Sunday, 13 December 2015

I Would Like My Son to be Happy


The first town you come to after crossing through the separation wall at Erez border crossing into the Gaza Strip is Beit Hanoun. At once you are confronted by a destroyed block of flats, all that remains of most buildings in this area are concrete slabs and shells of what were once buildings. When the Israeli military moved through the neighbourhood in July 2014, their intent was to remove all obstacles in their line of sight.
Imad’s  (name changed) family home was one of those buildings. A two storey house in the middle of town, it still stands, but the first and second floors, destroyed in aerial raids, are still unliveable. Holes in the walls were artillery punched through the concrete are covered by blankets and tarps to protect Imad and his 19 family members, who all live on the ground floor, from the elements.
Thirteen-year-old Imad sits next to me in the ‘courtyard’ of his house. The reluctant centre of attention, he answers politely when questioned. Imad is the youngest of 10 children. As his mother is a Palestinian refugee, he attends a United Nations (UNRWA) school where his favourite subject is English. Imad’s passion however is for sport. He is a keen football player, bike rider (but he doesn’t have one) and swimmer, although he is not allowed to swim in the ocean – it’s too dangerous to be on the beach.
He is most animated though when he tells us about his photography project. Although the project is finished and the camera was damaged in the last war, Imad describes with enthusiasm the photos he took. He wants to become a photographer, and he would like a computer to help him edit and bring his dreams to life.
None of Imad’s family have stable work. When his father and older brothers are lucky, they get occasional day labour jobs, but with twenty people to feed there is never enough, ‘luckily’ says Imad’s Dad, his wife is a Palestinian refugee so they are entitled to food coupons and basic support from UNRWA.
Despite these extremely harsh realities, there is joy and hope in the faces of the family sitting around the courtyard. That hope has its roots in World Vision’s sponsorship program: the difference for Imad and his family is the support they have received from World Vision as a result of the funds available from Australian sponsors.
This support, over recent years has supported Imad’s family to pay school fees, purchase equipment and uniforms, and to cover Imad’s extra curricula activities, like photography. Imad’s father has attended a Job Creation course with a local agricultural corporation and had work experience with a local farmer. Imad’s mother has attended a Psychological First Aid (PFA) course, an essential skill to identify and help people (especially children) to cope and respond to traumatic events, such as war.
In the wake of the war, Imad attended a Child Friendly Space (CFS) where, with about fifty other children he enjoyed the dancing and games. Imad’s family received food coupons, toys, and hygiene and first aid kits. World Vision also provided food items to the UNRWA school where with about 5,000 other people Imad and his family sheltered for a month.
As we finish up our visit with Imad and his family, his dad says to us that if he could have anything, “I would like my son to be happy”. There is so much more that could be done in Gaza and for children like Imad.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

A Sweet Peace Initiative

Before the 2014 Israeli offensive on Gaza, Abd Kareem and his neighbours had a good business from their citrus trees, vegetables and honey. But, by the time the 50 day war was finished this farming community "looked like hell". The bombs had left huge craters in the fields, the irrigation pipelines and infrastructure were destroyed by military hardware and the trees were uprooted and destroyed.

When I was here in February this year the community had already filled in the craters, levelled out the land, erected fences and with help (from Australian Government funds) were repairing and rebuilding the water infrastructure. And despite these setbacks most of the farmers in the area re-planted crops in time for the season. Water is life, and today, with the repair of the water pump and the other work, the farming area is almost unrecognisable. Talk about resilience, this is not a behaviour that you can teach, this is not an attitude that is natural - but here in Gaza, as in many fragile contexts, people have learnt that if it is going to get done, they need to do it.

The neighbours came together and replanted, repaired and rehabilitated. Today, citrus trees are in fruit, vegetables are being harvested and the bees are producing honey. (But not a lot yet.) Before the war Abd Kareem's bees were producing about 50kg of honey per hive, but today, with a limited supply of food, while the production is improving, it is only about 6-8kg per hive. The citrus trees have flowered but, take a quick panoramic view of the area and there are not many other trees or flowers, it's pretty barren on this, the Gaza side, of the separation wall.

But on the other side of the impenetrable 60km, 7-9m high grey concrete slabs punctuated regularly by imposing fortified guard towers - on the Israeli side of the separation wall - there is lots of food for bees. And so it is that these Gazan bees are ignoring the blockade rules, the separation wall, the dual purpose list and the politics of humankind. They are buzzing the wall, helping out the Israeli farmers by pollinating their crops, pinching the nectar and returning to produce Gazan honey.

