For nearly a year, relentless conflict and natural disaster have put more than 20 million people in four countries across Africa and the Middle East at risk of starvation. For just as long, Mercy Corps has been dedicated to helping people in the hardest-hit communities survive, meet their emergency needs and build a foundation for eventual recovery.
Below, Mercy Corps team members from each of the famine-threatened countries — South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria — report on the current situation, and what more needs to be done.
PHOTO: Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps
Earlier this year, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, the first anywhere in the world in six years. While the country is no longer technically experiencing a famine, ongoing conflict continues to fuel displacement, loss of livelihoods and severe malnutrition. Our acting country director for South Sudan, Francesco Lanino, provides an update.
What is the food crisis like right now?
South Sudan entered the harvest season in September 2017 with 6 million people — 56 percent of the total population — estimated to be severely food insecure. Even though post-harvest gains are expected to reduce this number, an anticipated earlier than normal start of the lean season [when people run out of food before the next harvest] will result in an estimated 5.1 million people being classified as severely food insecure between January and March of 2018. Humanitarian assistance is critical in averting the situation deteriorating to catastrophic levels.
In the worst-case scenario — given the severity of the food security and nutrition situation observed during the 2017 lean season — continued conflict, humanitarian access constraints, climatic shocks and economic instability leading up to the 2018 lean season will likely result in famine conditions in multiple locations across South Sudan.
How is Mercy Corps planning to continue responding?
Mercy Corps will keep providing support to the most vulnerable South Sudanese. In Mundri East, where Mercy Corps distributed seeds and tools, our farmers managed to harvest enough to cover the food needs for the lean season and farm again for the next farming cycle. In Panjiyar, Mercy Corps distributed crops and vegetable kits to every single household, and we’ll continue to support people by delivering new seed kits during the coming lean season. Mercy Corps also distributed fishing kits to each family in Panjiyar, and will deliver training on how to properly dry and store fish.
Mercy Corps’ cash transfers program to support the most food insecure families will continue during the coming season. When the harvested food supplies are depleted during the lean season, Mercy Corps will provide cash assistance to enable people to purchase food supplies in the local market, where traders are also supported by Mercy Corps. And Mercy Corps will be running school feeding programs to guarantee at least 6,000 children get one meal per day.
Because the war is not over, conflicts are now all over the country. Food insecurity could turn into famine and starvation without the needed support.
What do you want the public to know as we move into the new year?
South Sudanese people cannot be abandoned. Support is needed more than ever. In 2018, Mercy Corps will continue enhancing the ability of at least 300,000 of the most vulnerable individuals — this is double the number from last year — to be able to cope with the effects of conflict and disease outbreak, while building resilience. Through this increased resilience, communities will be better able to cope with, adapt to and manage shocks and stresses in the future.
PHOTO: Peter Caton for Mercy Corps
Since January 2017, a dangerous combination of violence and severe drought have forced almost 1 million people to flee their homes, unable to grow food in their agricultural communities. Humanitarian interventions helped avert famine, but drought conditions persist and 3.1 million people still cannot meet their daily food needs. Our country director for Somalia, Abdikadir Mohamud, explains.
How has the food crisis changed in recent months?
The humanitarian response has been very proactive in trying to address the need. There are gaps, definitely, but the situation is not as alarming as before. The rains have just started — although not as strong as expected — but rains are not enough [for people to return to their homes]. The insecurity challenges are there. There is a lot of activity in terms of military and a lot of political instability. What we are finding is that people are going in and out of the camps to go see their places, but there is not much activity in terms of farming.
How is Mercy Corps planning to continue responding?
[We will] continue with provision of basic needs, which are water, rehabilitation of infrastructure — farm infrastructure or agricultural activities — and also trying to see how we can support those in camps. Our team is highly dedicated and committed to moving supplies and other aid services into the communities.
We are talking about, for example, provision of food for school children, and also trucking water to the places that have not seen any rain yet. We are also doing cash-for-work activities so we can inject cash into the markets and the populations, so that they can afford to buy their food in different areas. Those who have severely lost their livestock, we're trying to restock livestock for them, and then also training community animal health workers to provide essential services.
What do you want the public to know as we move into the new year?
What we really need people to know is that the situation is still the same in Somalia. As much as we give it hope, the needs are there. That has not changed. We still require international support. We require regional support. And we also require the public's support to make Somalia stable again.
The picture is that the situation in Somalia is dire, and we really need your support so that the Somali community, and the children of Somalia, can live through this calamity. Hopefully, by the new year, there is rain and people can do their farming. That is when we can talk about trying to see whether we can move people to recovery. Now we are only talking about how to save lives.
PHOTO: Mercy Corps field team
Families in Yemen are in dire need after years of war have crippled the economy, disrupted basic services and made essential supplies like food, medicine and fuel inaccessible. An estimated 17 million people do not have the food they need, and the United Nations reports the country is on the brink of the largest famine the world has seen in decades. Hannah Hilleson, senior program officer for the Middle East, shares more.
What is the food crisis like right now?
The food security situation in Yemen is extremely challenging. As a result of the ongoing conflict, food stores are limited, especially in remote parts of the country. The country imports most of its food, and access constraints into and out of the country limit the availability of nutritious foods.
What's interesting is that while limited, we are still seeing food available in many communities, though at an increased price. Yemen is also suffering from an ongoing banking and liquidity crisis, which means that while food stores may often be available, the average Yemeni may not have enough funds to purchase the food. The situation continues to evolve with the ongoing conflict and we continue to track it closely to ensure we are meeting the urgent needs of those most vulnerable.
Why is it important for people to continue caring about need in Yemen?
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and was already food insecure before the current conflict. As a result, the ongoing crisis is wreaking havoc on the Yemeni people and creating a number of follow-on effects that will continue to pose challenges for years to come.
For example, less variety and availability of nutritious food reduces a person's ability to combat health related issues. We saw this clearly in 2017, as cholera spread — and continues to spread — across Yemen. Additionally, during times of food insecurity, heads of households are forced to make really tough decisions for themselves and their families, including taking children out of school to reallocate those funds for food and skip or reduce the number of meals they consume.
What motivates you to keep doing this work?
The Mercy Corps Yemen team is absolutely remarkable. Their dedication to bettering their communities and serving those most vulnerable — while they are themselves also facing extreme challenges — never fails to amaze me. They are a constant motivation to do my very best so they can do theirs.
PHOTO: Tom Saater for Mercy Corps
In northeast Nigeria, the home of Boko Haram, violence has uprooted 1.7 million people from their homes and livelihoods, effectively robbing their ability to feed their families. As the Nigerian government has recently regained control of certain areas, it has paved the way for recovery while simultaneously unveiling the scale of need in communities that were previously inaccessible. Darius Radcliffe, our country director for Nigeria, reports.
How has the food crisis changed in recent months?
The big message is famine has been averted as a result of the massive scale-up in humanitarian assistance. In areas where humanitarian organizations have intervened, collectively, they have made a tangible difference.
However, while internal displacement is beginning to curb, food insecurity amongst internally displaced people (IDPs) and host communities remains particularly high: 5.2 million people are still severely food insecure, and 2 million are currently receiving food assistance. Humanitarian access remains a major constraint — some areas facing emergency levels of food insecurity are completely inaccessible due to insecurity and logistical challenges.
How is Mercy Corps planning to continue responding?
The need is still there. There is still a response that is necessary — but it’s a different type of response we’re now looking at. Mercy Corps is continuing food vouchers and distributions to combat food insecurity, but we’re also expanding our approach to include early recovery and resilience efforts. That means supporting livelihood recovery activities and providing agricultural training to allow people and communities to become agents of their own recovery.
We are also expanding our conflict management efforts in the northeast to further strengthen and support communities as they recover from the crisis. We're continually trying to find solutions rather than just deliver humanitarian aid.
Why is it important for people to continue caring about need in Nigeria?
