Provide Relief for Syrian Refugees

by Mercy Corps

Twenty-one year old Yasmin accompanies children to the Makani Center, a Mercy Corps youth safe space in her refugee camp in Jordan. The youth program helps Syrian refugee adolescents develop communication, self-esteem, goal setting, team work and leadership skills, in addition to computer classes, physical activities and informal education. Yasmin says the children in refugee camps endure so much stress that the center is needed to give them a place to play and feel valuable. "We rebuild the routine they had in Syria here in Jordan, and treat the kids as though they are at home". All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.

About 90 minutes outside Amman, Jordan, as the sparse desert leads to the Syrian border, the wire-strewn gates of Zaatari refugee camp emerge from the emptiness. Zaatari has the architecture of a temporary city, with caravans and tents lined up in grids, but it has the permanence of a place forced to remain by uncontrollable circumstances.

Markets line the main roads, selling everything from dresses to produce. Satellite dishes sprout from the roofs of nearly every caravan. About 80,000 people live here, many of whom have been here since the beginning of the Syrian war.

To be a youth in camps like Zaatari and Azraq—another major camp an hour away—is to have your entire life put on hold. It means being out of school, away from friends, and often separated from family.

Youth in these camps have two choices: to let the stress of a life in crisis put them at risk of making harmful and dangerous choices, or to focus on building a future of peace and stability.

In Zaatari, Azraq, and several host communities, Mercy Corps operates what are called Makani Centers—meaning “my space” in Arabic. These centers are part informal school, part gym, and part social center.

Designed to serve boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon, the centers draw on the enthusiasm and expertise of adult Syrian refugees to provide academic support, teach skills like English and computers, and coach youth in life skills like communication, goal setting, and teamwork. The centers also offer popular physical education and exercise programs, including soccer, weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics and aerobics.

Omar Al-Tal is a Senior Field Coordinator for Mercy Corps’ child protection project in Jordan. These centers, he says, are not just important for young people’s physical and mental health—they give them a sense that they still have a future.

“When adolescents and youth have a vision they will dedicate their life to achieving it,” he says. “So our role basically is to help them build that vision, to help them to know themselves more, and to help them know the value that they have.

“The main point of our work is to stand in this point and to try to support them—to take all of this pressure and all of the trauma that they have and turn it to positive attitudes, to positive behaviors.”

The moment to reach these youth is now, Al-Tal says, when young men and women stand at a crossroads. If the right interventions reach them at the right time, then something amazing can happen: These years of conflict and disruption will forge a future generation that stands for peace.

“If we went back and looked at people who were leaders in peace and justice and in improving others’ lives—like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King—all of those people experienced hardship in their lives. Those hardships and experiences made them unique and made their voices heard when they talked about peace, when they talked about justice.

“My personal belief is that at some point a leader will show up for this world talking about peace, talking about children, talking about justice, and talking about security and safety, and maybe he is one of our beneficiaries now. Maybe he (she) is around us now. He (She) is someone who is living in silence, he (she) is someone who is perceiving things, he (she) is someone who is learning, and he (she) will give back all of these things to the world again. It’s going to happen.”

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After more than five years of war in Syria, 13.5 million people are in need of aid. Mercy Corps has one of the largest humanitarian operations inside Syria, helping families get the food and urgent supplies they need to survive. All photos: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps.

The constant bombing and shelling around their home in Aleppo city, the epicenter of Syria’s years-long civil war, was suddenly too much. Fearing for his family’s survival, Amir* grabbed his wife and seven children, and fled with them to the nearby countryside.

There, a local village took them in and helped them find a shelter. But Amir didn’t stop worrying.

Goods and services are both expensive and hard to come by in many war-battered areas in Syria. And Amir had just left what remained of his community and livelihood behind. How would he feed his family?

Amir found a temporary job working for a very low wage in effort to support his wife and children, but he could never provide his family with enough food or bread, a staple of the Syrian diet. They consumed three bags of bread a day before being displaced by the war. With the little money he was making in their new home, Amir couldn’t afford to even buy one.

“When we had no food to eat, we sent our children to borrow from neighbors,” Amir’s wife says.

“Or sometimes, we ate less so that our children could eat,” Amir adds.

That was before Mercy Corps started supplying his family with bread. As one of the largest non-governmental organizations working inside Syria, we help feed hundreds of thousands of people each month by supplying local bakeries with flour to bake bread and ensuring the most vulnerable people have access to it.