Now that's what I call a peace initiative.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Hadassah University Hospital

The calls of the Muezzin reverberate through the crisp, still early morning air of the Ramallah valley. It seems so peaceful and innocent. Yet behind the prayers for peace and guidance there are children, Israeli and Palestinian that are suffering emotionally and physically, from the affects of protracted and indiscriminate violence.

Over the past two years I have been working with my colleagues in Jerusalem and the Director of the School of Public Health (Psychology) at the Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Kerem (an Israeli hospital just outside Jerusalem) to design a project that will result in the deployment of a number of trained Child Psychologists who will be available to help children suffering from trauma.

Last week we finalised all the agreements and now, we are all ready to start. Together we are developing a new curriculum to up-skill Israeli and Palestinian doctors and health professionals and over the course of a year they will receive training from world renowned child development and psychology specialists. Each of these 'trainees' has already shown a desire to be used in the alleviation of pain and suffering of children, regardless of race, faith and location - and now, they will learn how better to do this work.

This is an exciting opportunity, one that can benefit both Palestinian and Israeli children - but also a project that reveals a ray of hope in what seems a hopeless context.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Shanthi's Story

She was sitting on a vinyl covered straight back dining chair in the middle of the room against the horizontal dual shaded, peeling wall. Above her a sketch of Jesus with a cross behind was hand painted into the aged white wash. The sun outside was temporarily hidden behind ominously dark clouds, but every now and then a stream of sunlight, formed into an accusing finger by the dust in the air, arrowed through the barred windows and pointed at the bundle in her arms.

A small bundle two weeks into existence in this cruel world, swaddled in clean borrowed linens and with a fresh donated white woollen beanie covering her head. The new little baby girl lay still, content and asleep in her 13-year-old mother’s arms.

This place is home for a number of women and girls who have been rescued from abusive, trafficked or troubled contexts. But Shanthi (not her name) sits in this dormitory room by herself; her long hair falling around her face framing her bowed head – her large dark eyes, fixed and unmoving on this little bundle, were pools betraying a hybrid mixture of fear, awe - and shame.

Raped by her father, rejected by her mother, family and community and pushed out onto the city streets. She hid in the shadows and dirt, but survived until, heavily pregnant and obviously in desperate need she was picked up by the police and bought to the Salvation Army’s rescue centre at one of the busiest intersections of life in Colombo.

Two weeks ago she gave birth to little Shanthi (she gave her baby her own name) and today both are well, both are clean and both are fed – but what next? Normally girls and their baby’s cannot stay indefinitely at this place of rescue. But she has no home to go to – family don’t want to know her but even if they did, her abuser father is due for release any day soon.

I wonder, how do we help this baby - and her baby? The Salvos have done so before and I have no doubt will find a way around ‘system normal’ to do so again. But Shanthi is not unique, too many girls are out there, being trafficked, being abused and left as rubbish on the city streets.

So, for today, Shanthi sits alone in a hot room infused by streams of accusing dusty sunlight fingers - staring at a little bundle in her arms – what is she thinking?

Monday, 3 August 2015

REAL MUSHROOMS

When truth and transparency are withheld, my perception, fuelled by imagination, become reality.

Reality does not exist in a vacuum. Reality is created: it is formed of ideas, informed by context and founded on hard data. If reality is left to self-create it will take on the form of the strongest informants.

When leaders choose to shield us from the truth for our own good reality will grow on the foundations of selfishness - self preservation and imagination - because shields always falter.

When leaders decide that we don’t need to know all the details: reality will be reformed by rumour, by gossip and by myth - because in the absence of detail, rumour reigns.

Leaders treat their greatest asset like mushrooms: keep them in the dark and feed them fertiliser. Wait, no, even mushrooms get fed, but too often leaders just keep their assets in the dark and feed them nothing. But when a living organism is not fed, it will find food - the easiest food possible - selfishness, rumour, imagination and gossip.

Leaders create reality.

Leaders keep telling us that we are their greater asset, that we are above average. So stop treating us like mushrooms and use the greatest asset you have to inform a reality that is ours, rather than leaving that asset to create above average alternate realities that do not benefit anybody.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

In Lincoln's Shadow

The red line Metrorail thundered overhead as I walked along the narrow footpath, ahead, through the grey shadows created by the overhead railway line I could see my way blocked by a pile of rubbish built up and around an abandoned shopping trolley. It was annoying, you know, there was not much room around the obstruction, a person ahead sidestepped around and past, another tried to push the debris back with his foot as he pushed past the obstacle.

