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Gaza’s Miracle Tomatoes

photo 1Crossing through the Israel’s Erez Crossing checkpoint and seeing the bleak landscape as you pass through the Fatah and Hamas checkpoints inside Gaza, it’s hard to imagine anything growing at all—let alone a flourishing garden. As we walked down the narrow pathway enclosed in wire mesh in the “no man’s land” of the Access Restricted Area, all we saw were donkeys pulling carts filled with rubble and surrounded by men and boys along harsh, rocky earth.  The boys and men salvage concrete, wire and metal from bombed out factories.  Others herd sheep and camels through dusty barren patches with little vegetation in sight. And it goes on like this for miles from the wall separating Gaza and Israel.  But just 20 minutes away, a farmer and his extended family met us on the dirt path and took us to see something entirely—and amazingly—different.

 

Outside a lush green field of healthy looking beans, spinach, and other vegetables and inside a simple greenhouse, he proudly pointed to row after row of beautiful red tomatoes literally falling off their vines.  This is the result of a recently-concluded project by Save the Children and other partners and funded by USAID, which helped farmers in Gaza feed their families and make a living.  The project provided help through improvement of water access and irrigation, as well as through technical training and provision of materials like plastic greenhouse sheeting.  The grandfather we visited had clearly benefited and was now running his small farm with much higher productivity and vastly increased ability to not only feed his family with his own vegetables but to take his crops to market.  There, he could sell it for needed income for additional food, school supplies for his children, and improved shelter for his large extended family, including several of his sons and their wives and children. The miracle tomatoes and beans and spinach were truly supporting them all.

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As we drove through the streets of Gaza and heard from residents about the impact of border crossing restrictions on children there—the rising rates of malnutrition and resulting stunting, the lack of basic medicines and care when children became sick, and the severe circumstances disabled children were in—I kept a hopeful thought in my head: those bursting red tomatoes we tasted on our visit.

 

They give me hope that children inside Gaza might see better days ahead, with good food to eat so they can thrive and grow like the magical garden that has been able to flourish the middle of dust and dirt.

Living in Limbo

Syrian children across the region have it very tough. There are now almost three million refugees who have fled Syria since the war started more than three years ago and an estimated 50% of them are children. They spread across five countries, with the highest number in Lebanon—nearly 1 million refugees living there in informal camps and in towns and cities. The country with the second highest number of displaced Syrians is Turkey, where most refugees live along a border that has not only geographic but cultural, historic, and economic ties with Syria.

 

Carolyn_Turkey_blog_2014Children here face many challenges, including the fact that most older children cannot go to school because they don’t speak Turkish. Families move constantly, trying to find work to make enough to feed themselves. But the children who have it toughest are those who are orphaned or are unaccompanied and living with extended family. Being a Syrian orphan means your father has died and thus you and your mother likely do not have any support unless family members or aid steps in to help.

 

We found a special kind of support for these children when we visited a local school. An amazing woman we met, Rana*, runs a school for orphaned Syrian children living in Antakya, giving them a bright and cheery school in which to spend their time with instruction in their native Arabic and, importantly, tutoring in Turkish and English as well. The school swells with up to 300 children in a tiny three-story house when school is in full session. When we visited, it was the start of summer vacation so there were about 60 children ages 4 through 13. Most of the children were smiling and playful, though painfully there were a few who hung back and only looked at us with sad eyes when we tried to play and smile with them. All of them had lost at least one parent—some both—and had been taken in by aunts, uncles or neighbors coming from Syria.

 

Save the Children is supplying some emergency aid to the school in the form of summer clothes and shoes, as well as school materials, but it’s not enough. Rana struggles to find support for the school, needing to pay the rent, teacher salaries, cost of instructional materials, and transportation costs to allow the children to get across town to attend. She is also raising two disabled boys as well as two other children and, despite those challenges, she raises much of the funding for the school herself. Her selflessness makes her school a bright spot for children who have been through so much, and still face so many challenges.

 

As we ended our visit, one of the youngest girls posed proudly outside the school as the bus pulled up to take her home. Rana and her teachers stood on the curb ready to help the children onto the bus. It was an ideal picture of happy student and steadfast teacher—but the circumstances are far from ideal. I hope on my next trip back to Turkey I can see Rana’s work with children grow even stronger thanks to greater support for the Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.

 

*Names have been changed.