The crisis in Nigeria remains one of the largest humanitarian emergencies in the world. Without food assistance, many millions of people will suffer needlessly, and we risk slipping away from the early recovery seen in parts of the northeast.
In addition, the conflict is not abating. Over 80 percent of Borno state, the state most caught up in the crisis, is considered at high or very high risk. More needs to be done to access these people and assess their needs. And we need to help people affected by the conflict transition from dependence on humanitarian assistance to early recovery. Without these efforts, we risk food insecurity in the northeast becoming a chronic and intractable humanitarian issue for years to come, with significant ramifications for the safety and stability of the entire region.
PHOTO: Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps
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It’s been a year of challenges, from drought and floods to poverty and violence.
Through it all, you were there.
In this season of gratitude, it’s more important than ever that we say thank you to generous supporters like you. Thank you for being there.
Around the world, issues like hunger, conflict and disaster have impacted the lives of millions of families. With your help, we work with them to confront these challenges. This year, you have helped 22 million people to cope with crisis and build better lives for themselves and their families.
In Puerto Rico, people are building back stronger after Hurricane Maria. Syrian refugees are receiving critical supplies like food, water, and cash. Farmers facing drought in Ethiopia are learning new farming techniques to help them cope.
These families demonstrate incredible strength and tenacity in the face of conflict — and people like you have stood with them at every turn.
Thank you for making a better world possible.
When so many global crises take place at once, it can be hard to feel like you’re making a difference. In 2017, wars ravaged communities around the world. Hunger put millions of lives at risk. Natural disasters destroyed homes and livelihoods.
Still, despite all this, one fact cannot be shadowed: We have so much to be proud of this year. You have so much to be proud of. Together, we did make a difference.
In 2017, Mercy Corps changed the lives of nearly 22 million people in more than 40 countries around the world—because you were determined to help.
Thanks to you, families facing some of the world’s toughest challenges received the support they needed to survive tremendous adversity and build stronger lives. You provided refugees of conflict with food, water and shelter. You connected mothers and children to lifesaving nutrition and medical care. You helped farmers grow more food and earn more income. And you showed girls the way to a better future.
Your support and generosity make this work possible, and it is truly life changing.
Below are just some of the ways you made the world better in 2017—let them remind you of the incredible difference we can make when we work together, and inspire you to create even more lasting change as we move into the coming year.
As a single mother and a refugee, Iman struggled to provide for her daughters Israa (left), 3, and Islam (right), 4, after the family fled the war in Syria. But you supported work that helped her earn an income and rent a shelter in the temporary settlement in Lebanon where they've sought safety. Photo: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps
Every day vulnerable people are driven from their homes by conflict and disaster—this year saw the highest number of displaced people on record. But that didn’t deter you. Your commitment to support refugees and displaced families, despite the scale of the crisis, has been more inspiring than ever.
Because of your generosity this past year, we’ve helped 3.8 million refugees and host community members in 24 countries survive and rebuild.
We reached 1.5 million people inside Syria with emergency food and lifesaving supplies, and continue to respond throughout the region to help others affected by the Syria crisis provide for their families, cope with their experiences and find hope for a more peaceful future.
When a battle erupted in Mosul, Iraq and sent families fleeing, your support helped us respond quickly and provide more than 300,000 people with the cash and emergency supplies they needed to stay healthy and safe. And after Boko Haram ravaged communities in northeast Nigeria, we supported 200,000 vulnerable people with food vouchers, cash and access to water and sanitation.
Each of these families has a story of incredible loss. But, because you stood with them, they received the practical support they desperately needed—and the tremendous relief of knowing they are not alone.
We have been on the ground in South Sudan helping families in crisis for years, and when a hunger crisis struck earlier this year, your support allowed us to rush food and emergency cash to the people who needed it to survive. Photo: Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps
There is enough food in the world to feed everyone, but hunger is still a constant threat for children and families in fragile communities across the globe. Ongoing conflict and natural disasters put more than 20 million people in Africa and Yemen at risk of starvation this year, and a famine was declared in South Sudan, the first anywhere in the world in six years.
You were there when it mattered most. You helped us rush urgently needed food to more than 1.5 million people in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach areas, including South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen, where families are on the brink of starvation.
We reached 60,200 families in conflict-ridden Yemen with food baskets to help them cope with dire shortages of food and other vital supplies. And the food vouchers we distributed in northeast Nigeria helped 30,000 hungry families put food on the table.
In South Sudan, where conflict has been disrupting lives for four years, your support helped 7,500 families buy food and essentials and provided thousands of children with school lunches, which has improved their nutrition—and their learning.
For families impacted by war, displacement or natural disasters, the road to recovery begins when they are no longer worrying about where their next meal will come from. Together, we gave them the food they needed to survive and take the first small steps toward a better, stronger future.
In the aftermath of the battle for Mosul, Iraq, people like Wasila, pictured here with her 6-year-old son, Ibrahim, were left to rebuild their lives from nothing. You helped provide her with cash to purchase food, cooking gas and electricity to keep her children warm and fed. Photo: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps
Conflict or disaster can strip everything from a person all at once: their house, their job, their safety and, not least of all, their ability to provide for their family. But you helped restore that dignity to over 1 million people in 2017. By supporting our cash distributions, you gave people in crisis the power and choice to purchase the things needed most by their families.
Because of you, we helped more than 125,000 people in Iraq pay for shelter, food, medicine and other essentials necessary to cope with ongoing displacement and instability. Our cash program also provides $715,000 every month to refugees in Greece. For families who have left everything behind in search of safety, this money can mean the difference between survival or an uncertain future.
Your continued generosity helps us give these families the support they need to endure crisis—and build back stronger when they’re ready.
Years after violence erupted in Mali, refugees of the conflict are cautiously returning home. Over the last year we provided almost 10,000 of them with money to restart their livelihoods and reintegrate into their communities. And we’re still on the ground helping families recover from the deadly Ebola epidemic that ravaged lives, jobs and communities in Liberia. You helped us give $7.2 million in cash and agricultural inputs, like seeds and tools, to help people there get back on their feet.
As a member of the Mercy Corps community, you don’t just support individuals—you support families and entire communities that need you. Our cash assistance infused more than $46 million into local economies this year, in turn strengthening whole villages, whole countries and the world.
This year you brought clean water to people living in camps in Somalia, like the Kerow-Margan Camp in Baidoa, saving them from resorting to contaminated water collected from nearby open sources. Photo: Peter Caton for Mercy Corps
There is nothing more vital to life than clean water. But for many families around the world, this precious commodity is too often entirely out of reach: warfare destroys water systems, disasters force people away from safe water sources, vulnerable communities lack the resources their residents need to live strong, healthy lives.
But, thanks to you, more than 1.3 million people in need were connected to the clean water they needed this year.
You helped us truck 30,000 liters of water per day to three displacement camps in Somalia, giving families who have sought refuge from a devastating drought the freedom to drink, cook and bathe without worry.
And because clean water is also a family’s first line of defense against diseases that threaten their future, your support of this work has truly saved lives. More than 110,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo—where displacement is chronic and safe water is scarce—were provided with clean water and knowledge about how to keep their families healthy.
We also delivered 348,000 cubic meters of clean drinking water to people living in tents and temporary settlements in war-torn Darfur, Sudan. And you helped us reach more than 30,000 people in Haiti with the water and hygiene supplies they needed to fight the threat of cholera.
Together, we’re changing lives. Your compassion means these families and many more around the world now have access to the thing they need most to have a healthy future: clean water.
As a herder in rural Mongolia, Enkh Erdene lives one of the harshest lives on the planet. The weather is extreme and he has limited access to support for his animals. This year, you helped him expand his sources of food and income, making his family less vulnerable to the precarious environment they live in. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
Healthy, plentiful meals are no guarantee in many of the places Mercy Corps works. But a better life begins when families have the food they need to grow, learn and work to their fullest potential—and you made that possibility into a reality for 1.2 million farmers who learned to increase their production and better feed their families this year.
