopped looking at our nationalities and started concentrating on our commonalities,” he said.
At the end, the audience left with a new understanding that young Syrians can be engines for growth and prosperity in the countries of their exile – and a promise of reconciliation and reconstruction when Syria finally sees peace.
As a global community, we must not only include adolescents in meaningful dialogue about their needs and aspirations, but also engage them as partners.
How you can help
Dima is the sole provider for her eight children, and her livelihood, like that of her community near Yabello, Ethiopia, depends on cattle. Dima has learned to run a successful small business buying and selling milk. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
Hunger: It’s not a new problem for many countries in Africa.
While food is a basic necessity for human life, the reasons why millions of people go hungry are complex.
Crops are failing in Ethiopia due to dry weather conditions caused by El Nino, leading to the worst drought in a decade and triggering a hunger crisis that is affecting 10 million people.
In South Sudan, political instability and widespread displacement due to violent extremism have combined to create a double threat to food security.
And in Niger, widespread gender inequality keeps good nutritional information and regular meals out of reach, especially for women and girls.
These are just a few examples of why solving hunger takes more than just food. Better farming practices, safer communities and empowered women—these are some of the key ways we work within communities to tackle food insecurity at its source and come up with solutions that ensure families have enough to eat today, and tomorrow.
In Ethiopia: Better business can create more food
We define food security as a milestone achieved when all people at all times eat sufficient, safe, and nutritious food and practice behaviors that promote both their economic stability and well-being.
In a country like Ethiopia, where 80 percent of the population relies on rain-fed agriculture for the food and income they need to survive, this means building resilience against El Nino, climate change and other unpredictable weather patterns.
We’ve been on the ground in Ethiopia since 2004, working with local farmers and families to help them access more food and earn steady incomes. And we are continuing to work within communities to strengthen their economies and communities, so they can overcome the 2016 drought and hunger crisis.
By supplying herders with animal feed, scaling up training and supplies for veterinarians, and connecting herders in hard-hit areas who need to sell animals with commercial livestock traders we are supporting livelihoods.
And to help the Ethiopian government overcome these cycles of crisis for the long term, we’ve partnered with them to manage their early warning systems network, which monitors things like rainfall and market information to predict food shortages before they happen.
In the agriculture sector, only crops that can weather climate change and drought will support food security in the long term.
In South Sudan: Conflict and hunger create vicious cycle
Food security and conflict are deeply connected.
Take South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011. While South Sudan has agricultural potential, civil war since 2013 has stunted its development as a nation. More than 2.4 million people — nearly 1 in 5—are displaced due to violence.
Violence interferes with spring planting and then often closes markets due to safety concerns. What little food is available soars in price, and most displaced families have no money to buy any goods. These food shortages are the most dire in Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile states.
Since the conflict began, our team has been providing urgent food, water and sanitation assistance. We identify vulnerable families in otherwise inaccessible areas, ensuring critical assistance — vegetable seeds, fishing tools, water purification tablets, nutritional biscuits and other supplies — reaches the people who need it most.
And in more accessible places, we distribute cash so people can get the food and provisions they urgently need to provide safe, healthy lives for their families.
Local traders receive funds to resupply their market stalls specifically with the necessities that are most in-demand, including foods like sugar, flour, rice, beans and salt.
Having access to clean water is key to sanitation and food safety in places like South Sudan and Somalia, where violent extremism and political instability has displaced 1.1 million people.
Food shortages can also cause political instability. In 2007-08, rapid increases in food prices triggered unrest in 43 countries, including a government overthrow in Haiti, as populations reacted to rapidly rising costs for critical food staples.
In Niger: Empowering women empowers communities
Research shows that when men and women both have access to information, education and financial resources, everybody wins. Over the past few years, women's role in food security has come into sharp focus.
Women farmers produce 60–80 percent of the food in most developing countries and are responsible for half of the world’s food production.
In the home, women—especially those in rural areas—are primarily responsible for selecting food and preparing meals, playing a decisive role in their families’ dietary diversity and health.
