Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Visiting Syrian Refugees in Jordan

Imagine waking up without your bed, finding yourself sleeping on the floor instead. Imagine if there was no ceiling or concrete walls to shelter you, only a tent or a caravan if you are fortunate. Imagine having lost everything you own, including all or some of your family, relatives or friends. This is what millions of Syrian have experienced since the uprising began in March 2011. Syrians, who lost their homes and means of livelihood, were forced to flee the war in their homeland crossing into neighbouring countries to seek safety and shelter and have since became refugees.

Syrian refugees informal tented settlements
More than 4 million refugees from Syria (95%) are in just five countries Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt:
  • Lebanon hosts approximately 1.2 million refugees from Syria which amounts to around one in five people in the country
  • Jordan hosts about 630,000 refugees from Syria, which amounts to about 10% of the population
  • Turkey hosts 1.9 million refugees from Syria, more than any other country worldwide
  • Iraq where 3 million people have been internally displaced in the last 18 months hosts 249,463 refugees from Syria
  • Egypt hosts 132,375 refugees from Syria

Over the past years, despite its own socio and economic challenges, Jordan has been hosting a large number of refugees from Palestine, Iraq, and in the past 4 years from Syria. Approximately 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in informal tented settlements among host communities in urban areas in the north of Jordan, while the remaining 20 percent live in Zaatari (considered to be the second largest refugee camp in the world), Marjeeb al-Fahood, Cyber City and Azraq camps, built on land provided by the Jordanian authorities.
The UN humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees is only 45% funded. Due to the shortage in funding the most vunerble Syrian refugees in Jordan recive approximately JD20 a month, the equivalent of $28, which is less than $1 a day. Hence, more than 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan are living below the local poverty line. Syrian refugees also struggle in Jordan to find jobs to help them survive, since it is illegal for most of them to work as per the Jordanian law, so they accept low paying and odd jobs that Jordanians usually would not fill. If they are caught, they risk being deported back to Syria and hence some children have been forced to work as a result to secure food for their families.

UNHCR Report on Registered Syrian Refugees in Nov. 1, 2015
Three of my friends and I travelled to Jordan, on the first week of November 2015, as volunteers to support Syrian refugees there and witness first hand the conditions they were living in. Since visiting the formal gated Zaatari and Azraq camps required government permission, we were only able to visit the informal tented settlements in both Azraq and Zaatari. Our itinerary was arranged by Catherine Ashcroft, Resource Mobilisation Specialist, Consultant to Mercy Corps and Founder of Helping Refugees in Jordan (HRJ) whom we have been collaborating with for the past year. Catherine is also a mother of three and above all a humanitarian who has dedicated her time and effort for this cause and her motto is "if a child needs shoes, it doesn't matter where they are born." She has transformed her garage into a deposit point for donations such as clothing, shoes, blankets, mattresses, heaters, wheelchairs...etc and her living room has become a small bazaar selling handicrafts, scarves and carpets to raise funds. Last year Catherine's projects has been able to raise almost half a million dollars. One hundred and two trucks, one ton each, carrying blankets, clothes and shoes, food boxes and school furniture were transported to refugees across Jordan, without any administrative charges.  
Catherine Ashcroft
Carpets and local handicrafts for sale to raise funds
Maher, a Syrian refugee working for HRJ and MercyCorps 
Clothes sorted and labeled for distribution
Heaters, blanket and wheelchairs

Day 1 we travelled to Azraq in Northern Jordan and visited a school built with the help of donations collected by HRJ and Mercy Corps and is run in collaboration with the Azraq Women Association. It consisted of 4 caravan classrooms from grade 1 to 4, a small playground in the middle, and a fifth caravan that was serving as a sewing training center. The students attending the school were Syrian refugees living in houses in the village as well as some Jordanians. New donations to HJR allowed for the construction of a library and workshop hall on a floor above an existing office building.