In countries like Ethiopia and Mongolia, where livestock are many families’ sole source of food, income and stability, you helped us provide medicine, training and information that improved the health of over 3 million animals.
You supported work that helped coffee-growing families in Colombia increase their incomes and build home vegetable gardens that provide new earning opportunities and more diverse, nutritious foods. And you helped us reach half the population of rural Timor-Leste—60,000 families—with technology to better store seeds and grow more bountiful crops.
Thanks to you, we trained farmers in Afghanistan to cultivate newly-introduced seeds, like pistachio and saffron. Interventions like this give vulnerable families a chance to climb out of poverty when opportunities to otherwise do so are rare. With your help, we’re supporting thousands of farmers in Indonesia, too, with loans, tools and training to expand their operations, an initiative expected to benefit more than 60,000 people by its end.
Because of you, farmers across the globe are growing and earning more, and giving their families better lives—in 2017, and for years to come.
You helped women in Ethiopia learn to cook more nutritious foods, take charge of their families’ health and become changemakers in their communities. “If I demonstrate and take the lead, the community is eager to learn,” says Halima, who leads cooking demonstrations for other mothers in her village. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
In many places around the world, women and girls have unequal access to the resources they need to achieve all they are capable of—things like information, money, jobs, education and land. But as a member of the Mercy Corps community, you know a better world starts when everyone has tools to thrive. And your support over the past year has made an incredible impact.
Thanks to you, we helped more than 10 million women and girls improve their education, health, leadership opportunities and livelihoods, empowering them to build stronger lives, families and communities—now, and for the future.
Tens of thousands of women in countries like Tajikistan, Pakistan, Uganda and Ethiopia can take control of their health with better access to medical services and knowledge about nutrition, family planning, exclusive breastfeeding and hygiene. And thousands more in places like Niger received agricultural training, seeds and tools to grow more nutritious food for themselves and their families.
You helped establish women’s rooms in the country of Georgia, giving women there safe places to gather and newfound access to services like internet, childcare, business advice and health consultations.
Because of you, women across the globe have become leaders of their own lives through opportunities to earn their own income, including 35,000 women in Nigeria who received vocational and technical training to start small businesses. And, with your support, 120 women in Mali received training on basic leadership, advocacy and representation skills, after which 38 of them ran for local office—and 14 of them won.
You also helped educate over 50,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 270,000 in Kenya about gender equality, making these countries better, safer places to be a woman or a girl.
Women in these places face what can sometimes seem to be insurmountable challenges. But we are so powerful when we work together. Collectively, we stood with millions of vulnerable women and girls to prove the difficult world they live in is still a world of possibility.
Your compassion helped us reach thousands of young people in Guatemala City, one of the world’s most dangerous cities to grow up in, with violence-prevention activities like student council, which teaches kids how to become leaders, set goals and make positive change in their communities. Photo: Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps
With everything going on in the world, it can be hard to remember that our future depends so much on the success of our children. Young people are the next generation of teachers, doctors, scientists and leaders—and the support they receive today will determine who they become tomorrow.
Unfortunately, so many children who should be learning, playing and growing are caught in crisis or don’t have the resources they need to reach their full abilities. But, as a supporter of Mercy Corps, you intervened in a big way this year, lifting roughly 11 million of the world’s most vulnerable children up with the tools and compassion they needed—when they needed it most.
You helped send nearly 200,000 children to school, giving them an education and, along with it, the opportunity to have a bright, productive life. More than 8,000 of these kids are refugees with disabilities in Jordan who would otherwise have no access to formal education, as many schools there aren’t equipped to accommodate children with special needs.
Because of you, we were able to connect over 160,000 young people to safe spaces, emotional support and other resources to help them overcome the stress of growing up amid crisis, like the war in Syria.
In Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Greece, we’ve helped thousands of children cope with painful experiences, like witnessing violence, losing their homes or being separated from loved ones. For many of these youth, this work may have been their only chance to move past their anguish and keep hope for their future—and you made it possible.
You also helped connect 19,000 young people in Nepal with activities that promote social cohesion and development of life skills, and more than 35,000 children in Colombia to after-school programming that keeps them safe and teaches them how to peacefully resolve conflict.
In Niger, one of the most difficult places to be female, you helped equip 3,000 young girls with the confidence to avoid child marriage, return to school, improve their nutrition and find their way out of poverty. And in so many more places around the world, you lent a helping hand to keep our future leaders healthy, happy and on track to becoming everything they dream of being.
From us and each one of the nearly 22 million people whose lives you have changed this year—including this group of child refugees at one of Mercy Corps' youth centers in Jordan—thank you. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
We faced many global challenges this year, but you saw the possibility of change. Thanks to you, we helped nearly 22 million people overcome adversity, build stronger lives and believe in a better world. We hope you’ll stand with us in the year ahead, too. Here's how you can stay involved:
Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to the people who need us around the world.
As the war in Syria drags on and its humanitarian cost continues to grow, we are often most focused on the suffering of families who are still in desperate need. There are so many Syrian families who still need our help — and so many who have endured tragedy upon tragedy in their search for safety. And yet, in our work throughout the region, there are reasons to hope.
As refugees have sought shelter in neighboring countries and resources have been stretched thin, Mercy Corps has been there to help refugees build new lives and help host communities come together with their new neighbors. Because of caring people like you, our response has kept growing — and now, there are so many ways we are working together to help Syrian refugee families.
I was lucky enough to recently visit some of our programs in Jordan and Lebanon, and meet just a few of the refugees and community members we work with — and the Mercy Corps field teams who make everything possible. Every day I heard stories about the struggles and challenges that refugees and their communities face. And every day I saw Mercy Corps programs in action that help address those challenges — and give refugees hope for a better future.
You are the key to this work. I hope you feel as proud as I do to be a part of the many ways that Mercy Corps is helping Syrian refugees build better lives.
1. You’re giving youth a chance to grow
Coaches from the new Mercy Corps youth center in Saida will help young refugees and local youth get to know each other and learn skills like dancing, cooking and photography.
In the coastal Lebanese city of Saida, a diverse group of young coaches — some Syrian refugees themselves — are gathered together to drink coffee and attend a training. Soon, at this Mercy Corps Bussma Center, they will be teaching adolescent refugees and Lebanese youth dancing, cooking, photography, language and barber skills.
This youth center is just one of many in the region, and the goal is to make young Syrian refugees feel less alone, and connect them to others in the community. At the training, we met coaches Manar, Mohammed and Mahmoud. Their positive energy was contagious, and they want nothing more than to give vulnerable young people the chance at a better future.
Mahmoud is a first-time coach and will be teaching photography when the center opens. “I’m really excited,” he says. “These children are under stress, under pressure. They can find ways to express themselves and have a voice.”
Manar has been a youth coach for three years now, and she told us that she loves helping her students open up and make friends.
Manar, a Syrian refugee who has been a language coach for three years already at other Bussma Centers, finds joy in connecting the young people in her classes. “I’m teaching them things to enhance their relationships with other people,” she says. “Now they have friends, and importantly, friends from different backgrounds. It’s something beautiful, and it means I did something good in my life.”
Seeing the passion that these coaches have for their work, I know that when the center is bustling with teens, it will be a place of refuge, relief and possibility. For young refugees who face a future full of uncertainty, this center may be the difference between despair and hope.
2. You’re helping families get the healthcare they need
In the hills of Lebanon, Dr. Ibrahim’s hospital is now running smoothly again after Mercy Corps helped replace the water filtration system, which affects nearly every department.
Way up in the hills of Lebanon, close to 7,000 Syrian refugees live near the town of Hasbaya, where a small hospital does its best to serve the 20,000 Lebanese people who live there and the relatively new influx of refugees. When we meet Dr. Ibrahim, who runs the hospital, he beams with pride — because of Mercy Corps’ help, his hospital is running smoothly again.