Moms are the Heroes

We’ve all heard it before in one form or another: “Don’t get between a mother and her baby,” “There is nothing better (or worse depending on your position!) than a fired up mom” or “Mothers are their kids’ best advocates. However you phrase it, I see evidence of this everywhere I go for my work as Save the Children’s CEO and, I guess, Mom-in-Chief. It plays out whether I’m in Washington, DC or Lexington, Kentucky or the Bekka Valley of Lebanon. And during my trip last week to rural Nepal, I saw it again in full force.

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No Birth Should Be Left Up to Chance

This blog first appeared in the Huffington Post

 

Giving birth ranks among the scariest moments for any mother. It certainly was for me. I was living in Hong Kong at the time when my second of three children was born. And he was born in a hurry. He came so fast that I actually thought I’d give birth in our car on the way to the hospital! Fortunately, that didn’t happen and I safely delivered my son Patrick surrounded by a team of well-trained doctors and nurses, not to mention my loving (and relieved!) husband by my side.

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But I’m one of the lucky ones.

 

As new research released today by Save the Children reveals, 40 million women give birth without any trained help whatsoever. What’s more, 2 million women give birth entirely alone.

 

I met one

From the Philippines, With Love

The following blog first appeared on The Huffington Post.

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I met with amazing students at an elementary school in Tacloban, which suffered extensive damage during Typhoon Haiyan. Classes are now conducted in tents adorned with the children’s artwork. Photo credit: David Wardell for Save the Children
I met with amazing students at an elementary school in Tacloban, which suffered extensive damage during Typhoon Haiyan. Classes are now conducted in tents adorned with the children’s artwork. Photo credit: David Wardell for Save the Children

Love. If there is a single word that best describes what I witnessed during my visit to the Philippines last week, then that’s it. Love of family. Love of community. Love of people. Love of life.

 

So what better day than Valentine’s Day to celebrate the dedication, perseverance and, of course, love between the communities, families and children in the parts of the country that were devastated by Typhoon Haiyan? I would also like to mention a specific passion that came up over

Syrian Kids, Lebanese Schools: A New “Normal”

 

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When we came inside the tent, the Syrian family of eight welcomed us warmly and urged us to sit close to the small stove in the center for warmth.

 

While the weather had improved from the previous weeks when a winter storm dropped several inches of snow and temperatures dropped below freezing, it was still very chilly.  It looked like the children were wearing many of the clothes they owned, layer upon layer, though the smallest little girl still had bare feet.  With our Lebanon team translating, we talked and learned how this family fled Syria under fire on their farm near Homs and had been living in this makeshift camp of about 100 families for close to a year.  None of the children, from high school age down to four years old, had been able to go to school since they left home—but their father talked proudly about how they had excelled back in Syria, when all had a house to live in and a school to go to. Now, he said, he feared they would fall so far behind they could never catch up.  And we learned later that several of the children were working as laborers to support the family, something the father was too ashamed to tell the strangers who came to visit.

 

Child refugees from Syria now number over one million across the region, with an estimated 400,000 in Lebanon alone.  For most of these children, their childhood has been put on hold and for many it will never be revisited.  Many teenagers will most likely never go back to school.  What will this mean for the future of Syria when families are finally able to return?

 

My first trip to Lebanon since the crisis in Syria was a sobering one.  It is a country of about four million people and is now home to close to one million refugees from Syria—25% of its population.  That’s like if 75 million people suddenly arrived on our borders in Texas or California.  We would certainly be reeling if such a thing happened and the Lebanese are struggling too.  Given the infrastructure challenges of such a huge influx of people, it’s not a surprise that many children have not been able to get into school even two or three years after they left Syria.

 

Luckily, small efforts are making a big difference for these children. We visited a government school in Bekaa Valley that has agreed to run “second shift” programs for Syrian children.  Here, with support from Save the Children, kids are able to come to school in the afternoons for about three hours, after the regular classes have left, and have basic instruction in math, reading and science in their native languages of Arabic and English.  Some instruction in regular Lebanese classrooms is in French, a language very few Syrian children speak, making it tough for Syrian children to attend regular classes in Lebanon. Though “second shift” does not provide a full day of instruction, dedicated teachers are able to at least keep kids leaning and engaged.  

 

IMG_5436But probably the biggest benefit of this effort is what being back in the classroom means for these children emotionally.  In stark contrast to the quiet, withdrawn children we met in tents in the makeshift camps, kids at the school were smiling, jumping up eagerly to answer the teacher’s questions, joking and playing with us and just so obviously happy to be in school, a place that seemed to finally make them feel like normal kids again.