A sewing center, part of the vocational training programs for women
We then went to visit a new site which was being prepared to include more tented classrooms and caravans. We were told by the head of the Azraq Women's Association that the area would be used in the morning as a school for students from year 5 to 7, and in the afternoon used for workshops and a vocational project that would secure 26 job opportunities for Syrian refugees. Jobs such as selling homemade food, traditional handicrafts...etc, would generate income and help improve the living conditions of Syrian refugees.

Later that afternoon we visited an informal tented settlement in Nothern Azraq, in a farm 25 km away from the school which we visited in the morning. A few tents were in that farm and they sheltered several families each. We were all overwhelmed by the miserable living conditions we witnessed.  There was an obvious lack of sanitation and medical care and some of the children's growth was stunted due to malnourishment. It was heart breaking to see how these people were surviving with almost nothing. Yet we felt the eagerness of the children to resume their education as we sat in a tented school which was being prepared for them. Many had been out of school for the past 4 years but were excitedly seated around us recounting what they still remembered. The distance and off road journey made this area harder to access. UNICEF was able to provide them with 2 teachers only who could visit them twice a week. We left that camp heavy hearted feeling that the support from our donations was just a drop in the ocean.

A tented school set up by HJR & Marcy Corps in Northern Azraq
Syrian refugees inside their new school in a Northern Azraq farm
Day 2 early in the morning we stopped at Catherine's house and loaded one of the cars with jackets, shoes, heaters and powder milk before we headed to Zaatari village to distribute them. When we reached the village we stopped at a local society called White Hands for Social Development and were briefed about its activities to support Syrian refugees and the local community, such as micro loans for small businesses and awareness workshops. We were joined by its head to visit some of the settlements there. The first tented settlement we visited was in the middle of nowhere with a tank serving as the only water source for all the families living in the scattered tents around it. Despite the living conditions they were subject to, the children still greeted us with a smile. They had already been dismissed from school since we arrived after mid-day so we visited an empty classroom and saw the children's colourful drawings on its walls. As we drove away, we saw the men being dropped off by a pickup after a day's work in the fields. I wondered how much did they earn that day?

Jackets and coats for children

A water tank serving many families in the tented settlement 
Syrian refugee children smiling against the odds

A tented school by HJR from the inside
Artwork by Syrian refugee children
Afterwards we visited another informal tented settlement in a private gated farm. We delivered some heaters and checked on the progress in another tented school. The children were dressed in winter clothing yet didn't have socks nor shoes to face the cold weather. The tents didn't look like they would survive a heavy rain, let alone the harsh winter ahead either. As we were heading back to Amman, there was news forecast of a storm hitting the area in the next few days. We were daunted by that thought, but were recently comforted by Catherine that the tented schools we had visited were all waterproofed with extra tarpaulin and ropes before the storms hit last week

Syrian Refugee boys standing in front of what is now their home
Another tented school by HRJ from the inside
Day 3 we had two meetings scheduled. The first meeting was with Eng. Raed Nimri, Mercy Corps Deputy Country Director for Jordan. Mercy Corps is funded by the United Nations and US agencies and has been working in Jordan since 2003. It has developed a network cooperating with 175 local community based organisations since they have better reach and more accurate data. Mercy Corps have been focusing on the Syrian crisis in the past 4 years, helping secure the immediate needs of vulnerable Syrian refugees and has built 4 health centres across Jordan requested by the communities. We were briefed on the various projects Mercy Corps is currently working on, including the No Lost Generation Campaign. Their main focus currently is the winterisation of Syrian refugees in order to prepare them for the harsh winter ahead. HRJ acts as a gap filler for Mercy Corps when its standardised program can't provide a certain need, because it has a quicker process and donations reach those in need directly.