As Dr. Ibrahim explains, this small but busy hospital had been suffering from issues with their water supply. The filtration system wasn’t working properly, putting services at risk, and the hospital was even forced to buy bottled water for patients to drink. The repairs were becoming costly and the hospital didn’t have the resources to replace the system.
Mahmoud, an engineer on the Mercy Corps team, shows us the new and improved water filtration system.
Nearly everything in the hospital relies on clean and safe water: the kitchen, the operating room, the laundry, the sterilization center — even patients being able to bathe themselves. A hospital doesn’t run without clean water. “It was our duty to provide clean water. We were really in desperate need to fix the water,” says Dr. Ibrahim.
The Mercy Corps team in Lebanon saw how important this hospital was, for Syrian refugees and locals, and decided to step in to help. With a brand new water filtration system up and running, the hospital is once again a safe place for refugees to get the medical care they need. “We are thankful to Mercy Corps,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “Now that the water is working, it’s making our lives a lot easier.”
3. You’re helping communities come together
Along with Mercy Corps team member Yasmin, Alyamama (right) showed us where the new community center and library will soon be located.
Since the war in Syria began in 2011, millions of refugees have flooded into neighboring countries seeking safe shelter and refuge. Almost everyone we met during my time in Lebanon and Jordan reported that with such a massive shift in population, yes, there are tensions. That’s why across the region, Mercy Corps brings Syrian refugees and their host community neighbors together to participate in conflict resolution trainings.
Through this program, refugees and community members learn together how to solve conflicts productively and how to improve their now-shared community. But the trainings aren’t all business — a key part of the program focuses on encouraging the two groups to come together, get to know each other, and see each other as individuals.
Alyamama is a Syrian refugee who participated in the program and has become a leader for other Syrians, particularly women, in her community in Lebanon. At the end of the training, her group decided that what their community needed most of all was a library and community center — a public place where people could gather to learn and grow. “We decided it was very important to have a cultural center, including a library, that benefits both Lebanese and Syrians,” says Alyamama.
After we heard her story, we drove just a few minutes away to the construction site that will soon be the community’s new library and cultural center. Right now it’s just a foundation, but all that cement holds so much hope, and a sense of true community that Alyamama herself helped create.
I could hear in her voice, and see in her smile, how excited she is to be a part of something that is bigger than herself. “At the center we will have the opportunity to teach women new skills and how to be independent with what they have,” she says. And she’s grateful for the Mercy Corps program that started it all. “The most beautiful thing about the program was meeting people from other villages. We all came together.”
4. You’re empowering youth to create change
Islam, 15, played soccer back in Syria, but was never on an official team. Now, he’s part of a local team that has a winning record against other teams from the area.
Watching Islam play with his team, outfitted in sleek black and white uniforms, you might think this is a soccer field in Europe somewhere — but just beyond the edges of the bright green astroturf is desert as far as the eye can see. We’re in the small town of Azraq in Jordan, not far from the massive refugee camp of the same name. Islam, 15, and his family are refugees who now call this place home.
Like so many others, Islam’s transition to life as a refugee in a new place was anything but easy. There are many minority groups living in Azraq, including refugees now, and tensions were high. Before Mercy Corps helped the community build this soccer field, the kids had nowhere to play. “I was lonely and I didn’t know anyone,” says Islam.
The new soccer field in Azraq town has brought people together of all ages. From kids like Islam to parents and their new neighbors, everyone is getting to know each other better now thanks to this new space.
Before the field was built, many of the adult community members participated in Mercy Corps’ conflict resolution training. The outcome of their hard work has helped Islam adjust to his new community. His best friend is Jordanian, and watching them it’s clear they are happiest on the soccer field. They play every day in the summer and on weekends during the school year, and he’s grateful for his new team. “I feel like I own my own power when I put on my jersey,” he says.
The camaraderie of Islam’s team has had a ripple effect — as the kids get to know each other through sport, so do the parents, and Islam says that the whole community has changed for the better. “They start to know each other and love each other,” he says. It’s amazing to see just how much positivity and change a single soccer field can create.
5. You’re giving parents and kids a place to gather
Hilda and her three children, including 10-year-old Renad, have made more friends in their new home since this playground was built. It gives them a chance to gather and get to know other families.
Not far from Islam’s soccer field in Azraq is a new playground — another product of this community’s hard work in conflict resolution training. There we meet Hilda and her three young children, Renad, Majeda and Yazan. They all seem at ease here, and after eagerly practicing their English with us, the kids run off to play on the new swings and jungle gym.
Hilda’s husband is still in Syria, and she tells us how difficult it was to leave with the children. She had never left home alone before. She ended up here in Azraq town, lonely and struggling to take care of the kids on her own. After a tough year in their new home, Hilda began to reach out and get to know her neighbors. She also applied to join the conflict resolution training.
Yazan, 6, and his sisters come here with Hilda at least three times a week to play and gather with neighbors.
Since making those changes, Hilda says her life has improved dramatically. “I’m very happy to be a part of this success,” she says. “The relationships between communities have become so much stronger.” She brings her young kids to this playground at least three times a week, and says it’s so much easier to get to know her neighbors now that they have a common space to meet and relax.
I was overjoyed when Hilda told us how much of an impact Mercy Corps, and this playground, has had on her life. “Now I don’t feel like a refugee,” she says with a smile. When I ask her two daughters through a translator if they are proud of their mom’s hard work, they reply in unison in English: “Yes!”
6. You’re helping kids with disabilities stay in school
Ahmad, 13, used to stay home and not attend school because of his disabilities. Now, with help from Mercy Corps, he has special help to continue his education.
Life in a refugee camp isn’t easy for anyone. But for children with disabilities, everyday tasks like going to fetch water, or getting to school, can feel impossible. Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp is huge, with only rough dirt roads and pathways separating the sprawl of tents and other services like playgrounds and classrooms.
Because of these difficulties, children like Ahmad, who suffers from a form of cerebral palsy, often stay home — isolated, lonely and unable to continue their education. Mercy Corps saw the need to help children like Ahmad, and we developed a program to identify children with disabilities in the camp and make sure they have everything they need to get to school and keep up with their studies.
For Ahmad, that meant a new wheelchair and special teachers who work with him after school to help him make progress in his studies. The wheelchair he received isn’t just any wheelchair. Mercy Corps staff noticed that because of their disabilities or small stature, often the students in the camp were getting by with wheelchairs, desks or other equipment that didn’t fit properly.
Mohammed used to be a carpenter in Syria. Now, he helps kids like Ahmad by building customized equipment, similar to the models above.
With only an idea and collected recycled materials, the Mercy Corps team started a small workshop to create customized equipment for their students. When we visited the tiny shop, a young boy whose wheelchair broke was being measured for a new one — one that would be customized just for him.
As you can see, Ahmad’s smile is infectious. I’m so glad to know that he can count on the help and support of my amazing colleagues in Jordan.
7. You’re helping women transform their communities
After participating in Mercy Corps’ conflict resolution program, Leila and the rest of the group decided that the community needed a women’s gym.
As we drive into the Jordanian town of Kharja, not far from the Syrian border, we see a small building with a beautiful mural painted onto the side — it’s a young woman in a hijab, eyes closed and face tilted toward the hot sun. A few minutes later, the sight of the mural makes more sense.
Inside the building we meet a bubbly Jordanian woman, Leila, and her quieter close friend, and Syrian refugee, Lena. It’s then that we learn that together with Mercy Corps and their local conflict resolution group, Leila and Lena have built Kharja’s first women’s gym.
They explained that the nearest gym took two hours round trip to get to, and so the community leaders, even the men, agreed that a gym for local women is what the community needed most of all. “Every project has people who go against it, but we rallied them to our side,” Leila says with a charming smile. They explained that the negotiation skills they learned during the training helped persuade anyone in the community who was unsure of their idea.
