Mercy Corps

03/21/2018 05:06 PM
Mercy Corps presents the first Global Envision Award to Vega Coffee

Global Envision is Mercy Corps’ online forum for exploring innovative, market-driven solutions to poverty. It is dedicated to increasing awareness of two of the positive trends of our time — the spread of more open markets and the global fight against poverty.

As part of Global Envision, Mercy Corps is proud to give its first ever Global Envision Award to celebrate a company that exemplifies the private sector as a force for good in the world. This award celebrates a small to medium-sized enterprise to show that companies of all sizes can think globally and have a positive social impact.

We are proud to give the first ever Global Envision Award to Vega Coffee.

Vega Coffee is Mercy Corps’ Social Venture Fund's newest investment in Latin America. Vega Coffee pushes all value-add coffee processing down to the farm level, allowing farmers to increase their incomes by 2 to 5 times. Vega then manages the sales, marketing and logistics to ship the roasted coffee from the farm directly to consumers, guaranteeing delivery within 5 days of roasting.

"Mercy Corps' Social Venture Fund is proud and excited to serve as a Lead Investor in Vega Coffee,” said Social Ventures Fund Partner Timothy Rann. “We've been impressed by the strides they have made over the past year in ramping up sales and, in collaboration with Mercy Corps Colombia, successfully establishing farmer networks in Cauca, Colombia. With the support of the Mercy Corps' platform, we hope to see Vega catalyze the Fourth Wave of coffee: a more equitable and empowering coffee market for smallholder farmers."

Vega Coffee has been working with Mercy Corps programs in Colombia to bring their innovative model to the 80,000+ coffee farmers that Mercy Corps works with or has worked with in critical post-conflict areas of the country. Since May 2017, Vega and Mercy Corps have worked together to help marginalized women coffee farmers in Cauca to roast and package their own coffee locally for export direct to consumers in the USA.

Through a grant facilitated by the Linked Foundation, Mercy Corps is now providing farmers in the Vega Coffee program with supplementary financial literacy training and other support. This collaboration is groundbreaking for farmers that Mercy Corps has worked with for years, as the prices coffee farmers receive for beans (in real terms) have been the same since the 1970s. Farmers are trapped in a cycle of poverty and unable to capture much additional income from their crops, despite increases in quality, yield and the variety of new specialty coffee buyers (which still pay only a few cents above the low commodity grade coffee price).

"We are so grateful to be the inaugural recipient of the Global Envision Award and for our continuing collaboration with Mercy Corps,” said Robert Terenzi, founder of Vega Coffee. “We sincerely appreciate the recognition of our efforts to deliver sustainable economic empowerment to coffee growing communities around the world. This transformative partnership between an organization as immensely respected as Mercy Corps and Vega Coffee represents a real opportunity to change the future of coffee and the millions of livelihoods that depend on coffee cultivation in Colombia and beyond."

03/15/2018 04:07 AM
The dream Bashar carries

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

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Bashar Anwar Abu Khoshref, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee, spends half his life toiling in a textile factory, counting down the days until the war ends.

After fleeing his hometown of Daraa, Bashar gave up his studies in his final year of high school to support his widowed mother and three younger brothers and sisters. Together, they are among the millions of Syrian children and adolescents whose youth has been cut short by the Syrian war, which is grinding into its seventh year this month.

Mercy Corps first met Bashar two years ago, when he was a teenager marking out his passage to adulthood within the walls of a small factory in northern Jordan. He was filled with energy and possibility, waiting for the chance to return home to Daraa.

“If I returned to Syria now, I would be delightful and overjoyed,” he said in 2016. “I would rebuild my country, help people, resume my studies, rebuild our destroyed house, and live my old life again.”

But now, as he spools thread through an industrial embroidery machine, that enthusiasm has been replaced by a tired frustration.

“I am losing my youth at the factory while I dream,” he says. “It is a really hard feeling when you have been out of your country for the last four years, and you have done nothing. You are just working—and for yourself, you have done nothing at all.

“But I never lose that hope. Even after 10 years, I will go ahead and complete my studies,” he says.


Photos 1 and 2, Bashar in 2015, working at a small textile factory in northern Jordan. Photos 3 and 4, Bashar in 2018, still working 70-hour weeks at the factory. PHOTOS: Peter Biro and Annie Sakkab for Mercy Corps

The last two years have been a drudgery for Bashar. He still works 12-hour shifts at the factory, which is staffed by Syrians, still earns $430 a month, about 40 percent less than he says a Jordanian would doing the same job. Without a work permit, Syrians cannot seek equal pay for their work.

“Usually no one will accept working 12-hour days, but the Syrians will, because they have to,” he says.

Most of Bashar’s earnings go to rent and utilities at his crowded house, and the small amount left over offsets his 14-year-old sister’s school expenses; she was able to resume her education after missing two years when the family first reached Jordan. His younger brother left school three years ago to begin working at a restaurant at 15. Another brother is studying in Canada.

Bashar runs heavy machinery at the factory six days a week, which has taken a toll on his back. The embroidery machine’s 24 needles, which produce traditional stitchwork for women’s clothing, have punctured his hands more times than he can remember.

“It’s a tiring job. It’s not what I want to do,” he says. “It’s also a bit dangerous.”

Yet Bashar is grateful for the work and a sympathetic boss, aware that other refugees in Jordan are forced to hold more grueling jobs in construction or car maintenance. One in 10 Syrian refugee children is working, according to UNICEF, some of them as young as 5. They labor in factories and farms, missing out on school and carrying the emotional wounds of war without the right support to help them heal.

Bashar's long hours at the factory help support his widowed mother, siblings, nieces and nephews.

Bashar in his kitchen at home. "It is a really hard feeling when you have been out of your country for the last four years, and you have done nothing," he says.

Bashar’s dream is to become a computer programmer, and on his day off he rests and works on his old laptop, which he has used to teach himself Photoshop and filmmaking software. Once a month, he goes to a cafe with friends, most of them Syrians from his hometown.

Bashar also has a handful of Jordanian friends he met through Mercy Corps’ wilderness therapy program, which brings young Syrians and Jordanians together through activities like hiking and rock climbing and pairs them with mentors who teach them relaxation techniques that help them focus on their future.

“I was 100 percent desperate,” Bashar says. “I went from desperation to hope. It changed me a lot.”

The program inspired Bashar to begin volunteering at a Mercy Corps community center, where children in grades four to six learn Arabic grammar and basic English. “I still do that whenever I get the chance, because I like to engage with the community,” he says.

Bashar gave up his education to support his family in Jordan. Though he is driven to finish his degree and become a computer programmer, he never expects to return to Syria. “I don't have a future there. It is destroyed now,” he says.

Today, Bashar ignores news about the war. He’s too heartbroken to look at video and pictures of the neighborhood where he grew up, which has been levelled.

“I don’t have a future there. It is destroyed now. I just can’t think about living back there,” he says. “We never thought the war was going to last for this long. We always had hope that we would go back to our country, and we would continue our normal life, but we do not have that hope anymore.”

Though his generation of Syrians is a generation in exile, Bashar hasn’t let go of the dream he originally carried with him across the border into Jordan: that those who do find a way to finish their education, whether in Jordan, in Europe, or beyond, will be the ones who stitch Syria back together when the violence finally subsides.

“My generation lost the most in the war. We lost our future, our studies, everything. But I still believe there is hope in the youth,” he says. “We have been living as Syrians forever, and one day we will be back and live in peace.”

How you can help

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

03/14/2018 10:26 PM
Q&A: How is the Syria crisis reshaping the Middle East?

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

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Seven years after the Syrian war unleashed one of history’s worst humanitarian crises, about 5 million refugees are still sheltering in neighboring countries. Jordan hosts 700,000 Syrians, while Lebanon provides refuge to nearly 1 million—enough to total one-quarter of its population. The conflict has transformed these two countries, creating new political, demographic and economic challenges.