Tell Congress: Improve the health of women and girls with Food for Peace
In Niger, 10 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition and 44 percent are chronically malnourished, according to the World Food Programme. Because women do most of the farming and feeding in Niger, we know that empowering them with information and resources is key to fighting hunger here.
Our work throughout Niger helps mothers learn about proper nutrition. We train village leaders who in turn train the village’s mothers about the importance of good food and fruits and vegetables to ensure the health of their children.
We also are teaching women new ways to keep animals healthy, manage new wells and use new farming techniques that make the most of limited resources and are more resilient to climate change.
Captions: (corresponding to photos below)
(top photo) A group participates in a coffee ceremony in Ethiopia. We've been working with local farmers and families in Ethiopia since 2004 to help them earn steady incomes and become more resilient to the impact of unpredictable weather patterns. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
(middle photo) Civil war has displaced more than 2.4 million people in South Sudan and left nearly 3 million at risk for starvation as violence shuts down markets and interferes with planting. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
(bottom photo) Fati, mother of 5, was selected by the community to receive health care and nutrition training from Mercy Corps to pass on to fellow mothers in her village in Niger. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
Despite many challenges, the people of Nepal are moving forward after last year's devastating earthquakes. Our team on the ground is there to help them rebuild. All photos: Tom Van Cakenberghe
Last year, a powerful earthquake in Nepal devastated the country. As we look back, one year later, the numbers tell a story about the disaster itself, recovery efforts, and your impact.
135,000 — The number of people we reached with emergency supplies immediately after the disaster, thanks to the compassion of people like you.
7.8 — The magnitude of the initial earthquake, strong enough to shake historical sites to the ground, break roads apart and send homes sliding down Nepal’s beautiful green hillsides.
8 million — The number of people, about 40 percent of Nepal, who were affected by the earthquake and its powerful aftershocks.
Because of you, our team has been able to stand with Nepalis during this difficult time — and help them get the tools and information they need to build back stronger than before. But the road to recovery has been filled with challenges.
Monsoon season threatens recovery
After the deadly earthquakes in April and May, the monsoon season — normally from June through September — came early. Torrential rains pounded Nepal, soaking families who only had thin tarps or makeshift tents for shelter.
“The earthquake was the big event, but we still have aftershocks. The earthquake hit, and then the monsoon season came early — so just as people were forced out of their houses, the rains came pouring down,” said Jeff Shannon, director of programs in Nepal.
Rebuilding during the monsoon season was difficult. For people who could afford it, often the best they could do was purchase tin sheeting to create temporary shelters or repair areas of their damaged homes.
We offered unconditional cash to 23,000 people so they could purchase emergency supplies or buy the items needed to repair their homes or create better shelters for their families. By working with local shops, the cash transfers infused $1.7 million into the economy.
Fuel crisis slows relief efforts
Just as the monsoon season was coming to an end — offering an opportunity for the people of Nepal, and organizations like Mercy Corps, to ramp up recovery efforts — a widespread fuel crisis crippled the economy even further.
From September of last year through February, there was almost no fuel available. People were trapped, hospitals began to shut down, and medicine ran out. “Things just stopped moving around the country,” Shannon said. “Prices for everything doubled, and quadrupled. At just the moment when you wanted to rebuild and get investment going, everything came to a dead stop.”
For families who had already lost almost everything when the earthquake hit, the effects of the fuel crisis were another tough blow. Most people were already vulnerable, with little or no savings, so whatever they did have was spent quickly on food and emergency supplies.
“People had already lost their houses, their seeds, and their livestock. They couldn’t buy more of anything, because of the prices,” Shannon said. “Farmers couldn’t sell their crops because there were no trucks. So they started eating seed stock — but then you have nothing to plant. You have no money and no seeds. As a farmer, what do you do?”
Tell Congress to support smart recovery efforts for Nepal
The prolonged fuel crisis made Mercy Corps’ work extremely difficult. Many of the earthquake’s hardest-hit areas are rural and isolated. With no fuel, it was impossible to reach them for much of that time period. The team did meet with local communities as they were able to understand their needs and lay the groundwork for a more robust, long-term response.