This assistance often provides a lifeline for desperate families: With the bread needs of his family covered, Amir can put his earnings toward other things, like formula for his youngest child.

“Now I do not worry too much about how or from where to secure bread,” he says. “I know that sometimes it is even difficult to find bread to buy due to shortages in the town, but now I receive bread near to my house.”

Why bread?
One of the Arabic words for bread is “Aysh,” which is also the word for life.

Bread has always been a critical staple of the Syrian diet. Before the conflict, it was inexpensive and eaten with nearly every meal. Now, during this very tiring and traumatic time, access to bread helps provide many Syrian families with a sense of normalcy and stability.

It’s even become increasingly important to their well-being: Syrian families not receiving other food assistance reportedly get 40 percent of their calories from wheat, mainly bread. And, when paired with complementary items, like tomato paste, it provides a nutritionally-dense meal.

How does the bread program work?
The bread program works in two ways to ensure that vulnerable, food-insecure families in Aleppo Governorate have access to this very important food.

The first part of the program provides flour to local bakeries to help them offset the rising cost of wheat inside Syria. We provide the flour through a contract that guarantees the price of bread for families in the area remains fixed and affordable.

Providing the flour directly to bakeries, instead of families, helps bolster the local economy. It also helps more people benefit from the program, because the burden of producing bread in their own homes would require electricity, gas, fuel, ingredients and other supplies many may not have access to.

Between March and September of 2016, we delivered over 5,000 metric tons of flour to 18 bakeries inside northern Syria. We continue to provide, on average, 660 metric tons per month, which supports an estimated 131,500 people.

Secondly, for vulnerable families like Amir’s, who can’t afford to purchase bread even at a low cost, we are implementing a voucher program so they can get it for free.

These families will receive a certain number of vouchers based on their level of need, which includes family size, which they can trade for bread when and where they need it most.

Why can’t people buy the food they need?
Conflict decreases access to and availability of goods within local markets. In many violence-ridden areas in Syria, the movement of supplies and people is heavily restricted. That means vital goods, like food and medicine, can’t safely get in, and people can’t safely get out.

The limited food that is available is too expensive for many vulnerable families to purchase. Around 30 percent of people we recently interviewed stated they are forced to borrow food or buy it on credit, which pushes them into debt.

Additionally, many families have been displaced by violence more than once. Displacement limits people’s ability to earn an education, learn new skills or maintain livelihoods, both because these opportunities are scarce and because sheer survival — finding shelter, food and water — becomes the priority.

That’s why we contract the bakeries we work with to price bread at an affordable rate, so families can allocate the money they do have to savings, household improvements, fuel, medicine and education.

The conflict has also devastated farmers. Aleppo Governorate is a fertile area that was once home to many agricultural livelihoods, including wheat farming, livestock herding and production of bread and dairy products. But in the past five-plus years of conflict, the price of many critical goods, like the seeds and tools required for farmers to maintain their livelihoods, has increased along with food costs.

Without these supplies, farmers are no longer able to produce food for their families or communities.

How are people getting the food they do have?
Unfortunately, those who may have had assets before the conflict, like savings or livestock, have been forced to trade them for food.

In northern Syria, most families now rely on the generosity of other family and community members, humanitarian assistance or the small amounts of income they are able to generate, if they are able to generate anything at all.

The situation is also dire in other areas of the country. In 2014, residents of Yarmouk camp, in the city of Damascus, broke into a spice factory and boiled weeds, spices and water into a broth they survived on for months. We’ve also heard reports of people mixing glue from their shoes with flour to make crude, dark bread.

Mercy Corps is currently the largest provider of food aid in north Syria, outside of the United Nations. Many of the families we are helping tell us they have run out of money and we are now their only source of food.

What else can we do?
In some of the same hard-hit areas where we operate the bread program, we are expanding livelihood support to help families meet their basic needs and decrease their reliance on aid.

Where possible, we plan to help people learn gardening skills so they can grow vegetables to feed their families and sell in local markets for income. We will also provide farmers with the supplies they need to restart or maintain their livelihoods.

Additionally, we deliver blankets, household items and other critical supplies to help those caught in the crossfire survive.

What is it like working on the ground in Syria?
After more than five years, fighting on the ground and bombings from the air continue, with devastating effects on civilians and aid operations.

According to the United Nations, 16.5 million people inside Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and half a million people are living under siege, their access to necessities like food and medicine left to the whims of warring parties.