Below, Mercy Corps’ country directors in Lebanon and Jordan, George Antoun and Hunter Keith, explain how this crisis is reshaping the region, the difficulty of anticipating what may happen next, and how Mercy Corps is working to reach Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese families in a crisis that has grinded on far longer than most imagined.

In Jordan and Lebanon, Mercy Corps provides emergency assistance, helps strengthen the fabric of Syrian and host communities, and provides tools to boost livelihoods and help develop local economies. Read on to learn more.

Would you both describe some of the services your programs deliver?

GEORGE ANTOUN: Our work empowering communities in Lebanon includes a focus on women and girls, which leads to better governance and community participation. We also have projects to end gender-based violence that help women, children and men. We provide skills training and social support for kids and youth who are troubled, whether they are out of school or have problems in their families.

We also do vocational training to boost people’s skills to improve their chances in the job market, as well as support small and medium-sized enterprises by providing software, equipment or consultants to work with them on strategy. Among the urgent needs that we address are providing water, building latrines and working with communities on larger projects, such as fixing the water network.

HUNTER KEITH: In Jordan, we have projects devoted to child welfare in the Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps to provide spaces where children can play and learn. We also work with people with disabilities to integrate them into formal education, both in schools in the camps and host communities. Most of those beneficiaries are Syrian, but there are Jordanians as well.

We also help Syrian beneficiaries in host communities with cash assistance for things like winterization or civil documentation. There is a huge number of Syrians who never went through an official registration process with either the UN or another agency or who left camps without formal permission. Others need help providing educational documents or proof of marriage to gain work permits. Documentation is really important for folks who never quite got their papers in order when they fled their homes in a war zone.

For refugees in Zaatari, a back-to-school to remember ▸

How has the response from host communities evolved over seven years?

GEORGE ANTOUN: When Syrian refugees started pouring in to Lebanon, the political situation in the country was so complex that none of the political parties wanted to touch it, which is why we have informal settlements. It was really chaotic at the beginning, but with time, and with the help of the United Nations and nonprofits like Mercy Corps, it improved. Nonprofits created a forum about four years ago that now includes 42 international humanitarian agencies coordinating with each other.

Now we see the government trying to apply more centralization than before. The government is engaged. Last year, the government waived the annual fee of $200 for residence permits that many Syrians had struggled to pay. This includes all Syrians aged 15 and above, however, refugees tell us the fee waiver is not implemented coherently and refugee men of working age are sometimes excluded from obtaining legal stay. This is pushing them to find a Lebanese sponsor, a process that may cost as much as $1,000, expose them to exploitation, and affect their refugee status as they are often labeled migrant workers.

Iman, 26, sits inside her family's shelter in an informal settlement in Lebanon. A cash-for-work program through Mercy Corps is helping her meet her urgent needs. "Mercy Corps came when I was desperate," she says. Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

How does integrating Syrians in their host communities impact community relations? Are they being accepted, or not?

HUNTER KEITH: Once you resolve the humanitarian needs, then you can start working at the community level to integrate people, and then you have some opportunities to help make communities more prosperous.

Our programs drive real collaboration between Syrians and Jordanians in areas that have taken in large numbers of refugees. We reach out to both groups and say, "Look, we have some resources that we can use to improve infrastructure and services. We need your cooperation as a group to help us understand what your priorities are." This gets the two groups talking with one another, and they usually come out with a much better understanding of each other’s issues and how they can solve them jointly.

There’s a lot of economic pain in Jordan, even if you were to take away the refugee issue. The loss of trade with Iraq and Syria over the last two decades has made this a place of desperate challenges. Jordan has been very generous with refugees, but there is some fatigue and very real pressures on people and the economy.

GEORGE ANTOUN: In Lebanon, all but two of our programs are a mixture of Lebanese, Syrians and sometimes Palestinian refugees. Before the war, Lebanon was used to hosting 300,000 or more Syrians who worked in agriculture and construction because you couldn’t find Lebanese to do these jobs. The difference now is that instead of having unskilled laborers, you have plumbers, electricians and doctors, and this has increased tension and competition between local communities and Syrian refugees.

Employment always comes out as the number one driver for tension, including some demonstrations over Syrians taking jobs. Fortunately, it never became a bigger conflict and remains at a local level.

In Lebanon, one Syrian mother is helping other refugee moms learn to cope ▸

Can you give an example of how Syrians and Lebanese working together benefited both communities?

GEORGE ANTOUN: Research shows if you simply improve infrastructure or services without interaction, tensions remain high. Some of our programs help people create committees of Syrians and Lebanese to promote more interaction. We engage Syrian and Lebanese workers together to complete a public project that benefits the whole community, and this diffuses the tension.

Last year, we met Maram, a mother of four who was heavily pregnant when the family fled Homs. They walked for days to cross the mountainous border into Lebanon and found safety in an informal camp. She was struggling to feed her children when she learned about a Mercy Corps program to earn cash working short-term jobs that also benefit the wider community. Maram started a temporary job with 21 Lebanese and Syrians working together at a sorting facility that reduces household waste. The manager wound up hiring Maram on a more permanent basis, and the Mercy Corps team helped find schooling and healthcare for her and her children.

Mercy Corps works with refugees like Maram to find work that helps them meet their families’ immediate needs. "This opportunity from Mercy Corps was great because I was able to pay some of my debts, buy medicine, and bring food to my family," Maram says.

What about in Jordan? Are there stories of how Mercy Corps programs are changing refugees’ lives?

HUNTER KEITH: Our programs recognize people’s talents and give them a solid piece of ground to stand on while they are in this situation. Otherwise, the chances of falling through the cracks are so high. Older people experience some of the greatest benefits, especially those we have hired to work with children.

We have a huge staff of Syrians, and every one of them has a really interesting story. One is Sami, who worked with kids in the gym at Zaatari. When his family left the camp to resettle in Algeria, he chose to stay because he loved working with young people. The camps are interesting places because whole communities of people wind up together who would otherwise have segregated themselves, the elites from the non-elites, people from different professions, even men and women.

Meet Eman, a mother of eight who is helping kids in Zaatari stay on track while they live in the camp ▸

About one-third of the Syrians in Jordan are under the age of 25. What role will they play in the future peace of the region? Could you describe Mercy Corps’ research on how to end the cycle of violence?

HUNTER KEITH: The likelihood of someone committing violence is much higher if they have been exposed to violence before. More than ideology, more than the economic context, the indicator that tells you that somebody is going to become violent is whether they have been violent before or they’ve had violence meted out on them.

Development and relief programs often focus on things like essential services and employment, but violent groups recruit by offering vulnerable people something much different.

If you survey people about what they expect from the government, you will get a laundry list of material desires, such as goods and services, without any real critical thought about what government actually is. But if you instead ask them what they expect from the people around them—their neighbors, their family, their friends—you force them to think much more critically about what it takes, for example, to build a road. Do I expect my neighbor to contribute to a community path that is then going to deliver a service to me?

What are some of the responses you have heard from people?

HUNTER KEITH: People take a step back and say, “I expect my neighbors to be nice to me, I expect them to be fair, I expect that when I have a problem, they may help me solve it.” That’s what extremist groups offered to these people. It has to do with much more than material desires; it has to do with how people relate to one another.

If we want to be smart about how we work against that, we need to understand it better. Then we need to work through the structures of government. That’s what an organization like Mercy Corps can do—provide small examples of those alternatives in communities at the grassroots level.

As they mark the grim anniversary of another year of war, what do Syrians expect from the next 12 months?

GEORGE ANTOUN: Honestly, no one is sure. If you look at the landscape in Syria, a lot has changed in the past year. You see the government taking territory and consolidating power. If this continues, we are moving to a new situation where there could be large areas in Syria where there is no fighting. However, if there is no peace settlement and peace treaty in Syria, it is still unsafe for refugees to start returning.

