Sunday, 5 March 2017

Inexplicable Kaleidoscopes of Emotion

I was standing on a rise overlooking line upon line of domed blue and white tents connected by a maze of narrow rocky roads and a spiders web of electrical cables hanging symmetrically and swinging rhythmically from metal poles. Outside some of the tents small satellite dishes pointed hopefully to the sky some sitting atop 44 gallon drums of kerosene – a families fuel for cooking and heating. Water connection points dotted the campscape and communal bathroom facilities rose above the tents marking out the symmetry and revealed an allegiance to international standards of IDP camp design. In the distance a water tower the size of a small apartment block interrupted the picturesque mountain-scape that dominated the far distant horizon. 

There is a harsh permanent beauty to this place that has been overtaken by uncertainty, fear and incomprehension. In the far distance snow capped mountains guard the valley and feed a small stream that meanders around the mesh and razor wire fence. Contained within the fence, thousands of families – most arrived within the last 5 months, some in the last days – are trying to make sense of the latest, and what looks like a more permanent eviction from their homes and neighbourhoods.

Mosul is about 20 kilometres away, and as I sit listening to another story of displacement I ‘feel’ and hear the whump of exploding air ordinance. The people around me don’t even flinch. They speak of running from homes as bullets explode in walls around them and as aircraft scream overhead firing rockets into the neighbourhood. Some had a day or two to get out – reading the signs, watching the news – hoping that it was not as they heard – but eventually and reluctantly getting out before all hell broke loose. Others got caught in the crossfire or the unpredictability of a war – escaping as soon as they could and mostly by cover of night. Many, many were not so lucky. 

I met families (and church leaders) who spoke of thousands of Yezidi women still held captive by Islamic State – including their relatives – girls as young as 7. I heard stories of bravery in the face of fear, of neighbour supporting neighbour and of people from surrounding cities such as Erbil driving their own cars toward the fighting to pickup strangers who had fled on foot – bringing them to safety and temporary housing in their own communities. 

I wonder how I can describe the scale and the ‘feeling’ of these fenced off places; but more importantly how can I convey the stories of the people who survive here? How can I convince the world, or more realistically the people in my sphere of influence that this is not right, this is not something we can ignore, this is not ‘other’? One of my roles is surely to communicate the unfairness and injustice; the overwhelming and insatiable need; the disappointment, the anger, the frustration, the gratitude, the fear, the hope, the confusion? Theirs is an inexplicable kaleidoscope of emotions and response. But, I don’t have the words to do this description justice. 

I sit with a family in their (tent) home: there are twelve people, three families in these two tents. A new baby was born to the family just last night, in the tent next door, without proper medical support, (Mum and baby are in care now doing alright but the baby is jaundiced). A one year old cries for Mum; two beautiful teenage girls sit quietly, almost on top of their dad; an 84 year old grandma sits in the corner wrapped in blankets, she says nothing; a young man and woman arrive to join us – announcing that they have just got engaged – they offer us sweet tea, and lunch, hospitality they can hardly afford. 

But when asked about their feelings about the future – they have little hope that they will go home anytime soon. If they had the money they would get out of Iraq – “to America or Australia” where they have relatives – and what was there to go home to anyway? 

Mosul was a big multi-ethnic city. A major economic, educational and cultural hub. One person I spoke with (who has family in Australia and has visited them) called it the Melbourne of Iraq. Can you imagine if Melbourne was attacked in the same way? If the East of the Yarra was systematically and deliberately destroyed by heavy artillery and street by street warfare, if snipers located on roofs on the West bank were shooting at any movement on the East. If over three quarters of the population had to flee east and north and live in tents throughout winter? 

I honestly can’t imagine it, it seems inconceivable - and yet to these displaced residents of a once proud Mosul it was equally unlikely - and yet that is the equivalent.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Azraq Refugee Camp - The Jordanian Desert

When he lived back home in Syria, Faisal was a semi-professional basketball player, a personal trainer and a sports coach. With his wife and three children he lived in a nice house, in a normal neighbourhood. He had work, he and his family were doing well. But that was 4 years ago – then one night the bombing and the fighting started. And it didn’t stop for days. When it did, (temporarily as it turned out) one of Faisal’s brothers was dead and he was injured. It was that night he, with 5 of his brothers and their families decided it was time to go. 

What followed was a journey that Faisal says he will never forget. His wife and he, with their 4, 3 and 1 year olds, walked away from their home, taking only what they could carry. For six hours, through the night for fear of being attacked, they walked through the desert to the Jordanian border; they were then lucky to be picked up by a passing trucker who let them ride in the back of his truck for a further 6 hours before they arrived at the border where they were ‘welcomed’ by the Jordanian military. 

It was much easier back then, Jordan was open to Syrian refugees – after all it was only going to be for a few weeks, maybe a few months, and then they would all be going home. And so, after two days of processing, they were transported to Zaatari Refugee Camp where they lived in a tent for six months before deciding to rent a place in the community. 