The country is an active war zone, and humanitarian principles are not respected within its borders. In the past few days, several thousand people were safely evacuated from Aleppo by bus, but according to the United Nations, 50,000 people - maybe more - are still trapped in the city. Over the weekend, Mercy Corps welcomed more than 1,000 people in the first wave of people evacuated from Aleppo to a welcome center outside the city.

Our teams are coordinating with numerous local aid agencies to stock welcome points with blankets, biscuits and water. We are seeing that most people left homes and most of their belongings behind and arrive with nothing. When people get off the buses, Mercy Corps and the aid agencies with whom we are coordinating, work with the new arrivals and determine what they need most right now. As temperatures hover at or below freezing, our first priority is to get people settled somewhere warm.

Our team members in Syria are incredibly brave, resilient and dedicated. And, despite the dangers, they stand ready to assist those in need for as long as it takes.

How you can help

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to Syrian 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.
  • Sign our petition. Tell Congress: Support lifesaving humanitarian assistance that helps refugees and displaced people.
  • Get your gift matched. Many companies match their employees' - and sometimes retirees' - gifts, doubling your impact and reaching even more Syrians in need.

*Name has been changed to protect identity and safety.

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Ziad owned a restaurant and a market in Syria, but was forced to leave it behind when the war started and he was kidnapped, tortured, and ransomed back to his family. He and his family left for Lebanon, where they seek an education for refugee children despite hunger, poverty and discrimination. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps.

The heat is stifling between the plastic walls of the room where Ziad stands. A rotating fan provides little relief from the hot, dry air.

A half circle of children is seated before him, each waiting cross-legged on the thin rugs that cover the concrete floor, with a blue notebook and a pencil placed neatly on their lap.

One plant, the fan, a couple of teddy bears and a whiteboard procured especially for these lessons decorate the small, modest room.

Paying no mind to the warmth, when Ziad asks a question, a cluster of small, eager hands shoot into the air. Class is in session today — and the children are hungry to participate.

There is just one thing: Ziad isn’t a teacher. This isn’t even a school.

This class is taking place in the main room of Ziad’s tent in an informal settlement in eastern Lebanon, where a couple hundred Syrian refugee families are trying to eek out a living in a setting ripe with hunger, poverty and discrimination.

As refugees, Ziad’s kids don’t have access to formal schooling. And, of all the challenges Ziad’s family is facing, this is the one he is most dogged to overcome.

“I just want one thing in this world,” he says, looking at his 7-year-old son, Simon, “only one thing. I don’t want anything else. That you and your siblings go to school and graduate and have a better life.”

Refugees face steep challenges in Lebanon

Over a million Syrians have flooded Lebanon since the start of the crisis in Syria, taking shelter in cities, neglected buildings and informal settlements, wherever they can find cover of some sort to protect them.

The settlement where Ziad lives lies at the end of a long, dusty, dirt road in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the country’s agricultural epicenter.

Here, surrounded by farmland, hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing war have occupied a compound of small, abandoned cinder block buildings. A tangle of makeshift tents like Ziad’s — concrete pads with tarps and blankets for walls — fill the spaces in between, housing the overflow of families seeking refuge.

Mercy Corps provides water and sanitation support, and is helping make rudimentary shelters safer and more livable. But, still, life here is difficult: hunger, unemployment and stress are constants for nearly everyone.

Only around half of primary school-age Syrian children in Lebanon are enrolled in formal education. And, in the Bekaa Valley, attendance is even lower: 36 percent.

Despite the government’s efforts to include Syrian youth in the public education system, obstacles like transportation fees, safety concerns, language barriers and discrimination keep many children from enrolling.

Living in poverty, and without access to school or other safe spaces to grow and develop, countless young refugees are fated to sit idle in their shelters or work to support their families.

Too often, there simply isn’t anything else for them to do.

Why education is critical for refugee children

But as his settlement’s “shaweesh” (its informal leader), Ziad feels a great responsibility to care for the men, women and children living here. It’s the Syrian way, he says.

And so, when the public school his bright and curious son Simon was attending in Lebanon ran out of space for him last year, Ziad didn’t waver. He decided to teach lessons himself.

And not just for his son, but for all the children in his settlement who were missing out on their education.

“The first thing I taught them was the alphabet, how to read, and how to write,” Ziad says. “Something very, very important so their generation is not completely lost.”

“I also teach them the seasons, all the basic things. And I try my best to revive their memories of what they have learned in Syria, so they don’t forget.”