But you cannot stop them. If you have wide areas in Syria that are relatively safe, where there is no more fighting, that are under the control of one party, then people may start thinking of going back, especially if humanitarian assistance in Lebanon or Jordan keeps decreasing.

Most of the Syrians you speak with say they would definitely go back. But their towns are destroyed, there is nothing for them to go back to right now.

HUNTER KEITH: Our concern, as Mercy Corps, is for the protection of people who might be forced to go back to Syria. If there were a clear future with a clear outcome, that would be one thing. You would have people here carefully considering their options. But, seven years on, I don’t know that people have the information they need to start piecing through that for themselves. The saddest aspect is it won’t be resolved for many years.

I suspect that the image of Syria in the minds of most Syrians is just horribly complicated. People still think of Syria as home, but that is very different from practical expectations of return. So a lot of people assume they will be here a very long time, if not forever.

Does that view change based on how old they are?

HUNTER KEITH: A middle-aged person may not expect to return to normal life, but they want it for their children. The future that’s easiest to imagine for them is the one in Jordan. The closeness of Jordan to Syria, culturally and socially, allows people to imagine their future here, and I think that many people are just trying to get on with it.

Jordan has probably come to terms with that to some extent. It may not be something that Jordanians want to think about, but there is a feeling that a very large number of Syrians will remain even after Syria stabilizes.

How you can help

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

03/14/2018 08:23 PM
No way out: A Q&A on the violence overtaking Eastern Ghouta, Syria

Some of the worst violence we’ve seen in more than seven years of war is happening right now in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region, several miles northeast of the capital of Damascus. Some 400,000 people have been trapped here since 2013, with little to no access to food, medicine or sanitary supplies. Escalating violence over the past several weeks has left more than 1,500 people dead and even more injured.

Despite a resolution from the United Nations Security Council demanding a cease-fire and the declaration of daily humanitarian pauses, there has barely been a lull in the violence.

Mercy Corps is one of only a few organizations working in this area through local Syrian partners. Our partners are taking advantage of any reductions in explosions to get clean water and other supplies to people hiding in crowded basements and underground shelters.

Read on to learn more in this interview with our Senior Global Communications Officer, Christy Delafield. For more information on the seven-year crisis, visit our Syria quick facts page.

What is your first priority when there are temporary halts to the bombings?

Our partners' first priority is to get clean water and food to people. Many of the basements and underground shelters in which people are sheltering do not have proper ventilation, water or sanitation systems. The pauses have not resulted in as much reduction in violence as we had hoped, and our partners are doing their best to reach people despite very dangerous conditions.

Are we able to get any supplies in, and deliver aid to people during lulls in violence?

Our partners are seeing some lulls in violence, no new routes to deliver aid into the region have been opened, and only one new humanitarian convoy has been approved.

What is the greatest civilian need you are seeing? Who needs the most help in the community right now?

People need food, water, shelter, hygiene kits, wood and fuel for cooking. Even the basics are scarce. Everyone in the community is in need, including the aid workers who are trying to help people.

We read that families are seeking shelter underground—how long are they staying there without coming out? What are the living conditions like in underground shelters and basements?

Families have been hiding in basements and underground shelters without proper ventilation, water or sanitation systems for more than a week. A lot of families are digging their own underground shelters. Most of them are only partially constructed and weren’t designed for people to live in — they don’t have toilets or mattresses.

Now each basement might be housing dozens of people. People have tried to bring blankets and mattresses from their homes when they can, but many report that their homes and possessions have been destroyed.

People sleep when the sounds of the explosions are less loud. They stay underground all day and all night, with nothing to do but wait.

Are people able to access urgent necessities like food and water while in hiding?

Mercy Corps is working through partners to get clean water and food to people living in these shelters. Not much is available for purchase and there are only a few hours a day in which partners can work — when the explosions are less frequent.

What was life like in Eastern Ghouta before these most recent attacks?

This area was a breadbasket in Syria before the crisis. Damascus is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, growing from original settlement by an oasis formed by the Barada River. Eastern Ghouta, in the Damascus suburbs, was rich in agricultural resources thanks to irrigation and land development surrounding that oasis.

Since 2013, Eastern Ghouta’s communities have been under siege, and in just the past year, communities in South-Central Syria, on average, suffered the deaths of 65 members, and the destruction of 25 homes and five community structures each.

Syrians also had a hard, cold winter. Every year people have fewer resources and fewer options. Bread prices in Eastern Ghouta have skyrocketed to almost 22 times the national average. The UN reports that Eastern Ghouta is suffering from some of the highest levels of child malnutrition of any time in the Syria crisis.

What about the humanitarian corridors recently established? Will you be able to use those to get aid in, and people out?

We fully support a safe way for people to leave if they choose. While at first the fighting hadn't abated enough for people to get from their houses to the location announced for the proposed corridor, at least 20,000 people have now left via the corridor. Our partners tell us that people aren't using it unless they know it is safe and they will be taken care of when they leave.

Is this as bad as Aleppo?

How do you quantify pain and suffering? We can’t measure this kind of thing, but there are more people trapped in Eastern Ghouta than were in Aleppo, and the siege has lasted far longer. It certainly feels as bad, or worse.

HEAR THEIR STORIES: Syria's war has rocked the lives of millions of people. Read their stories in this special series commemorating seven years of crisis ▸

What can we do to help the people of Syria?

As violence and suffering continues and the number of those in need increases, your help is urgently needed. Here’s how you can make a difference for Syrian refugees:

03/13/2018 08:22 AM
How can technology transform the refugee crisis?

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

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Becoming a refugee doesn’t just mean losing your home. It means being disconnected from every aspect of your life: your friends, your education, your social networks, and the technology that makes it all possible.

Seven years into the Syria crisis, more than 11 million Syrians are displaced or living as refugees in other countries. How can we reach them with digital tools like cloud computing, biometric data, blockchain, and AI? Read more in this interview with Jane Meseck, Senior Director of Global Programs for Microsoft Philanthropies, about how we’re working together to use breakthrough technology to help refugees build better, stronger lives.

Why does the refugee crisis demand a technological response?

This crisis has not ended just because it may have faded from the forefront of the media. There are still too many people displaced around the world, and from Syria especially, being hosted by countries that can barely afford to support their own vulnerable populations. We’ve been involved in this crisis for the past three years, and we see an increasing need to bring technology to the situation, both in terms of power on the front lines and how we can support organizations that are helping people.

At first, our involvement was all about our first response: how can we help immediately? Three years in, we see more momentum now into how we can help people rebuild their lives and accelerate their inclusion into their communities through the help of digital technologies. Whether it’s access to information through projects like Refugee.Info, or getting people the skills they need to start a small business or get a job, the role of technology is increasingly important in this situation.

Jane Meseck, Senior Director of Global Programs for Microsoft Philanthopies, at a Mercy Corps youth center in Greece. Together, Mercy Corps and Microsoft are exploring how to use technology to protect refugees' identity and connect them to community services. Photo by Sara Hylton for Mercy Corps.

Why is refugee identification a critical issue and how is Microsoft using tech to solve it?

Digital identity is not only a person’s identity, like I am Jane and I have proof that I’m Jane. It’s also about what comes with that—the services I am eligible for, the education that I am certified for, and the different things that layer on top of having an identity. If I’m a refugee, it’s also critical that I can transfer it with me when I move from country to country and service provider to service provider.

We are working alongside humanitarian organizations like Mercy Corps to think about what beneficiary identification means, as well as a broader industry approach through ID2020 to try and determine the standards around identity and how we can use different technology tools to support the provision of identity. Some of this is new and early on, but it is a place we are very much excited about and committed to developing more.

What role can biometric technologies and blockchain play in that process?