Our second meeting was with Lina Farouqi, Regional Director of Middle East Children's Institute (MECI), an NGO which was founded in New York in 2005 and has been operating in Jordan since late 2013. MECI provides an informal education for Syrian refugee children in Jordan and helps out of school Jordanian children catch up and return to the educational system. They presently run after school programs, 3 days a week, in 9 schools with 5 classes in each, in different locations across Jordan, mainly in Irbid, Ramtha and Salt. A portion of HRJ donation goes o MECI to support the education of Syrian refugees.
Shahd's haunting look embodies the Syrian refugee crisis
Before going to Jordan I had been following news about the Syrian refugee crisis and was familiar with their hardship but what we witnessed in Jordan during our short visit was truly devastating. Syrian refugees in the informal settlements were in need of proper shelter, food and clothing. Health and education were secondary needs. Yet, what struck me the most was the condition of the children, Syria's future generation. They not only needed proper homes, but proper health care and a formal education. Many of the children had been out of school for years. What future would these children have?

I had wondered why would some families choose to leave the established gated refugee camps, set up by the Jordanian government and UNHCR, and opt to live in the informal tented settlements with barely any support. I soon realised that life in the camps wasn't much of a life. These camps were overcrowded, limiting in job opportunities and generally not safe. They felt trapped, insecure and desperate, yet they were sadly escaping from one hardship to another.  

As the conflict enters its firth year, and as the situation deteriorates and becomes more desperate for Syrian refugees, the hope for their return is starting to fade. After visiting these informal settlements and hearing about living conditions in the gated camps, it is now understandable why some choose to risk everything and cross hazardous waters to find better living conditions in Europe. The driving force is their hope to secure a better future for their children, a formal education, job opportunities and an extra income that they could send to their relatives back in Syria. Some are so desperate that they even opted to return to Syria.

It isn't enough to just feel sympathy for Syrian refugees, it is our duty to help them. 
You can help sponsor a Syrian refugee family = JD 100 per month, JD 600 for six months, JD1200 for a year, or sponsor a teacher to teach Syrian refugees = JD 250 per month, times 9 months for a scholastic year.  To support Catherine Ashcroft efforts in providing the necessary help to Syrian refugees in Jordan donate through GoFundMe ensuring that 100% of the donations received are spent in essential supplies for the refugees. Catherine welcomes volunteer donors who are also willing to donate their time and effort for this cause. 

"Because the Syrian crisis isn't over. Because children's lives are at stake. Because they deserve better than this. Because it's not too late. Because they are the future of Syria."

Monday, October 5, 2015

A comparison between the Dutch and Saudi Resolutions in UNHRC on Yemen

Many Human Rights Organizations have decried the latest adopted United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution on Yemen, after Netherland withdrew its draft resolution which was strongly opposed by Saudi Arabia. Although at first glance one would think that both drafts are similar (both available in this link), however a close examination to the points and wording of both shows the difference between them and hence explains why it was opposed by Saudi Arabia. 

First, the Dutch draft resolution was under the title “Situation of human rights in Yemenwhile the Saudi resolution was entitledTechnical assistance and capacity-building for Yemen in the field of human rights” . The Saudi resolution dilutes the dire human rights situation in Yemen and reduces it to technical and capacity building in a country that is in armed conflict.

Second the preamble of the resolution is the same borrowed from the Dutch version but one paragraph was omitted (paragraph 9):  “Aware of reports by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that the existing humanitarian emergency affects the enjoyment of social and economic rights, and also of the appeal by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator that the parties to the conflict must ensure that humanitarian aid is facilitated and not hindered,”….. why does Saudi Arabia want to downplay and dilute the importance of any reports on the humanitarian situation in Yemen published by UN agencies and the appeal in this regard?

Third, as for the operative paragraphs (1)  and (2) of the Dutch text merged into paragraph (1) in the Saudi text:
  • There is a difference between “welcoming” (Dutch text) and “taking note” (Saudi textof  report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Yemen,
  • and “the call upon all parties to address the recommendations made in the report” (Dutch text) was omitted from the Saudi text.
  • The Saudi text instead stressed on  “welcomingthe  debate ,which is of no value, and welcomed the statements and comments of the Yemen Government (that called in the coalition and is guarded by it) and thewillingness”  of this government  to cooperate with OHCHR while the Dutch texttook note” of the statements of and comments and the willingness of the Yemen Government to cooperate.

Upon examing each point individually one can notice how the difference in the wording can have an affect on the meaning and therefore the action. 

