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Jun 6, 2017

Syrian farmers sow seeds of hope

Hasan Abdulrahman Ebrahim, Mercy Corps staff agriculture assistant, training winter crop farmers on signs of crop maturity, harvesting, packaging and storage. All photos: Mercy Corps.

The six-year war in Syria has killed nearly 500,000 people, uprooted half of the country’s population and blighted the economic mainstay of agriculture in one of the world’s earliest centers of farming. Mercy Corps has stepped in to help farmers feed their communities again and give displaced persons the means to raise their own food.

Mercy Corps’ Food Security and Livelihood program has supported some 9,000 farmers and small gardeners since the start of 2015. Last month, its team of eight agronomists helped farmers finish another planting season in northern Syria, this country’s ancient bread basket.

Archaeologists say an agrarian civilization has thrived in this region for more than 12,000 years. In modern times, farming provided a quarter of Syria’s economic output and employed a quarter of its workforce.

But the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011 has destroyed infrastructure, such as irrigation canals and grain silos, and crippled a state system that once provided farmers with seeds and purchased their crops. A sustained drought has only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.

Now, Mercy Corps is providing training and technical support to farmers to increase yields so that they can sell their surplus in the local markets, as well as lay the groundwork for reviving this millennia-old vocation so that once the war ends, Syrians can return to farming their land.

“The most important thing we can do now is build the resilience of Syrians' households to help them cope with the shock of the conflict inside Syria,” said Sarah Castagnola, Mercy Corps’ acting Food Security and Livelihoods manager. “We want to help families stand on their own, to find new sources of income or to return to their occupations.”

Mercy Corps’ agricultural assistance, which serves areas including Daret Azza, Atareb, Tall Ed-Daman, Zerbah in Aleppo governorate and Abu Thuhur in Idlib governorate, is two-fold: providing kitchen garden kits to families to improve food security for households and helping farmers with seeds and fertilizer so they can generate income and feed their neighbors.

“Food baskets and emergency relief cannot last forever. Communities should be starting their own businesses, to meet their food needs and eventually other needs, like medicine. We are helping those people stand on their own, to start to generate their own income or return to their former occupation,” said Rami Abu Hashim Assad, a Mercy Corps agriculture field officer.

Strategic crops
“We focus on the most strategic crops in Syria, such as wheat, as it is the base for flour to make bread, to underpin food security,” said Assad.

Mohammad, 45, lives on a farm in the village of Rasem Al-Joud, south of Aleppo, with eight other members of his family. The two hectares of land he cultivates are emerald green after good winter rain.

During the last dry season in October 2016, he was able to procure good quality barley and wheat seeds from Mercy Corps’ seed-distribution program. Barley is the main feed for Mohammad’s livestock, which in turn produce milk and meat for the family. His soft wheat is baked into bread for local bakeries, a staple of the Syrian diet.

The seeds Mohammed received from Mercy Corps are all locally procured. Native legume and wheat varieties, which are adapted to the Syrian environment and are drought- and disease-resistant, have made it easier for farmers who would otherwise struggle to cultivate a new variety.

This spring, Mohammad turned to Mercy Corps for urea fertilizers that he would otherwise be unable to afford as prices soar. Fertilizer, which was previously produced locally, must now be imported due to disruptions in the market during the conflict.

Coupled with farmers’ reduced income, the cost has become prohibitive, prompting Mercy Corps to supply farmers with the material to boost harvests.

Planning for future harvests includes training farmers with the latest technology, even those like Mohammed who have decades of experience.

“We focus on new ideas, introducing scientific advances and discoveries. We encourage the farmer to discuss how he will manage his crop. For instance, the first step in controlling disease or an infestation is to recognize it, which is something our team can help with,” said Abdulmughith Saleh, an agriculture field officer.

But the support goes beyond just introducing best practices. After the psychological toll of six years of war, farmers describe a sense of relief from Mercy Corps’ frequent visits and monitoring, Mercy Corps staff said.

“This helps farmers start to think about their future, to have more confidence. ‘I can see the next year ahead of me,’ they say,” said Hasan Ibrahim, an agriculture field assistant with Mercy Corps.

Kitchen gardens
For smaller-scale farming, Mercy Corps’ kitchen garden kits include seeds and seedlings, fertilizer and basic tools to help families plant small allotments for their own consumption. Vegetable seeds are seasonal, so they are able to raise food in both the summer and winter months.

