Hurricane Maria Aftermath: Six Things You’ve Probably Forgotten about Puerto Rico but Shouldn’t

By: Carlos Carrazana

In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 90 years tore across the island, packing winds over 150 miles per hour. As is often the case these days, attention has moved on to other crises at home and abroad, but we must not forget Puerto Rico. In mid-April , after months of slow progress, the island completely lost power again. And for the American families still without basic services and the children who have collectively lost out on millions of full school days, the hurricane is still a daily reality.

Hurricane Maria aftermath
Shown here more than a week after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, local resident Isamar said her 8-year-old son was still nervous about the storm. Photo credit: Rebecca Zilenziger

Here are six things you’ve probably forgotten about Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico but shouldn’t.

  1. People were vulnerable before the storm. Nearly half of people on the island were living below the poverty level. The rising cost of goods, housing, and power was leading people to leave. The Pew Research Center reports that between 2005 and 2015, nearly 500,000 people left the island. A 2016 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found 56% of children in Puerto Rico in poverty and 36% in extreme poverty.
  1. Life is Not Back to Normal in Puerto Rico Today. Even before April’s massive blackout, 10% of the island remained without power and for more than 50% of households in some rural and mountainous regions, power has yet to be restored. Frequent blackouts across the island cause residents to relive the immediate effects of the hurricane long after it has passed. Some families still do not have clean drinking water or reliable sanitation systems. Because conditions on the island remain bad, more than 20,000 students have left the island and lost days, weeks and in some cases months of learning. Tens of thousands of houses still have tarp roofs.
  1. Schools in Puerto Rico are not fully operational. Today, some schools are still unable to operate on a full day schedule because they lack reliable power, which influences a wide variety of services like sanitation pumps, the cafeteria and learning. This is unacceptable and considerably slower than it took to reopen schools in Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Hurricane Irma. In addition to regaining power, it is imperative that the government develop a stronger plan to help children make up for lost learning and improve the quality of education on the island.
  1. As physical damage continues to be repaired, emotional wounds need attention too. Catastrophic natural disasters often cause people to witness wide-scale destruction, be torn from routine and normalcy, and sometimes even experience the loss of a loved one. At this point, black-outs serve to quickly remind people, and in particular, children, of the trauma they experienced. Psychological support is needed for parents, teachers, principals and caretakers in addition to the island’s children.
  1. Puerto Ricans are resilient and want to rebuild. I grew up in Puerto Rico. And in my multiple trips to the island over the past months, I have met countless people who are working as fast as they can to rebuild what was lost and build back their communities even better than they were before. That includes Alexandra and her brother, who I met in one of our child-friendly spaces while their parents worked to salvage all they had lost. The determination of their family to make Puerto Rico home again was motivating, and I know we can do better for the island.
  1. The next storm could be here sooner than we think. Now is the time to plan for what could be another active season. Save the Children will be working on emergency preparedness with the schools we support but a wider government plan must urgently be put into place.
Hurricane Maria aftermath
Carlos Carrazana, Chief Operating Officer of Save the Children, visits with children playing in a Community Based Children’s Activity (CBCA) site in Orocovis, Puerto Rico, in the fall of 2017. Photo credit: Rebecca Zilenziger

History will judge how American citizens and the government aided Puerto Rico not only in the immediate aftermath of the storm but also in the long-term recovery. There have been amazing stories of people helping one another and Puerto Ricans showing their strength and resiliency but simply put, more should have been done and more must be done. Puerto Ricans urgently need reliable, functioning power, and Congress should allocate more funding that puts children’s education and recovery needs front and center. And we all must resolve not to forget our fellow Americans who are still suffering seven months after Hurricane Maria.

Carlos Carrazana is the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Save the Children. Learn more about Save the Children’s Hurricane Maria response at savethechildren.org/Hurricane-Maria

Ebola: Fighting While Surviving

GregDuly

Greg Duly

Country Director

Liberia

March 2, 2015

 

SavetheChildren_Ebola_Liberia_Blog_March_2015As I reflect on the three weeks of my assignment thus far in Liberia I continue to be impressed by the dedication and sacrifices made by the Liberian national staff. We’ve had tremendous support from expats who’ve come from all parts of the world but our team is nearly 90% Liberians. Demonstrative of the incredible sacrifice and effort that the country has made. 