In point (3) Dutch which is (2) Saudi
  • The Dutch express deep concern at human rights violations “by all parties”, this was omitted in the Saudi resolution
  • including indiscriminate attacks resulting in the killing and injuring of civilians” was omitted from the Saudi draft because it also points to them. There was also a statement on the militias in the Dutch draft.

Dutch point (4) was omitted “Also expresses deep concern at the ongoing armed violence in Yemen, and in particular the recent escalation of violence approaching Sana’a;”

Dutch point (5) calls  upon all parties to respect their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, to stop immediately attacks on civilians, to ensure humanitarian access to the affected population nationwide, and to allow commercial imports to all Yemeni ports(underlined phrase was omitted from Saudi text because they are applying the blockade replaced by  (3) SaudiCalls upon all parties in Yemen to respect their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law to stop immediately attacks on civilians and to ensure humanitarian access to the affected population nationwide”; note the phrase IN YEMEN.

Dutch point (6) which is Saudi (4) has two major omissions. The Dutch version calls on to “ensure an effective investigation, in accordance with international standards” which was omitted from the Saudi text so was the phrase “while securing the viability of that investigation”.
Dutch point (7)” Calls upon all Yemeni parties to enter into a political process in an inclusive, peaceful and democratic way, ensuring that women are part of political and peacemaking processes, also calls upon all Yemeni parties to implement fully the relevant Security Council resolutions, the implementation of which will contribute to the improvement in the human rights situation, and notes that Security Council resolution 2216 (2015) contains specific concerns and/or places particular demands on Saleh- and Houthi-led militias, including to release safely political prisoners and journalists” 
which is Saudi point (5) stresses SC resolution 2216 as a basis because it refers to the militias and Saleh and makes it sound the base for the rest of the paragraph while the Dutch stresses first “enter into a political process in an inclusive, peaceful and democratic way, ensuring that women are part of political and peacemaking processes, also calls upon all Yemeni parties to implement fully the relevant Security Council resolutions and notes SC resolution 2216.

Dutch point (8) is the same as Saudi (6) except that the Dutch directs the operative paragraph to “Demands that all parties to the conflict” while the Saudi directs the operative paragraph to “all Yemeni parties to the conflict

Dutch point (9) and Saudi (7) are same, listing treaties Yemen is signatory to.

Dutch point (10) and Saudi (8) minor omission from Dutch “on the ground”

Dutch point (11) and Saudi (9) is normal UN language addressed to UN bodies.

Dutch point (12) Saudi (10) more or less the same but Saudi text added reference to Presidential Decree 140/2012 and there is a difference “ in meeting “ international standards and “in accordance” with international standards.

Dutch point (13) Saudi (11), Dutch requests monitoring the human rights situation and to collect and conserve info while  the Saudi does not and both suffices with an “oral update on the situation of human rights in Yemen at the 31st session and a comprehensive report at the 33rd session but Dutch stresses including in particular a comprehensive review of the set-up, progress and work of the national independent commission of inquiry” which the Saudi text omits and stresses that written report is "on the development and implementation of the present resolution." 

As such, the Saudi text excludes the coalitions role in human rights violations and their role in imposing a blockade on Yemen for the past 6 months which has hindered humanitarian assistance and access of necessary food, fuel and medical imports. Not to mention the credibility and impartiality of the national commission which the Dutch tried to draw attention to. The call to abide with international law and the accountability for war crimes and human rights violation is hence addressed to the Yemeni parties not the coalition.

'By failing to set up a serious UN inquiry on war-torn Yemen, the Human Rights Council squandered an important chance to deter further abuses' ~ Philippe Dam, Geneva deputy director at Human Rights Watch

'This resolution reflects a shocking failure by the Human Rights Council to meet its obligation to ensure justice and accountability, and sends a message that the international community is not serious about ending the suffering of civilians in Yemen. It was drafted by Saudi Arabia, which is leading the military coalition that has itself committed serious violations of international law in Yemen, with evidence pointing to war crimes.' ~ James Lynch, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Education Is Yemen's Hope

Education is the key to progress and one of the most important investments a country can make in its people and is vital in reducing poverty and inequality by creating opportunities for sustainable and viable economic growth. Nelson Mandela said "Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world"In a country like Yemen where the illiteracy rate of both sexes (15 years and above) is almost 40 per cent (according to UNICEF, 60 percent of adult women in Yemen are illiterate, compared to 30 percent of men), education and the empowerment of the women and youth is an imperative necessity for any concrete development in Yemen.