Azra Alhosain, 31, and her four children were displaced from Aleppo as the battle there intensified, and sought shelter in a former school in the countryside north of Aleppo. With her husband away, her only source of income came from manual labor in nearby fields. But the work piqued her interest in farming.

Mercy Corps provided her with material to start a kitchen garden and advice on how to maintain it, including managing fertilization and pest control. Alhosain purchased natural manure and planted seeds and now tends her garden daily.

“I am very interested in gardening, because this is how we will get our vegetables, which are very expensive in the markets,” she said. “We hope to get these vegetables every season to feed our children.”

A lifelong Aleppian, Mahmoud Abdulraheem Hamsho, 54, had never farmed before. But he was left both homeless and jobless after he was forced to flee Aleppo for the village of Daret Azza. Unable to afford ever-more expensive food at the market, Hamsho registered at the local council when he heard about Mercy Corps’ program to equip and teach gardeners.

Hamsho attended training sessions in the micro-garden project organized by Mercy Corps staff, receiving seeds and farming tools. Suddenly, Hamsho had a new occupation.

“This is an opportunity to try a new job and a new way of living — to eat from what you farm,” he said.

Mercy Corps plans to eventually expand into animal husbandry, providing vocational training for breeders to raise sheep and goats and assist them with feed and forage. Courses will include instruction on cheesemaking and food preservation.

“We see that people return to areas that are relatively stable, even though the war is not over. We want to make sure they don’t just come back to devastation, but that there is a foundation in place for them to build upon,” said Castagnola.

How you can help

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to Syrian families and families in crisis around the world.
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May 8, 2017

How we're empowering youth to resist migration

Mercy Corps' program offers young people a chance to learn and practice new agricultural practices designed to increase quality and yield of their crops. Mercy Corps is helping young people in Guatemala's western highlands learn to farm better, grow their livelihoods, learn to save and invest, and create more opportunity in their home communities so they don't have to migrate to Guatemala City or out of the country. All photos: Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps.

As the morning sun slowly warms the hillsides, 16-year-old Olga gently gathers stakes and old vine supports from a dusty plot in the Guatemalan highlands. The harvest is over, and rows of dry, papery stalks are all that remain of the lush snap pea plants that once grew here.

She talks and giggles with the small group of other youth cleaning the land beside her. Once the field has been cleared, it will be ready for them to plant again when the first rains come in spring.

This demonstration plot, a hillside rectangle of soil encircled by tall, brown grass and avocado trees, is where Mercy Corps is teaching Olga and other young people from the nearby town of Panimatzalám how to grow healthier, more bountiful crops.

At mid-morning the group breaks to rest and refuel with a mug of hot corn atole, a thick cornmeal drink. Despite the hard work, the mood is still light — these youth having been working this land together for almost a year.

Still, the idyllic setting conceals a difficult reality: poverty here is virtually inescapable.

So the youth are leaving.

With limited options, youth flee for a future
Almost every family in this area makes their living working in agriculture, but for most of them it’s not nearly enough. Families struggle to meet their basic needs, let alone send their children to school. And income opportunities outside of agriculture are almost nonexistent, especially for young people who can’t afford an education.

“One of the hardest things in this community is the economic part,” Olga says. “Job opportunities here are few, so many young people migrate. It is very difficult to find a good job here.”

In fact, Panimatzalám has one of the highest rates of migration in Guatemala. People who don’t see any other option to earn money flee to Guatemala City or the United States, desperate for a better way to provide for their families.

And the evidence is everywhere. Every other home in Panimatzalám is a large, pristine adobe manor, an immediate giveaway — in a village of otherwise modest homes — that at least one family member is in the U.S. sending money back.

“The truth here in my community is that many families are impacted …,” Olga says. “Each time [someone leaves] our community is deteriorating.”

Olga, too, has felt the pressure to migrate.

Small and stoic, with a round face and a focused gaze, she is seated on a simple bed, one of the only pieces of furniture in the humble residence she shares with her parents and younger brother. The dim hut’s only window casts a small pool of light across the dirt floor in front of her.

“Before … I was thinking about migrating to the capital,” she explains. “I thought that I would have to work to help my parents and my little brother.”

Olga didn’t make it past primary school before dropping out to help support her family. She was sad to leave her education, but she didn’t have a choice. There simply wasn’t enough money.

So, she traded her studies for a life of labor: helping her parents raise chickens and tend the local fields, working as a tailor in a neighboring village and weaving traditional huipiles in her spare time for extra income.

The thought always lingered that she might have to leave to provide for her family.

“I didn’t care if I had to make a sacrifice to see my brother go to school,” she says plainly.