For sure, biometrics is a crucial tool to help prove who you are. Blockchain, meanwhile, offers a decentralized way to have a digital identity that’s safe and secure and proven. We’re looking across a host of technologies.

We don’t necessarily believe there is one solution that will solve all these problems, but we do believe there is a set of standards and a set of tools that can be used across the sector—so the solutions Mercy Corps creates for their beneficiary management system can talk to UNHCR’s system, and so on. This is going to take a variety of solutions and technologies that talk to each other in a way that is secure, safe, and proven.

Azeh, 12, learns computer skills at a Mercy Corps youth center in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp. Photo by Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.

How are you using the power of the cloud to serve refugees?

Cloud as an industry is really accelerating as a way for organizations and companies to have a place to store their data and do computation from anywhere. It’s super valuable. Nonprofits are increasingly taking advantage of the cloud not just to store things, but also to use its computing power.

One great example we’ve seen is with Medical Teams International in Uganda. They use a data intake system in their health centers in refugee camps that provides real-time data that can alert providers on potential outbreaks of disease. So if they start seeing more people coming in with malaria, they’re able to use the data and the power of the cloud to say, oh wow, there’s a high risk of malaria outbreak in this area, and deploy preventative measures.

This technology could allow organizations like Mercy Corps to combine their data with open public data to start doing predictive analytics. For instance, you could look at the weather and the price of goats to predict when people might be on the move. Did the price of goats just change significantly that provides some prediction that people are selling their goats because they’re about to move? We see a lot of possibility in predictive analytics and are working to figure out how we can provide the data architecture to help make that happen.

How are young refugees using technology and what have you learned in your visits with them?

When we first started coming back from visiting refugees, people thought it would make us sad. And it was—it’s tragic. But when you meet these youth, they still have dreams and passion and excitement for life, and their hopes for the future are like any others young people would have. You can’t help but love that and want to support that.

The thing that struck me about the teenagers we met, especially the girls, is that they are still just fun teenagers. They were giggling, laughing, and wanted to take selfies. And they asked to build a website for their youth center. We throw our hands up and think, what could we possibly do to solve this huge problem? But then you realize these are just teens. They’re hopeful, they still have dreams, they’re begging to go to school. And they just want to take selfies and build a website. It was so powerful to see that.

At the 2018 No Lost Generation Tech Summit in Jordan, more than 200 people from the private, public and nonprofit sectors came together to explore how technology can support educational efforts for children and young people affected by the Syrian crisis. Photo by Annie Sakkab for Mercy Corps.

Zaatari camp, in particular, has a tremendous sense of community that I didn't expect. It’s basically a small city. The last time I was there, there was a club of refugee geeks that were awesome. They were using technology to map the camp to help residents know where different services were. Because they don’t have access to internet in the camp, they are able to do it offline and come back to a center and upload it when they’re online.

They looked at the situation like, you know what, someday I’m either going to go back to Syria, I’m going to build a business, or I’m going to need the skills to get a job elsewhere. They were using technology not only to do something fun, but to think about their future.

What are some of your blue sky dreams for how technology can impact this crisis?

When the crisis first hit, we provided a lot of software and cloud technologies to the nonprofits that were responding to help them get on a stable platform so they could have the right technology to do what they were doing. Now, three years later, we’re looking at what digital technology can do to really transform their work.

Some of this is innovative technology, from identity management like we mentioned, to what education might mean for a student on the move. If you’re a refugee moving from place to place still trying to get your education delivered to you, how do you take it with you as recognized proof that you’ve completed it? You may have graduated from high school and have a certified diploma, but how do you carry it with you in a digital form?

All people deserve the chance to build better, stronger lives—including refugees displaced from home. That's why we focus on teaching young people technology skills that will serve them for the future. Photo by Annie Sakkab for Mercy Corps.

Another area we’re looking at is artificial intelligence and how it might impact these scenarios. What could mapping look like? How do we use AI to create before-and-after mapping? How do we use AI to use predictive analytics on the ground?

We’re also still looking at connectivity. When you bring connectivity to a community, you want to be sure you’re supporting the local community and refugee community in an equitable way. Then you can build services and skills training on top of it. We’re also looking at how we can build digital skills within the humanitarian organizations themselves, like skills trainings and even levels of certification that have employment value.

What excites you about working for Microsoft Philanthropies?

One of the big transformations we’re undergoing in Microsoft Philanthropies is the creation of Technology for Social Impact, which is a focus on how we bring all of our technological services and assets to support the NGO and humanitarian community. It’s a real ramp-up of how we support organizations with greater services, greater access to technology, and industry solutions to help solve some of these real problems. For me, the creation of this organization and the opportunity to help humanitarian organizations is really exciting.

One of the key things that we think about is that, as technology advances, how do we ensure there’s a future for everyone? If there’s a group that’s really vulnerable to being left behind, it’s this refugee population. We’re really thinking about advancing a future that’s for everyone. That’s our mission, that’s our goal. Whether it’s through technology, education, or both, we work with organizations like Mercy Corps to ensure populations like refugees have a future.

How you can help

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

03/12/2018 08:00 AM
For refugees in Jordan, two months became five years

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

* * *

Early one morning in 2013, 31-year-old Ibrahim Khalil Mansour, a police officer in Damascus, woke his four children and told them to prepare to leave their home. They were going as a family to visit the children’s grandfather in Daraa, a city in Syria 70 miles south. But something was wrong. It was still dark outside, the sun not yet up. No one was allowed to bring anything with them. All family documents were left behind.

Ibrahim and his wife, Hayfaa, moved quickly, gathering everyone together so they could begin the journey on foot before sunrise. Life in Damascus had rapidly deteriorated as Syria’s conflict closed in. It was too dangerous to stay another day, and so together they had made the excruciating choice to flee. In the darkness, they moved as fast and as quietly as possible.

“I was terrified,” Hayfaa says. “I wasn’t terrified to die. I was terrified for my kids. I was scared maybe I would lose one of them. … I just wanted to hold them in my arms and save them from everything. From dying, from the bombing.”

They found safety in Daraa, but nothing else. Ibrahim had no job and the family had nowhere to live. Without money coming in, they needed another option for refuge. So shortly after, the family made their way a few miles south to the Jordanian border, entered the country as refugees, and settled in Zaatari camp an hour away.

They would be home, Ibrahim figured, in about 10 days.

Ibrahim, now 36, with his 7-year-old son, Khalil.

At the start of 2013, Zaatari was a dusty tent camp that held about 65,000 Syrian refugees. By March, the population had surged to 156,000, more than double its intended capacity. Today it is a semi-permanent settlement, with a hospital, 29 schools, and a busy main avenue residents refer to as the “Champs-Élysées,” lined with some of the 3,000 refugee-operated businesses that exist in the camp.

Nearly half a million refugees have passed through, including Ibrahim’s family, who are still there.

“We planned to stay here for one month, maximum. Two weeks to one month,” he says. “Looking at the situation in Syria … nobody was providing a solution. Everybody was expanding the conflict. When we saw that, we knew we were going to stay here longer.”

It is hard to express how it feels for two weeks to become five years, other than to say you feel time pass profoundly. Summer slides into winter, one day-labor job dissolves into another, 2-year-old Khalil sprouts into a boy now nearly 8. That is how life feels to Ibrahim now, a blurred sequence of milestones he is both incredibly thankful and deeply sad to have lived here.

These are the two ways to look at his situation, and talking to Ibrahim you can hear him struggle to possess them both. As a refugee, you have to make incredible sacrifices for the safety of your family. The home you built, the career you earned, the dreams you cherished—he has longed for these things to return every day for five years. But the longer he watches Syria at war, the more likely he is to see it the other way: that these things he had to give up, many of them material, were the easy toll to pay for keeping them alive.

