Help Mercy Corps Turn Crisis Into Opportunity

by Mercy Corps
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Photo: Camille Lepage for Mercy Corps
Photo: Camille Lepage for Mercy Corps

When violence first erupted in Juba in December 2013, Mercy Corps immediately launched an emergency response to provide hygiene items, mosquito nets and other necessities. Today we are providing clean water and hand-washing stations to prevent the spread of disease, training teachers so children can continue to learn, and implementing cash-for-work programs to restore markets and dignity to families affected by the crisis. See additional photos below.

South Sudan should be a country full of hope five years after gaining independence. Instead, it is in the grip of a massive, man-made humanitarian crisis.

Political conflict has caused massive displacement, raging violence and dire food shortages. Over 5 million people are in need of aid, and more than 6 million are facing severe hunger. Despite the lack of international assistance, Mercy Corps is working with the brave people of South Sudan to address urgent needs and promote resilience throughout the country.

When did the crisis start?
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011, but the hard-won celebration was short-lived. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling political party that originally led the way for independence, is now divided and fighting for power.

In December 2013, political infighting erupted into violence in the streets of the capital, Juba, after South Sudan’s president accused his vice president of an attempted coup. Fighting between the two factions of government forces loyal to each soon moved to Bor, and then to Bentiu.

Violence spread across the young nation like wildfire, displacing 413,000 civilians in just the first month of conflict. Tens of thousands of civilians rushed to seek refuge in U.N. bases that were subsequently turned into makeshift displacement camps.

The fighting has continued, becoming increasingly brutal and affecting nearly the entire country.

What's going on now?
A handful of peace agreements have been signed over the course of the war — the most recent in August 2015 — but they have been repeatedly violated. The situation remains highly unstable.

While some regions have recently become slightly less volatile, allowing people to move around fairly freely and return to their homes, violent outbreaks are still occurring throughout the country.

In February 2016, the U.N. displacement site in Malakal was attacked, killing 25 people and wounding over 120 more. Regions that previously had been relatively safe from clashes have experienced assaults over the past several weeks.

And, most recently, a fresh wave of violence erupted in Juba starting July 8, 2016, just one day before the country's five-year anniversary of independence. The clashes killed more than 300 people over the course of a few days and could push the young nation back into deep chaos.

On top of these unpredictable attacks, the country's economy is in crisis — the South Sudanese pound has declined in value, and the cost of goods and services has skyrocketed. Food prices are at a record high.

What's happening to people in South Sudan?
Since the conflict began, 1 in 5 people in South Sudan have been displaced. More than 2.3 million citizens have been forced to flee their homes. Just over 720,000 people have escaped to neighboring countries in search of safety, but most are trapped inside the warring nation.

Those who’ve run have lost loved ones and their homes, their land and their livelihoods. Violence toward civilians has been widespread, including targeted attacks, kidnappings and murders. And assaults on aid convoys and looting of supplies have become increasingly common, making it difficult — and dangerous — to reach in-need families with the support they need to survive.

In the country's most conflict-ridden areas, 70 percent of schools have been closed due to the fighting. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of young ones are facing an uncertain future.

Ongoing violence continues to keep people from their homes, damage markets and disrupt planting, all of which keeps families from getting the food they need to survive. Around 6 million people are currently at risk of going hungry.

Why did the humanitarian situation deteriorate so quickly?

After decades of conflict, South Sudan was and still is one of the least-developed countries in the world, which has further complicated the situation. The larger cities in South Sudan had experienced some development, but the majority of the nation is rural. Even before the crisis, more than half of its citizens lived in absolute poverty, were dependent on subsistence agriculture and suffered from malnourishment. Many people were already refugees and were only beginning to resettle and rebuild their homes. Because the economy was already fragile before fighting began, people have very few resources to help them survive the long-term conflict and displacement they're faced with. In addition, the country has very little formal infrastructure — roads, buses, buildings — which makes it difficult to transport food and supplies. Many towns and villages become inaccessible during the annual rainy season due to closed airstrips, washed out roads or lack of roads altogether, sometimes limiting any delivery of humanitarian aid to the isolated areas that need it most.

Where have people fled to?

Just over 720,000 people have crossed into neighboring countries including Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Inside South Sudan, 1.6 million people are displaced. The crowded U.N. displacement sites are frequently depicted in news about the crisis, but the truth is only a small fraction of those who’ve escaped the violence reside in these camps. The majority of displaced families live outside the camps, wherever they can find safe shelter — often in small villages that offer some security, tucked away from the main areas of fighting. For some living in the most violent areas, there is no other choice but to flee into the bush with what little they can carry with them.

What is life like in camps?