Until getting involved in Mercy Corps’ youth program, she had resigned herself to a life of subsistence agriculture or informal labor in the city. Like so many young people in her community, Olga didn’t have the confidence, or the prospects, to envision anything else.

Mercy Corps provides youth like Olga with agricultural training, financial knowledge and life skills, so they have the resources they need to thrive without having to leave their home. And it’s working.

“When this program started it taught me a lot of things, and now I am more than willing to stay here in my community,” Olga says. “Now I have the hope that I can do what I want, and I can have a different future if I make an effort.”

New resources, new vision
Olga participates in all the Mercy Corps program activities, which provide the youth with resources and education they’ve never had access to before: the demonstration plot, where they’re taught better farming practices; the savings and loan group, in which they learn how to save and invest; the workshops that boost their life skills and teach them about different possible vocations.

The different activities all ladder up to one lesson for the youth: It’s possible to build a stable life in Panimatzalám with agriculture, but it’s possible to pursue other things, too.

“This program is implementing new ideas for young people, and [now] when young people think of migrating they think twice about it,” Olga explains.

For youth like her, simply having an opportunity to dream is new. Being able to make it a reality is transformative.

“I now value myself more. I am not fearful about public speaking, and I feel more confident talking with others,” she says.

There are no traces left of the shy, hopeless girl she says she once was. With a resolute tone and an unstoppable grin, she now speaks assuredly about her future.

She is a girl with plans.

Olga has already shared what she’s learned about agriculture with her parents, so they can increase their productivity and income. With her knowledge in saving, she’s putting money away to eventually go back to school.

And with her new sense of empowerment, she’s determined to stay in her community, finish her studies and become a fashion designer.

A future without migration
Thirty minutes away in the nearby tourist town of Panajachel, Olga takes a seat at her tailoring station in a light-filled warehouse lined by large, dusty windows. Her shift is about to start.

Surrounded by fabric scraps and spools of bright thread, Olga places a piece of blue fabric in the machine and methodically presses the foot pedal.

She knows it will be difficult to go back to school, support herself and continue to contribute to her family, but it’s a challenge she’s ready to take on.

“Since the program began my life has changed,” Olga says. “I did not trust myself very much before. I would say to myself, ‘Oh, well, I cannot do that.’

“But in this program they taught us different topics, so I started to become stronger. … And now I believe more in myself, and I know that if I want something for myself, I can achieve it.”

How you can help
Informed, empowered youth have the ability to profoundly change their lives and families for the better — and with the right support, they can change the world, too. You can encourage even more young people to transform their communities.

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide more support to youth who need us around the world.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story and spread the word about the millions of young people facing adversity across the globe.
  • Ask your employer to match your gift. Many organizations match employees' donations, effectively doubling your impact. Visit mercycorps.org/match to see if your company matches donations.

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Apr 10, 2017

Rebuilding lives after Hurricane Matthew

All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

The Haiti context
Haiti remains one of the western hemisphere’s poorest countries. Ranked amongst the most affected by natural disasters, Haiti regularly deals with devastating floods, droughts and hurricanes. In addition, Haiti’s political situation is fragile and uncertain, causing currency devaluation and inflation.

In the face of these daily challenges, Hurricane Matthew struck the country on October 4, 2016 with 145-mile-per-hour winds and heavy rain. The storm destroyed roads, infrastructure, properties and crops, leaving over 15,000 people displaced and over 750,000 people in need of urgent humanitarian aid. Haiti’s farmers were particularly hard-hit – many were still recovering from the devastating earthquake in 2010 and had not yet built in safeguards to protect them from the next disaster.

Supporters like you gave through GlobalGiving immediately and stepped up to make a difference. Thanks to their generosity, people in Haiti are rebuilding and recovering from the storm that took lives, homes, and belongings.

A quick pivot to emergency response
Mercy Corps’ global mission is to empower people to survive through crisis, build better lives and transform their communities for good. In response to the January 2010 earthquake, Mercy Corps opened operations in Haiti to help meet urgent needs, and today we still have 32 team members living and working on the ground to help vulnerable Haitians increase incomes through vocational training and entrepreneurship, access savings and loans, promote conservation farming techniques to increase profits and build food security, and promote clean energy technologies and land conservation to rehabilitate degraded land, maintain fertile soil and reduce damage from recurring natural disasters.

