Sepan, 15, and his family fled from Al Hasakah in Syria for Iraq three years ago. He has been out of school since then and misses his friends. His father, Jamal, hopes when Mercy Corps' community center opens, his son will gain a sense of belonging again. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps
Somehow Hussein conjured up a portable loudspeaker in no time flat. Sepan, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee, had just revealed his love of hip-hop and now, as if by magic, he was plugging his smartphone into the speaker. As the bright winter sun lit up the community center’s patio, Sepan hit play and music roared out into the quiet neighborhood.
The sound drew new kids off the street. Together with the youth coaches, they crowded around, bobbing their heads and clapping as Sepan danced. For the first time since his family fled the war in Syria, Sepan had an audience.
None of this was planned. Sepan and a crowd of other boys showed up on the patio that day, asking when programs at Mercy Corps’ new community center would begin. They had heard this would be a place to gather, to play sports, to learn English and computers, to make art. The hitch was that center wasn’t officially open, computers and other equipment had yet to arrive, and Hussein, the program manager for Mercy Corps' community center, was inside still training coaches.
The boys’ presence—premature though it might have been—showed that here, on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq, the boys were hungry for these programs. It was almost as if they turned the patio of the soon-to-be community center into a reverse Field of Dreams: “If you come, they will build it.” The coaches dug up a soccer ball and the boys kicked it around, laughing.
Then suddenly, they left. It was time to get to school for the afternoon shift, but Sepan stayed back. He can’t go to school because the cost of transportation to and from school is $40 a month. That’s money his family just doesn’t have.
It’s a common experience for young Syrian refugees here; less that one in five Syrian boys are enrolled in school in Erbil. For girls it’s only one in nine. Seventy percent of kids under age 17 don’t have access to safe spaces outside their home. Mercy Corps is trying change that. The youth center will be more than a gathering place—it’s a tool to build a stronger community.
Sepan opened the gate from the street to reveal a small courtyard inside, and a shabby couch under the tree. There is so little public green space in Iraq that this little patch of garden where his family can gather outside feels like an improbable luxury.
Sepan and his family—including three older siblings and their spouses and children—live in a small, spare house in the working class neighborhood of Kaznazan. Iraqi Kurdish families primarily live there, but in recent years, the war in Syria and Iraq’s own battles with anti-government forces have brought newcomers seeking safety.
Sepan’s family fled from Al Hasakah in Syria three years ago. His father, Jamal, says life in Syria was hard, even before the war. “We were oppressed two times,” Jamal says. “First, because we were Syrian and there was no democracy in Syria, and then because we were Kurds.” Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, and have a long been a target for oppression and discrimination.
Once the war started, things got worse. A family member left the Syrian Army. Fearing collective punishment, Jamal sold the family’s sheep and cows to raise money for their escape to Iraq. “It was not easy to have a deserted soldier [in the family] and to live in Syria. It would have been very dangerous,” Jamal said.
Sepan has big brown eyes and a direct gaze, but he is soft-spoken. At first, he was happy to go to Iraq’s Kurdish region, he says. “I was imagining that everything good was here.”
But what he found was something different. “I was disappointed. I thought my life would be better, but it isn’t. I was not able to continue my education. I was not able to get a job. All those were closed.”
He says he’s lonely here. He loves break dancing, and in Syria, he had friends who shared that interest. Some are in Europe now; others came to Iraq.
“But they all got separated,” he says, “so I don’t know what happened to them.”
At a time when social life and peer groups are all-important, it’s easy to see how a teenage boy without a home, a school, or a community would feel profoundly isolated.
The new community center is just a short walk from Sepan’s house. It represents a cornerstone of Mercy Corps’ efforts to change the reality for Sepan and other vulnerable teens like him.
Hussein Omer, program manager, says teens frustrated by a lack of positive opportunities are at a high risk for alienation from their community or worse, being pulled into extremist groups.
With the community center he says, “Mercy Corps is innovating a new path for reaching those adolescents.”
The center offers informal education, safe spaces for social connection, and programs that help teens develop positive life skills. The team opening the community center asked the kids in the neighborhood what activities they most want, and Sepan is pushing for a dance troupe. He says if enough people are interested, he’ll teach them how to dance.
Jamal sees this as a chance to improve Sepan’s experience in Iraq. He’s clearly worried about his son.
“If you open this dance course or hip-hop course it would be great and make him very happy,” says Jamal. “And other children also like this. When the center is open, other children can join Sepan.”
Sepan lit up when he felt the bass vibrate through his bones. He popped his joints in precise and improbable ways, to the enthusiasm of the coaches on the community center’s patio.
It’s a moment that could chip away at the misunderstanding Sepan describes in his new neighborhood. “Some people do not understand what dancing is. They tell us it’s a dirty thing, it’s a nasty thing. They don’t know what dancing is.”