It was only when it was my turn and, getting a closer look at the pile of rubbish, I realised that the hub around which the bags and boxes where arranged was a man - fast asleep and with a snore that competed with the train passing overhead.

I have been in Washington DC only a few days. It is a beautiful city. I have walked the National Mall along Constitution Avenue past the Capitol, the Monuments and the Museums – I am in, perhaps, one of the most influential cities of the world, home to some of the most brilliant and powerful people: “Bones” in the Smithsonian, “Olivia” amongst the skeletons of DC’s rich and famous and “Jack Ryan” saving the President. Not forgetting President Obama, (and “Cyrus Beene”), in the big House.

Yet with all this power, smarts and influence – there is a man sleeping rough under a bridge. “Any change sir”, says another man holding out a used Starbucks Grande mug. Men and women stake claims and pitch brightly coloured nylon tents under alongside a highway and under a vehicle overpass. And the world, including me, pass by. (I did offload some coins onto one woman, but I hate coins in my pocket – so was I doing me, or her, a favour?)

I know that Washington DC is not unique and that in my home city of Melbourne there are many seeping rough in similar locations. But this week, in DC, I am struck by the contrast. Coming here from a Country that is defined as “less developed”, where I saw no people sleeping rough, (not saying there aren’t any, but I saw none) to this “developed” city I am caused to wonder: who in are the developed?

(I am not suggesting that there are no people homeless and begging on the streets of Asia or Latin America – I’ve seen plenty.) I am thinking aloud, this is not researched analysis, (or America, or DC bashing), it is merely an observation – because it initially shocked me, don’t know why it should, that here in this city, seat of so much enlightenment and power, in the shadow of Lincoln (“…all men are created equal”), Washington and Luther King, there are still people pushing their world in a trolley on the streets; people who have no place.

As I passed by another “Starbucks Grande”, checking my increasingly trashed tourist map for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that this guy probably knew as much if not more of the city and her monuments than most of the official tourist guides that I saw advertised along the Mall. (Probably knew some places they didn’t in fact.) What if, instead of paying for a well-researched ‘uniform’ I paid the same amount to this ‘homeless’ guy to show me around? It was just a thought and by the time it had formed in my mind I had moved on into China Town on my back up H Street.

(To my American friends: I am seriously not having a go at America or Washington DC, it is just that I came to DC from Quito, and these were my initial impressions.)

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

God is Revealed in the Cloud

Yesterday, as we disappeared into the damp, dense clouds above Ecuador, I thought of Moses going up Mt. Sinai. Is it sacrilegious or perhaps arrogant to equate myself with Moses? Yes probably, and yet I do - but I am not suggesting that I am a leader like Moses - but rather only that both of us met God in the clouds.

Moses met God face to face, (well almost), but I met God in the people that many have forgotten. About 3,100 meters above sea level, in a small farming community I met with gracious and hospitable indigenous Ecuadorians. This forgotten community, (like so many in this region) is home to families that have been here for generations, but have received little support or resources.

As we pulled up I was greeted by a couple of young men in red ponchos, sheep skin chaps and cowboy hats, next to them little children in red and white ponchos, a variety of hats and dirty faces greeted me by shaking hands, my buenos dias greeting, with an Australian accent was smile worthy even for these shy little kids. (I think one or two even laughed at me.)

We had come to "monitor", but the community had other ideas - we were here to worship and party. So the morning started with singing to a guitar and pan pipe, followed by a sermon from Isaiah and then it was on to every project team showcasing what they had learnt and what they were doing as a result of the interventions in their community.

As a 'monitor' it was rewarding to see that funds invested in this community were ticking the boxes. Women were learning how to care for the hygiene and basic medical needs of their families. They knew how to make a basic re-hydration fluid that has reduced incidences of diarrhoea in children significantly. Children were being educated at local schools that are being resourced. Youth are being taught vocational skills such as photography, media, communications, radio production (all things they chose and being used in their community). Men and women are learning how to make soap. All very basic things, but skills and behaviours that have turned around their community.

But beyond the monitoring and the logframe indicators are the attitudes, the values and the character - elements of humanity that cannot be taught or programmed, but implicit reflections of God, images of divinity that are impossible to hide. As is often the case, people who have the least are often the most generous. And in this community, in these gracious people - it was no different.