Lena and Leila are proud of what they’ve accomplished together. The gym space offers classes and exercise equipment, as well as gatherings and outings that the women can do together.
Now, the gym is open and open to all women in the community. “Women should dedicate time to themselves,” Lena says. Leila jumps in to echo her sentiments: “As community leaders we are trying to empower women. We are brainstorming with both women and men together.” As they talk of their accomplishments, Leila gives her friend Lena a sweet kiss on the cheek.
The two women show us the exercise equipment and the brightly lit room for exercise classes. In the summer months, the women who use the gym get together every month to go on excursions to some of Jordan’s historic places. In the winter, they gather as a group to chat and relax. I can see how proud the women are of this place that they’ve built — and I’m proud of them, too.
The seeds of change start small. And right here, in a town near the Syrian border, Leila and Lena’s project is in full bloom.
You’re transforming lives around the world
The stories of progress I saw in Jordan and Lebanon are just a sliver of the incredible work that people like you make possible in more than 40 countries around the world. Because of your support, we are helping families survive crisis and overcome hardship — and empowering them to build better lives and transform their own communities.
Thank you for supporting Mercy Corps’ work around the world. Together, we can transform lives and be there for those who need us most.
How does Mercy Corps determine where to respond when disaster hits? And how is the nature of disaster response changing?
Read more in this interview with Craig Redmond, Mercy Corps' senior vice president of programs, on the approach Mercy Corps takes to crisis, what happens behind the scenes during disaster, and what's next in the tech-driven evolution of humanitarian aid.
How did you come to Mercy Corps?
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, then I worked for the Peace Corps in Central Asia, and then I worked on refugee issues in the Fergana Valley. I got really interested in those communities, so I started working with UNHCR trying to resettle Tajik refugees who were ethnic Kyrgyz people in Kyrgyzstan. I was interviewing NGOs to run a microfinance program for refugee women in the Fergana Valley, and Mercy Corps was one of them.
I just liked how frank the organization was and that they admitted things they didn't do well. And also — and maybe even more importantly — I liked that they seemed to be having more fun than anybody else. So I thought, you know what, when it's time to leave the UN, I'm gonna work with those guys. When that time came a couple years later, I applied to Mercy Corps and they hired me.
What were you hired to do?
We were working on the IDP refugee situation in Azerbaijan at the time, and I was hired to go to Azerbaijan and be the program director for a big umbrella grant. It was a great learning experience. There almost isn't a program-related job that I haven't done. I've managed programs, I've been a program director, I've been a country director, and I’ve been the regional director for South and Southeast Asia. I did that for a few years, and then I was asked to come and take on this job.
In Ethiopia, Mercy Corps is using SMS technology to keep nomadic pastoralists plugged into organized banking. PHOTO: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
It seems like crisis response is woven into your Mercy Corps DNA.
Well it is, because we are often at our very best when things are awful. That's when I really see a distinction between how we act and how others act. We're very context-specific, context-driven. We really try not to bring a template that we lay over a situation to dictate how we act.
I think time and time again we're the most interesting people in a crisis, and there are lots of organizations who are great at emergency response, but I think we're great. What really gets interesting is our particular take on it, which is slightly different from most organizations. I think that's when we're at our creative best.
What's different about it in particular?
It’s our thinking, system-wide, about the dysfunction within a system that happens after an emergency. Complex emergencies have a way of simplifying economies and creating opportunities to plug communities in that didn't exist before. The one that comes to mind for me is what happened in Aceh (Indonesia) after the tsunami. There was an ongoing 30-year conflict there and the tsunami kind of made it possible for people to come together because of the enormity of what had happened.
Mercy Corps was one of the first organizations to give cash to refugees in Greece, a powerful and flexible way to help families in need. PHOTO: Sara Hylton for Mercy Corps
Walk through Mercy Corps’ thought process when a crisis happens. How do you know whether to respond?
There are a few easy triggers. If we're in a country and something happens at scale, we're definitely going to respond. No question about it, we'll be there. And that's because we just feel like that's our duty, our obligation, as a partner with the community, the private sector, and the government, to engage and do something about it. That doesn't mean that every single time something happens we'll respond, but we will check in with our partners, like, is this landslide big enough? Is this something you can cover? Can you bring forth the kind of resources and support we need to help the community? If not, we'll step up and help where we can.
Then you have the other global emergencies of a different kind where it may be that we're not there, but we think, you know, this is so big that we should really do something. And in that case it's a matter of triggering our SRGE (Strategic Response and Global Emergencies) team to go in and have a look at the situation. The first things they're looking at are what's being covered now, what does government have a handle on, and what don't they have a handle on, so we can perhaps bring something to the table that doesn't exist there. And then of course what partners are there that we can join forces with to do something about it.
If it's in a country where we're not working, and it's pretty clear we're probably not going to open up shop there long-term, then we really think hard about what partners we want to join forces with so they can take over what we help start. Puerto Rico would be an example of that. It's not a place where we're going to stay long-term. We're not going to stay in Houston for a long time. So who are the partners who can take over the work, and what's the essence of the solution so we can hand it over?
How is the response process different if it's a U.S. emergency, like Houston or Puerto Rico?
U.S. emergencies are really tricky. We responded after September 11 in New York with a comfort-for-kids program. Hurricane Katrina was the same. Hurricane Harvey was on a different scale, but at the same time it just felt a bit unprecedented in terms of the size of it, and then we got really interested in the fact that we knew undocumented workers were going to be underserved because they're not going to get services from FEMA and in many cases the Red Cross. We felt that was a role for us to play there — not a long-term one, not weeks, not months, and we would look to hand over to a partner. So that's what we did.
Mercy Corps is on the ground with Puerto Rico, working with local partners to provide cash and warm meals to families recovering from Hurricane Maria. PHOTO: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps
How is the response different for a timely emergency like a hurricane versus a protracted emergency like in Syria?
It’s very different because the level of sophistication in the analysis and information gathering you need to navigate something as complex as Syria is miles away from what it means to do something about the earthquake in Nepal. It's just a different kind of problem. Also, we know that when it comes to Syria or CAR or northeast Nigeria or Congo or whatever, we're in it for the longer game. We know for a fact this is not something that local government can really manage.
We feel that complex crises are events that we are singularly well-prepared to handle. We go for those things because we think our particular combination of creativity in the face of complexity, our brains and heart that our team brings to those problems, and our theory of change that works with the government, private sector, and community together positions us well in those times.
When you get a rapid influx of money, how do you prioritize what you want to go to scale?
We do it in several ways. The money usually comes in for some purpose or a certain geography. We take the strategy that we have in place and build off of that, because every country has a strategy that is fundamental to where we go with our programs there. For example, let's say that we decided to do something in Niger. We would build off our existing food security program there.
Our country directors and their teams are constantly trying to think of programs not as just projects that we implement, but rather as platforms for thinking of bigger kinds of solutions. We’re always keyed up to think about how we can leverage programs and what would happen if we were to scale up some aspect of what we were trying to do. What if we had an influx of some capital so that we could really do something interesting? Country Directors and Region Directors are good at being ready to do something interesting.
Does anything come to mind that started as a small program that's now been scaled up?
Oh yeah. I think in every one of the regions we've had something that we did on the side that became the bigger thing we did. From my time in Southeast Asia, for sure, we were one of the first organizations to look at cash-for-work. And that came about kind of experimentally. A lot of organizations after the tsunami were distributing food and so forth, and we said, you know, we're not going to do that because we think there's something really dynamic about this market. Let's see what happens if we put cash into the system rather than stuff. And we were spot on. That revolutionized the way we think about emergency response.
I think about a place like Uganda and our work up in Karamoja in the far north. Our early work there was very much looking at basic food security, and that transformed into a broader program looking at ways of being a facilitator in a marketplace. What would it take to invest in the value chain so that goods and services could get up into Karamoja so people can access things, rather than have a standard food security program where you bring food and distribute it? Every region has those kinds of stories.
In Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, Mercy Corps employs Syrian refugees to build accomodative equipment for young refugees with special needs. PHOTO: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
How have you seen the nature of humanitarian response change since you started in 2000?
The fundamental shift that has happened is that now an event happens and an organization shows up, and instead of it being about you and how fast you can plug in your machine and get it to run, it's about understanding the context—doing a deeper analysis of what exists and what doesn't exist so that you can add value or improve an existing system rather than just supplanting it. That's a fundamental shift in the way you see the world.
If you look at the trajectory of international development from the ’50s and ’60s, you had sort of an anthropological approach — the barefoot doctor. I’m going to come in and set up a clinic where people come in and get services. That’s a good thing to do, but what if I came in as a doctor and trained local doctors? And then, what if I assessed and understood what health services really existed and where their strengths and weaknesses were, and I tried to add value to that rather than asserting myself at all?
Those things represent a subtle shift over time, and I think now we're getting into a really interesting space where the ambiguity of technology and the speed in which things change and move means that we are facilitators in those value chains more than ever. Who does it and how it's done is agnostic. What's important is the speed and the depth of understanding and the analytical capacity of the organization, and then how fast they're able to facilitate change and understand the system and the gaps.
You have a great perspective on what Mercy Corps is doing around the world. Where do you get your satisfaction from the work?
Nothing gives me more pleasure or makes me feel better than just solving problems with the smart people we have all over the world. The thing that amazes me still is that we are in the unique position where we can take in many cases a really tragic or challenging situation, look at the conditions, look at the resources we have, and try to turn that thing around. And that to me is a fantastic opportunity and an example of the kind of puzzles Mercy Corps works through all the time. I just find that fascinating.
And then on top of that, the people that we get to work with are just extraordinary. You know, they could do anything. They could be very successful people in government or the private sector, but they want to do this. I just feel really blessed by that. To be able to work with people like that is just incredible. Recently I was in Gaza and Congo with our teams there, and they're extraordinary people who just have amazing life stories and this is what they want to do. Imagine you are Congolese and you're working in Eastern Congo, and your sole purpose is to try to create better lives for people in your community around you, and you get paid for it. It's amazing.
PHOTO: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
From Nepal and Syria to the Horn of Africa and beyond, Mercy Corps responds quickly to help communities around the world recover after disaster and build a stronger tomorrow.
To support our work and help us respond quickly and effectively wherever disaster strikes, donate to our Humanitarian Response Fund today ▸
Editor's note: This article was originally published October 30, 2017; it was updated November 13, 2017 to reflect the latest information.
When Mercy Corps’ Josh Bruno distributes meals across some of the hardest hit neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, sometimes he gets turned away from people’s houses, food still in hand.
Those he’s trying to help insist that other families need the food more, and they direct him toward those homes.
“People are really sweet and caring,” says Bruno, emergency program officer. “They would like to see their neighbors be well-nourished just as much as themselves.”
As Puerto Ricans continue to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Mercy Corps is on the ground responding to meet vulnerable families’ most urgent needs. Ten percent of Puerto Rico's 3.4 million residents are still without access to clean water and more than half of residents are still without power.
Since arriving in Puerto Rico, Mercy Corps has established partnerships with several local nonprofits to identify and help those who need supplies the most.
Along with distributing emergency cash cards, we are working with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, to deliver hot meals around the island.
Each day our team works with the World Central Kitchen team to pack up about 500 trays of warm paella, sandwiches, apples, yogurt and bottled water to distribute to hard-hit communities.
While they wait, people pass by and tell us about other barrios (neighborhoods) that they hear need help. In the past week, we’ve delivered meals in San Juan, Canóvanas, Toa Alta, Juana Díaz and Ponce.
Chef José Andrés speaks with Mercy Corps staff in Puerto Rico. PHOTO: Mercy Corps team
Mercy Corps also organized a community meal in Villa Sin Miedo. Community meals give us a chance to ask residents about our program plans and see what their needs are. The team is planning to offer community meals elsewhere, as well.
Many people we encounter say they have not been receiving a lot of attention.
“Puerto Ricans are grateful but they don't want to create tension. They all went through the same hurricane and they all suffered,” Bruno says. “The food is a short-term solution, but it's very important at the same time. For some of these people they don't have many options.”
At a distribution center in Puerto Rico, a Mercy Corps team member serves food to community members. PHOTO: Ernesto Robles for Mercy Corps
A Mercy Corps team member carries a tray of food into a village that was hit hard by Hurricane Maria, navigating a road that remains destroyed after the storm. PHOTO: Ernesto Robles for Mercy Corps
We are also working with community leaders in a few neighborhoods to provide help to people who lost their homes. We have partnered with Project ENLACE to distribute emergency cash cards in the community of Caño Martín Peña, which has about 25,000 residents.
So far, we have distributed nearly $50,000 in emergency cash cards.
Despite the challenges they’re facing, people in Puerto Rico still find ways to show their gratitude toward our team.
“We got a flat tire and the man who fixed it at the shop wouldn't let us pay because he was grateful we were heading to help the people,” says Jill Morehead, leader of Mercy Corps’ Strategic Response and Global Emergencies Team. “Another man wouldn't allow us to pay for lunch. The people we have met have been so gracious and are happy to help each other.”
How you can help
The situation in Puerto Rico is slowly improving, but infrastructure and access challenges mean that many families continue to go without critical needs like clean water and food, particularly in already vulnerable communities.
We are working as quickly as we can to lay the foundation for recovery, but we need your help to continue this work.
The war-ravaged Syrian city of Raqqa lies in ruins after it was captured from ISIS last week. Though the fighting may be over, the lack of food, power and water — as well as lingering threats of violence — could prevent residents from returning for months or years.
Mercy Corps is just outside the city, working to help those who escaped and are now sheltering in tents or under plastic sheets in informal camps. Food, bedding, hygiene supplies and kits for newborn babies are among the essential supplies Mercy Corps is providing to help meet the needs of thousands of displaced people.
“The end of the battle represents an acute moment of human crisis,” said Arnaud Quemin, Mercy Corps’ Country Director for Syria. “Approximately 80 percent of the city is uninhabitable, water sources have been damaged by the conflict, and there are no health services available in the city.
“Despite the challenges, people are anxious to return home or find more solid shelter before the onset of winter,” he said.
With fighting over, urgent needs emerge
Before the war, Raqqa was eastern Syria’s biggest city, but almost all of its more than 200,000 residents have been forced to abandon their homes. When the operation to retake it from ISIS control began last June, civilians were faced with the impossible choice of remaining under bombardment or fleeing through minefields and across frontlines while airstrikes and fighting on the ground raged around them.
With the fighting now over, residents have had to navigate rubble strewn with booby traps and other improvised explosives and have little freedom of movement as conflict continues in other parts of Syria.
Mercy Corps’ teams and partners in Syria face some of these same dangers now in their quest to bring urgently needed supplies, with the movement of vital goods such as medicine heavily restricted. Work is coordinated closely with other aid agencies and local partners to reach as many in need as possible, yet vulnerable people remain in places that are too dangerous to enter.
“During the fighting, we saw hundreds of people flee their homes each day. The military operation may be over, but that doesn’t mean that families are safe now or have a home to go back to,” Quemin said.
Emergency relief for displaced families
In the last year alone, Mercy Corps met the urgent needs of 950,000 people inside Syria by distributing emergency food and supplies, increasing access to clean water and sanitation, improving shelters and creating safe spaces and activities to help children heal from the stress of war.
In informal camps on the outskirts of Raqqa, Mercy Corps teams are moving from tent to tent, identifying what people need and which families are the most vulnerable.
These camps are transitory, as families arrive and move on each day, trying to find safer places. Many have been displaced multiple times, depleting limited financial resources. Limited food supplies are often too expensive for many to purchase, and clean water is scarce. In response, Mercy Corps is delivering ready-to-eat meals for those unable to prepare and cook food in improvised shelters.
