Thoughts On Recent Events

Dear Supporters,

It has been a hard couple of weeks for everyone. First there were the heart-breaking attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Bamako.  Then there has been the increasingly hostile rhetoric focusing people’s feelings of anger and vulnerability into blaming Syrian refugees, who in many cases have fled violence as horrific as what we’ve seen recently.

As people discuss barring refugees in this country and elsewhere, many are tempted to see the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey as someone else’s problem.  But there is a direct link between the situation for refugees in Syria's surrounding countries and the thousands of people risking death and spending their life savings to board a smuggler’s boat for Europe.  That is why we are continuing our work to help the refugees living in Jordan. 

Refugees will feel less pressure to leave for Europe if we can provide basic needs, including education, food packages, and access to household and medical supplies.  If Syrians remain in the surrounding countries, it will be easier for them to return to help rebuild their homeland once the violence is over.  Indeed, every single Syrian we've spoken with in Jordan expressed a desire to return to their homes and communities in Syria. 
 
Here at The Syria Fund, we know we’ve still got a lot of work to do.  With your help, we continue to focus our efforts on creating access to education for the thousands of Syrian kids in Jordan out of school and we continue to respond to emergency situations through direct giving.  This week, as we gather around the table for Thanksgiving and think of our many blessings, we want you all to know we are grateful for your continued support - thank you.

Best,
Lexi, Demetri and The Syria Fund Team

Meet our local partners!

We are back from Jordan. We had an amazing trip, made significant investments in several projects (look out for a full report coming soon), and most importantly, strengthened relationships with our partner organizations.

We are particularly fortunate to work with several qualified and inspiring women in Jordan who work tirelessly in their communities to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Catherine Ashcroft, Nofa Fayz, and Zeinab al-Zubaib each run their own organizations in Jordan.  Although each of them works with different groups and use different methods, they all have the same drive, generosity, and compassion and they are all making a huge impact on the ground.  We hope you enjoy meeting our inspiring partners.

Catherine Ashcroft, Helping Refugees in Jordan (HRJ)

We met Catherine Ashcroft, director of HRJ & Mobilization Specialist for Mercy Corps International, on our first trip to Jordan in March of 2013. Catherine is English, but has been living in the Middle East with her husband and three children for the better part of the last 10 years. In 2012, she started collecting discarded items from friends and families and bringing them to communities with large refugee populations. Quickly, her two car garage became a massive sorting center, housing donations and items purchased in bulk for distribution. What began as a minor volunteer effort has blossomed into a charity that helps thousands of people.  Catherine now works with a network of local Jordanian organizations to address emergency needs and support community projects around Northern Jordan. 

 

Nofa Fayz, South Azraq Women’s Association (SAWA)

Our partner Nofa has been director of the South Azraq Women's Association (SAWA) since the 1990s, when Azraq was a small town of 9,000. Today, she serves a community nearly twice the size, including over 8,000 Syrian refugees – about 2,000 of whom are young children not in school. Around the perimeter of SAWA’s property, Nofa has been able to set up three caravan classrooms that serve 110 children through the help of partner organizations like ours and donors like you. The kids come five days a week and learn Reading, Writing, and Math. We are so impressed with Nofa and her organization and are thrilled to be helping her expand the capacity of her school by building a library on the second floor of her main office.

 

Zeinab al-Zubaib, White Hands Association

Zeinab runs The White Hands Association, a small charity located in East Badia, an area in Northeast Jordan. Many Syrian bedouins have fled the war to take refuge in this extremely rural, desert area. Zeinab and her organization find isolated groups of refugees and help respond to their emergency needs. These families are living deep in poverty and don’t have access to many basic items.  Until recently, there were no schools for over 100 children in a community nearby. Through Zeinab’s organization, we are helping to establish two semi-permanent classrooms that will host classes for these children. Zeinab coordinates with the leaders of each community to establish programs and to address more immediate needs, like winter preparation. In addition to helping build one of the tents we supplied during our recent trip, we were happy to bring over 100 winter prep packages including warm coats, scarves, hats, gloves, and milk packets and to distribute them to the sweet children that we met.  This winter, we hope to bring over 2,000 winter prep kits to Syrian children in this region.

 

We are so grateful to have found dynamic women leading organizations that work every day to make a difference in the lives of those in the most need of assistance.  Help us continue to support these valuable programs today!

Pitch the Tent

In Northeast Jordan, Syrian Bedouin communities that have fled the country live in deep poverty, far removed from any major towns and more importantly, any proper schools.  In this remote location, they cannot adequately support their families. One of our local partners, the White Hands Association (WHA) works to address the needs of these Syrians who are among the most vulnerable communities in Jordan. We are working with WHA to increase children’s access to education and provide winter clothing and milk for dozens of families.