In an environment without structure and opportunity, the school sessions Ziad hosts in his tent provide a small amount of hope and security.

Only half of young refugees attend primary school around the world. Only 25 percent are enrolled in secondary school. And a dismal 1 percent have access to education beyond that.

But, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), education during displacement is vital. It can promote social cohesion, support emotional healing, offer safety and prepare young people to rebuild their communities and pursue productive lives.

It can also foster peace: The Global Partnership for Education states the risk of a young person engaging in violent conflict is reduced by 20 percent for every year of education attained.

Ziad sees first-hand what is at stake and is desperate to instill in his children a different destiny.

“If they live in this depression, this darkness, this will reflect when they’re adults,” he says. “Right now, we are in a state of war. They might hear things, they might see things that would affect them negatively. They might become violent when they grow up.”

“So in giving them this hope, in telling them that life has its ups and downs … it’s going to give them an effort so they can do something in their future.”

Breeding hope, one lesson at a time

Since starting his school, Ziad can’t walk through the slapdash streets of the settlement without collecting a pack of kids, blue notebooks in hand and ready to learn, on his way.

He has somehow managed to secure markers, pens and other basic supplies, and hosts class twice a week from the main room of his tent.

Traditional lessons range from Arabic and arithmetic, to the seasons, the nutritional value of oranges and the difference between a river and the sea.

“I don’t really have a curriculum, but I try my best to keep them learning, to keep teaching them something, so they are always learning something,” Ziad says.

For his students, he has become an anchor in an otherwise volatile existence, and the close attention he gives to them is just as valuable as the academic lessons he offers.

By encouraging the children to draw, Ziad is able to find out what they’re thinking about and how they’re feeling, making it a point to engage those who are reliving traumatic memories.

“I have children who draw their houses in war situations, like war planes and people dying,” he says. "[The drawings] help me understand the person I am dealing with.”

If today is a bad day, he tells the kids, tomorrow will be better. Some days you will be happy, like when you go to a wedding, and some days you will be sad, like when you go to a funeral. You just have to trust that you will be OK in the end.

“The importance is not just teaching subjects, but teaching hope,” he says. “If you don’t give children hope, it’s the same as losing a whole generation, because this is all they have. The future is all they have.”

How we help send refugee kids to class

Mercy Corps strives to ensure young refugees don’t lose their futures to conflict. We build temporary learning spaces and distribute school supplies for kids who have been displaced from their schools and communities.

We work to ensure the most vulnerable children, like those with disabilities, have transportation and resources to continue their education.

And our youth centers and child-friendly spaces give children living in displacement camps and host communities safe places to heal, learn and develop new skills. Learn more: A brighter future starts with an education.

How you can help

  • Donate today. Your support will ensure this generation is not lost. Help us reach Syria's youth with the support and protection they need to survive this crisis and recover for the future.
  • Get your gift matched. Many companies match the gifts their employees make. Search our database for more details or talk to your HR representative about how you can double your impact for Syrian refugees.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story and spread the word about the millions of people who need us.
  • Sign our petition. Tell Congress: Support lifesaving humanitarian assistance that helps refugees and displaced people.
Sami bravely faced world leaders to tell his story
Sami bravely faced world leaders to tell his story

Mercy Corps joined other international organizations, world leaders and private sector copmanies for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit to address a humanitarian system that is no longer capable of meeting exponentially growing needs in a world facing a confluence of displacement, crisis and fragility. Sami, a 15 year-old Syrian refugee, joined Mercy Corps to provide a first-hand account of his experience as a refugee. All photos: Peter Biro for Mercy Corps.

Sami was nervous at first, but his voice grew steady as he described how he fled his home in Aleppo to start a new life in Gaziantep, Turkey.

“We had to leave everything behind and say goodbye to the city we love,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t sad because I did not realize that we would not be returning, and I didn’t know how hard it would be. It was difficult for me to start a new life in this city – I missed my home, I often felt alone, and it was difficult to make new friends."

At 15, Sami was the youngest of five youth panelists who participated in a side event at the World Humanitarian Summit, “Empowering Youth Affected by the Syria Crisis,” co-organized by Mercy Corps, UNICEF, and other partners of the No Lost Generation initiative. The goal of the event was to give young people an opportunity to engage directly with the decision-makers who are creating programs to respond to the needs of Syrian refugee youth and adolescents.

