Approximately 1 million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, many with just the things they could carry. Our team worked day and night to help them through their journeys. All photos: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps
Right now, close to 12,000 refugees are crowded at Greece’s border with Macedonia, waiting and hoping to be allowed safe passage as they flee towards the safety and promise of northern Europe.
Recently, the route north through the Balkans was officially closed — and now, refugees who flee across the sea risk being sent back as soon as they arrive. And so families already trapped in Greece wait, with children strapped to their backs and carrying few belongings, for a second chance at a more peaceful future.
Our team worked tirelessly all winter in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia to help refugee families keep moving forward — offering food, temporary shelter, winter supplies and critical information.
But now, the excitement and relief refugees felt in the fall has been replaced with uncertainty.
Refugee arrivals on the shores of Greece peaked last summer, when approximately 10,000 refugees — from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and as far as Eritrea — were making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe every day.
More than 1 million refugees arrived to Europe by sea in 2015. Another 144,000 have already arrived in 2016.
Facing uncertainty and a journey through cold and potentially snowy conditions, fewer refugees are making the trip — but they are still coming — with some 2,500 arriving on Greece’s islands, exhausted and weary, every day.
Many refugees feel that they have no choice. After five years of war in Syria, and pockets of conflict and violence in nearby Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little hope for a family trying to survive or a mother caring for her young children.
So each day, families board tiny rubber boats, crowded with dozens of other refugees — most wearing counterfeit lifejackets — and hope that they make it across alive.
The refugee route: A grueling journey
While the trip across the sea is daunting and dangerous, it was just the beginning for refugees who were trying to make it all the way to Germany or Scandinavia. After taking a ferry to Greece’s mainland, refugees had to pass through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia or Hungary, and Austria before they reach Germany, where many refugees hope to stay and build a new life.
Most of this grueling journey was spent on the move — boarding trains in the middle of the night, crowding onto buses, and walking across rough terrain just to get to the next stop. There’s little time for rest. Refugee families only spent a matter of hours, or a day or two at most, passing through countries like Macedonia and Serbia. And the conditions were often treacherous.
At the border between Macedonia and Serbia, refugees had to walk approximately one and a half miles across a barren field, carrying whatever they brought with them. Because it’s a border crossing, organizations like Mercy Corps were only allowed to help people on either side. Refugees had to make the walk in between by themselves.
Late last year, the field was pounded by heavy rains, and the path turned to knee-deep mud. Come January, the mud froze and was covered by a layer of snow. The winter weather here takes no mercy on those passing through.
Mercy Corps has been working along the refugee route from Greece to Croatia since last fall, helping people continue forward on their journey as safely as possible. In Macedonia and Serbia, it was a skeleton team. Once only three dedicated staff, the team grew to a small but mighty group of seven.
Near the border, on either side, staff offered information, translation services, and assistance with transportation, particularly for the disabled or elderly. Signage in the area is sparse, and not often translated into Arabic or other languages. Family members were sometimes separated, and our team worked to reunite them as quickly as possible.
To help stave off exhaustion and the brutal winter temperatures, we also ran temporary shelters that offered heaters and safe spaces for families to rest before they continued on towards northern Europe.
“There is no life in Iraq and Syria …”
The trip was difficult enough for most, but it seemed impossible at times for pregnant women with small children, the elderly and people with disabilities.
Khalid, 55, is originally from Baghdad and needs a wheelchair to get around. When the war in Iraq erupted years ago, he and his family fled to Syria. But the violence in Syria was too much to bear, so Khalid and his son became refugees for a second time as they escaped Syria to make the journey towards Europe.
“We left Syria because of the war. There is no life in Iraq and Syria so we have to go somewhere else,” said Khalid.
He was supposed to receive assistance so that his whole family could leave Syria, but the help never came.
Without enough money to bring his wife, Khalid and his son began the long trip, hoping that she’ll be able to join them eventually. “We hope one day we will send money to her in Syria to bring her to Germany,” he said.