Unlike international personnel, these staff have had to “live” the reality of the Ebola epidemic in ways the rest of the world cannot contemplate. Not only are our national staff expected to work each day – and for the first few months of the epidemic this meant working seven days a week and 14 or more hours a day – they have also had to keep their families safe or find treatment for them. Simultaneously fighting the epidemic while being victims of its brutality. 

SavetheChildren_Ebola_Liberia_Kebeh_March_2015

Locals like Kebeh, a midwife in our Community Care Center, make up 90% of our aid workers in Liberia

The entire team has done an incredible job across a number of sectors, addressing the direct causes and problems of Ebola Virus with initiatives such as Emergency Treatment Units, Community Care Centres and Active Case Finding/Contact Tracing] while also addressing the indirect issues such as getting schools in shape for children to safely learn in them and aiding those children who have been orphaned.

Ultimately it will be Liberians who rebuild the country but that doesn’t mean the international community can’t help. I am very proud of the dedication & commitment of our Save the Children colleagues who’ve courageously left their current postings and offered to serve in Liberia, but I am humbled by the wholehearted commitment by our Liberian colleagues who have really stepped up to tackle this dreaded scourge.

To learn more about our Ebola response, click here.

Gaza/Israel: Where Evacuation is No Game

Osama-damo

Osama Damo

Senior Communications Manager for Save the Children’s Emergency Response Team in Gaza

July 22, 2014

 

At the bottom of my apartment building in Gaza two girls about six years old sit on the ground, laughing as they hurriedly pack items into their backpacks.

Intrigued, I ask them what game they are playing.

They tell me it’s called ‘evacuation’.

My heart sinks. These girls should not know the terror of an evacuation, yet now they are living through their third military conflict. These girls were taught the basics of surviving conflict before they were even taught the alphabet.

I too am living through the third major escalation of violence in Gaza since 2008, however, this time is completely different. It is more terrifying, the outlook even more grim and the mounting casualty list – especially children – growing at a far greater rate.

I write this at 2am from the confines of my apartment with my family. We are all awake and have been since 7am. It is impossible to sleep.

Though the streets below are eerily quiet, the noises we can’t block out are the constant bee-like hum of drones flying around and the terrifying thump of bombs as they smash into and explode on nearby buildings, as well as occasional screams mixed with windows and glass smashing. The air outside is thick with acrid smoke and the taint of explosives. 

Gaza-blog

The buildings rattle and shake with every bomb.

I have not left our apartment in days apart from hurried trips to get more food, I feel like I am a prisoner here.

Each day the situation gets more desperate.

Gaza is a city full of apartment buildings, we have power for only three hours a day and without electricity there is no way to pump water up to homes. Half of Gaza’s water services have been disrupted because of infrastructure damage caused by bombings, and households are running out of drinking water reserves.

Also, at least 85 schools and 23 medical facilities have sustained damage because of their proximity to targeted sites, and many other schools are being used to house those who have fled their homes.

And this all in a city where 80 percent of the population depended on humanitarian aid before the conflict started.

Sometimes the only thing we can do is joke about the situation, as morbid as this sounds. The last offensive in 2012 took place in the winter, and back then we told our children the bombs were actually lightning strikes and thunder.

But now, what can we tell them? It is summer. And so we laugh without humour, and tell each other that perhaps it is time to tell our children the truth.

Each day the fear within me is building, mostly for the impact this will have on children.

What will they grow up to be? When bombs seem to fall as regularly as rain, how will they ever view peace? Many children on both sides see this life as normal now, and that is a great tragedy.

For Save the Children – operating in Gaza since 1973 – the challenge is enormous and our staff often put themselves in danger to help.

Yesterday two staff risked their lives going to our warehouse to get medical supplies, then moved them to a hospital that was running out of supplies.

It is heroic acts like this that help public services like hospitals to keep running. Hospitals must have access to the equipment and medicine they need to treat the growing number of sick and wounded.

Save the Children is aiming to distribute 2500 hygiene kits and 2500 baby kits in the coming days, and will also open child friendly spaces once it is safe to do so. These provide children vital psychosocial support, and a place to forget about what they have been through.

No matter what, we will continue to provide vital services for children and families on both sides of the conflict, but ultimately the violence needs to stop.

Save the Children is calling for an immediate cease-fire and an end to the violence that has caused immense suffering to children and their families on both sides.