While there may be relative safety in the six U.N. camps, the conditions there are dire. The bases were not designed to host this many people for so long. Proper sanitation, hygiene and waste disposal are inadequate in such crowded conditions, and heavy seasonal rains flood many of the camps, making things even worse. In some camps, flooding has collapsed newly-built latrines, forcing people to walk through knee-high water that is contaminated with sewage. There have been reports of mothers sleeping standing up, holding their children, because there is nowhere clean to rest. In December 2015, the World Health Organization called South Sudan one of the worst health emergencies in the world.

What are the most urgent needs in the camps?

Displaced families receive some food, but there are urgent needs for additional food and disease prevention through better sanitation and access to clean water.

Is South Sudan getting enough assistance?

The short answer: no. The U.N. appealed for $1.6 billion to assist 4.6 million people in need in 2015, but the effort was only 62 percent funded. So far only 39 percent of the $1.29 billion requested for 2016 has been funded. Many humanitarian organizations, including Mercy Corps, are partnering with the U.N., using both private contributions and funding from the international community, to address the urgent needs of innocent people in South Sudan.

How Mercy Corps is providing urgent assistance:

Mercy Corps is working to provide desperately-needed latrines, showers, hand-washing stations and clean water to help people survive and prevent the spread of disease in camps and communities. To help prevent outbreaks, better sanitation, and clean water are critical. Building latrines and teaching proper hygiene and waste disposal are the best ways to ensure that water sources stay clean for people to drink, cook and bathe. In the small villages where many people are sheltering, we have rehabilitated living spaces, provided seeds and tools so people can grow food wherever they are living, and implemented cash-for-work programs to give vulnerable families some money to purchase supplies. We're also distributing emergency funds to help traders and families access goods in hard-hit areas of the country. And our emergency education program trains teachers and provides school supplies so children can continue learning despite this crisis. But the needs of displaced families in South Sudan are increasing, and your support is allowing us to do even more.

How you can help:

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide food, water, shelter and support to people in South Sudan and other families in crisis around the world.
  • Get your gift matched. Many companies match the gifts their employees make. Talk to your HR representative about how you can double your impact for South Sudan refugees.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story and spread the word about the millions of people who need us.

The people of this young country need our help, and among the world’s other crises, we must not forget them. We are working on the ground to reach families who are struggling to survive — but our lifesaving work starts with you.

Photo: Sanjay Joshi/Mercy Corps
Photo: Sanjay Joshi/Mercy Corps
Photo: Camille Lepage for Mercy Corps
Photo: Camille Lepage for Mercy Corps
Photo: Camille Lepage for Mercy Corps
Photo: Camille Lepage for Mercy Corps
Photo: Jacob Zocherman for Mercy Corps
Photo: Jacob Zocherman for Mercy Corps

 

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.

How you can help

 

 

  • Donate today. Your support helps us provide emergency food, support farmers and encourage budding entrepreneurs so they can feed their families.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Share with others. The hunger crisis in Ethiopia and the ongoing conflict in South Sudan need our continued attention. Share this story with friends so they can learn more about how they can help create lasting change that stops hunger for good.

 

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

Links:

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 his business of turning old tires into stylish, affordable chairs and poufs.

He’s still worried about the local economy, but Farouk has already seen some success with his products. He’s sold to local clients and even has some of his furniture pieces in a local hotel. “I will continue. I believe in the future,” said Farouk.

Despite the challenges he’s faced, and those that he continues to see in his community, Farouk maintains hope for a better Tunisia. “I hope that we overcome this period and that Tunisia will give a more important role to young people.”

Investing in youth for long-term success

The revolution in Tunisia led to significant political change, but its success in the long term hinges on creating a more prosperous economy. Youth — who make up half of the country’s entire population — are the key to capitalizing on the new opportunity that Tunisia’s democracy provides.

Our programs partner with local communities to empower young people to create their own businesses and achieve their goals. When people like Norhene, Farouk and Olfa launch new, innovative businesses in in their hometowns, they create more economic opportunity around them as they hire employees and inspire others.

As we face complex crises — where political unrest and dysfunction collide with humanitarian needs — around the world, Mercy Corps’ work in Tunisia is an example of how investing in the ambition and talent of youth can jump-start economies and eventually lead to a stronger future.


  • 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. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

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.

  • murals to beautify their communities. Photo: Samantha Robinson/aptAR

Through an art therapy project, youth in Gaza learned how to express themselves and created 11 colorful murals to beautify their communities. Photo: Samantha Robinson/apt/ART

 

Most young people in Gaza over the age of seven have suffered through at least three wars in their short lives. War is an almost-constant reality, and families struggle to earn a living, support their children, and pick up the pieces after conflict flares.

The trauma of last summer’s fighting is still fresh and haunting. People were displaced from their homes, and even the youngest survivors saw horrific violence. But despite the circumstances, life goes on in Gaza — and people look for a reason to hope again.

At a Mercy Corps summer program, youth in Gaza are finding new ways to heal and bring peace to their communities. Many children and youth, traumatized by conflict, struggle to express how they feel about the war and their future.