Ibrahim and his 3-year-old son, Ahmad, who was born in Zaatari. In a men’s group facilitated by Mercy Corps, Ibrahim is able to share his story in a safe space with other fathers.

“It’s a hard situation, especially when you leave everything, when you leave home, when you leave your house that you built out of your own effort and your own blood. … I had a job and I lost it. I don’t know how I can feed my children. It was difficult to decide,” he says.

“If we had stayed, someone would have definitely died because of the conflict. … I’m very grateful to Jordan and for being here with my family. I have the most gratitude, just being together and living together.”

Ibrahim is chased by his children playing soccer on the packed dirt between Zaatari’s caravans.

The family together: left to right, Khalil, Ibrahim, Waed, Hala, Rahaf, and Ahmad.

In a small classroom deep within the camp, Eman Ahmad Al-Mousa teaches and plays with a boisterous group of kids in a Mercy Corps youth center. Here, kids have a safe space to play and learn important life skills while living in the camp.

Eman was hired to clean the center but was quickly promoted to work with children as a facilitator. She arrived in Zaatari around the same time as Ibrahim, with her husband and seven daughters. They fled Daraa thinking they would be back home in a few weeks. Instead, she has watched her girls grow into teenagers in the camp; three months ago, she had a child here, her first son, Anas.

Zaatari is a hard, lonely place to be a parent, with unique challenges no one else can really understand. Every day is a struggle to preserve the small, normal parts of everyday life—homework, meals, chores—while being overwhelmed by reminders that your life is upside down. It’s an exhausting battle, even if, like Hayfaa, you have relatives in the camp with you: “They already had their kids and families and needed to take care of them. Because of that, I needed to handle the situation and deal with my children alone,” she says.

But as Eman began to watch the children under her care grow more confident, she slowly started to notice she was changing, too. The job was helping her become a better mother.

“The thing I love most about working with kids is I provide them psychosocial support and give them the opportunity to share their fear, their hope, and give them a safe space to talk about whatever they want,” she says. “This experience provides me support to be a better parent … Now I have high confidence in myself and can express myself directly without being shy.”

Eman, a mother of eight who has lived in Zaatari five years, works with refugees in a Mercy Corps youth center. Here, children have the chance to play and learn important life and computer skills.

Almost every family in Zaatari, including Eman’s, arrived with nothing. It was a decision laced with urgency, but also practicality—there was no need to bring what you’d be going back to in a matter of days. But after so long, everything left behind has been taken. Their homes, if standing, are empty, the furniture and fixtures all gone. A new family is living inside Eman’s.

This is why, five years on, the question for many families in Zaatari is not necessarily what’s next, but what is there to go back to?

“I memorized every single tree I had in my garden,” Eman says. “We had a beautiful garden … we had orange trees, onions. We also had rabbits and doves.”

“I hope my daughters and my son remember Syria in a beautiful way, as a beautiful country, and not as a conflict country,” she says. “I hope when we return to Syria, it will be as we left it.”

Eman holds her 3-month-old son, Anas, who was born in Zaatari.

Batool, 6, was just 8 months old when she arrived in the camp.

Eman with six of her kids, left to right: Buran, Anas, Batool, Bara'a, Areej, and Nagham.

That hope cannot bring back what is lost—the rabbits, the orange trees, her husband’s vegetable stand. These things exist now only in their memory, and accessing them means making one of the hardest choices a mother here can make: whether to let her daughters remember the war so they can remember where they came from. Because there cannot be one without the other.

And so every night, Eman’s daughters talk about the bombs. They make jokes. She doesn’t want them to talk about the war, partly out of how it could damage them, but also because of how it could damage their memory of home.

But memories, even hard ones, are important, because in a life where so much has been lost, they are something to hold onto. The past is tangible; the future, unknowable. “I’m not overthinking what’s next,” Eman says. “The only thing I think about now is wanting to go back to the old Syria.”

It’s a wish for a life she knows is over, but also a dream that empowers her. A memory like that has the power to both draw you back and propel you forward. That’s why Eman holds another one close to her heart—a date: January 24, 2013. The date they arrived in Zaatari, 1,873 days ago.

“If [my children] forget this event, they would forget our history, they would forget our home,” she says. “So we should remember this to remember what we suffered for.”

How you can help

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

03/11/2018 06:42 PM
The Wages of War: How are Syrians adapting their lives to the crisis?

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

The scale of death and suffering in Syria is monumental. What began as a peaceful protest in 2011 has spiraled into a humanitarian crisis unprecedented for our modern times: The war has killed as many as 400,000 Syrians and displaced 11 million more. The crisis has set Syria’s development back nearly four decades.

Yet, despite these immense challenges, Mercy Corps’ work in Syria has found that some households are managing the devastating impacts of war better than others. Our new paper, The Wages of War, explores how these Syrian households have been able to adapt to new lines of work that allow them to support their families amid crisis.

Read more below in this interview with researcher Vaidehi Krishnan of Mercy Corps' research and learning team, or view the full paper here.

* * *

How did this research originate?

I joined the Syria response in 2015, and even as far back as then, in the midst of the conflict, we were hearing stories of farmers who’d always grown wheat all their lives switching to coriander because they found out coriander was faster and easier to sell. Then we started hearing stories from other locations where some people had found jobs in a new sector—maybe they worked for a cell phone company or found a new way to harvest tomatoes and were sharing information with their friends and extended community.

We were seeing a shift in how Syrians were behaving during the conflict. It was surprising for us because we had never formally studied whether people change the way they live their lives during conflict. How people continue to provide for their families became an extremely important learning element for us.

PHOTO: Cassandra Nelson for Mercy Corps

We know how people live before and after conflict—we can go in after a conflict is over and support them—but during a conflict it’s almost unimaginable how people have found ways to feed and shelter their families. So for us the questions became, can people really find another job to support their families, and is it only happening in certain locations, or is it widespread in Syria?

It really became a gut-check. We’re seven years into the conflict, and the major way we support Syrians is with food. But if people are shifting and finding jobs, then what can we as humanitarian workers learn from this and what can we do differently? This was a chance to step back and learn from what’s happening and from the people we work with.

Was this happening in communities facing conflict, or just those away from fighting?

We did this research last year, and as of last year the conflict was pretty widespread in all of Syria. All of these locations inside Syria were still facing some level of conflict. We primarily looked at communities in the north, northeast, and south-central.

We tried to talk to as many representative communities as possible. One reason was to understand, are people shifting their jobs, and is it only happening in locations that are relatively stable, or is it also happening in locations where conflict is active and they’re facing violence every day? So we did it pretty much all over Syria. We chose 120 communities in these three geographies where we were able to find local partners to conduct these interviews.

PHOTO: Cassandra Nelson for Mercy Corps

What's different about Syria now than at the six-year mark a year ago?

I almost want to say everything and nothing. Every year that has passed in the Syria conflict, it has always seemed to surprise us with how the conflict has shifted gears. In January, I read an article asking if this is the year peace will finally come to Syria. As of 2017, the focus was on ISIS-controlled areas, and pushing ISIS out. Conflict was still taking place, but the thought was that 2018 would be the year the conflict would end. But over the last few weeks, we’re seeing pockets of intensified violence.

It’s difficult to say what’s different between the six and seven-year mark. As humanitarian workers, it’s increasingly frustrating. The stability we’re waiting for to help people rebuild their livelihoods is not here today. We’re recognizing as humanitarians that we’re providing people with much-needed food, shelter and help, but maybe there are other things we can do while we wait for stability to come. For the Syrian people, there’s no end in sight. So are there ways we can pivot our work to reach people where they are now?

Did you learn anything surprising?

Much of what we learned in this research was initially very surprising. But as we began reading through the research, a lot of the responses are quite logical. We just hadn’t expected this to be happening in an active conflict zone.