Beyond a ceasefire, we know that only a negotiated agreement between all parties to the conflict will bring about a lasting difference, including an end to the blockade in Gaza.

No child – Palestinian or Israeli – should have to live through rocket attacks, evacuations and military conflict, let alone three before their seventh birthday like the girls downstairs. For our children’s sake, let the violence end. Donate to Save the Children’s Gaza Children in Crisis Fund.

Save the Children works independently and impartially around the world – wherever there is need. We are currently working in Gaza and the West Bank. Save the Children, as a global organisation, is equally concerned about the wellbeing of children in Israel as those in the West Bank and Gaza.

Prepare Your Family for Hurricanes

Children at Play

Hurricane Sandy devastated the northeastern seaboard in 2012. Make sure your family is ready to respond to hurricanes.

Hurricane season has officially started, so what better time to observe Hurricane Preparedness Week and ensure your family is ready to weather any storm?   Every year, an average of 10 tropical storms develop over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico—and six of them are likely to become hurricanes.  These destructive storms can batter homes and whole communities with high winds, heavy rains, large waves, flooding and hail. Children are particularly vulnerable when disaster strikes, but the simple steps below can help protect your family.

 

10 Tips to Keep Children Safe in Hurricanes

PREPARE:

1. Talk about hurricanes. Spend time with your family discussing why hurricanes occur. Explain that a hurricane is a natural event and not anyone’s fault. Use simple words that even young children can understand.

2. Know your risk. Find out if you live in a hurricane evacuation area. Assess your risks from a storm surge, flooding or wind damage that may accompany a hurricane.

3. Practice evacuation drills. Practice your family evacuation plan so that, during an emergency, you can evacuate quickly and safely.

4. Learn your caregivers’ disaster plans. Ask about evacuation plans and if you would be required to pick up your children from the site or from another location.

5. Stay informed. Use a NOAA weather radio or listen to a local station on a portable, battery-powered radio or television.

 

DURING A HURRICANE:

6. Evacuate if instructed to do so. Evacuate if told to do so by local authorities or if you feel unsafe. If advised to evacuate, avoid flooded roads and watch for washed-out bridges. Local officials may close certain roads, especially near the coast, when effects of the hurricane reach the coast.

7. Stay indoors, if not evacuated. If you are not advised to evacuate, or are unable to do so safely, stay indoors, away from windows, skylights and doors. Continue to monitor weather reports and do not go outside until the storm has passed.

 

AFTER A HURRICANE:

8. Limit media exposure. Protect children from seeing too many sights and images of the hurricane, including those on the internet, television or newspapers.

9. Ensure utilities are available. Before children return to areas impacted by a hurricane, make sure utilities, such as electricity and plumbing, are restored and living and learning spaces (e.g., homes, schools, child care facilities) are free from physical and environmental hazards.

10. Involve children in recovery. After a hurricane, let children help in clean-up and recovery efforts in age-appropriate ways as this participation may increase their sense of control over the situation.

 

Additional Resources: The tips above are just the start of knowing how to prepare for and respond to hurricanes. Use the following resources to help ensure your family is ready for the next hurricane:

 

American Red Cross: Hurricane Preparedness. http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/hurricane

National Hurricane Center: Hurricane Preparedness—Be Ready http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/prepare/ready.php

 

Canada floods: I’m one of the 100,000 displaced.



C.malone_small

Colleen Malone, SCI Humanitarian Adviser

Canmore, Alberta, Canada

June 28, 2013


 

June 20  

Following the news of massive flooding in Canmore, in
the Rocky Mountains just west of my hometown,

Deserted_downtown

Deserted downtown. Emergency vehicles, stragglers, me standing in rain with sleeping baby in carrier.

Calgary. It is headed our way –
in fact it is arriving faster than anyone expected. We walk down to the bridge
crossing the Bow River just one block from our house; this morning the water
level was at the 2 feet marker, and in the afternoon it is at 7 feet.  We talk to a neighbour about the huge
flooding in 2005, and she says our neighbourhood didn’t have to evacuate then.
My visiting mother raises her eyebrows when I suggest perhaps she shouldn’t
sleep in the basement tonight. I am in the park playing with my 15 month old
daughter when I see pairs of police going door to door and a passerby shows me
the flyer they are handing out: we are under a mandatory immediate evacuation
order. We are told just to pack for a night. We hurriedly throw stuff in bags
and the baby wears the new tiny backpack we had happened to buy for her the day
before; she looks like she is heading out on an adventure.