On Wednesday, we left Amman with our cars filled with the winter supplies and powdered milk that we purchased earlier in the week.  As we got off the highway and drove east, the houses were fewer and farther between and the desert more prominent than ever.  Our goal was to deliver winter packages to nearly 100 children and to help erect two semi-permanent tents that we purchased to serve as classrooms.

Large tents will sit on top of concrete floors, furnished with carpets, desks, heaters, and solar lights. Three qualified teachers have already agreed to travel to this community to teach the children, and we hope to secure additional teachers once the program is up and running. Where there was no school, now there are two.

This is the kind of direct giving that we are proud to provide through The Syria Fund.  From an 8-year-old girl named Zahra who looked at us with a giant smile and said “thank you” after receiving her new warm coat to the group of boys who told us how excited they were to finally go to school again for the first time since leaving Syria, we can see the difference we are making. The families we visited were grateful and gracious to us and we worked together to build the tents and determine the logistics of how the classrooms will operate.  We were happy to spend time with Zainab al-Zubaid, the energetic director of WHA, and to observe the relationships she has built within the community she serves.

Although the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis are incredibly complicated and cannot be solved by any one organization, our goals are simple. We identify vulnerable communities with tangible and addressable needs and work with qualified local partners to provide solutions. We are committed to sustaining the projects we’ve worked on this week over the long term. Your continued support makes that possible.


Our visit to the Za'atri refugee camp

Imagine: you come from a place with a deep rich history and you have a warm home, a kitchen filled with delicious food, a school for your children, and green space in your town for picnics and late night strolls.

Now, your country is in crisis and you have to flee. The nearest safe place is Jordan. And as you enter, you are ushered into Za’atri refugee camp, the largest in Jordan.  There, you find a huge patch of desert converted into an emergency city.  Four years later, you are still there, in the middle of the nowhere, in a pre-fabricated house, living exclusively by handouts. This is now your life.

So what do you do? You find a way to get back some of the things you’ve lost – except that you can’t return to Syria. You find a person that you know within Jordan who can vouch for you and you leave Za’atri, knowing that once you do, you won’t be able to return.

Za’atri camp is where we found ourselves today, hosted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the organization responsible for managing the camp.  We were able to see the processing center (the first stop for Syrian refugees who want to cross the border into Jordan), a health clinic, a community center and library, and the main market of the camp, nicknamed the “Champs de Elysees” with only a slight dose of sarcasm. 

It was important to see this side of the refugee experience as we continue our work in the urban community.  The media often overlooks the fact that the majority of refugees, after being sent from the Syrian border to the camp, choose to leave. They leave because at Za’atri, they live by handouts. They live crammed next to their neighbors in pre-fabricated houses (only recently converted from tents) with little to do but look out into the desert and reminisce about their lives in Syria. Even with the robust market they have built and various U.N. programs, the refugees are just waiting to return.

But once outside of the camps, there is little support for these refugees and they often become the most vulnerable.  They are unable to work legally, face escalating rent prices, and don’t have the basic suite of services offered in the camp.  When we told the aid workers we met at Za’atri about our organization, they agreed that these are the refugees that need our help the most. 

The programs that we are supporting through The Syria Fund – providing access to education and distributing material goods – significantly reduce the pressure that families face and save them from impossible decisions like returning to war-torn Syria or taking their chances on a smuggler’s boat to Greece. 

More smiling faces!

We spent another day visiting classrooms full of young Syrian kids.  We met children who have come to Jordan from Dara'a (in southern Syria), Damascus, Homs (central Syria), Palmyra (eastern Syria), and many other cities and towns throughout the country.  In the face of so much tragedy, it is uplifting to meet students who are excited to learn, instructors excited to teach, and parents proud that their children are back in school where they belong.  We hope you enjoy this video of young students singing in a classroom in Azraq.

Tomorrow, we're headed to Za'atari, the main refugee camp in Jordan.  UNHCR is organizing a visit so we can learn more about programs offered to refugees there.  Looking forward to sharing what we learn during our time there.

Meet Marwa

Marwa is an 11-year-old girl from Deraa in southern Syria and has been in Jordan since 2012.  For over two years, she didn’t go to school. “In Syria, I went to school every day, but here I couldn’t.”  Now, Marwa attends class five days a week and is studying math, science, Arabic, and English.  Arabic is her favorite subject – she loves reading and writing and learning new poems and stories.

Marwa is just one little girl of the nearly 100 children who have benefited from catch-up classes through the South Azraq Women’s Association (SAWA). 