Despite the fight to survive and thrive the people of the community greeted me with generosity. (I wish they had reserved some of the hospitality - the compulsory tasting of the traditional tea made especially for women in labour and the home made re-hydration drink were special moments.

I was thanked with the presentation of a traditional red wool poncho (apparently symbolising strength, bravery and passion) and then the elders gathered around and prayed over me before they served a lunch of black beans, green broad beans, potatoes (special ones grown only here) and a warm brew made from maize.

The people of the Cocan community have little, but thanks to the generosity of many people, the women and children are healthier, the community is better educated, more empowered (some of the youth are scarily passionate, powerful advocates for change) and on a path to a sustainable future. In the clouds, out of sight of the rest of the world I met God revealed in the people of the Cocan community.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Children trapped in Gaza’s shadow of fear

One year after the devastating loss of life in the “50-day war” in Gaza, tens of thousands of people remain homeless and Palestinian and Israeli children continue to live in the shadow of violence and fear, according to World Vision’s most senior representative in the Middle East.

Australian Conny Lenneberg, World Vision’s regional leader for the Middle East and Eastern Europe, said she was horrified by the civilian toll of last year’s war – and in particular the deaths of about 500 children and the thousands more who suffered severe injuries.

Ms Lenneberg said she had vivid and horrifying memories of returning to Gaza after the seven-week bombardment.

“Nothing can justify the conduct of this war which saw children and civilians trapped, with nowhere to seek shelter from relentless bombardments that destroyed homes, apartment blocks, schools and hospitals,” she said.
According to UN figures, between 7 July and 26 August last year, at least 2104 Palestinians were killed, including 1462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women. In addition, 66 Israeli soldiers and five Israeli civilians were killed, including one child.
Nine of the children who were killed in Gaza were sponsored through World Vision, including one young girl, Amena, who was killed after her family decided to go home for one day after 44 days of moving between UN shelters.

Ms Lenneberg said a recent United Nations Human Rights Council report on last year’s war starkly illustrated that “in the absence of a just and lasting peace, Palestinian and Israeli children continue to grow up in the shadow of violence, conflict and fear”.

World Vision, which has worked in Gaza since 1988, established dozens of Child Friendly Spaces for severely distressed children across Gaza in the aftermath of the war. But Israel’s blockade of Gaza has prevented any rebuilding and about 100,000 people - more than half of them children - remain displaced.

Thousands of families are living in the rubble of their homes. “I was heartbroken by the deaths of infants over the winter whose families had no proper shelter - just some blankets in the ruins trying to keep out the bitter cold,” Ms Lenneberg said.

World Vision has called for Israel’s seven-year blockade of Gaza to be lifted to allow rapid, unimpeded passage of all humanitarian workers and items needed to run vital services.

“Conditions in Gaza, particularly for children, are deplorable,” she said. “Because of the blockade, they are not able to leave these conditions behind, and they are not able to bring in what they need to rebuild their lives. World Vision believes the ongoing occupation and conflict has robbed generations of Palestinian and Israeli children of peace, justice, and hope for a future where fullness of life is possible. What children on both sides of this conflict need most is peace.”

(Stuart Rintoul)

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Feast

A Maronite, A Shiite, A Sunni and a Christian Evangelical walk into a Restaurant…

Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this is no joke – 9 young people and their leaders from all four religious groups are meeting together over a meal. These people are supposed to be enemies, they are supposed to be so suspicious of each other that this can’t work – but it is.

The Feast is a model of interfaith dialogue for young people. Originally from the UK, it is being trialed here in Beirut, and from what I can see from the genuine friendships between the young men and women around me – there are no barriers here. Two young women, one Evangelical and one Shiite are having a discussion about the different head coverings worn by the two young Shiite women. Patiently and with passion the Shiite is explaining the differences and the part that fashion plays in her selection for tonight. At the same time a Maronite and a Sunni are comparing notes from a lecture on Middle Eastern politics they had earlier today.

These 9 represent 24 other young people, between the ages of 15 – 19, who have been meeting for a couple of months now. They meet over a meal, but not just to eat – although one of the young men assures me (with a wry smile) that’s the important part. They meet to share their lives and to talk about their faith. There are strict guidelines for their engagement, but Ali tells me they are ‘just common sense and decency’.

One of the objectives of The Feast is all members working together toward a common project. At the moment this group is discussing what that will be, but they are thinking about helping a local orphanage or maybe doing something for Syrian refugee children.