New arrival kits with basic household items, such as mattresses, blankets, floor mats and cooking sets are also being provided, and Mercy Corps is scaling up the response to include basic hygiene assistance, healthy baby kits and more for the new arrivals.
Most of the evacuees in the final days of the operation were women, children and the elderly. Some are suffering from injuries, and all are deeply traumatized.
Across northern Syria, between 20 to 60 percent of the population is now made up of displaced people. As winter approaches, residents of Raqqa want to return home, but all that awaits them is a destroyed city without food, water or heating.
How you can help
Mongolia is a story of extremes, and how it wears on Batsaikhan depends on the season. In June, grass carpets the steppe to the edge of every horizon. It’s herding weather, clear and mild, and from the back of a horse his way of life looks limitless.
But the clear skies betray a certain truth of living here. Batsaikhan has around 100 cows, and marching through them on horseback he recalls a few years ago, when he had 70, and a summer like this one gave way to a relentless dzud—an especially vicious winter that pounds the land with snow and ice, freezes the steppe, and starves entire herds—which left him with fewer than a dozen animals.
So when Batsaikhan sees the land, he sees something looming. A feeling that soon the clouds will gather and the sun will slip away. This brittle grass is all he will have to sustain his animals through the coming dzud, and each day he feels the tug of an old stress resurfacing—it hasn’t rained here in over a month.
In the calm of summer, winter is coming.
One-third of Mongolians are herders, an isolated life at the mercy of the country’s unpredictable weather. Mercy Corps is helping them plant fodder for their herds, vaccinate their animals, and receive local forecasts via text message.
A herder’s life is a study in solitude. Mongolia is the world’s 18th largest country with the 137th largest population—an expanse of land that would stretch from New York to South Dakota, filled only with the population of Chicago. On average, there aren’t even two people per square kilometer.
It’s one of the most challenging lives on earth. Animals outnumber people here by a factor of 20, and every year more of them compete for less land that’s warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The government estimates that climate change has degraded 70 percent of Mongolia’s pastoral land. An unusually dry summer, like this one, foretells a savage winter, where temperatures can plunge to an inhuman minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Batsaikhan has to keep his animals alive, because they are what keep his family alive. Like all herders, Batsaikhan’s family lives off the milk, yogurt, cheese, and mutton from their herd. So when the dzud threatens their animals, it really threatens them.
That used to be a once-in-a-decade worry, but now the dzud seems to come almost annually. And Batsaikhan—whose wife is pregnant with their fourth child—is left to reckon with it the same way every herder in his family has done for centuries: alone.
Top, a herd of sheep wait to be dipped in a disinfectant solution Mercy Corps provides to keep them free of bacteria and disease. Bottom, Ochir, 33, unloads fodder seeds from Mercy Corps to plant for his animals. “There aren’t many people who can help us solve overgrazing here,” he says. “Mercy Corps has, and we’re extremely grateful.”
Last year, however, Batsaikhan got through the dzud with 90 percent of his herd intact—a major improvement that could be worth thousands of dollars. When the first grasses began to freeze, he says, he was ready, because of a tool he had never had before: a small paperback book.
Batsaikhan was one of 20,000 herders last year that Mercy Corps provided with a Dzud Lessons book, which contains 250 tips from experienced herders on how to predict winter weather and care for animals when it hits. The lessons were life-saving for his animals, he says, and life-changing for him.
“Last winter was really harsh,” he says, “so I had to look up in my book the tips that were provided, and I was able to feed my animals with the fodder.”
Batsaikhan reads the Dzud Lessons book provided by Mercy Corps. The herding techniques he’s learned lowered his animal losses by 50 percent—a difference worth thousands of dollars. “When you lose less animals, you tend to be less stressed out,” he says.
Dzud books are just one way Mercy Corps is strengthening Mongolia’s herders. We are also facilitating livestock vaccinations and antibacterial dipping, as well as pioneering an SMS weather forecasting system that gives herders up-to-the-minute forecasts via text message.
There are no permanent houses in rural Mongolia; families shelter within round canvas gers they pop up and disassemble to move with their herds. That makes getting accurate and timely weather reports—which usually come only via TV or radio—almost impossible.
“[The SMS system] has been very useful for us, because we need to know whether it is going to be windy, or if there will be snowstorms, and so on, so we can keep our animals close or we can pasture them far away,” says Sugar, 60, who owns a small livestock breeding company. “When we get the information if a storm is coming, then we go after our animals and bring them back so that they can stay closer and be safe.”
Top, Altan, 36, used to lose half her herd to the dzud, but now an SMS forecasting system from Mercy Corps helps her stay up-to-date on Mongolia’s deadly weather. Bottom, Sugar, 60, has benefited from the SMS system as well as a Mercy Corps fodder program that expanded her field from 10 hectares to 50. “Now that we have a bigger field, it will benefit a lot of people,” she says.
Nearby, 33-year-old Enkh-Erdene has benefited from fodder seeds Mercy Corps provides to help herders plant more grass for their animals. Though winter is still months off, the seeds have already sprouted a chain reaction: other herders have seen the results and asked him to help them with their land. That grass will produce stronger cows, which in turn will bear healthier calves in winter.
“The seeds are growing now, so we can see the results,” he says.
“Our peers are very supportive of me. They can see what I am doing, and they are supporting and encouraging by saying, ‘We will see what you produce. We will support you.'”
Enkh-Erdene, 33, has become a role model in his community thanks to seeds from Mercy Corps that have increased his animal fodder. “Our peers are very supportive of me,” he says.
In a way of life that stretches back millennia, building a stronger future comes in degrees: a small change here, a new idea there, which compound in little ways to make a family more resilient.
What a Dzud Lessons book can do for Batsaikhan, a text can do for Sugar. And to Enkh-Erdene and thousands of herders like him, even a bag of grass seed—long before it breaks through the ground—is enough to help a future take root.
“We have this nomadic, pasture-styled livestock husbandry, and the move to farming … is a shift towards building resilience,” Enkh-Erdene says. “That is my opinion: the move from livestock husbandry to intensified farming is a step forward.”
Mercy Corps is helping millions of families around the world access nutritious food. Here is how you can help.
Three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, signs of the storm remain everywhere, from the remains of ruined homes strewn in the streets to families lined up for hours to buy the basic supplies they desperately need.
Ninety-one percent of people remain without electricity, and only 63 percent of people have access to clean water.
Working with local organizations like Project ENLACE in San Juan’s Caño Martín Peña community, Mercy Corps is providing emergency cash cards so people can buy what they need most.
A desperate situation
"Right now, I'm afraid for my health," says Germania, 58, who lives in San Juan. "I really, really need food." Germania is diabetic. Her house was badly damaged in the hurricane, and she ran out of food three days ago. She’s been relying on bread and water from her neighbors. Depression and desperation are setting in.
Germania, 58, wipes away tears as she receives a pre-filled debit card from Mercy Corps' Strategy Response and Global Emergencies Team Leader Jill Morehead, who is helping to distribute about $25,000 in cash cards to vulnerable communities. PHOTO: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps
"We're going through something very difficult. It's really hard when you sacrifice for your house, and your roof is gone overnight,” she says. “Now I have no idea where to sleep."
Her neighbor, Joana, 70, is also coping with diabetes. Without electricity, she needs a constant supply of ice to keep her insulin cool.
Caño Martín Peña, a community within San Juan where Germania and Joana live, is no stranger to destruction. The area is located next to a canal and floods frequently, exposing community members to pollutants from contaminated water.
Three out of four families in Caño Martín Peña experienced flooding after the hurricane. More than 800 homes lost their roofs or were destroyed. Many residents here are house cleaners or construction workers, so they don’t have consistent employment, which worsens the economic impact of an already devastating disaster. Others are nurses, teachers or own small businesses.