When Khalid and his son arrived by train to Tabanovce, Macedonia, they took some time to warm up and rest in a Mercy Corps shelter before our team helped transport them by van to the Serbian border. It was a difficult trip for Khalid, but it’s the best choice he feels he can make for his family.
“The road to here was honestly a difficult part. The path to here was tiring. Very tiring,” said Khalid. “It’s hard traveling in a wheelchair because roads aren’t made to accommodate a wheelchair — they’re all rock or dirt. The road kept shaking under my chair, it was harder to be in the chair than to walk.”
But Khalid perseveres — he knows that if they can make it to Germany, his son, who also has a disability, will have hope for a better life and a stronger future.
“My son needs a major surgery. He was born with a defect. He can’t see with his right eye, and can’t breathe on the right side,” said Khalid. “We’re hoping he can have this surgery in Germany. There aren’t any doctors who can help in Syria.”
A small, but mighty team helps refugees
Our staff members in Macedonia and Serbia worked day and night all winter to help refugees like Khalid continue forward. One of those dedicated team members is Kusang Tamang, who left his position in Nepal for a few months to join the effort in the Balkans.
In an emergency situation like the refugee crisis, things can get hectic. “When I first came here I was doing everything, and we didn’t have shifts,” Tamang said. “I would be working in the morning and at night. It could be on the Macedonian side or on the Serbian side of the border.”
Refugee trains arrived at all hours of the day, and through the night, so the team had to create shifts to make sure that they could help at any time. The normal shift was from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., when the team determined there was the most need for assistance.
“But if there is a need, a lot of people coming through, we will work until 3:30 a.m.,” said Tamang. “There was one time when one of our officers worked until 5:30 in the morning.”
The team had one van on the Macedonian side of the border, and two on the Serbian side. They looked out for the most vulnerable individuals and offered help with transportation to the refugee processing centers, or to a temporary shelter for rest. “With one van the average is about 80 people that we transport in one shift,” Tamang said.
Helping refugees like Khalid gave Tamang and the other team members a sense of purpose. They know how important it is to offer kindness and hope during such a difficult process. “The work is very rewarding,” Tamang said. “It feels good at the end of the shift to know that you actually helped people, and to see that you are making a difference.”
“What stands out to me is the people saying thank you. Because they have been abused, they have been harassed on their way here, and then when someone helps them, they really appreciate that.”
Best solution: Solve the refugee crisis
Since September, our work along the refugee route in Greece, Macedonia and Serbia has reached approximately 80,000 people.
When refugees arrived in Greece this winter, our team there offered food, shelter, information, winter supplies and cash assistance to help them continue their journey. As they moved through the Balkans, Mercy Corps staff helped provide transportation, translation, information, shelter and more winter supplies if refugees needed them.
As refugees pushed on past the Balkans and to more hopeful futures in northern Europe, one thing became clear— despite incredible challenges, refugees will keep coming until the fighting stops.
Olfa, 27, was able to start her fashion business thanks to a loan from Mercy Corps that helped her buy materials. All photos: Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps
Each dress that Olfa carefully sews by hand takes about 3,500 Tunisian dinars — about $1,700 American dollars — of delicate satin, crepe, tulle, sequins and rhinestones to create. To make a single dress for a client, Olfa works day and night for a full week. But in the end, it’s all worth it.
“It’s indescribable. I get very happy,” she said of the feeling she gets when she sells a dress for a wedding. “Most of all, I want the bride to wear my dress.”
Olfa, 27, runs her own high-end dress shop in the town of Medenine in southern Tunisia. She’s quickly become a successful entrepreneur, thanks to her talent, training, determination, and a little help from Mercy Corps in the form of a loan.
Just a few years ago, Olfa’s success story would have been unlikely, if not impossible.