 

It’s heartbreaking to think that millions of kids inside and outside Syria aren’t benefiting from being in a classroom. Save the Children is working hard to make sure that more Syrian children have the chance to get back to school, get back to a (new) “normal” and get back to experiencing the childhood they need and deserve.

 

You can help the Children of Syria by joining my fundraising team at SavetheChildren.org/refugee

2014 Must be a Better Year for Kids

This past year, like so many other years, saw its share of challenges for children around the world. There were the more than one million refugee children who fled Syria, the tens of thousands of young children who lost their homes and loved ones in Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the over 300,000 babies in India that died on their very first day of life this year.

 


DSC_6020But the children I remember from 2013 were the individual kids I briefly got to know in my travels to our programs around the world.
Here are the stories of just a few of these children who are living in impossible and heartbreaking situations—but looking forward to a brighter future thanks to the efforts of my colleagues and partners around the world:

 

Exancé was a sad 13 year-old boy, tiny for his age, who I met in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in November. Though he couldn’t tell us all the details of his young life, the haunted look behind his eyes told me that it had already been full of pain. Exancé was found on the streets, living in a filthy alleyway after his parents had turned him out of their house. He was surviving each day by hauling garbage for the fruit and vegetable sellers in the market, paid in scraps of food and a corner to sleep in. One of the vendors in the market is a volunteer for Save the Children and alerts our team when a child is found abandoned and looking for shelter. When I met Exancé, he was in a quiet courtyard meeting with our team, who worked to convince him to

Courageous Work in Freezing Temperatures

With more than half of the United States under a blanket of snow this week, it’s clear that winter is here! The frosty weather has arrived in full force—but it’s not just the Midwest or East Coast where winter is making itself felt. The winter snow storms have started in Lebanon and Jordan, and my Save the Children colleagues abroad are going above and beyond for Syrian refugees.

 

RS69214_IMG_1841I received an email from our Country Director in Jordan, Saba, who is leading a fearless team in very difficult circumstances. This past weekend, when accumulated snow flooded refugee tents, the team worked through the night to evacuate families to some of our Child Friendly Spaces, which were prepared as emergency shelters. They moved 134 families, including 431 children, into the heated shelters and provided warm clothing, food, mattresses and blankets. Saba noted that, despite the hours and the strain, “we will continue to work as needed” to look after children’s needs.

 

This snow is the first sign of the treacherous winter in the region that will only increase suffering for children and their families. Between November and February, temperatures can drop well below freezing—and for more than two million refugees

Lending a Dollar in a City of Diamonds

 

After a weekend in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I traveled to see a Save the Children program in Mbuji Mayi, a city about 600 miles into the interior of the country. On my way to the office, I was amazed by the number of diamond trading outlets along the main streets. Diamond mining is big business but the people who mine them—oftentimes children—receive very little pay in exchange for the gems that people will pay thousands for around the world.

The diamond business is a glaring contrast to the widespread poverty most families face in the DRC. The majority of the population lack access to basic services, with more than half of the population living on less than a dollar a day. In addition, relentless conflict has nearly destroyed the country’s infrastructure and economy in the east. The existence of rich natural resources in

On the Streets of Kinshasa, Finding the Path Back to Childhood

Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is as busy a place as any in the world. There are swarms of people, crowded streets and traffic jams. The streets of Kinshasa are always bustling—but for a child growing up on the streets, it is one of the toughest places I have seen for anything resembling a happy childhood. So Save the Children is working in Kinshasa to strengthen family and community networks to prevent family separation caused when families are too poor to support their kids and provide assistance to children in need.

 

When I traveled to DRC earlier this month I met Exancé, a 13 year-old boy who calls the Kinshasa streets home. Exancé had been expelled from his family when his parent’s marriage failed—not an uncommon occurrence. The break-up of his family led him to a secluded courtyard by a city marketplace, where he begged for food from traders or money from passing motorists. He was hungry, withdrawn and so far removed from the life that a 13 year-old should have. But thanks to a local merchant who volunteers for Save the Children to identify at-risk street children, was placed in a safe place to live—a transitional center run by a local partner—and have a chance to reclaim some of the sense of childhood that he lost. Best of all, the world to try to reconnect him to his parents would begin.

 

Exancé is one of the lucky ones, and safe accommodation may make all the difference. At one such residential center for young boys, Centre BanayaPoverda, I met Gabriel—a 15 year-old whose story is very much a parallel to Exancé’s. When his father remarried after the death of his mother, he was beaten and kicked out of the house with no other option than to join the