As soon as the hurricane passed, our staff began assessing damaged areas and the impact on local communities. These assessments showed that the Carrefour-Feuilles and Canaan areas in the greater Port-au-Prince area, where Mercy Corps has established programming, were not significantly impacted and did not require any emergency response. Mercy Corps resumed its regular programming in these areas, with heavy emphasis in the Arcahaie-Montrouis corridor where agriculture production was severely impacted, with an average of three-quarters of farmers losing 80% or more of their harvest. We are continuing work there as part of our ongoing programs.

In addition to continuing operations in our regular program areas, Mercy Corps proposed providing emergency assistance to the department of Nippes, where there was a significant gap in assistance. In coordination with other organizations, the government, and local actors, Mercy Corps conducted rapid assessments in six communes (equivalent to municipalities) assigned by the local office of the Department of Civil Protection.

The needs assessments indicated that the most urgent needs were clean water, shelter, and food. Once these most basic human needs were met, the focus moved to restoring crops and livelihoods, particularly as the lean season approached and families were left without a harvest or means to purchase seeds. In coordination with the local government, Mercy Corps made the decision to focus on access to water, shelter and income.

Access to Water
Since October, Mercy Corps has reached more than 30,000 people with clean drinking water, hygiene kits and cholera prevention measures. Highlights include:

  • Providing immediate clean drinking water to 2,778 people via water trucking to distribution points, a temporary measure while assessing and undertaking repairs to the water system. For more remote communities, Mercy Corps provided jerry cans. 
  • Repairing two water systems serving five communities, restoring permanent access to clean drinking water for 4,155 people. Mercy Corps is also training communities to maintain these systems for long-term sustainability. Our focus is on restoring permanent access to clean water, for now and years to come. 
  • Distributing hygiene kits for 4,600 people. Mercy Corps prioritized vulnerable households, in particular those headed by single mothers and youth. 
  • Conducting cholera awareness-raising activities, reaching 22,995 individuals. Facing the threat of outbreak, Mercy Corps prioritized raising awareness about cholera prevention.

Shelter
Immediately after the storm, Mercy Corps distributed emergency shelter kits and today we are providing materials and training to help families rebuild their homes and generate income. Highlights include:

  • Providing basic reconstruction materials such as lumber, cement and roofing materials to enable 200 families in the remote, mountainous region of Arnaud to repair their homes. By pooling funds alongside our shelter partner, Habitat for Humanity, we were able to continue to provide shelter for families who had initially received emergency shelter kits.
  • Training 125 young people and local mason workers on proper construction techniques to ensure stronger construction using locally available materials and reduce vulnerability to future storms. A select number of those trained who are unable to carry out their own repairs will also qualify for a small stipend to help cover rebuilding costs. This will allow us to achieve both the repair of homes as well as generate some income in the community so families can buy food and other basic items.

Restoring Livelihoods and Food Security
Mercy Corps has been working in the mountains above Arcahaie, about one-hour north of Port-au-Prince, since 2011. Approximately 60% of the farmers there lost between 60-80% of their crops, and there was near complete loss of livestock (mostly goats and chickens). Mercy Corps and our local partners spent a great deal of time and thought on how to respond to these extraordinary circumstances without undermining six years of development work and self-reliance with the nearly 3,000 farmer members. Our thoughtful and collaborative approach included:

  • Mercy Corps provided 16 megatons of black beans and 7.5 megatons of Congo beans to our three farmer association partners for distribution to 3,300 affected farmers. The associations and their members determined that these items not be distributed as charity but in a way that also reinforced resilience against future threats. 
  • Farmers will also use these beans to start a seed bank that can serve as a form of insurance if there is another hurricane or drought in the area. Mercy Corps is particularly proud of its local partners for having designed an approach to the humanitarian response that also takes into consideration ways to reduce risks in future disasters. 
  • Mercy Corps is providing approximately 1,200 households with unconditional cash transfers. The disbursements to the selected households in the communes of Anse a Veau and L’Asile will be completed by the second week of April. 

Thank you
Your support is helping Mercy Corps reach families and communities in Haiti with emergency food, shelter, and clean water, and helping people rebuild with cash transfers, working markets, and stable and resilient communities. Thank you for your incredible support in the wake of Hurricane Matthew’s destructive path – through GlobalGiving, Haitians are rebuilding homes, recovering land, and finding a way forward.

How you can help

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide cash, water, shelter and support to Haitian families and others in crisis around the world.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story and spread the word about the millions of people who need us.
  • Get your gift matched. Many companies match their employees' - and sometimes retirees' - gifts, doubling your impact and reaching even more people in need.

Links:

 
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