 June 21

Donated_items

So much donated stuff and so many volunteer hours, but many needs remain for Siksika families.

Waking up early in the downtown hotel room we were
lucky enough to snag, we notice the power go out. And then the back up power.
About 6 hotel staff shine their cell phones as I walk down 8 flights of pitch
black stairs with the baby. Do we stay in a hotel with no power or look for
somewhere else to stay? Every hotel we call is fully booked. As the baby naps
in her carrier, I stand in the pouring rain on a deserted downtown street; a
few other stragglers here and there.  Emergency
vehicles are the only ones on the move. The river pathways – and the streets – are
filling with water. Nothing is open, nowhere to eat. Downtown is being
evacuated.

 

June 22

A friend is out
of town and is letting us stay in her house. We are among about 100,000 people
who have been displaced from their homes. Evacuation centres are sheltering around
1,500 people – everyone else is like us, benefiting from the kindness of
friends and families. Our friend has a baby a bit older than my daughter. My
daughter is delighted with all the other baby’s toys and books, and I am so
relieved to be able to put her safely to sleep in a safe, quiet, comfortable
place. But I want to go home. I see pictures from our neighbourhood – the
pathway just across the street from our house has disappeared under about 13
feet of water. The Bow is rushing with just slightly less than the force and
volume of Niagara Falls.

 

June 23

The rain has
cleared at last and the air is fresh and crisp, but any thoughts of playing in
the park across

Flooded_house

Like a tsunami: one of many houses just like it across Calgary's flood damaged 'hoods.

the street are dashed by the swarming, huge clouds of
mosquitoes. Starting to get a bit stir crazy. Baby watches her Dada, Mama and
Nana all transfixed by their smart phones, iPads and the TV news. All her
caregivers are distracted and it isn’t good for anyone. While we are pretty calm
on the outside, I can feel stress building with each day away from home. I am
addicted to Twitter updates and spend all day trying to find news of our
neighbourhood and when we will be allowed home. Part of my neighbourhood is literally
slipping into the Bow and no one has power. So frustrated by the lack of even
an estimated timeframe of when it might be safe to return – we need to leave
our friend’s house so where should we go? For how long?

 

June 24

Flood_clothes

Monochrome #YYC: husband's clothes after day gutting mucky, water-logged basements of friends & strangers.

Home! The
evacuation order has been lifted for our neighbourhood. We have no power but
our house is amazingly, thankfully dry. Others are not so lucky – our
neighbourhood is a mess. The streets are all covered in river mud and chalky dust
blows through the air. The river is still dangerously high and sink holes are
appearing in the roads and sidewalks. Volunteers are dragging out the contents
of neighbours’ basements and throwing them into dumpsters. One neighbour asks
me why we store away precious things instead of enjoying them. She is cheerful
and bizarrely hospitable, but her voice catches briefly as she pitches her
water damaged family treasures in the dumpster. As is the case in every neighbourhood
every day, free food and coffee is being provided to volunteers and flood
victims, and businesses with trucks, dumpsters and pumps show up to help. We take
our daughter to the only place open for dinner, the local truck stop, with some
friends and their baby. The two girls ‘wow’ and ‘beep beep’ at the model train
running around the restaurant while the adults share flood stories. We put our
daughter to sleep at last in her own bed, and light candles in our cold dark
house. The normally busy neighbourhood is entirely quiet except for the
constant hum of pumps and generators.

June 25

Although we are
home, all is not back to normal. My husband’s office is closed, as much of the

Flood_pathway

Pathway and park less than 1 block from our house disappears downhill under about 13ft of water.

downtown core remains without power. He is helping friends and strangers gut
their basements, right back to the studs, slipping through thick river muck. I
am heading out to do an assessment for Save the Children of the Siksika First
Nation, a reserve east of Calgary that was devastated by the floods. My
daughter is not herself; she clings to me at every chance and wants ‘up, up.’
We are trying to get her back into her routine but me leaving her behind,
instead of simply going into my home office, is not part of that routine. She
has to be distracted while I leave, feeling terrible. I’m told she cries for me
whenever she sees my empty office.