As the winter temperatures dropped, the needs of recovering Nepalis became even more apparent. “It was morally devastating to see that people were sleeping under tin sheets in snow, ice and freezing winter,” Shannon said. Some even went back into their crumbling houses just to escape the elements.
Despite the tremendous challenges brought on by the fuel crisis, Shannon and his team were able to distribute extra winter supplies to more than 36,000 people in need. “We were able to go out and help the really vulnerable with extra blankets.”
Fuel crisis ends, optimism begins
The fuel crisis eventually ended, and things are slowly returning to the way they were last summer. “There is a cautious sigh of relief,” Shannon said . “Prices for staples have slowly decreased — they are almost back to normal levels. Fuel supplies are much improved, but still in somewhat short supply, while cooking and heating gas is still often difficult to get.”
When fuel became available after so many months, the team in Nepal couldn’t wait to get to work helping people get back on their feet. The team shifted from only being able to work sporadically to working in the field every day since the fuel crisis ended. “Everyone’s racing just as fast as they can go,” Shannon said.
Now, our biggest goals are helping Nepalis rebuild their homes, access financial services like banking, and physically strengthen their communities against landslides, flooding and future disasters.
Nepal’s lush green hillsides are particularly vulnerable to landslides during disasters — which makes evacuating, or delivering aid, extremely difficult. “We saw more landslides in the two weeks after the earthquake than in the last five years,” Shannon said.
To strengthen those fragile areas and help Nepalis earn more income, we’re hiring locals to build infrastructure that will make the hillsides safer. Efforts like this are bringing communities together. “As an individual, I can’t make that hillside safer, but as a community we can do that — and Mercy Corps can help,” Shannon said.
We’re also working with our partners, like Build Change, again to help earthquake survivors rebuild their homes with affordable and accessible materials.
Most people in the rural, hardest-hit areas don’t have access to any financial services, so we are working with local banks to provide financial literacy training and extend their services into these areas to help Nepalis save, and invest in their homes and businesses.
Nepalis show resilience in the face of disaster
Despite the many challenges they’ve faced in the last year alone, Jeff Shannon is confident in the resilience of the people of Nepal.
“These are some of the most amazing, kind, generous and welcoming people I’ve ever met. In the midst of devastation, you saw people who were happy that they survived, happy their neighbors were there, and they were celebrating the fact that they were alive,” Shannon said.
“You go to communities where nothing is left standing, and people are putting flowers around your neck and offering you tea. The unbreakable spirit of Nepalis will see them through this. It’s awe-inspiring. They’re quite sure they’re going to get through it — and we want to be there to help them do that.”
As the people of Nepal continue their recovery, the team is working hard to help in whatever way they can. Now that the fuel crisis is over, the monsoon season is on its way — it’s a race against the clock to get as much done as possible before the rains set in.
Recovery is possible because of you
When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal last year, 50,000 people like you stepped up to donate to our emergency relief efforts. One year later, Jeff Shannon, his team, and the people of Nepal remain grateful for your compassion.
“It’s only because of the people who gave $5 that we are able to help. Because people gave, we’ve been able to build up a response that is really focused on the people in those villages who offered us cups of tea when they had no house around them,” Shannon said.
“We would never be able to do what we’re doing now if it weren’t for the people who gave at that time. All the little donations have enabled us to respond, and a year on, we’re still doing it. Thank you.
Photo captions - (captions correspond to photos in order of sequence from top to bottom, below):
Rom Prasad is a local leader who is helping his community remove landslide debris from the earthquake and prepare the area for future disasters. "I join this work to save our village from the danger that this landslide can pose," he said.
Adi Maya lost her home in last year's earthquake. Only the ground floor now remains, and she and her husband live in this temporary shelter. She's joined the local Mercy Corps financial litLinks:Tell Congress to support smart recovery efforts for Nepal