Today, we spent the day with these amazing children and saw the light in their eyes as they showed us their homework assignments, told us about their upcoming tests, and introduced us to their friends.

The children come from different cities, arrived in Jordan at different times, and each have unique, heart-breaking stories and experiences – but they have one important thing in common: they love going to school.

There is nothing more important than giving these children the chance to learn and to be kids again.

Nofa, the director of SAWA told us, “When we opened the first classroom, the children came running to us, notebooks and pencils clutched to their chests, shouting ‘We want to go to school! We want to go to school!’”  The library we are building for SAWA will significantly expand their capabilities: it will house over 1,000 books, provide a space for students to study after class, and expand the reach of their program to help students who have missed years of school to catch up with their peers.  

But our partners on the ground rely on the support of organizations like ours to help keep the classrooms open and the teachers employed.  We are happy to say that in addition to helping build and furnish the new library, we’ve committed to sponsoring two teachers over the next 6 months, with the hope of extending this for another six.

We have another full day ahead of us – tomorrow we will sort and pack the items for our Winter Children’s Packages and meet with more of the bright and hopeful Syrian children that we are here to help.  We’ll check in tomorrow! 

Hello from Amman!

Dear Friends,

Hello from Amman!  Our entire volunteer team arrived last night from New York (Lexi, Demetri, and John), Westport (Ken), Cairo (Sarah), and Las Vegas (Robin).  We’re jetlagged but enthusiastic and grateful to be putting the money we raised to good use.

Our first task was shopping in the market for items for our Winter Children’s Packages.  In addition to the warm clothes and shoes that we received from several donors in the U.S. (thank you, Sophia and Sean!!), we picked out about 100 second-hand coats and pairs of kids’ boots.   We also purchased 100 warm, thick blankets and 1,500 bags of powdered milk.  These will be bundled up and distributed to families in the coming days to prepare them for winter.


Tonight, we spent several hours packing small gift bags for the kids.  Each one is a little different, but they contain crayons, construction paper, toy cars, stickers, mini mazes, and more!  We’re looking forward to the smiles on kids’ faces when we bring them these little gifts.

Tomorrow we go to Azraq, where your donations have already funded the construction of a new community center for our partner organization, SAWA (the South Azraq Women’s Association).  We’ll meet with the team, check in on the progress of construction, and learn more about the small school they’ve developed.  We’re excited to share pictures and stories tomorrow.

Thank you so much for your support!  This is just the beginning - we’re rolling up our sleeves and getting to work with The Syria Fund.

Warmly,

The Syria Fund Team


Two Days till Jordan!

Dear Friends,

Our trip to Jordan is just two days away!  We're emailing to share a short video and tell you how you can follow us during our trip.

One of the most heartwarming experiences of our last trip was distributing small care packages to children of families we visited.  

This time, we are bringing bags of donations and children’s packages thanks to the help of our amazing young supporters. Sophia, an 8th grader from Massachusetts, collected warm clothing, stuffed animals, toothbrushes/toothpaste, and school supplies. Ava, a 4th grader in New York, hand-sewed small stuffed animals to give out.  

We added in crayons, coloring books, stickers, and a few other goodies to make fun and educational kits for the kids.

We packed these items up on Sunday and made a fun video to share with all of you.  We hope you enjoy it!

We'll be posting updates during our trip at The Syria Fund blog (www.thesyriafund.org/blog).  We can't wait to share stories and pictures of the wonderful projects that your donations will be funding.  Thank you as always for your support.  Together, we are making a huge difference!

Best,

The Syria Fund Team

Building a Library!

Dear Friends,

Thanks to your tremendous support, we have raised $30,000 over the last month and a half!  We are thrilled to tell you about the incredible work that has already begun.   

In Azraq, Jordan, the population has nearly doubled from the influx of Syrian refugees.  Nearly 50% are minors and 3 out of 5 kids are out of school due to lack of space and economic deprivation.  After years of missed classes, children are often too far behind to enter school even if the opportunity does become available. 

To help address this massive need, we began construction this week on a community room and library, an addition to a community center run by our local partner charity, the South Azraq Women’s Association (SAWA).  In the coming weeks, we will fill the room with hundreds of books and hired instructors to teach catch-up classes and host reading groups for children who otherwise don’t have access to education.  As the center grows, we will supply computers and expand our educational programs to provide technology and English classes to young adults.

The Syrian refugee problem isn’t going away.  This project will be sustainable over time as we work with our local partners at SAWA.  We will empower the community to play a role in the programs and provide employment for local teachers and administrators to help the center thrive.