Unfortunately, not all Jordanians welcome the Syrians, and so after 18 months Faisal moved his family into Azraq Refugee Camp, where his fourth child, a little girl was born. This is like no other camp I have ever seen before. Mainly because it is located in the most desolate, isolated environment imaginable. Literally in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, the Jordanian government, learning lessons from Zaatari has, with UN and international partners, built a fit for purpose camp. 

38,000 people live here now, in row upon row of white corrugated iron sheds, in four ‘villages’, but there’s room for more. The camp is approximately 8km x 4km of barren, dusty desert. There are no trees, and the only (artificial) green in the whole place is three small, enclosed soccer fields that World Vision has built. These are the home of a very well organised soccer league, coached by premiership coaches and under the patronage of HRH Prince Hussein of Jordan – these games are serious business. (One of the fields in enclosed in maroon tarps for the girls and women to play.)

World Vision has been working in Azraq since its opening in April 2014 when, with local partners, it built the roads, and laid the original water and sanitation infrastructure. Today World Vision funds and operates a kindergarten for 5 year olds where 300 children a day (for a semester) are given tuition and basic life skills to assist them in preparation for entry into school. In parallel with the tuition the children are carefully monitored and basic psychosocial support is given, or if needed they are referred to partners for more specialised care. 

In addition to this, and funded in part by World Vision Australia, we partner with the World Food Program to distribute school lunches to over 7,000 children in six schools, every day. This is a vital part of the health program in the camp – and the kids love it! 

I sit on the floor in Faisal’s home after visiting these programs in the camp. His wife has brought us coffee and sweet cakes, and we sit talking about life here in Azraq. Obviously he wants to be back home, in his house – if it still exists – but since that’s not possible he says, “you have to make life, you have to be happy”. Two of his children are at school and happy, his wife has friends around her and they support one another, he has some work (which subsidises the UN allowance) with one of the UN agencies. He is coaching sports and this coming weekend he will run his second marathon in Aqaba – a refugee entrant. Outside his house he has plastic containers with green plants hanging off the walls – this garden is his statement of hope in a restricted world. 

Don’t misunderstand me, this place is not nice: just a few weeks ago it was freezing cold, wet and muddy, in a few weeks as summer kicks in it will climb up to 50C outside, but for too many people this (and places like it throughout Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq) is home. 

The Syrian conflict enters its seventh year this month and there is no end in sight. The selfish politics and greed of too many stakeholders seems endless and uncaring of the cost on ordinary Syrians. Faisal doesn’t believe he will be taking his family home anytime soon, and is thinking of how he can get them out to another country where there are opportunities and hope for the children. In the meantime, they continue to need our support to ‘make life and be happy’.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Shining a Light on the Future for Vulnerable Children

The classroom was bright, colourful, ordered and alive with energy – a stark contrast to the vast dusty beige and confusion of the environment outside the high concrete walls of the school.

Ahmad, with 24 other children, was sitting at a brightly coloured table sticking felt eyes on a plastic plate forming a smiley face. Lifting it up in front of his face he smiled shyly from behind the mask at his Mum, Aaliyah, and she smiled back. Life had changed dramatically for Ahmad and his classmates in the last 4 years. 

Three and a half years ago, as a result of the war coming to her home town in Syria, Aaliyah and her husband had fled their home with a one year old boy. ‘We were scared, our family and friends were being killed by bombs, we didn’t understand what was happening, but we had to leave’. They left everything they owned except what they could carry and crossed the border, (nit as easy as it sounds) with thousands of others, into Jordan.

Today, they live in the Rusaife community, life is difficult, Aaliyah rarely has enough food for the family, which now includes a little girl, but the issue that concerned her most was the wellbeing of her little boy. Ahmad may have only been one when they fled their home in Syria, but Aaliyah believes the things he had seen and heard affected his life - he was withdrawn and quiet. 

But when, twelve months ago, World Vision commenced the NOUR project in Atika School Ahmad was one of the lucky ones. With fifty other children from a waiting list of hundreds Ahmad was selected to join the 2016 intake. Today he attends the preparation classes that will give him the best chance possible to be ready for grade one in the next school intake. In parallel with the Jordanian school curriculum he receives some support through a children’s psychosocial program, and Aaliyah is enrolled in ‘parenting classes’ where she learns some tools to help her support her children to flourish.

Many Syrian refugees live in host communities throughout Jordan. With the huge influx of Syrian’s into Jordan (More than one million people) over the past 5 years, the education system has been overwhelmed. Together with the Jordanian Ministry of Education, World Vision has begun the “NOUR” programme: Arabic for Light, the program will seek “To shine light on the future of vulnerable children, their families and communities”.

The Education component of this multi-sector program will will assist 2,000 refugee and host community girls and boys to access gender and child friendly education. We have established four Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centres in four governorates of Jordan, building forty classrooms and renovating facilities in six schools. World Vision will train 200 teachers in child friendly methodologies and will form ten child parliaments. 

As Aaliyah speaks with us today, she says thank you, over and over again. Her boy smiles, he plays and he is learning – ‘I cannot ask for more’ she says.