This type of dialogue and bridge building is essential. It is one of the best hopes we have for peace and stability in this region, and wider. Imagine if instead of suspicion and hatred there was understanding, respect and celebration. The young people I had dinner with are proof that it can work.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Baalbek and the Celebration of Diversity

Columns of the Temple of Jupiter
 At the foot of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains the Baalbek (“God of Beqaa Valley”) Roman ruins are an awe inspiring complex of three Greco-Roman Temples. The Gods Jupiter, Venus and Mercury were worshipped here, with the Temple of Jupiter being the most prominent with 20m meter high columns still standing.

As I stand here dwarfed by the columns and in awe of the amazingly artistic complex of Royal Palace and Temples, with intricate stone carving and massive stones weighing many tons, it strikes me that all of this predates ‘white’ Australia by over 2,000 years.

This important complex was located on two historic trade routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian interior and the between northern Syria and northern 
Palestine. It was a fertile plane with water – it was vital for survival. Here people of many cultures came together and did life.

Over the years people have come and gone, religions have established a presence and people of faith have lived together, and still do. In the shadow of the great walls of the Temple of Jupiter there is a Maronite grotto and just a little further away is the unmistakable blue tiles and minarets of an Iranian inspired mosque casting their shadow on an Orthodox Cathedral. This is still a city of people of many cultures and religions doing life – it is a city that celebrates diversity.

Back up the road from this symbol of diversity there are 2,000 children meeting together, some for the first time. These are Syrian children from Informal Tented Settlements, refugee children who with their families have been forced from their homes. Little ‘Achmad’ clutches a small juice box as he tells me that his home is in Homs, (Syria) but he has been living in a shack with his family for 4 years now. Next to him gorgeous little ‘Noor’ with huge eyes shyly cast down to the ground tells me that she was born in a shack here in the Bekaa, 4 years ago.

Today they are joining Lebanese children from the communities that surround the settlements. I’m new to this place, but apart perhaps from the clothes they are wearing I can’t tell the difference between the kids – as they bounce around in the bouncy castle and ‘do the hokey-pokey’ with some scary looking clowns and Tom and Jerry they all laugh and scream together.

Perhaps one thing that marks a difference is the little bags of nuts. Each kid is given a bag of mixed nuts (“Lebanese nuts are the best in the world”, so I’m told by Thomas a 6 year old) and a small juice box. The Lebanese kids are eating and drinking, the Syrian kids are not. They will be taking theirs home to give to Mum to share with the family.

Here, surrounded by loud music and strange “kids entertainment” there is no fear, no animosity and no suspicion – perhaps how it was 2,000 years ago? It’s just kids being kids. As they go from one stall to another led by volunteer youth leaders in a carefully choreographed dance so as to get 500 kids in each session through, they are taught about disaster risk reduction: who to call, how to react in an emergency; health and safety from the Red Cross; road safety from a local transport authority; staying safe on-line and child rights and a number of other community safety concerns. All this happens sandwiched between a bouncy castle and a huge blow up slide.

Today is a celebration of difference. It is an opportunity to share life, and to say that we can exist together. And the kids are showing us the way. We need to provide opportunities to confront the prejudices and the lies of political and religious expediency and allow people to hear one another, to do the hokey-pokey, to laugh, to cry, to scream, together.

[One thing of which I am constantly reminded in my work is that all too often we talk about ‘them’ and ‘they’! We refer to “Muslims” or “Christians”, or “Australians” as if every single one of them is the same – ‘they’ are not. My natural inclination to prejudice, my opinions about you and my actions towards others are ultimately not a result of my religious affinity, my cultural heritage or my race category – the way I treat you is all down to me – alone.]

In the Shadow of Anti-Lebanon

The winter snow melt has left the pine clad mountains surrounding the city green and lush under a clear blue sky on this beautiful spring morning as we head east away from Beirut and the Mediterranean and over the Lebanon mountain range toward the Syrian border. Once through the mountain pass we look down into a stunningly beautiful green valley. This is the Bekaa Valley and it is here, at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon mountains (the border between Syria and Lebanon) about as close to the Syrian border as you can get, that hundreds of Informal Tented Settlements (ITS) have appeared over the past four years.

Since the Syrian civil war started in March 2011 over 1.5 million Syrians have fled from the bombs, the bullets and the death to settle in Lebanon. Around 420,000[1] of these people live in ‘tents’ in the agricultural communities of the valley.[2]

I arrived in one of these ITSs yesterday morning as a van load of children returned home from school. As they poured from the back of the van they were laughing, shouting and teasing one another – they seemed liked kids anywhere, they were happy! But as I looked around and as one of these families shared their story with me, I wondered why.