As you can see, your donations are already having a tremendous impact.  Together, we are helping families get back on track, educate their children and create a new sense of purpose.  We encourage you to tell your friends about your involvement with this project by sharing our website (www.thesyriafund.org)!

We will be in Azraq to oversee the construction of the center in just two weeks and look forward to sharing updates.  Thank you again for your continued support. 

Best,

The Syria Fund Team



Thoughts on the Refugee Crisis in Europe

Like many of you, we were transfixed last week by the images of the body of an innocent Syrian boy washed up on the beach in Turkey and of the thousands of refugees willing to walk hundreds of miles through Europe to realize better, safer lives away from conflict.  But resettling refugees in Europe is not a sustainable solution. 

An editorial in today’s New York Times helps explain that one of the reason Syrians make the impossible decision to flee by boat, on foot, or hidden in the back of a truck is that conditions are so miserable for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.  Large aid agencies are running out of funding because countries that have committed money have failed to provide it.  The Syria Fund offers an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of refugees in Jordan today.

With the help of our dedicated board members, our incredible youth ambassador and all of you, we are hoping to raise $25,000 prior to our trip to Jordan on October 15th to build a multi-functional facility that will provide catch-up classes for children and professional development for young adults in a safe, nurturing environment.  We’ve already raised $7,000 and are confident that we can reach our goal with your help!

What can you do to help?  Please take a moment to forward this email, post a link to our website on social media, or mention us to others who want to get involved.  If every recipient reaches out to just three interested people, we will reach more than a thousand people looking to make a difference.

Thank you for your continued support and for making a difference today!

Introducing The Syria Fund

Two and a half years ago, Demetri and I started a fundraising effort to help Syrian refugees living in Jordan.  With the support of over 200 of our friends and family, we raised nearly $30,000 to purchase and distribute material goods including clothing, school supplies, baby formula, and medical supplies for families in need.  Today, we would like to introduce you to The Syria Fund, a 501(c)(3)-accredited charity dedicated to building upon our work and expanding our reach to help Syrian refugees and others affected by this ongoing crisis.

We are dedicated to this cause because from 2009-10, we lived in Syria, a country rich in history and culture.  We were astounded by the generosity and warmth of the people we met there, so we were horrified when, mere months after moving back to the U.S., the country was torn apart by violence.  Today, over 4 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country and this staggering number keeps growing.

The Syria Fund provides opportunities for refugee families to create a sense of normalcy after experiencing tremendous hardships over more than 4 years of conflict.  In the face of this enormous humanitarian crisis, we focus our efforts on families living in Mafraq and Azraq – cities in Jordan with significant populations of Syrians living outside of UN-organized refugee camps.  These families are underserved by larger aid organizations and The Syria Fund provides meaningful contributions to directly better their lives. 

This October, we are returning to Jordan.  We will continue our project of purchasing and distributing food, household goods, and medical supplies and we will start a new initiative to build classrooms for children who have missed years of school due to the conflict. 

You can get involved today by making a tax-deductible donation to support The Syria Fund.  This is an opportunity for you to make a meaningful difference in the lives of children and families facing severe hardship.  

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing additional information about our projects, partners, and other ways to stay involved with The Syria Fund.  Thank you for your support!

February Update

It is hard to believe but it has almost been one year since we first started fundraising to help Syrian refugees living in Jordan.  Since then (and you may want to sit down for this) we have collectively raised $27,998(!!!).  Donations continue to come in to our Mercy Corps page (a special thanks to the recent incredible support from Catherine, Jerry, and their friends) and it feels so good to have helped seriously improve the circumstances for so many individuals and families.  Sadly, the situation in Syria has only deteriorated and the need for aid continues grow but we should all be really proud of the impact that we have made.  Your donations are making a real difference! 

Here is a recap of some of the incredible work that Mercy Corps and Helping Refugees in Jordan (HRJ) has been doing over the last couple of months supported by your donations:  

– Volunteers distributed over 3,500 children’s packages which included a warm winter jacket, winter clothing, hat, gloves, scarves, socks, toys, coloring items, hygiene items, etc.  We were also able to supply thick winter blankets to another 500 children. We also bought 200 gas cooking stoves and 200 heaters in December alone!

– Mercy Corps ran a winterization program for 3,600 families and many of our children’s winter packages complemented those as the MC ones did not include clothing.  Added to the 3,600 families packages were 20,000 toothbrushes and 3,600 packets of detergent funded from the HRJ donations.

– The group has held training workshops for volunteers to help at Children’s Activity Days and they continue to host these programs in Zarqa and Mafraq (Northern Jordan) for groups of Syrian children on a regular basis.

– Thousands of books have been purchased for informal schools, a playground was built in the town of Azraq, and we continue to purchase wheelchairs and hearing aids for people with disabilities.