Of course when you’re an adolescent, you don’t have to be a refugee to feel alienated from the community around you. But it definitely doesn’t help. Being displaced from your home and peer group can bring with it a feeling of becoming erased, invisible from the world.
But at the community center, in front of the small crowd, Sepan seems to become larger instantly.
“I am alive when I perform in front of people,” he says. “I feel good about myself. I feel that I’m becoming something.”
In the small audience, something else is growing too. This group, thrown together by war, loneliness and need, also contains the seeds of friendship and resilience. They’re just getting started, but together they’re growing a new place to make themselves at home.
How You Can Help
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At just 16 years old, Masika has suffered through horrible violence. But now, she's focused on protecting her young daughter, and creating a better environment for other children in DRC. See additional photos below. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps
Home for Masika is a small hut made of sticks and covered with tarps. It’s barely big enough to stand up in, yet she shares it with 10 family members — and has for the last seven years.
This is where 16-year-old Masika grew up: Mugunga 3 displacement camp, a sprawling sea of cramped shelters just like hers, on the outskirts of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s the oldest of many camps in this area, where Mercy Corps provides clean water and sanitation to keep families healthy.
Mugunga was first established to host refugees from the Rwandan genocide over 20 years ago, and is now home to nearly 5,000 Congolese people who’ve fled the brutal and widespread violence of rebel armies in the countryside.
And this is where Masika is raising her infant daughter, Prefina.
“Everyday is a struggle,” she says quietly while nursing her 3-month-old on the shelter’s only bed. It’s a platform of sharp lava rocks covered only with a thin blanket. “We lay on rocks. We hardly eat. All this time, I have been enduring, but it is very hard.”
DRC is known as the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman, with reports that an average of 1,100 women are raped every single day. Sadly, one year ago, Masika was one of them.
“It happened when I went to get some firewood in the bush,” she explains hesitantly. She and four other girls were attacked by armed men who killed two of them and raped the others. “At this moment, I got pregnant, but I didn’t realize it.”
Like so many people in DRC, this wasn’t Masika’s first encounter with violence. As a child, she and her family fled rebel army attacks on their village in the contentious mining region of Walikale. She remembers bombings and machetes, and running, and then walking for a week to get to the relatively safe haven of Mugunga 3.
“We were in our homes, we lived a good life. We had farms, we had animals. We grew cassava and many different crops and always had enough to eat,” she remembers. “But when we moved to the camp, everything changed. We are living a whole other life. We struggle day by day.”
In this environment, the start of little Prefina’s life was marred by violence, but Masika is determined to give her daughter the best chance at a healthy future. She looks for opportunities to fetch water or sell small goods to make some money and help bring in food for the family.
And the obvious highlight of Masika’s day is when the aspiring nurse goes to the children’s hygiene program that Mercy Corps started in the camp, where she is a leader and teacher. The program is part of how Mercy Corps engages the community, in addition to bringing clean water to tap stands and building latrines.
While adults are part of a hygiene and sanitation committee that manages the facilities, waste removal, and water use throughout the camp, the children’s program brings kids together to learn how to keep themselves healthy and their surroundings safe for everyone through discussions, songs and skits.
“I teach them how to wash their hands, how to maintain sanitation, and how to behave. And I will be able to teach my daughter the same things,” Masika explains.
“The only thing that is good here is that we have clean water and some sanitation [latrines, soap distribution, waste removal programs]. Without the water, people would die. People will just use rainwater for their needs, and that is not clean.”
“But for me, the future of these children will depend on their health and wellbeing. So it is a calling to help care for the children for their good future.”
The future in a place like this is uncertain. But each day that Masika works to protect Prefina and be a positive influence for children growing up here adds up to something better.
It’s vital to have clean water, but it takes remarkable people like Masika to bring hope and strength to Mercy Corps’ work for change, despite the odds.
All photos by Tom van Cakenberghe for Mercy Corps
It's been six months since a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 9,000 people and rupturing the lives of nearly 8 million.
Today, thanks to our supporters and partners, communities are slowly beginning to recover.
In the past six months, we’ve reached more than 135,000 people with emergency supplies, cash, food support, safe water and temporary shelter.
The earthquake devastated local economies and brought down electricity lines, leaving families with little money and no electricity.
But cash assistance — distributed to 23,000 families — is helping people get the supplies they need to rebuild. And solar lamps, included in many of our emergency kits and equipped with mobile charging ports, are helping families communicate with each other.
In the coming months and years, we will continue to help vulnerable families access financial services like recovery loans, and we will engage communities in emergency planning to better prepare them for future disasters.
Below, meet a few of the earthquake survivors you’ve helped us reach and find out what support they’re most grateful to have.