It seems weird to be talking about changing jobs and building livelihoods when the news we see is around bombs dropping—and that violence is happening and it’s extremely important for us to recognize that it is happening. But in the midst of this, what we found is that 1 in 3 households has managed to find a new job. That’s not just farmers shifting from wheat to coriander; we’re talking about someone who has been a farmer all his life is now an electrician, or someone who has been a teacher all her life has opened a retail store. It’s an entire shift in a job.

If any of us has tried that, it’s an extremely important life change. It took me six months when I wanted to change from the private sector to the humanitarian field. And we’re talking about people in the midst of a conflict, where the environment they live in changes every day. They don’t know where the next bomb is coming from or where the next attack is. Yet these people have still found ways to ask, what do I need to provide for my family? What skills are needed in my community? And they’ve found ways to shift to those jobs.

But it’s important to remember this is only 1 in 3 households. Two-thirds of them haven’t managed to do this. So what can we learn from how they’ve adapted to create the same conditions for the others?

So what is needed for that other two-thirds of Syrians?

It’s an interesting question, because a lot of the same stuff we were finding to help Syrians adapt is the same things we would need. What is helping people find a new job? The first thing is the ability of an economic market to meet their needs—the ability to get a loan, for instance, or sell raw materials to a business.

When we say market functionality, what we mean is that it’s not just that the markets have been able to provide the food, shelter or water Syrians need; it also means these markets have expanded to create new jobs so Syrians can find a new job in these markets to support their households. Markets have an extremely important effect on whether people can adapt to a new job or not.

The second thing that helps people are their social networks. This is extremely important. When I was trying to find a new job, the first people I reached out to were my friends and family, or the people I knew who had shifted successfully into the sector I wanted to enter. I would ask them, what did you do? Where did you find information? How did you do it? This is what Syrians are doing. They’re using technology like you and me, they’re using WhatsApp, they’re reaching out to friends and family to say, “What did you do to change? I heard you were working with Abu Mohammed in his electrician’s shop, and you used to be a tailor.” They’re using their social networks to access social information like you and me.

They’re also using their social networks to borrow money, and to learn a new skill. Most of the people we talked to, we asked them why they borrowed money. It wasn’t just to feed their families; it was to invest in skills development to find new jobs to continue to feed their families.

Syria needs peace foremost—but what comes after?

Over the last seven years, we’ve read about hundreds of thousands of people being killed, millions of people displaced, and at some point those numbers start to stump us. We don’t know what we can do or how we can relate. But what this research did for me was to say that there’s no difference between a Syrian person and myself.

They want the same things for their families I would. I want to protect and feed my family. I want a life with dignity. I want a little control over my life. Especially, when you think about Syrians, when you live with so much uncertainty and you don’t know where the next conflict will happen, the least you want is to make a decision over what your household will eat.

They want to use cash to make the decision about what their household eats today. They want to make that decision. They want to learn a new skill to find a job so they can better protect their family without our support.

When we talk about resilience in the sector, it can be hard to explain. But I like to think of it like a bounceback effect: when you throw a ball on the ground, it bounces back to you. Syrians’ ability to bounce back is eye-opening. What they want for their household is what you and I want, and they’ve been able to do it while living in a situation where they don’t know where the next conflict is going to be or where the next bomb is going to drop.

Does this research reveal any sort of path for how Syria's people might rebuild once the country finds peace?

In a lot of ways, we shouldn’t wait for peace to come. That peace is an important step to solidify what we’re doing, but we need to start changing how we think about providing aid today. If we’re finding that 1 in 3 households can shift their job to better feed and clothe their family, why should we wait for peace to come to change how we would reach them? We need to start now by changing how we provide aid.

As much as we try as humanitarian organizations, our access in Syria is very sporadic. It’s not consistent. When we have sporadic access into these locations, we need to make sure we’re doing the right thing. We need to make sure the aid makes a difference. That means engaging people. Giving them dignity and self-fulfillment when they’ve found a job is extremely important.

We talked to women and young people that never worked before the conflict and who are now the main income earners for their families. A lot of young people were in university, and women in many parts of the country traditionally weren’t the main income earners. These people, new income earners, are telling us they feel self-reliance, self-esteem, and that they feel more positively about their communities.

In a post-conflict situation, it’s extremely important not just that people are able to support their own families, but that they also engage in rebuilding their own communities. Not just the physical infrastructure—that’s completely separate—I’m talking about healing the wounds left from war. It’s extremely important that people are able to come together and heal. This research is one path to engaging people to get there.

How you can help

This story is part of our special series, 7 for 7: Seven voices for seven years of the Syria crisis. View the complete series here ▸

03/01/2018 04:57 PM
In Uganda, two women form a friendship without borders

Guo slips behind a wall of slender, shoulder-high sesame stalks, the late afternoon sun throwing long shadows on the ground around her. She bends low, using her hands to pull the plants from the soil. Several women laugh and chat in the surrounding field, expertly navigating the spindly rows, carefully tending the towering growth they’ve fostered from seedlings.

Guo hands a bundle of cut sesame to her friend, Tiko, who will secure it with twine to distribute among the women. She takes a breath of hot air, wipes her forehead and steps into the next row to repeat the process.

Nearly every day Guo and Tiko work this land with the other women, using the combined power of their bodies and skills to grow crops to eat, sell and sow in the next season. Their determined efforts have spawned not only a deep and nurturing friendship, but a shared vision for the future: These plants — this harvest — are the better life they’re building together.

Guo is a South Sudanese refugee. Tiko is Ugandan. And theirs is a community, united.

South Sudan refugees face the challenge of rebuilding

Guo sits outside the mud hut she built after fleeing to Uganda.

Guo, 27, walked for a month with her four young children before reaching Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northwestern Uganda. She arrived in the fall of 2016, after living through three years of the unrelenting violence that has taken hold of South Sudan.

Since conflict first erupted in South Sudan in December 2013, increasingly-brutal fighting has plunged the country into a desperate humanitarian crisis: 7 million people are in need of aid; 1.9 million are internally displaced; over 5 million people face hunger. The food crisis is so dire famine was declared in South Sudan in 2017, and families continue to live under the threat of starvation.

Nearly 2 million people have fled for safety in neighboring countries. Over 1 million, like Guo, have sought refuge in Uganda alone, making it home of the largest refugee population in Africa.

What else you need to know about the South Sudan crisis ▸

Bidi Bidi settlement, the expanse of which is now considered the largest refugee settlement in the world.

“There was nobody who could build me a house,” Guo says, recalling her arrival to the sprawling settlement. She had been separated from her husband by the war and fled with her children alone. “I struggled [to do it] myself.”

She found a piece of land and built a small mud hut with her own hands. Piece by piece, she began the onerous process of putting her family’s life back together in a country not their own.

As a single mother with four children to protect, there was only ever one option: keep going.

Guo’s 3-year-old son, Nancy, hides around the corner of his family’s home.

Now more than a year later, Guo’s journey is far from over. If she is weary, though, she doesn’t show it, speaking only with resolve as she describes the enormous undertaking of supporting her family as a mother and a refugee.

“I have a lot of work to be done,” she says. “In the field I have work to be done. I need to cook for the children, and look for money for the survival of the young ones. These are all on me as being a woman.”

There are currently more than 1 million refugees in Uganda, 80 percent of whom are women and children who escaped war — only to immediately start restoring the homes, livelihoods and educations they were forced to leave behind.

For these women, including Guo and so many others around the world, conquering one challenge is not the end; it is the beginning of rising to the next. But while Guo still faces plenty of hardships as she forges ahead, her burdens are lightened by the friend who now stands by her side.

A community grows together

Mercy Corps helps South Sudanese refugees and Ugandans work together to build a stronger community. Press the play button above to see women from both sides unite for a better future.