– Over 400 Syrian children have been identified as out of school and been placed in formal schools through HRJ. This is an ongoing effort and MC expects an additional hundred to be added this month.

– 11 marathons in 11 days, a fundraiser planned by HRJ, is taking place in March. The distance run in the marathons will reach the full length of Jordan. All funds raised will go towards education-specific purchases.

– Mercy Corps launched the “We Care About Syria” campaign in response to many refugees feeling forgotten and rejected by the world. It is a way for people, especially children, to send message of support. Photos with their messages are being given to children during children’s activity days and family visits to remind them the world cares about Syria. If you’d like to participate, check out their page at: https://www.facebook.com/WeCareAboutSyria

– Several local Syrian and Jordanian volunteers of HRJ have, after training with Catherine (the director), received internships and jobs.

– Income-generation projects have included buying tools for carpenters, starting businesses to sell SIM cards, setting up 6 families to raise chickens for eggs to eat and sell, providing bikes for long distance commuting for work, arranging transport to the British Council for free English lessons, and starting women’s cooking projects. 

– Mercy Corps supports IOM (http://www.jordan.iom.int/) shelters for trafficked women.

These are just a few highlights and the more support we receive, the more we can do!  

As always, thank you for your support; we couldn’t have done it without you!  We continue to accept donations here: (http://www.mercycorps.org/people/catherine-ashcroft/refugees-jordan).  If you are interested in continuing your support, please mention Lexi’s name (Lexi Shereshewsky) in the comments so we can thank you personally!  

Operation Puppet Pals

Alex is the 13-year-old son of an American-French ex-pat family living in Kuwait, though he spent most of his childhood in Amman.  As a member of the boy scouts, Alex has been an active volunteer helping refugees living in Jordan.  This year, for his Eagle Scout badge, Alex started Operation Puppet Pals.   He rallied 100 volunteers of twenty different nationalities across borders and together, they made over 1,000 sock puppets for Syrian refugee children in Jordan.

Alex reached out to Mercy Corps and was put in touch with Catherine, the Director of Resource Distribution with whom Demetri and I worked.  It was a perfect opportunity, Catherine explained to him, as we had just started the ‘welcome kit’ project.  The bags of crayons, coloring books and small toys that we funded were being assembled by the boy and girl scouts of Amman.  When Alex arrived, as the last part of Operation Puppet Pal, he would be able to add the final piece – a colorful, cuddly, and comforting sock puppet for each kit.

We are proud to have been able to work with Alex and the rest of the scouts to make these bags possible.  This was a beautiful example of children helping other children in need.  We can all learn something from the generosity and dedication that Alex and the rest of the kids showed to bring the project to life.

We’ve made a tremendous impact for people over the past two months and to be able to help children like this is really special.  This is such a unique opportunity and we are thrilled to be able to continue to make a difference for people in this terrible time. We hope you enjoy these photos as much as we do.

Children's Packages

As most of you know, Demetri and I recently traveled to Jordan to help aid in the refugee response for Syrians displaced by the war.  Together, with over 120 of you, we raised almost $10,000 and invested our donations into items like clothing, powdered milk and sanitary supplies (diapers and pads).  The last thing we did, before leaving, was work with Mercy Corps to fund ‘welcome packages’ for children.  We used $2,000 to purchase crayons, coloring books, and the like that could be distributed to children who had just arrived in Jordan.

As you can imagine, war is really hard on children.  Kids have been out of school for over two years and have seen unimaginable suffering.  Many of their homes have been completely destroyed, friends and family have been killed, and now they are living in a different country as refugees.  The most basic things help.  While we were in Jordan, we handed out little bags of paper and crayons and the joy on children’s faces was truly beautiful (see picture below).  This was an important cause to us and when Catherine (our friend at Mercy Corps) told us that she was organizing a larger effort like this, we immediately got on board.

The packages have now been completed and through our donations, the team, with help from the boy and girl scouts of Jordan, has put together over 1,000 bags.  These include:

  • 1x coloring book with many pages and activities
  • 1x white page book for drawing – comes with sticky backing so they can be put up on walls!
  • Stickers
  • Crayons (10 colors, good quality)
  • Candy 4-5 small pieces
  • 2-3 Toys – various, small and some cuddly
  • 1-2 sock puppets
  • All the above is in a bright bag with stars, some are decorated more by children.
  • All bags are tied with ribbon

Each package is enough for at least three children meaning that over 3,000 children will benefit from this effort!  It is so fantastic and we can’t wait to share pictures with you as we receive them.