Only 5% of Yemen's government budget has been allocated to education, while 30 to 40 percent of the nation’s budget goes toward defence and security spending. Therefore, the government has been providing less than 10 percent of the actual needs of schools. In addition, 70 percent of schools and students in Yemen are in rural areas, which created difficulty in providing services, and resulted in about 300 thousand students in 616 schools studying under trees and in inappropriate locations and according to media reports there are 2 million students across the country who have no chairs, although the real figures could be more. Some classes in Yemeni towns and cities, including the capital Sanaa, are overcrowded, with no proper classrooms or desks.

This is how students are taught in some rural areas in Yemen
Other classrooms in a rural areas in Yemen
Many schools, including in the capital Sanaa, don't have enough chairs or desks for students
Yemen also suffers from low-quality teaching and facilities and high absenteeism rates at schools.  Just 63 percent of school-aged youth in Yemen completed primary school in 2010, and one in four third-graders cannot read at all.  Poverty has forced some families to chose their child's labour or early marriage (in the case of females, especially in the rural areas) over education. The lack of trained teachers, especially women has been another factor effecting education in Yemen. According to a recent UNESCO report 18 percent of teachers have university degrees and only 60 percent hold high school degrees. The gender gap among teachers in Yemen is also wide, and has been a deterrent to girls’ school attendance since some conservative families will not allow female members to be taught by men. In 2010-2011, only 28% of teachers in government primary and secondary schools were female. 

Millions of dollars in foreign aid has been pumping into Yemen over the years to sustain the economy or address emergency situations, yet only a small portion has been aimed towards planning longterm development projects which invest in the future of Yemen, such as education. In the absence of the proper monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, much of those funds have has been going to corrupt officials. While the US aid to Yemen has predominantly been channeled towards counter terrorism rather than education. A recent report by Rand Corp pointed that weak and frail states, such as Yemen, can’t absorb security cooperation aid and the best results came from “non-material aid, such as education, law enforcement..etc.” Rand explained that investment in human capital has large payoffs.

Yemen's central government's widespread corruption along with its weakness and ineffectiveness in controlling much of the country, has led to a lack of provision in public services needed to improve the educational sector. Repairing the infrastructure, building new facilities, revising the syllabus, providing sufficient learning materials, training teachers, narrowing teacher-student ratios, and addressing gender disparities—especially in the rural areas are educational priorities that Yemen must address. 

Alternatively to relying solely on government institutions, there is a need and demand for the civil society to assume a more dominant role in non-partisan aid delivery. The country can not rely on the government alone, there is a need to converge all official and popular efforts towards achieving this goal. Indeed some Yemenis have started their own initiatives. Yemen Relief and Development Forum (YRDF), an umbrella charity set up by the Yemeni diaspora in the UK, aims to use the power of the Yemeni diaspora in the UK to help Yemen to move forward. Yemen Education and Relief Organisation (YERO) is non governmental organisation, aimed primarily at education, has been working with some of the most deprived children in Yemen's capital city, Sana'a, for the past 10 years. By enrolling children onto school, and giving them homework classes and additional learning opportunities through extra-curricular activities it has enabled them to build a better future for themselvesDirector and founder of YERO, Miss Nouria Nagi OBE speaks about about her work in this video  

Malcom X said "Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today." For any real reform to happen in Yemen it is pivotal to invest in the education of the future generation and Yemen'civil society has a huge role and responsibility towards achieving that.

N.B: YERO is a charity which relies on the goodwill and generosity of the general public. To now more on ways to help click here