September 7th, 2013 | by Ray Offenheiser
Along a quiet village road in Lebanon that climbs against a steep cliff jutting over the Mediterranean Sea is a shopping mall filled with Syrian families. But the people crammed into this white, boxy building are not shoppers or carefree people-watchers—they are refugees. Each day, their numbers grow as the daily horrors of Syria’s staggering humanitarian crisis further undermine the region’s stability.
When Oxfam visited this island in the sky two months ago to deliver clean water, healthy sanitation services, and cash assistance, roughly 100 families called the open-air mall home. When I visited on Wednesday, the mall had become a refuge for 400 families, or about 2,000 people.
A refugee family living in the abandoned mall gathers together for a meal. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam
An abandoned commercial building, while it does provide shelter and some level of security, is not a suitable home for a family. There is limited running water, just a handful of bathroom facilities, and little access to public services. Who comes to pick up the trash when 2,000 people fill an abandoned shopping mall? Who pays the electric bill? How can a family send their children to school or find a livelihood to provide for basic needs? Where do you buy soap or bread? And when your child is lying in your overcrowded 12-by-12-foot stall-turned-apartment, too sick and weak to open her eyes because of diarrheal disease, how do you transport her the 20 miles to the nearest hospital?
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September 3rd, 2013 | by Ray Offenheiser
Sally Mouallem working with children in Zaatari camp. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam
Oxfam America’s president Ray Offenheiser, director of humanitarian response Mike Delaney, and director of media Matt Herrick are in Jordan and Lebanon this week, visiting Oxfam’s efforts to help refugees from the conflict in Syria. Below, Offenheiser shares his thoughts on a visit to Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.
There are more than 120,000 heartbreaking and humbling stories inside the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, now the second largest refugee camp in the world. On Sunday, as temperatures soared past 90 degrees, thousands of Syrian families sought shade inside their UNHCR tents and trailers. Some were kind enough to welcome us into their homes. We went from tent to tent, trailer to trailer, water tap to kitchen, talking with one Syrian family after another. For a short time, we stopped atop a small hill—one of Zaatari’s only distinguishable vantage points—and scanned the homes bleached white against the khaki sand. I watched the heat shimmer off the hard-packed ground. I saw clutches of men congregate and talk under clouds of cigarette smoke like in any Middle Eastern street scene. And from within one undistinguished trailer, I heard the squealing of children wash across the camp until it reached us like a cool breeze.
Jeff Silverman, Oxfam’s social mobilization, gender, and accountability specialist, guided us toward the happy gathering. In a sense, Jeff is a fixer of problems. He is respected by the Syrians living in Zaatari because he listens to everything—the good with the bad—and empowers each member of the community to work out solutions to thorny issues. Walking 100 yards with Jeff through Zaatari is a lesson in community organizing. He plays with kids. He delegates management decisions to staff. He listens intently to community leaders. He offers kind words to all passersby. His philosophy is simple: “People want to be heard,” he said. “I help residents have a say.”
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