Everyone is so pleased with this project and the feedback has been really positive.  Helping bring joy to 3,000 suffering children is incredible but still there is a need.  The team is asking for donations to further fund this cause and we want to help.  As it was while we were in Jordan, 100% of donations will go towards providing writing utensils, art supplies, and small toys to the thousands of Syrian children living in Jordan.

We know that many of you have already donated generously. But if each of you takes the time to send this to 3-5 friends (letting them know that you’ve already donated), we can grow this effort and make a serious impact.

http://www.gofundme.com/249yoo

Toys

We received an update from Catherine at Mercy Corps today on the status of the art/toy kits for children and it is great news! Volunteers spent Sunday shopping in downtown Amman and purchased crayons, coloring books, drawing paper and candy (made in Syria). All purchases were funded by our donations.  An additional donation of 1,300 sock puppets from groups in the US and Kuwait will be added to the packets (see photo attached).  They will have a description in Arabic on how to use them. Volunteers from the Boy/Girl Scouts of America troops in Amman will be helping the team sort and assemble the kits. As Catherine and volunteers mentioned, it was a very fulfilling five hours on Easter Sunday.

We are so glad that we are able to keep up our efforts from the US!  Thanks and we’ll keep you posted with any new developments.

Final Thoughts

The last few days of our trip flew by.  It feels like a world of things happened since we last wrote on Tuesday night.  We spent our last day in Mafraq returning to the five homes we had visited the day before.  We brought mattresses, blankets, plastic rugs, gas canisters and stoves.  People were so happy to see us again, thankful that when we said we’d come back, we really did.  Women kissed me on both cheeks, men shook hands with Demetri, and children ran up to welcome us back.  Church volunteers carefully copied down each family member’s name and kept track of items distributed. This was done to ensure that each household received the same basic supplies.

There were difficult moments.  At one home we visited, the husbands of two of three sisters living in a converted storefront got in a physical fight over whether one family would be able to take the stove and gas canister with them when they left for another apartment.  While Demetri and the other men broke up the fight, I stood on the far side of the room squeezing the hand of a 15 year old girl.  She shook her head and said that she wanted to go back to the Zaatri camp which was, in her words, ‘heaven’ compared to their current living situation.  Another woman we visited was clearly suffering from PTSD—her eyes were glazed over and she had trouble remembering that we had visited her the day before.  Her two children were sick and the family’s poverty was so severe that one of the aid workers suggested that they might be better cared for in the Zaatri Camp.

In every neighborhood we visited, it was obvious that there were many families—Syrian and Jordanian—in need of help.  No sooner had we handed a package of diapers to one Syrian mother than there appeared two others asking for similar handouts.  The church volunteers were incredibly patient.  Every time one of the Syrians was upset over not receiving one item or another, the lead volunteer calmly explained that there were many families that needed help, and if a representative of the family would register at the church, volunteers would follow up to help them as best they could.

Despite the difficulties, there were also beautiful moments.  When we visited the families on Tuesday, we had brought small gifts of colored pencils, crayons and paper for all of the little kids.  At the second home we visited, the children came out of the house holding the crayons in their hands.  I asked the oldest girl, 9, if she had drawn anything since yesterday.  She said yes, taking my hand and leading me into their home.  Along the wall were about 8 pictures they had drawn.  They were so beautiful and you could see that they were so proud.  These poor little kids have gone through so much trauma.  They aren’t in school and don’t have opportunities to explore their creativity or escape their daily lives.  It felt so good to have been able to bring that to them.  We brought in a few more gifts (funded by your donations): construction paper, extra crayons, coloring books, and Arabic children’s books.  The eldest girl promised us that she would read them to her brothers and sisters.

It’s hard to know how long people will be in this situation.  The war gets worse each day and people are left with literally nothing; nothing in Syria and nothing in Jordan, either.  Several of the refugees told us that their homes were reduced to rubble in the fighting.  When the war ends, it will take time for people to be able to go home again.  The country is broken, infrastructure destroyed; people will be afraid of what and who they return to.  But they yearn to be back.  Leaving each family’s home, we told each other ‘see you next time in Syria, Inshaa Allah (God Willing)’.

We made a huge impact with your support.  In less than 30 days, we were able to raise $9,770 from 123 donors.  We spent every dollar you donated directly on clothing, formula for babies (600 1 lb. tins), diapers and sanitary napkins (approximately 190 packages of 48 child diapers, 230 packages of sanitary napkins, and 120 packages of adult diapers for the elderly and the injured), and we funded a Mercy Corps project to provide toys and art supplies to children as part of the starter kits described above.  The pictures attached show the items we bought but they can’t show how appreciative the families we met were to receive these basic necessities.