Omar and Anila[3] and their 9 children came across the border from Syria 15 months ago. For over three years they lived with the uncertainty of the war in their homeland, but then “the bombs began to be too many and too close” (Omar). Arriving in the Bekaa, Omar and Anila joined 67 other families, (a community of 428 adults and children) on a 1 acre property and built a 2 room shelter from wood, cardboard and tarpaulin for which they pay a rent of $400[4] a year.

Today, as I sit in their lounge room with clean straw mats and cushions bordering the tarpaulin walls, it is cool and quite comfortable. They serve me a cup of Arabic coffee - strong, thick and black it will keep me buzzing for a while. But only a month ago there were floods here from the snow melt, and in the weeks before that most tents were buckling under the weight of heavy snow. It must have been unbearably cold and wet.

They have electricity, some of the time, but they pay $45 a month for that. Each tent is supplied with a 1,000 liter water tank and 1 voucher a week to refill it. (That's about 3.5l a day, per person for Omar and his family). They have access to a toilet for every 15 people, and 2 vouchers per month to have the septic tank emptied.

The oldest son is the sole income earner for the family, working for about 6 months of the year in the surrounding farms he will make about $25 a week. This, together with a World Food Program allowance of $19 per person per month and a small allowance from the UNHCR is the entire income. Omar tells me that due to visa issues (costing $2,000 per person per year) he is unable to work. He is frightened that if he leaves the property he could be detained and returned to Syria.

The four middle children are picked up with other children to attend a UN school a little way from the settlement and the three youngest children attend a child friendly space on the property. The oldest boys, all who were studying back home, now cannot attend school and have nothing to do.

One of her youngest uses her as a climbing frame whilst keeping a wary eye on this strange man in her house, as Anila tells me that she fears for her children; if one of them becomes ill there is no care available, even if she could afford it. Often there is not enough food and so they have to purchase food to credit. 

Omar dreams of the day that he can take his family home, “even if our house is gone, I will build a tent like this and we will be home – but for now what choice do I have? Inshalllah, one day soon, it will be safe to go home, but at the moment, even if I could go home I wouldn't because my boys would be forced to join the Army."



[1] http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122)
[2] An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since March 2011. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), almost 4 million have fled to Syria's immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. (http://syrianrefugees.eu)
[3] Names changed.
[4] All dollars are USD.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

To Survive or Thrive

A couple of years ago Maysa Al Hosomi (now 28 years old) was desperate. She had three beautiful little girls and her husband was finding occasional work; they were surviving but by no means could you say they were thriving. But, Maysa was determined to be able to provide better for her girls and she was not going to sit around waiting for handouts. She heard about a local women’s Community Based Organisation (CBO) that was operating in her neighbourhood and went calling on them to find out what they did and who they did it for.

As a result of this introduction she was invited to participate in some training sessions including entrepreneurship for women, income generation and Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS). Following these trainings she put a table outside her house and sold some basic grocery items. But, having got a taste for some possibilities, she was dreaming much bigger, so she approached our staff to find out what she could do next. Her dream was to open a grocery store and after presenting a business case she was accepted into the Youth Entrepreneurs program. This partnership required her to be able to provide the space for her shop, with that our partners would assist with some of the basic shop fittings, (shelving, counter and a fridge).

Today the front room of her house is a clean, well organised, well stocked store selling all kinds of daily necessities and some luxuries. In the couple of years that she has been operating she has used her profit to buy a freezer which she stocks with fish as her community is a distance from the coast; she has purchased a second drinks fridge which is stocked with all the usuals; and she has computerized her accounts by teaching herself Excel and training her husband how to use the system.

Maysa and Mohammed are by no means rich, but as a result of a small investment from Sponsors and Maysa's hard work and determination to thrive, they make a ‘nice profit’ and are able to provide for their (now) four girls.

video

Video Translation:

Nour, 12: "Thanks to World Vision for supporting us to have our family small business, this helped our father to buy for us the things we like.”
Safa, 10: "Our father started to bring us nice clothes."
Fatima, 8:“Also, our father now gives me and my sisters’ money every day.”
“Thanks World Vision, we love you so much”

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Mahmoud's Freedom

This is about a Palestinian boy who lives in Gaza - but it is not about Palestine and Israel. It is about Mahmoud, but it is also about thousands of other Mahmouds, and Ranins and Asmas. It is about the protection of any child and the indiscriminate acts of war that threaten their futures. It is about the hope that no child, anywhere should have to experience what Mahmoud has experienced. It is about unimaginable hope.