 

June 26

Flood_food_truck

Wherever you turn in affected communities, generous restos and food trucks serving free food.

Out for a second
day with the Siksika First Nation. It strikes me as I prepare to leave that
while it is a much too common experience for so many of our staff around the
world, this is the first time I’ve headed out for a day of emergency assessment
or response from my own home. The Siksika are quite literally overwhelmed by in
kind donations: the sportsplex that is serving as an evacuation centre has
mountains of donated clothes, toiletries, toys, baby supplies, and bottled water.
But the kids are climbing the walls – there is nothing to do, nowhere to go. No
running water, no showers, lines of porto-potties. Fortuitously and
coincidentally, a company from Calgary has donated and set up a tent just
outside the sportsplex that is ideal for a child friendly space, and the centre
staff are keen to have us establish one. On our way out, we talk to a family
camped outside in a tent. The parents went through the residential school
system; they don’t want to sleep inside in an institutional setting. No one
knows when they will be able to drink the water, let alone go home.

 

Charitable contributions from people like you make it
possible for us to respond to emergencies in Canada and around the world. By
contributing to our Children's Emergency Fund, you will enable us to
immediately serve children through disaster planning, preparedness, response
and recovery work.  Donate here
http://bit.ly/14CvNrx

 

Finding Hope in Haiti

I expected to be disappointed. Disappointed that more had not been done; disappointed that there were still families living in squalor in tent cities; disappointed that there was still no

Board Member Bill Haber visits with children in Leogane

education or health system; disappointed that there wasn’t more progress. And while I saw things that made me frustrated and angry on my fourth trip to Haiti since the January 2010 earthquake, I also came away with a real sense that there is a chance for this country. A chance that wasn’t there before. A chance for a better future in a place that never seems to catch a break, whether from natural disasters or bad governance. There was a very different feeling, a palpable sense of hope in the air this time—especially from Haitians themselves.

 

While it’s far from the most important thing, the streets are finally mostly clear from rubble (80% now cleared, according to the UN) and the listing or crumbling buildings are finally down, from the Presidential Palace to the Ministry of Finance to many of the flattened apartment buildings. Even though families are still far from housing secure, more than 70% of those displaced by the earthquake are no longer living in tents. Importantly, small businesses are booming, with most average Haitian citizens working in small local enterprise. The economic growth is not as robust as we all would have wanted, but it’s expected to be close to 3%—which, in the current global slowdown, is better than many countries.

 

But what’s most promising to me is the state

Bringing Relief in the Wake of Typhoon Bopha

Anonymous manNorman
Gagarin, 
Water Sanitation and Hygiene Program Officer

Mindanao, Philippines

December 5, 2012


 While the residents of Mindanao were still
fast asleep Tuesday morning, Typhoon Bopha approached the southeastern coastline
of the Philippines, packing 130mph of wind and heavy rain. The powerful winds
and rain were unlike anything I had ever seen before.

ETH_0409_92599Despite being a much stronger typhoon than
Typhoon Washi, which killed more than 1,200 people– most of them children -last
December,the fact that people were vigilant made all the difference in this
storm.The day before it hit, I watched as the people of Mindanao prepared for
the arrival of Typhoon Bopha, or Pablo as it is known locally. Families stocked
up on food, water and other essential supplies in stores while others packed up
their most precious belongings and headed off to evacuation centres all over
the island. This is stark contrast from the scene last year, where many failed
to heed warnings from authorities to evacuate.

“I’m happy that my parents brought my
siblings and me here before the storm,” a child at an evacuation centre in
Cagayan de Oro told me. “We feel safe here from the storm.” Cagayan de Oro was
one of the worst-hit cities in Mindanao after Typhoon Washi. Many children
displayed signs of distress following that disaster and required psychosocial
support from the government and aid agencies like Save the Children.

RS48117_Picture1[1]Indeed, it is a relief to see that both
children and adults were more vigilant ahead of this typhoon, the worst storm
to hit the Philippines this year. Mindanao does not experience typhoons often,
and as a result, the residents here are less prepared than others.

Still, immediate relief like food, water,
medicine and other household items are needed.Water, sanitation and hygiene, or
WASH, is my area of expertise and we know that water supplies may be
contaminated, and with large swathes of
Mindanao flooded and without electricity, assessing the extent of the damage and
bringing water trucks to evacuation centres will be tricky for the authorities
and aid agencies alike.