Before heading to the field to harvest, Guo and Tiko bask in a rare moment of rest, the two veiled in the shade cast by the same sturdy, mud hut Guo built from the ground up all those months ago.

Guo calls to her young son, Nancy, vying for a smile, as he and the other children run circles through the settlement, chasing the neighbor’s ducks and kicking up the dusty ground.

Bidi Bidi settlement — now the largest refugee settlement in the world — materialized in a matter of months, bringing hundreds of thousands of people desperate to escape conflict to an area of Uganda that was previously unpopulated and underdeveloped.

Such an influx of of people carries with it an incredible need for resources like land and water, but also an immense amount of potential. In that moment, when many could have seen a burden, Tiko saw possibility.

“It was a sudden happening,” says 26-year-old Tiko, a mother of three, still seated with Guo under cover from the sun, the warm air between them disguising the reality that theirs is a friendship born from crisis.

“It was also somehow ... somehow OK,” she shrugs. “We are sharing all of our things together. They can help us. We can also help them.”

The pair first met through one of Mercy Corps’ farmers’ groups, which help South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan people work together to grow stronger, more plentiful crops. Refugees are given a small plot of land when they arrive at the settlement; local farmers have larger plots, but few people to work them. By combining their resources, they have more land, more seeds, more physical power, more food — and more opportunity.

How farmers groups support mothers in Niger ▸

Refugee and host community women work together to harvest the sesame they’ve grown.

Since they started working alongside one another, Tiko and Guo have become more than neighbors. They have become allies, people who fully support one another and know they are made stronger when they band together.

“We are growing crops in our group in order to help ourselves,” Tiko explains. As she speaks, she does so with clear devotion to her friend and full confidence in this new, diverse version of her community. “If you have a second problem and you need some money to solve it, you can ask the members. They will help you so that you solve your problem.” She gestures with her hands to get her point across: We can do this, together.

Over time the women have grown to support each other emotionally and financially; they share knowledge and skills. Together they grow sesame, tomatoes, green pepper and eggplant to feed their children. Tiko even helps Guo find other work to support her family.

“This is my friend,” Guo explains with a small, grateful smile. “If she has [extra] work, she informs me there is work. I can go and help her and get money.”

For both, the determined fight for a better life is no longer a battle they’re pursuing alone.

“Since they have a hardship in their mother country, they have to feel at home here in my mother country as well,” Tiko says, her voice as steady and sure as her gaze. For her and Guo and the other women, it was never a question of whether they would lift one another to a place where they are healthy and strong. It was only a question of how.

We are coming together, Tiko says, without wavering. “This is the result: us, we.”

How you can help

As the conflict continues unabated, more of South Sudan’s people flee their country every day. Those who have already reached safety, like Guo, are settling in for the long haul, not expecting to be able to return any time to soon. Here’s how you can support women like her who are fighting to survive crisis and build better lives:

02/23/2018 11:34 PM
Partnering with Mastercard to provide cash and financial services

The world is facing some of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time, and at Mercy Corps, we know that no single organization can tackle them alone. So we work across the public and private sectors to bring our unique expertise, innovations and solutions together to spark, scale and sustain change for communities in need around the world.

Mercy Corps is incredibly proud of the partnership we have with Mastercard. We believe this partnership embodies the spirit of both organizations, with Mercy Corps and Mastercard contributing unique expertise and ideas and providing greater impact than each individual organization could have alone. Whether responding to natural disasters, promoting inclusive and equitable economic growth or advancing technology in aid and development, Mastercard and Mercy Corps have been working together since 2012 to address some of the world's most pressing challenges and helping to transform lives.

Our partnership with Mastercard is comprehensive, integrated and embodies more than just financial support. In addition to providing generous funds to support our programming, Mastercard actively supports Mercy Corps and our mission through innovative technology and products that we are able to incorporate into our global programming. Mastercard employees have also donated their time and skills to help find greater solutions to challenges many communities in the world are facing. Most importantly, our partnership has had real, positive impact — reaching more than 80,000 individuals across 12 countries to date.

“We have found Mastercard to be a “partner” in the true sense of the word,” says Britt Rosenberg, director of Corporate Partnerships at Mercy Corps. “Our partnership draws upon both organizations’ core strengths — Mastercard as a leading technology and payments provider globally, and Mercy Corps as a leading global humanitarian and development organization working in some of the most challenging contexts.”

Leveraging technology: The power of cash in crisis

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, leaving 3.4 million residents to face one of the island’s worst natural disasters in decades. Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s population lives below the poverty line — making the task of recovery even more daunting.

Following Maria, Mercy Corps led the way in emergency response with Mastercard prepaid cards to help Puerto Ricans buy the things that they needed most for themselves and their families. Not only does cash provide the dignity of choice after an emergency, but it also stimulates local markets and economies.

"I have been able to buy things that I didn't think I would be able to buy," says Aide, a Puerto Rico resident and 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."

Mercy Corps staff and donors visit beneficiaries of a cash distribution — funded by Mastercard — in Katsikas camp in Ioannina, Greece. PHOTO: Sara Hylton for Mercy Corps

Distributing cash through prepaid Mastercard prepaid cards has also supported thousands of refugees in Greece and the Balkans who have fled for safety from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of these families are living in limbo, waiting to see what the future holds.

“I came from Syria to Turkey, and then to Greece. I suffered a lot,” says Hoda, a mother of three and recipient of a prepaid Mastercard. “Crossing the border from Syria to Turkey we crossed the hills, the muddy roads, we crossed the rivers. We didn’t have any things. We stepped into Turkey barefoot, wet from the rain. We were threatened by the police several times”.

While they wait, prepaid cards have allowed refugees like Hoda to make their own decisions about what they and their family need to buy most — things like food, clothing, transportation and communication expenses.

Leveraging philanthropy: Overcoming challenges with entrepreneurial opportunities

Mercy Corps’ partnership with Mastercard has not only helped us meet the world’s urgent needs, it has also allowed us to reach vulnerable communities with innovative solutions to financial inclusion and economic growth.

In Indonesia, micro and small enterprises play a significant role as drivers of Indonesia’s economy through creating job opportunities and business services. In fact, micro and small businesses account for more than 95 percent of all enterprises in Indonesia and employ more than 90 percent of the country’s labor force. Despite their importance, many entrepreneurs continue to face significant barriers to optimizing and expanding their business.

Mercy Corps and Mastercard are working together to address this challenge and support entrepreneurs in growing their businesses. With financial support from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Mercy Corps is working to understand the unique constraints and opportunities entrepreneurs face, and ultimately connect them to the resources they need. Through business and financial training, mentorship and increased access to formal financial institutions, we are helping entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, earn higher incomes and create more jobs.

Leveraging people: New frontiers for financial inclusion

In addition to Mastercard providing incredible philanthropic and technology support, Mastercard employees have also invested their time and expertise to support the partnership.

“Pay it Forward: Doing Well by Doing Good” is the first collaborative pro bono project that Mercy Corps and Mastercard have partnered on, integrating Mastercard employee volunteers into critical projects that will strengthen Mercy Corps’ global programs.

Mastercard employees Rodrigo Rodrigues and Doug Meyer with their translator in Nepal, where they made recommendations about how to help local groups digitize financial transactions. PHOTO: Mastercard

This pilot program first began in Nepal, a country Mercy Corps has been working in since 2005. Through savings and credit organizations in rural areas, Mercy Corps provides loans and lines of credit at fair and reasonable rates. Most transactions and record keeping, however, are a manual process, which is becoming increasingly cumbersome and needs to be digitalized for the programs to thrive.

“The rural cooperatives we visited in Nepal lacked basic infrastructure, but there were a lot of opportunities for improvement,” says Rodrigo Rodrigues, Mastercard employee volunteer. “We realized we needed to build a development roadmap, starting by providing laptops and train the staff to use Excel. After this basic training, future cooperatives can implement more complex solutions such as credit scoring and digital transactions.”