The 200-person room was packed. In attendance were several high-level figures who joined the panel discussion to respond directly to concerns the youth expressed, including Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director, Hikmet Eskan, CEO of Western Union, Baroness Verma, Undersecretary for DFID, and Bekir Gür, senior advisor to the Turkish Minister of Education.

Yet you could have heard a pin drop as we listened to their powerful stories. They spoke of violence and bullying in schools, early marriage, child labor, families being displaced and separated, and their enormous struggles to access education.

“I dropped out of school because I was bullied by kids who thought I didn’t belong in their school and beaten by teachers who thought this was the only way to teach us how to behave,” said Ahmed, 17, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee now living in Lebanon, and another member of the youth panel.

At the same time, their determination, empathy, talent and humor was uplifting and energizing – and highlighted the potential of this young generation to build a better future for themselves and their families.

Why focus on teens?

Adolescence is a critical stage of development. Living through trauma and upheaval during this time period has placed Syrian youth and adolescents at a crossroads.

Before the war, more than 70 percent of Syrian adolescents were enrolled in secondary school, and 95 percent of the country could read. With the Syria crisis now well into its sixth year, UNICEF estimates that half of Syrian children, roughly 2.6 million, are not accessing education opportunities across Syria and the region.

Read our report: Age of Unrest: Syrian Refugee Youth at the Crossroads

In a 2015 survey, more than half of Syrian refugee children in Turkey had witnessed someone get attacked or shot at; even more had experienced a death in the family. Almost half already showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

This side event at the World Humanitarian Summit was organized as part of the No Lost Generation initiative, a combined effort of United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and international donors to ensure that the 4 million Syrian and other vulnerable children and youth in the region have the chance to learn, recover, and contribute to their communities.

It also was a chance to show youth not as the problem, but rather the solution; it demonstrated positive power of youth and the critical role young people play in enabling the countries where they live to thrive.

Tackling the trauma of the Syrian crisis

Mercy Corps programs are built to tap the positive power of youth. Through our adolescent programs in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, we are helping young people develop the skills and characteristics that will help them long into the future, such as empathy, critical thinking skills, the ability to set short- and long-term goals, as well as form healthy relationships and create community projects that promote non-violence.

Sami participated in Mercy Corps’ Smart Art program, which brings together Syrian and Turkish youth to design and create murals throughout the city of Gaziantep. The goal is to build social cohesion and reduce conflict between Syrian and Turkish youth through art projects.

Sami said the Smart Art program helped him feel motivated. Learn more about Sami

“Even though Syrian youth have faced a lot of challenges, we can do a lot to reach our goals,” he said. “Yes, we want to return to our country, but we also want to feel accepted in our community here.”

Ahmed, the Palestinian-Syrian refugee who dropped out of school in Lebanon, highlighted the need for informal education opportunities.

“When I signed up at Mercy Corps’ Bussma Center, I started classes in English and computers and car repair, and made a lot of friends. We stopped looking at our nationalities and started concentrating on our commonalities,” he said.

At the end, the audience left with a new understanding that young Syrians can be engines for growth and prosperity in the countries of their exile – and a promise of reconciliation and reconstruction when Syria finally sees peace.

As a global community, we must not only include adolescents in meaningful dialogue about their needs and aspirations, but also engage them as partners.

How you can help

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide food, water, shelter and support to Syrian refugees and 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 on Syrian refugees.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story and spread the word about the millions of people who need us.
A Syrian refugee at a Mercy Corps youth center
A Syrian refugee at a Mercy Corps youth center
Youth find support networks at youth centers
Youth find support networks at youth centers
Syrian children participate in art therapy
Syrian children participate in art therapy
Rehearsing for a theater play at the youth center
Rehearsing for a theater play at the youth center
A Syrian boy practices Taekwondo
A Syrian boy practices Taekwondo

 

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.

“The best solution would be to resolve the conflict. I know — it’s easy to say, hard to do,” said Mercy Corps team member Kamil Qandil.

“Humanitarian assistance is needed, but it’s not a solution. We can try to provide dignity and respect and support people, but the solution should be political. We can carry on with humanitarian assistance for as long as it is needed, but it does not resolve the source of the conflict.”

How you can help

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

 

    • Tell your friends. Share this story and spread the word about the millions of people who need us.
 

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Organization Information

Mercy Corps

Location: Portland, OR - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.mercycorps.org
Project Leader:
Mercy Corps
Portland, OR United States
$92,221 raised of $115,000 goal
 
1,046 donations
$22,779 to go
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