“People lost everything. A flood of contaminated water? You can’t clean that,” says Imirse Orrusti Ramos, Community Organizer in Caño Martín Peña. “They lost their mattresses, they lost everything.”
Luis’s home was demolished by Hurricane Maria. PHOTO: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps
Luis, 54, just finished his third week of sleeping in his car now that his home is gone. He rode out Hurricane Maria inside his wooden home until the wind and rain became so intense that the home started to blow apart. He fled to a neighbor’s house, then watched helplessly as debris from other structures crashed against his house and tore it apart.
"The only day I cried was when I watched it being destroyed," Luis says.
Since Hurricane Maria, more rain has drenched the already water-logged area. Carmen, 71, spends much of her time removing water from the home she’s lived in for 67 years—she cycles through mopping, scooping water from the floor, and draining the mattresses she’s covered with plastic. The roof of her home was badly damaged in the storm. "It has been very difficult," she says. "In all my years, I've never seen my house this wet.”
Carmen is 71. Her roof now leaks constantly after it was badly damaged when Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc across the Caribbean island. PHOTO: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps
Despite the large inflow of water, she has no plans to leave.
“I will stay in the house because this was my mother's and my father's home."
Meeting urgent needs
Germania, Joana, Luis and Carmen have all received emergency cash cards from Mercy Corps so they can buy the items they need most. Nearly 90 percent of grocery stores are now open, mostly fueled by generators, while more than half of banks are open.
Giving people cash injects money into the local economy while ensuring that families are able to meet their most urgent needs. Mercy Corps' first emergency cash card distribution was in Caño Martín Peña: we distributed 158 cards worth nearly $25,000 total.
Before determining that debit cards would be the best form of financial support, we did an assessment to make sure stores in this area are open, that they have supplies available for purchase, and that they have credit card processing up and running. We also made sure that people have a way to get to the stores.
Aide, 45, and her sons Yadiel, 11, and Luis, 12, wait in a long line for groceries in downtown San Juan. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps
"I have been able to buy things that I didn't think I would be able to buy," says Aide, 45, a mother of seven children. "Even if we don't have a bed, now we have food. Even if we don't have electricity, we have food."
Aide cleans houses for a living. But she’s known in her community as someone who’s always there to lend a helping hand, whether working with homeless people or others in need through her family’s church. Now, after the hurricane destroyed the top floor of her home, we’re here to help her.
She was cleaning up debris in her yard when Mercy Corps team members arrived to give her the cash card. She used it to buy water, canned goods, cooking oil, rice, bread, juice, cereal, chicken, plastic plates, cups and spoons, laundry detergent, mosquito repellent, and other food and supplies to feed and care for her family.
Marisal, 47, holds her five-month old granddaughter Jeishalee. She now has eleven family members staying at her house in the aftermath of the storm. PHOTO: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps
Yamirsa cradles her 1-month-old daughter, Jaylenet. She is currently living at her mother-in-law Marisal’s house after her own home was destroyed by the hurricane. PHOTO: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps
Marisal, 47, was fortunate that her home weathered the storm. However, her household has now grown from four family members to 11, including children, grandchildren, and in-laws, placing a strain on her already precarious financial situation. She is in the midst of a year-long cancer treatment while her sister is chronically ill.
She plans to use her cash card to keep her and her extended family going. "Hugo and Georges were bad, but this one was the worst,” she says. “Thank God that we are alive."
Genny, 37, speaks with Mercy Corps’ Jill Morehead in front of her house with her daughter Jessy. Following the destruction of Hurricane Maria, only one room of their home doesn’t leak when it rains. PHOTO: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps
For 37-year-old Genny and her daughter, Jessy, help could not come soon enough. Jessy has a lung condition that requires air conditioning to control, which she must do without while electricity remains unavailable. Genny’s own medical condition requires a constant supply of medication. Funds are tight.
They’re living in the only room in the house that does not leak when it rains now. Much of the house remains permanently damp, and mold is growing within. "The thing I want most is for the rain water to stop coming in," said Genny. "It's desperate."
She wasn't immediately sure how she would spend the money from Mercy Corps. "We're going to buy something, who knows what exactly, because we need everything."
The situation in Puerto Rico is slowly improving, but infrastructure and access challenges mean that many families continue to go without critical needs like clean water and food, particularly in already vulnerable communities like Caño Martín Peña.
We are working as quickly as we can to lay the foundation for recovery. As we see elsewhere around the world, it will take a concerted effort by multiple organizations and the government to help Puerto Rico recover from this disaster.
Mercy Corps is on the ground now to help Puerto Ricans build back better than before the storm, but we need your help.
“We thought the world had forgotten about us” is one of the most common refrains that Deepmala Mahla, Mercy Corps’ country director for South Sudan, hears when she arrives in a new village.
While South Sudan is no longer technically experiencing famine, the reality on the ground remains dire. An estimated 6 million people — more than half the population — are at risk, and 1.7 million people require immediate assistance.
“The situation has deteriorated. There are more areas where people are food insecure. ... It has not only deteriorated, but it’s getting worse faster than we expected.”
Deepmala Mahla, South Sudan country director
Millions of people across the country do not know where their next meal will come from. Months after the world became aware of the hunger crisis when the UN declared famine, Deepmala and her team still encounter desperate villages that have not received aid. They work quickly to identify and meet families’ needs before circumstances deteriorate further.
Their first priority is getting food to those who need it most: children. More than 1.1 million children in South Sudan are reported to be facing acute malnourishment, with nearly 276,000 severely malnourished and at imminent risk of death.
Mercy Corps has begun a school feeding program that offers warm meals at school lunches, ensuring that students get at least one meal a day and that they can continue their educations. More than 5,000 students have received meals so far this year.
Response to these efforts has been enthusiastic, increasing school attendance and parental involvement. Parents help wash dishes after meals and even volunteer to clean the school latrines. One community offered a small piece of land to set up a demonstration garden.
“The parents are telling us that their kids are healthier because the school provides nutritious food,” Mahla says. “They reported that the children are doing better at home and also doing more outdoor activities.”
People in the Bentiu Protection of Civilian camp gather around a water point to collect water from a well. The camp was established in December 2013 to provide protection and humanitarian assistance — more than 100,000 people now reside there. Mercy Corps and other organizations are working together to improve living conditions inside the camp.
In addition to immediate food needs, Deepmala and her team provide villagers with items like seeds and fishing kits that will empower the villagers to grow their own food and build long-term resilience to hunger. So far this year, Mercy Corps has distributed 2,800 fishing kits, 5,791 crop kits, and 3,200 vegetable kits.
“This helps people manage some food for themselves and maybe sell some,” Mahla says. “It helps the people and the local market, provides an education about gardening, and also there’s the nutrition component.”
“We have to give them something with which they can start rebuilding their lives, so that the help that we are extending to them is not just for today but also for the coming days.”
While food is the most critical need, stopping the spread of disease is a crucial challenge. South Sudan is in the middle of a prolonged, widespread cholera outbreak, with more than 13,000 cases reported this year.
“Usually between starvation and death comes disease,” Mahla says. The key to prevention is clean water and good hygiene practices, which is why Mercy Corps provides services like water purification, well digging, and latrine construction.
With conditions worsening every day, many more vulnerable families in South Sudan need help now. Even without a formal famine declaration, as many as 45,000 people still experience famine-like conditions. Access to food and clean water will keep them alive today so we can continue our efforts to build them a stronger tomorrow.
“Donors should feel extremely proud because they have definitely saved lives in a situation where millions are at risk,” Mahla says. “It is so crucial at this point. It’s the time when the crisis is bigger than ever.”
There is enough food to feed everyone in South Sudan and around the world. But we need your help. Here's how you can get involved:
Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide lifesaving assistance to people facing crisis in South Sudan and around the world.
Sign the petition. Tell Congress to reject extreme cuts to humanitarian aid. Around the world, people are in need of lifesaving assistance. We must continue to support them.