Following a highly competitive process, two Mastercard volunteers — Doug Meyer from New York and Rodrigo Rodrigues from Sao Paulo, Brazil — were selected to visit Mercy Corps programming in Nepal for two weeks this January. There, they were asked to make a recommendation on how to digitize financial transactions through the use of tablets or mobile apps to pilot with these local groups.

The pilot program was “one of the best experiences of my life,” says Doug Meyer, Mastercard employee volunteer. “Mastercard emphasizes the importance of financial inclusion, and it’s not just talking the talk. It’s giving its employees the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and contribute to the cause directly.”

The Mercy Corps and Mastercard partnership demonstrates what is possible when two entities are truly committed to a shared vision and bring their unique skills, knowledge and resources together to make that vision a reality. From providing cash in the midst of disaster to supporting entrepreneurs and driving equitable financial inclusion, Mercy Corps and Mastercard are committed to building a better, stronger world.

“A successful partnership is rooted in shared goals,” says Leslie Meek-Wohl, director of Global Programs at the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. “We share a common vision and values with Mercy Corps that has allowed our partnership to grow and evolve over many years. Taking an innovative approach to using our people, products, and philanthropic programs, we have built a unique partnership that has impacted the lives of thousands of people around the world.”

02/23/2018 05:24 PM
In Guatemala City, choice changes everything

Luis moves quickly, weaving his way through narrow, winding streets lined with dusty cinder block buildings. It’s midday but the neighborhood is hushed, save for skinny dogs pawing at roadside scraps and the occasional dark truck, driven by men with grim faces and the solitary mission of making their presence known.

Past desolate alleyways and barred storefronts, Luis slips between a set of tall gates, the portal to a small concrete courtyard where faded hopscotch grids keep company with a lone and netless basketball hoop.

The doors click locked behind him. He’s arrived early enough to get a seat—there aren’t enough desks for everyone in his class—but that’s not the day’s success. The real victory, today, is that he made it to school.

At 16, Luis’s life growing up in Guatemala City is a series of cautious, calculated movements. Don’t stray past safe zones: home, school, church. Don’t cross to the “wrong” side of the street. Trust no one. Don’t get noticed.

His is a city fractured by violence: the 23rd highest homicide rate in the world, an alarming degree of rape, murder and abuse of females, and pervasive gang activity with recruitment that starts as young as age 8—plus extreme poverty, high school dropout rates, rampant drug use, a deep sense of lawlessness and countless other indicators that breed the belief that life has nothing else to offer.

Students watch a presentation in the courtyard of their school in Guatemala City. School dropout rates are so high, 60 percent of students never make it past primary school.

“Every neighborhood has some presence of organized crime and international drug trafficking,” says Peter Loach, who led the implementation of Mercy Corps’ violence prevention program in the city.

“There's really no sense of community. [If you’re young] you’re [often] growing up in a single-parent household where you're sharing a room with other families. You might have a school that you can go to. Maybe it's safe to walk to the school, maybe it isn't and you don't get to go every day because of that. As you get beyond elementary school, the quality of education is not very high. You're probably working already at the age of 7, or 8, or 9.

“You add to that [the presence of] guns everywhere, a culture of violence, one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world—it's just a tinderbox. It's a perfect storm for creating a generation of kids who really don't have too many prospects.”

For millions of the city’s young people, to succumb is the norm. To thrive is the exception.

Learn about our work with vulnerable youth around the world ▸

Student governments give youth choice

Mercy Corps empowers students to participate in their communities with student governments. Press the play button above to see students at a school in the outskirts of Guatemala City participate in their very first election.

Across town, in a concrete school at the end of a lonely alleyway, Cristal, 15, shifts quietly in her seat. In the center courtyard, younger students shriek and laugh, racing to beat one another to the line for a snack. It’s the first time many of them will have eaten all day, and Cristal raises her soft voice to be heard against the commotion.

“You have to be careful here in the community,” she says, casually detailing the risks youth throughout the city will tell you they’re up against every day: gangs, drugs, violence, a lack of opportunity. “There is danger.”

The pivotal difference for Cristal is that there is another side to her perspective. “But if you study to be better I know that you can change the community,” she adds.

Her confidence that a person can deviate from their predetermined path is significant—and it’s new. In just one year since being elected student government president, Cristal has learned she holds within her something that once felt elusive: choice.

How the power of choice changed one girl's life in rural Guatemala  ▸

“First I did not think I was going to win,” she says, recalling the election last year. “I said, ‘Maybe I’m not smart enough.’ But they told me, ‘Cristal, you can.’ I was excited.”

“It makes me feel good,” Cristal says, “because I can help my classmates, listen to their opinions, and show others that we … can do something different in school. We can make our voice heard as students.”

Establishing student governments like this one is part of Mercy Corps’ five-year violence prevention program in Guatemala City. It focuses especially on youth growing up in the most volatile neighborhoods, helping them take ownership of their lives and communities in a way that many felt to be impossible before.

“People [here] feel that they don't have a voice,” Loach says. “And maybe no one’s ever asked them. Sometimes you just have to ask people what they think. We’re trying to ask people, ‘What do you want? What do you want to do?’ No one’s ever asked them before.”

Find out what happened when Dahara, 14, found her voice in Niger ▸

Cristal wants to use her new influence as student body president to better her school. Her voice is steadier now, and her thoughts tumble out. She eagerly recounts plans to improve the lighting system and install a water filter. When she’s older, she says, she might run a company, or help her father fulfill his dream of owning a shoe store. She might run for mayor of Guatemala City one day.

“[Before] if anyone had an idea there was no one who listened, who organized it,” Cristal says. “Now it’s different because, if I want to talk, I’ll tell you. It’s as if I had opened a door that was closed for a long time.”

On election day, students line up for their voter registration cards. The student government elections follow the democratic election process.

Students learn how to register, the concept of campaigning and standing for office, how to choose a political party and how to vote.

They have total ownership of the process, managing everything from electing their nominees to meticulously tallying the final votes. Learning to work together and respect each other’s opinions is critical for healing the mistrust that affects the wider community.

Cristofer, 15, is running for president. To be involved “feels good, because it helps us to get to know ourselves better, and what we need,” he says. “I have learned about responsibility and well-being not only for myself but also for my colleagues.”

Sofia, 14, is on the ticket for vice president. “If someone comes and wants to deprive us of our opinion, we know that we have the right to voice it.”

“[We need] to be the example of of tomorrow in our Guatemala,” says Cristofer, 16, “to be someone in life and to get ahead.” He is running for president opposite the other Cristofer.

With the freedom to dream, a different future

"Now I have more control," Luis says. "I will continue studying in order to have a bright future.”

Back at Luis's school, the student government has changed the narrative, too.

"We are all capable,” he says, “but when others are not given the opportunity [to express their opinion] it seems as if we do not value them. We are giving value to everyone to express what they feel and what they want to do."

As president of his classroom, Luis has a rolling list of improvements he wants to make: paint the walls, supply clean water, get three more desks, repair the electricity, ensure every classroom has working light bulbs.

“Sometimes people refer to this community as bad,” he says, sincerely, “but it is not that. It is [up to] each young person if they want to change for good or want to change for bad.”

As much as he has been thinking about his classmates lately, Luis has also been thinking about his future.

He heard on the news about a way he could serve his community, a path he can take to help make it the safe, secure place he knows it can be.

“I want to be a criminology student,” he says, “and be an investigator. They say their job is to help so that there is no more violence.

“I want to do that.”

And perhaps now he will, if only because he believes he can.

How you can help

Election ink is used to prevent double voting, but also serves as a symbol of pride and democratic privilege.

Informed, empowered youth have the ability to profoundly change their lives and families for the better—and with the right support, they can change the world, too. You can encourage even more young people to transform their communities.