Mahmoud is 14 years old, and he lived in a three-storey family home with his extended family - this was a loud home, a happy home - built on the highest point in the community in direct line with, and sight of the border. Mahmoud's dad had received some help to establish a home garden and together with the produce from the garden and occasional work as a labourer, Mahmoud and his siblings are able to attend school and the Child Friendly Space.

But out the side of the house was Mahmoud's pride and joy, his hobby - a chicken coup with 8 laying hens. This was his project. He had saved the money to buy the chickens and over the last couple of years had a developed a small business of supplying eggs for his family and occasionally some to sell.

But, on the 15th day of Ramadan in 2014 that all changed. Along with the rest of his neighbours his family received a warning - 'get out, and get out quick'. They didn't know who or why they were targeted, but that morning a bomb destroyed their home - and Mahmoud's chickens.

For the last 4 years Mahmoud has been attending one of our child friendly spaces (CFS), these are places designed to help children and their families overcome the trauma and confusion caused (in this case) by living in a war zone. Mahmoud has lived through 3 wars and numerous 'incursions' in his short 14 years. He has mourned family members (in Operation Protective Edge (2014) one of his Uncles was killed in the bombing of their house) and he lives in a place where even when things are normal - they are tough. He knows that he is from a group of people that are marginalised, powerless and captive - but he is not sure why that's the case. But he is a bright boy, and wise beyond his years.

But I suspect that those kids who can find ways to survive in these contexts have grown up quick and are all too knowledgeable for their years - they haven't had much time or chance just to be kids. To be carefree and irresponsible like kids should be.

Mahmoud tells me that he loves coming to the CFS because it is like "home", "it is better than school because the facilitators here are kind and care about us - coming here gives me hope because I feel like I discover myself here, I work out who I am and what I feel, I can express myself honestly. The leaders are like my "older brother and sister" and they come and visit our homes and help our parents."

But, despite the shy smile and quiet confidence, life is very different now. Like many Palestinian families home used to be filled with the chaos of living with extended family. Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, cousins all shared life together - family is not just special but vital. Today, the family is divided all over the city, and the look in Mahmoud's eyes betrays the pain that this causes. Mahmoud with his Mum and youngest siblings, sleep in a safer place in town and join Dad up at the destroyed family property during the day where they have built a wooden shack to stay in and a separate kitchen area.

The thing that caused the most pain? The loss of his precious chickens. So, with the help of his older brother who gets some work, he spent $15 and bought three new hens and built a new coup for them. Insha'allah, he will rebuild his little entrepreneurial hobby enterprise.

The future is no more stable at the moment, and Mahmoud fully expects there will be another problem but for now, he is focused. Apart from the re-established chicken and egg business he is determined to maintain his school grades, (he is in the top 3 students in his class) so that eventually, he will become a doctor and he will travel outside Gaza and "meet other people, see other places and feel free".

This is surely the right of any child, Palestinian, Israeli, Syrian or Australian - it doesn't matter. No child should be living in fear, in uncertainty, in pain - every child should have the hope of choices and freedom.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Knafeh and Hope

What do you get when you walk into a room filled with men chain smoking cigarettes and shisha, charcoal fires grilling meat, kebabs and flat bread, pans of oil deep frying falafel and chips, plates filled with hummus and olive oil, all topped off with sticky sweet fried knafeh and cardamon coffee?

Apart from a years worth of passive smoking and a headache - a great afternoon of food, (too much food) and passionate, loud conversation broaching some of the subjects that you are never supposed to raise: politics, religion, culture and death.

At a busy tourist site in Jericho, I had finished doing the tourist bit and was looking for a drink when I was invited to join the 'sinners and the tax collectors', or that's what it felt like. Other tourists were ushered into the buffet restaurant upstairs where the peacocks preened and the food was kept warm in a bane-marie. Once or twice a tourist stepped across the threshold of the service entry only to turn and exit quickly. I'm really not sure why because here, among the real people, the food was good and the conversation animated.

No one cared who I was, or wasn't, we just ate incinerated meat and solved the worlds problems together. We talked about the outside world's perceptions of Palestine and the way that the media can distort reality. We righted the wrongs of thousands of years of cultural animosity and mistrust. They announced that that there is much to celebrate and hope for. 