Before Tunisia’s recent revolution, starting a small business as a young person was a challenge in patience and bureaucracy. Unless you were connected to the right people, you had to submit your business idea to a government agency and wait for approval — often a very slow process that was full of restrictions.
Arab Spring brings democracy, and a struggling economy
In late 2010, after nearly three decades of dictatorship under President Ben Ali, protests turned to revolution in Tunisia and the Arab Spring was born.
Several months of demonstrations against the corrupt Ben Ali government eventually led to its downfall, but hundreds of people were killed in clashes with officials as the protests gained momentum.
After the government was reshuffled several times, Tunisia finally held democratic elections in March 2011. The protests sparked uprisings in countries from Iraq to Libya — collectively referred to as the Arab Spring — that are still transforming the region today.
While Tunisia is seen as a success story, in reality, the situation is complex. The country’s new freedom has opened many doors for people like Olfa — there’s less corruption, more freedom of speech, and an opportunity for organizations like Mercy Corps to help people find their own economic success.
But Tunisia’s revolution also had consequences. Creating a fair democracy with proper social services after an era of dictatorship isn’t easy, and a rise in violent extremism led to a significant fall in tourism — one of the country’s most profitable sectors. The longstanding issue of economic disparity has yet to be resolved.
Now, five years after the protests began, the economy is struggling. Making a decent living outside the capital of Tunis is difficult and unemployment is staggeringly high. The country still lacks access to good jobs and the social services needed for young people to start their own businesses.
Mercy Corps is working in Tunisia to support local community organizations, promote peaceful conflict resolution, and empower women and youth to play a leading role in resolving Tunisia’s economic challenges.
In a complex crisis, where political unrest and dysfunction collide with humanitarian needs like access to financial services and economic support, it’s critical that we address these issues with an eye on the long term.
Our work there with young entrepreneurs is designed to create change in one community at a time and build more economic stability. Tunisia is on the road to recovery after revolution, but we must help people, particularly youth, learn how to succeed in this new environment.
New freedom, new opportunity
Young people make up half of Tunisia’s population and played a leading role in the protests that led to Ben Ali’s demise. But even in the new democracy, there is little in the way of economic opportunity for youth, particularly those who live anywhere outside the capital.
The prospects are dire even for young people who’ve attended university — the unemployment rate for a person with a degree is 33 percent on average. Nearly half of women — 47 percent — can’t find work. Those who want to be successful often move to the capital of Tunis, leaving more rural towns and inland cities out of any positive economic development.
To help youth in Tunisia make their dreams a reality, we are working to give them the resources and support they need to start their own businesses and make a positive impact on their local economies.
Below, learn more about Olfa’s story and meet some other young entrepreneurs we’re supporting in Tunisia, and see how they’re turning their ambitions into new business ventures.
Olfa: Bringing high fashion to Medenine
Olfa moved from her hometown of Medenine to bustling Tunis to attend a university, where she studied fashion design. When she recently married and moved back to Medenine, Olfa realized that to continue her trade in a smaller town, she’d have to start her own business.
Dressmaking isn’t uncommon in southern Tunisia, but creating a more formal fashion line as a young entrepreneur is something that hasn’t been done here before. Local banks were hesitant, fearing that there wasn’t a local market for Olfa’s fashions. “They turned me down twice because they thought the project wouldn’t work here in the south.”
Eventually, with determination, Olfa convinced a bank to give her her first loan, which she used to buy sewing machines and other equipment. To get her shop up and running, she would still need fabric and other materials. She was at a standstill, until she heard about Mercy Corps business training.
Olfa joined the Mercy Corps training and worked hard to create a business plan and earn one of the available loans to purchase the needed materials. Each of Olfa’s elaborate designs, worn for weddings and other formal events, is hand-sewn with intense attention to every detail and every sequin.