But through art therapy workshops, the voices of Gaza’s youth are emerging from the darkness. They are strong, thoughtful and resilient. Working with teachers trained in art therapy, the participants learned how to express themselves through drawing during the first sessions.


One of the finished murals, "I see beauty," painted on 70-year-old Zalah's gate. Photo: Samantha Robinson/aptART

Soon after, they took their newfound skills to the streets of Gaza. With help from professional artists and our partner aptART, the group adorned walls and gates in their neighborhoods with bold, vibrant murals.

In painting the murals, the students visualized their thoughts about conflict, family and hope for a better future. “While I was holding the brush and painting all I felt was joy,” said 10-year-old Doonia.

Their work has inspired hope in the community, too — bringing beauty and color to neighborhoods wrought with scars from past conflicts.

“People driving by in cars stop to see the painting because it’s so beautiful,” said 70-year-old Zalah, the owner of a gate the group painted. “People have started coming from all over Gaza — I am so proud that they chose to paint this beautiful muralon my gate.”

Learn more about what art means to youth in Gaza, in their own words:

Yousef, 14


Yousef, left, paints where he wants to travel someday on one of the murals. Photo: Samantha Robinson/aptART

“Through the activities I learned how to use different types of art to express my fears, my hopes, and everything else that I usually hold inside. For first time I felt like I was able to express how I feel.

My favorite drawing is on the mural in the harbor. We had to draw somewhere we wanted to travel, and I decided to draw the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem because I dream of traveling there one day.”

Sabrine, 13


Note: Sabrine is not pictured. The finished mural "I see you. Do you see me?" Photo: Mercy Corps

“During the sessions I felt like I could draw all of my thinking, my fears, and even the vision I have for my life after the war. Before the sessions I hated drawing, now I love it and want to continue to use drawing to express my thoughts.

Now the thing I love to do most is to try and draw realistically like Falk [artist] does, except with landscapes instead of eyes. I take a picture and then try to draw as realistically as I can.

For the mural ‘We See Hope in our Children’s Eyes’ we were asked to paint what we wanted to see happen in the future. My dream is to travel outside of Gaza, so I chose to write ‘I see myself traveling all over the world.’”

Abdullah, 11


Abdullah draws his hopes and dreams on one of the murals. Photo: Samantha Robinson/aptART

“The sessions allowed me to start expressing myself through the pictures I drew. One day my older brother said he wanted to take me to another summer camp, I told him ‘no, I don’t want to go because this is my favorite summer camp ever.’ I hope that the sessions continue and next time I will ask all of my friends to join.”

Ghaida, 13


Ghaida stands with the mural titled "I see strength." Photo: Mohammed Abu Assi/Mercy Corps

“Before, when I felt like I wanted to express myself, I didn’t know how to put what I felt into words — I would end up frustrated and not say anything at all. When we started drawing our feelings I felt like life changed for me and I was able to start sharing what I was thinking.

Now, after the activities, I feel like I can share how I feel freely. I feel happier and I have hope for the future. When I walk by the paintings on the street I remember every minute I spent working on them and all of the happy memories.”

Nagham, 12


Nagham holds her favorite artwork from the art therapy workshops. Photo: Mohammed Abu Assi/Mercy Corps

“When you ask any child in Gaza, they will tell you what they are most affected by is the last war. Since the war I get nervous about small or simple things and I don’t know why. The comforting environment and how everyone worked together and helped each other during the sessions made me feel safe and my nervousness went away.

Now, I am still quiet, but I have not been getting nervous like I used to and I am calm instead. I am going to continue to use drawing as a way to express my feelings. My next project is to make up my own story and draw the pictures that go with the story.

Before, I felt like no one could hear me, even when I would try to talk to people no one would listen to me. During the sessions, I felt like someone was actually listening to me and actually cared how I felt, which made me incredibly happy. I kept all of my drawings so I can remember everyone and this wonderful experience.”


A young girl paints a large canvas with other participants during an art therapy session. Photo: Mercy Corps

Nagham and Sabrine’s mother has noticed a positive change in her daughters since they participated in the art therapy project. “The most important thing they learned in the sessions was how to start expressing themselves. I can see the difference it made in my girls — they felt like someone actually noticed them and cared about them and it has made them so happy,” she said.

“The first time I saw one of the walls, I wished I had a pen and I could write everything I feel and express myself openly like they did. Every word, every scratch on the murals is a story. When I look at the murals they made I don’t see the children that drew them, I see thousands of stories.”

To see artwork and photographs created by youth in Gaza in person, visit the Mercy Corps Action Center in Portland, Oregon. The aptART exhibit Finding Place opens on September 17th and will be on display until December 2015.

 

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Organization Information

Mercy Corps

Location: Portland, OR - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.mercycorps.org
Project Leader:
Lyndi Liersemann
Portland, Oregon United States
$33,395 raised of $40,000 goal
 
 
223 donations
$6,605 to go
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