We are both committed to carrying on our efforts. Several of you have reached out to us about continuing to support Syrian refugees.  We will continue to accept donations on our gofundme site (http://www.gofundme.com/249yoo) and work with Catherine (our contact at Mercy Corps) to invest donations where they are most needed.  She has agreed to provide us with receipts and photographs of items that are purchased with our donations.  If there is something specific that has touched you or you feel that you want to be more involved in, let us know.  Opportunities we discussed with Catherine include sponsoring specific families, donating to Pastor Nour’s church and his local efforts, and continuing to purchase in-kind donations like those we bought this past week.  We encourage you to pass along our emails and the link above with anybody you think might want to help.  This has been an incredible experience for both of us.  Thank you again for being a part of it.

Mafraq

We’ve spent the last two days in Mafraq at Pastor Nour’s church.  Mafraq (which means crossroads in Arabic) is a city of about 60,000 on the Jordan/Syria border.  Since the conflict started in Syria in 2011, refugees have flooded the town.  Today, approximately 15,000 refugees live inside the city (the main camp, al-Zaatri, is only a few miles away).  Rent prices have skyrocketed and, unable to work, the Syrians are forced to live in terrible conditions.

Pastor Nour began his mission when there were fewer than a hundred refugees.  He started distributing the most basic essentials to people: mattresses, pillows, and gas stoves.  As the situation worsened and the number of refugees increased, he too increased his efforts.  Today, he has a community of both Jordanian and international volunteers and cooperates with major NGOs like Mercy Corps to continue his community outreach program.  With the donations we raised, we purchased 600 one-pound tins of powdered baby milk and another large shipment of diapers and women’s sanitary pads to be distributed through the church.  In fact, Lexi was able to hand out some of these items today to a group of 20 Syrian women.  They also selected clothing for themselves and their families from the bags we sent you pictures of last time.

The process begins when the church registers new refugees as they arrive to Mafraq.  They hold distributions at the church (like the one Lexi helped with), taking care to ensure that people are treated with respect and dignity. People have lost everything and it is humiliating to have to beg for simple things like second-hand clothing and milk.  In addition to distributions, field workers visit individual family homes to check in on them, bring supplies, and lend an ear and a shoulder for support.  Several volunteers mentioned how important it is to Syrians to host visitors—perhaps because hospitality is such a deeply ingrained part of the culture.

We’ve spent the last two days sorting supplies and accompanying the field workers on their visits.  The situation varies from family to family.  The first family we visited arrived from Homs, Syria three months ago.  Over Arabic coffee, they told us about the situation in Homs, their loved ones who were injured or killed, and their homes that were destroyed.  Like most Syrians, they were processed through the Zaatri refugee camp.  Although food, tents, medical care and schools for children are provided by the United Nations, many choose to leave because of poor conditions, security concerns, or maybe the humiliation of living in a camp.  Syrians can go only if they are sponsored by a Jordanian or someone living outside the camp.  With so many new arrivals, the cost of living in Mafraq has increased dramatically so it’s hard to know whether they’re better off in the camp or on their own.

This became quite clear this afternoon when we accompanied one of the Jordanian volunteers to visit newly-registered refugees.  After leaving the camp, each family (or group of families living together in most cases) is eligible to receive a ‘starter package’.  This includes mattresses, blankets, pillows, a gas stove and gas canister. The amount of assistance provided depends on how many members are in the family, the family’s financial situation, and amount of help they’re receiving from other charities.  One family we visited lived in a storefront that was divided for privacy with UNHCR-issued blankets.  Another, a family of four, lived in a concrete room with no bathroom behind a large animal corral.  While a Jordanian church volunteer verified the families’ information and needs, we passed out small gifts for the children (colored pencils, crayons, drawing paper, and sweets).  We will return tomorrow to each of the families we visited today to deliver the starter packages and spend time with families.  It’s late so we can’t write more.  We’ll send another update tomorrow with pictures.  Thank you again for all your love, support, and donations!

A Shopping Trip

Hello from Amman, Jordan! First and most importantly, thank you again for all of your support and donations—we passed $9,000 in total donations yesterday!! Lexi and I landed Friday evening and went straight to the apartment we’ve rented for the week. The manager of the property, Sama’an, met us and took us out to eat hummus, falafel, and other Arabic food we’ve been missing. It feels great to be back in the Middle East and speaking Arabic.