See photo below (top)
Her story: Jyanu, 32, owns a small restaurant in her village. She and her husband work there to support their three children. Jyanu and her family used to live in the same building as the restaurant and grow vegetables outside, but April’s earthquake damaged the living quarters, so they had to build a temporary shelter nearby.
“Before the earthquake, everything was in order,” Jyanu says. “The restaurant was good, the farm was good. After, everything was messed up. I was afraid of losing our [temporary] shelter because of the winds and the aftershocks. But now the aftershocks have stopped.”
Mercy Corps distributed emergency kits in the village — Jyanu and her family received cooking supplies, sleeping mats, blankets, a solar light, and cash to help them rebuild.
What she’s most grateful for: The solar light that Jyanu received is helping her whole family, including her three children, who study by its light each night. “The solar light is best,” she says. “Even before the earthquake, we had problems with electricity. The light is dim at night. We use the solar light all evening until bed.”
Jyanu is preparing for a brighter future, too. She saved a portion of the cash assistance for each of her three children.
See photo below (second from top)
Her story: Kumari was six-months pregnant with her baby Santosh when the earthquake struck her village. Her older child Ridham, 7, was injured in the earthquake. Kumari and her husband’s home was destroyed, and they had to sell their valuable oxen to pay for Ridham’s medical bills.
Kumari’s husband works as a plumber and makes about 600 rupees each day, but they estimate it will take 80,000 rupees to build a new home. For now, they are living in a temporary shelter until they can rebuild.
What she’s most grateful for: Kumari and her family received an emergency supply kit and 7,500 rupees in unconditional cash to use for whatever they needed most. Because their home was destroyed, they used the money to buy corrugated metal to help construct their temporary shelter.
Kumari also appreciates the solar light that came in her kit — it gives her the light she needs to cook healthy food for her family.
See photo below (third from top)
Her story: Muya moved to this area when she married her husband 30 years ago. They’ve lived in their home for 20 of those years, raising their five children ages 15-28.
“When the earthquake happened, I was running and crying. I fell down and started to cry,” she remembers, standing on the same ledge where she stood at the time. She was only steps away from falling down the hill with the crumbling rock.
Muya and her family are living in a temporary shelter now, but it’s not as close to home as she’d like — she’s anxious to rebuild the family home. “When I was first married and came here I didn’t know anyone and I was sad. But then I fell in love with this place. Now I know everyone, I don’t want to leave.”
What she’s most grateful for: “I couldn’t bring anything from the [damaged] house so I could use everything,” she says when asked about the emergency kit her family received. “Clothes, kitchen stuff, the solar lamp. We use it for cooking and for going to the toilet at night.”
Muya and her husband used cash assistance to help build the temporary shelter they now live in with their children.
See photo (above)
Her story: Before the earthquake, Basanta and her husband lived in a secluded home up in the hills with their young daughter Yasna. Basanta was outside taking care of their cattle when the earthquake hit — tiny Yasna slept inside on the ground floor.
Their home was destroyed, but fortunately Yasna survived. “I was lucky my daughter wasn’t upstairs where she usually sleeps,” Basanta says. “I wouldn’t have been able to get to her before the house collapsed.”
Now, Basanta and her young family have moved in with her mother-in-law. Their home is cracked, but livable, and Basanta has a small garden to grow food. But the village’s water source was damaged by the earthquake. “Before the tap was repaired, we walked 35 minutes to fetch water, two or three times a day.”
What she’s most grateful for: For Basanta and her family, clean water is the most important thing they could ask for. Mercy Corps repaired the village’s water tap, and now the family is happier. “I go to the water tap about 15 times a day, to get water for the livestock, to wash clothes, carry water to the house and garden,” Basanta says.
Cash helped Basanta’s mother-in-law repair the family home, and they use the utensils from the emergency kit to eat meals together.
Her story: Buri Maya’s home was completely destroyed during April’s devastating earthquake. She’s been married for 37 years and is a mother to five boys. Three of her sons are married, and all of the children lived together with Buri Maya and her husband before the earthquake hit.
Rebuilding will be a struggle for Buri Maya and her family — they face the challenge of removing large amounts of debris from the area before they can build a new home.
What she’s most grateful for: “Everything is perfect, but I liked the solar lantern best,” she says of the emergency kit she received. “It has helped a lot for cooking, and lot of household things. My son uses it to do his homework.”
Buri Maya and her husband were able to build a temporary shelter with the cash they received, as well as enough rice to feed the family for a month after the disaster.
See photo below (bottom)
Her story: Sharmila and her husband live in a village near Sharmila’s parents. After the earthquake, they came back to care for Sharmila’s ailing parents, and have been with them ever since.
“When I came to home to see my parents after the earthquake, the village looked like a refugee camp,” Sharmila says. “Even though the houses are still standing people can’t live there.“ The houses are too damaged to be safe anymore. “My husband and I, we’ll be ok, but I’m worried about my parents,” she says.