But most importantly, all of us, from numerous different cultures and sub-cultures, religions and political persuasions sat, ate, drank, laughed, talked, (smoked) and learned together. It was a good afternoon. (Although I have to say, despite the number of people who proudly put plates of knafeh, "the best desert ever", in front of me - I really don't like it and feel quite ill now :))

Friday, 20 February 2015

A Parliament to be Proud of

As I sit in the warmth of my hotel room in Jerusalem it is 2C and snowing outside and I am struck by the contrast with the earlier part of my day.

It is cold as I sit in the Headmasters office in a school in the village of Om Salamonah (Bethlehem). The students and teachers are wearing hats, scarves and numerous layers of clothes to keep warm. I am sitting with the Student Parliament in this new school of about 250 students, the only one in the village and it exists because of the advocacy of the village and the support of the Ministry of Education and our team here in the Holy Land. (The story is so much more complicated and powerful than I can share in this format.)

One young man, an 11 year old diplomat in the making spoke passionately and articulately about the most important thing that the student parliament had done. This group of 9 students were challenged by the difficulties of 'Clara', a young girl with a physical disability who came to school, but to get to school her friends and class mates would drag her in her chair through the mud and the gravel of the unsealed roads from home to school. But, with the passion of an early day Obama, the advocate tells me that "this was not right, this was not fair". The students got together, and with some of the training they had received, thy mapped out an advocacy campaign; first to engage their teachers, and then to convince the Village Committee and local businesses - today the road is sealed and Clara rolls into school proudly. (Every year as she is promoted up the grades her whole class moves to the ground floor of the building so that she can have full access.)

The school will cater for these young, resilient, hopeful kids - doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics and administrators in the making - until they complete year 9 then they have a choice to make. Cross the highway to a nearby village for high school, or drop out of school. None of them want to drop out, but in their context, it is not just a matter of crossing a road - it is much more complicated than that.

Just up the road from the school, in the same village, 'Hajar' lives with her 7 daughters and husband. Today, as the rain and hail bounce off the concrete stairs, their house is freezing cold. They are all rugged up in numerous layers and the little baby is bundled up under a pile of threadbare blankets in the corner of the 'lounge room' asleep. A wood burner stands in the middle of the room - but it is just a frozen metal box.

Sounds depressing? But this is a vast improvement on when we met 'Hajar'. The mother of 5 at the time had just given birth to her 6th daughter - and she was deeply depressed. She wanted, she needed a son and she felt responsible, she felt cursed and a failure. She came to our attention through her friends and over the last few years our team have worked with her, her family and her community. [When you sponsor a child it is not just that
child that benefits, but the entire community - and this success story reveals that transformation.]

Her community rallied around and together they rebuilt Hajar's life and housing. Her house has been renovated to the point where today, although it is cold at least it is clean, dry and safe. She has no furniture, her dining room table is a plank of wood on the floor. The bedroom is a room of carpets covering a tiled floor where all 9 members of the family sleep. But her beautiful girls are now healthy, and all that are of age attend school or kindergarten.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Latin America & the Caribbean (LAC)

The other region I am privileged to work in is, Latin America and the Caribbean. Here's a short intro to what we call LAC:

Our cause: Protected children promoting a more just and secure society.

Latin America and the Caribbean is the most urbanized region in the developing world, as three quarters of its population residing in cities and surrounding areas (World Bank, 2004).

UNICEF's "State of the World's Children 2005" reported that 44% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean live below the poverty line, this rises to 56% among those under 19. About 27 million Brazilian children, who live below the poverty line, are in families with incomes below $100 per month.

The fight against poverty requires actions and solutions that should be implemented in all areas of society. Poverty can be reduced through policies that promote responsible government, support for micro, small-scale agriculture, income equality and access to credit, education and training. It should ensure equal opportunities for boys, girls, youth, women, the neediest communities and indigenous peoples.

World Vision seeks to improve the quality of life for children, families and communities through development and community organization in the region. Improvement of roads and housing, construction of plazas and parks recreation and drinking water facilities, drainage and irrigation, electricity facilities are achieved with the active involvement of the communities served.

World Vision's work in this region is divided into three clusters:
  • Central America: Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Cost Rica
  • South America: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Brazil
  • Caribbean: Haiti and Dominican Republic
At present, World Vision is working across a diverse and dynamic region to improve the lives of nearly 14.5 million of the most vulnerable children in Latin America and the Caribbean.