Yesterday morning, we met up with a group of Mercy Corps volunteers to shop for second-hand clothing to bring to Mafraq tomorrow.  Our team was made up of two Jordanian-Palestinians, three refugees from Eastern Syrian near the ruins of Palmyra, a documentary filmmaker from France, and a Syrian-American from California. With our eclectic group assembled, we went from shop to shop, filling huge sacks with used clothing. Suha, the lead negotiator, would introduce herself and explain that we were buying supplies to bring to Syrian refugees. It seemed the bargaining tactic was to introduce the Syrians next. Abdul-Salaam did the talking: a mixture of joking, cajoling, and appealing to the owner’s generosity, religion, and hospitality. People here have mixed feelings about the refugees: they are undoubtedly a strain on the economy and bring security risks but almost half of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin and thus relate to the refugee experience. In the end, the shopkeepers always relented. We bought hundreds of pairs of shoes for less than $3/pair, at least a thousand sweaters and shirts at four for $1, about 350 pairs of jeans for under $1.50 a pair, and a few hundred pairs of socks and underwear (new).  Moved to generosity and impressed by the sheer amount that we purchased, each shop owner threw in an additional bag (at least) of merchandise free of charge.  By the end, we had about 25 large sacks full of clothing (see pictures below).
All of the Mercy Corps volunteers and the Syrians in particular were incredibly appreciative of the support of our donors. The group faces a number of obstacles: there is no official UN funding for refugees who are living outside the refugee camps (where conditions are very difficult), they can’t raise money directly due to Jordanian restrictions on NGOs, and any goods shipped in to the country are taxed heavily. With the two of us on the ground to withdraw the cash and purchase items directly, we’ve been able to ensure that every dollar you donated went to buy needed items. In fact, we signed and kept copies of every receipt.

The team goes shopping approximately every 10 days but it is entirely dependent on when they have donations to finance their purchases. The scope of the need is incredible: thousands of Syrians cross in to Jordan every day, most coming with only the clothes on their backs (there are now over 500,000 refugees here). In-kind donations are difficult because they are of mixed quality and sometimes of questionable appropriateness (Suha mentioned donated miniskirts, espresso machines, and even wetsuits). Furthermore, they must be sorted and washed—Suha told us her kids began wondering why half their apartment was buried in clothing for other people. The clothing we were able to buy has all been cleaned, folded and prepared for sale by the merchants.

Tomorrow, we will drive up to Mafraq with other Mercy Corps volunteers. While we are both excited to deliver the truckload of clothing and other items, we are preparing ourselves for stories of terrible suffering. One of the Syrian volunteers told us his brother has been missing since May after being arrested for helping wounded opponents of the regime. Another, a driver, told us that he was imprisoned and tortured for over a month and a half after being caught bringing Syrian refugees to Jordan. The Syrian soldiers holding him captive debated killing him before deciding to leave him for dead in the desert. Somehow he made it to Amman and is now doing what he can to help his people. Many more stories surely await us in Mafraq. But we’re glad to be able to bring meaningful assistance to Syrians because of YOUR donations. Thank you again for all of your love and support. We will send another update when we have been to Mafraq.

On Our Way

The support and kindness that we have received from you over the last two and a half weeks has been incredible.  To date, we have raised $8,820.  Thank you so much.  We are leaving tomorrow night on a 10:30pm direct flight to Amman, Jordan.  Everything has been organized, reserved, purchased and even shipped in some cases (see below) and we are ready to go.  This is our first update.  As promised, we will be writing to all of you over the next week to keep you updated on our progress and to shed some new light on a very sad conflict.

So here is the schedule.  We will spend Saturday and Sunday in Amman shopping with a few local volunteers.  Catherine (Director of Resource Distribution at Mercy Corps and our amazing contact who has helped us every step of the way) has identified a few of the most needed items for Syrian refugees living in and around Mafraq, Jordan (see map).  She and local volunteers have established a network of dealers who sell items in huge quantities which are then sorted and shipped north.  We have already ordered a shipment of powdered milk and formula that is being delivered to Mafraq on Tuesday.  We’ll additionally be buying second-hand clothing and shoes for adults and children and sanitary items (i.e soap, diapers, feminine hygiene products).  To give you an idea of the amount that is needed, between 2,500-4,000 refugees arrive in Jordan each day and there are hundreds of thousands of people already there.  After we purchase the items, they’ll be sent to Catherine’s sorting center where we will help to organize them and load them into trucks to be shipped north.  We will then drive to Mafraq and spend the following days distributing items and visiting with families.

It is going to be very difficult but Demetri and I are excited to be able to help.  We’ve talked with Catherine quite a bit about the state of affairs.  People are really traumatized; many are wounded, and the situation is truly getting worse each day.  A little goes a long way and the fact that we’ve raised close to $9,000 is just incredible.  The impact of what we’ve all been able to do is going to be immediately felt and we are really looking forward to being your eyes on the ground.