“When we first came here, our children had trauma from the war and bombing. My son was isolated, not playing with other kids. I had to convince him to come and participate in the activities here. At first he didn’t want to, but after a few days, he came alive again.”
I’m standing in the new Mercy Corps ‘Knowledge Centre’ in Sareeh, Jordan, and listening as a local Syrian lady tells us about her 8 year old son.
I didn’t really know what to expect before coming on this trip. In my naivety I guess I thought that helping Syrian Refugees meant providing food, water and shelter. Which is vital of course, and emergency aid is a large part of what Mercy Corps does (very well I might add). But what I’ve discovered is that it’s their longer term approach and their emphasis on sustainable development that makes Mercy Corps’ work so special, empowering local people with the tools to rebuild their lives as best they can.
The Knowledge Centre is an example of Mercy Corps’ Social Cohesion work; it’s a safe space where people can come and take part in training courses such as life skills or computer classes, get involved in workshops, or simply use the games room. The children can enrol in extra-curricular activities or catch-up classes, as many will have missed large chunks of their education. It’s a space that brings people together, and helps refugees integrate into their host communities. Because something I also hadn’t realised is that 80% of the estimated 1.3 million refugees in Jordan don’t live in camps, they’re part of these communities, and competing with the Jordanians on rent, water resources, and electricity, in an already strained infrastructure. Similarly in Lebanon every school does a double shift, Lebanese children in the morning and Syrians in the afternoon. There simply isn’t enough space for all of them. It’s not hard to see how tensions arise.
Mercy Corps works with Community Leaders, giving them the conflict resolution skills they need to solve disputes. At the same time the Community Leaders feed back to Mercy Corps what the community needs. In Eidoun, they built a women’s gym - the only one in an area of 50,000 people - providing health and fitness training, and a support network; forging friendships between Jordanian and Syrian women where previously there had only been a suspicion that these newcomers would steal their husbands. In Sakura it was a football pitch, where the most important division was not which country you came from, but which team you were on. In another village we even heard about a group of boys who had to draw a picture together, each taking it in turns to add one stroke. Soon these boys claimed they were reading each other’s minds, their differences forgotten.
But more than helping to build communities, these projects and activities are incredibly important for providing psychosocial support, particularly to young people. Stressful situations cause us to release a hormone called cortisol, which helps prepare our bodies for ‘fight or flight’. Useful in the short term if you need to outrun a bear, but in situations of chronic stress these elevated cortisol levels interact with the emotional circuits in our brain, and cause them to shut down. It kind of makes sense defensively, if you can’t feel anything then at least you won’t be overwhelmed by sadness or fear. But you also struggle to feel happiness, to express emotion, or to feel empathy for others.
These programs provide a way for Mercy Corps to help children re-engage with their feelings through a subtle ‘atunement’ approach. It’s about connecting your head with your heart. Every course session the teachers dedicate some time to self-reflection and positive coping practices, exploring questions such as what do I want to be, who are my friends, what makes me angry, and who are my safe people to talk to. I also really saw the power of art for helping people to express their emotions. A beautiful example was how at the start of any program the kids were asked to draw a picture about how they felt. Most drew images of war and conflict. But two months later, as their program finished, they drew smiling faces and images of play.
Nowhere was this more evident than at Zaatari camp, home to 80,000 refugees. With a bus system, 12 schools, and its very own champs de elysee, it felt more like a town then an informal settlement. But it was still just a sea of temporary box-like structures, overwhelmingly white and grey. Yet walking into the Mercy Corps extracurricular room, my senses were assaulted with the wealth of colour and creativity inside. Sculptures made from trash, paintings that covered the walls, the vibrant energy reminded me that this is what every child should have, a striking contrast to the bleakness of what they were actually growing up in. I was so glad Mercy Corps could provide spaces like this.
It has been a very special experience witnessing the work that Mercy Corps do, and I still haven’t told you the half of it! We saw WASH projects - that stands for Water Health and Sanitation - delivering water, piloting greener latrines, and renovating facilities in schools that would have otherwise been closed down. We learnt about their INTAJ program - Improving Networks Training and Jobs - helping small businesses to expand in order to tackle unemployment. One textile factory owner said that although his business nearly 30 years old, with Mercy Corps he felt he’d had a fresh start, and by the end of the year he’d have gone from 25 employees to 52! Their home kitchen program teaches people how to grow their own vegetables and eat a balanced diet, as aid food is high in calories but low in nutrients. Everyone we met was so dedicated to helping their country, from the volunteers who drove an hour each day to work at Zaatari camp, to the local Mercy Corps staff whose passion for their projects was contagious. Next to their work my own job at home seemed self-centred and inadequate. But at least I had helped in some small way, because without our fundraising, many of these projects would not exist.
Watch a short movie, which shows what Matilda did on her trip. Matilda visits Mercy Corps.
If you’re doing the quad this year, every penny you raise really will be changing lives. The quad is an incredible experience, and it supports an incredible cause. Good luck to you all, and I hope you smash those fundraising targets. It’s truly worth it.