After she created her first full collection of 25 dresses, Olfa decided to hold a fashion show in Medenine to get the word out about her new business. She recruited models off the street and posted flyers around town before the event. By the day of the show, hundreds of people came out for the event.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have customers,” said Olfa. “But after the fashion show, I’m doing well. Almost all of Medenine knows me.” Now, Olfa takes custom orders for new dresses and also rents dresses to customers for a lower cost. She’s hired one employee since she started, and is busy working on her second collection.
Norhene: Creating custom furniture in her hometown
Norhene attended art school in Tunis, studying interior design, and worked in a furniture studio there for three years. She wanted nothing more than to bring her artistic talents back to her hometown of Medenine, but she faced challenges at every turn.
There is no furniture or design sector in her hometown, and accessing the basic services needed to start her own business — financial loans, business training, building space to rent — was difficult and time consuming. It took Norhene two years of persistence to get her furniture shop up and running in Medenine.
“It was a big challenge for me,” said Norhene. “It’s a big challenge for anyone, because we need experience. Tunisia is going through a difficult time — the economy is not doing that well.”
Norhene got a loan from a local bank to set up her furniture studio, but she needed additional resources for start-up materials. A Mercy Corps microfinance institution gave Norhene a $5,000 loan for the supplies that she needed, and now she’s on her way to running a successful business.
The furniture studio in Medenine has been open for several months, and Norhene is busy designing and building custom furniture for her clients. Soon, she hopes to add an upholstery space and a showroom to expand her offerings.
Farouk: Stylish seating from recycled materials
After the revolution, Farouk was one of many young people who struggled to find work. He was underemployed for over a year, taking work here and there where he could in his town, Kasserine. The effects of the lagging economy hit him hard.
“There are no more jobs in the public sector,” said Farouk. “The only thing left was to start your own business or work for someone else.”
While he tried to figure out his next steps, Farouk spent many hours in a local coffee shop that was located across from a tire shop. His time there sparked a new business idea. “A man across the street was using the tires to sit on,” Farouk remembered. “He put two tires one on top of another and used them as a pouf.”
Farouk began to think about how tires could be recycled and used as a new material for furniture. “I wanted to do something of my own. I wanted to create something personal that was a new idea and was mine.” Before long, designs for comfortable recycled tire furniture were running through his head.
Farouk participated in a Mercy Corps business training and received a loan to help him start hi
Access to financial services impacts disaster preparedness
Portland, Ore. - Nepal must build a more inclusive society, increase government accountability and build stronger financial support mechanisms in order to improve recovery efforts for future natural disasters, according to research conducted by the global organization Mercy Corps. Drawing upon lessons learned from this year’s deadly earthquake, the organization illuminates key areas in which change will be needed to make Nepal more resilient to future natural disasters.
“Nepal is very vulnerable to all types of natural disasters, including landslides and earthquakes. Mercy Corps sought to understand which factors hold the greatest promise for people to be resilient to similar events in the future, and what we could do to speed recovery,” says Olga Petryniak, Director of Regional Resilience Initiatives for Mercy Corps’ South and East Asia programs. “Each crisis may require a unique solution, but we can identify more specifically what people can do to help nations like Nepal bounce back.”
In its new report What Next For Nepal? Evidence of What Matters for Building Resilience After the Gorkha Earthquake, Mercy Corps recommends changes in several areas that are crucial contributors to resilience:
1. Disaster preparedness and response: Build greater preparedness on a community- and household-level, which will result in better accountability and faster response.
2. Social identity and networks: Because caste and gender strongly influence post-quake welfare, actively contribute to the strengthening of supportive and inclusive networks.
3. Financial services: Seek ways to establish relationships between financial service providers and households that will result in appropriate savings and credit resources.
4. Economic opportunities: Provide cash to those affected by a disaster to quickly restore markets and support livelihoods.
Mercy Corps surveyed nearly 1,200 households in Nepal 10 weeks after April’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake. The quake killed more than 9,000 people, destroyed a half-million homes and displaced some 2.8 million residents.
A nation in transition, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Read or download the full report.