Click to donate to our Philippines Annual Monsoon and Typhoon Children in Emergency Fund.

Save
the Children has been working in the Philippines since 1981 and has decades of
experience responding to emergencies in the Philippines. We have mounted
large-scale emergency responses to Typhoon Washi in 2011 and Typhoon Ketsana in
2009.

Being there, staying there


StevewellsSteve Wells,
– Emergencies Logistics Manager

Atlantic City, New Jersey 

November 4, 2012


Things change.  Everything
from changes in the weather to the addition or loss of a family member, we’ve
all experienced how changes both big and small canshape our lives.

Emergency situations also change, frequently and often with
little advance warning.In the past two days, our Hurricane Sandy response team
has seen many of the children and families residing in New Jersey and New York community
shelterson the move again. They’re gathering the few belongings they can carry
on their backsand loading packed busesen route to longer-term mega shelters.

This progression is not unusual, as it means that the
families are a step closer to returning home. But more moving means more change
for kids. And many changes, especially in an unfamiliar situation, can take a
toll on children, who rely on the familiar to feel safe and secure.

Save the Children wants to help provide children with a
sense of familiarity through structuredactivities in our Child-Friendly Spaces,
and when the kids move, we move with them.

Yesterday, we met Dayvon, an exuberant 6-year-old who sang
while he colored pictures of his friends on a large banner in our Child-Friendly
Space in northern New Jersey.  Although
he made new friends at the shelter, he sorely missed his friends from home
saying, “I really hope that they are okay. I don’t know where they are.”

During our scheduled Child-Friendly Space time, Dayvon’s
shelter got the call to close down and transport its residents to a larger
shelter where the populations of a dozen smaller shelters would be
consolidated. When Dayvon’s mom returned to space to tell him it was time to
leave, Dayvon started to cry. He didn’t want to move again, he didn’t want to
leave his new friends and the familiar faces of the Save the Children staff.  Eventually, his mom was able to calm him and
we gave him the banner the children had colored together.  Before he walked out the door, he peeked over
his shoulder and said “see you later,” which melted our hearts, as we didn’t
know where Dayvon and his mother were headed,or if we would see him later.

Our team quickly identified the new shelter sites and
mobilized our staff to set up Child-Friendly Spaces in the new locations.  We drove 2-3 hours, worked with shelter
management and by the time we were carrying activity kits in the door, a dozen
buses were offloading  and in the shuffle
we heard a cheerful , “Hey!” It was Dayvon and his mother, Dayvon still
clinging to the poster we had made together hundreds of miles and several hours
before.

That moment was truly the highlight of Save the Children’s
response thus far. Seeing Dayvon’s beaming, toothy smile and knowing that we’re
helping give these kids a sense of consistency and normalcy despite their constantly
changing circumstances. In the new shelter we’ve seen many of the children we
worked with previously at smaller shelters and, for each one of the kids, it’s
a happy reunion.  And that’s what it’s
all about — not just being there when the disaster hits, but staying there and
ensuring children and families have the resources they need to cope with
disaster and rebuild their lives.

There are still
thousands of families living in shelters unable to storm-ravaged home and we
plan to stick with them, even when the media cameras have left and public
attention is diverted.Thank you for your support and following us through the
Hurricane Sandy response.

 Please give generously to our Hurricane Sandy Relief fund or Text
HURRICANE to 20222 to donate $10 to Hurricane Sandy Relief from your
mobile phone. When you receive a text message, reply YES. (Standard text
messaging rates apply.) Read the fine print.

What Is A Woman In Syria?


Cat CarterCatherine Carter, Emergency Communications Manager

Za'atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

September 26, 2012


I walk through Za’atari camp on the Jordan/Syria border. The air is thick with yellow dust and it swirls up in a sandstorm, temporarily blinding me. I stop, blinking furiously, and see a woman sat with her children on a mattress nearby.

She is out in the open air in the reception centre, and seems detached from the chaos around her. I walk over to her, crouch down and introduce myself.

Mona

She responds: “My name is Mona. It is not my real name, because I cannot tell you that. I am too afraid of what might happen.”

People fleeing war are often wary of telling strangers about their experiences, worried for family still in the war zone, terrified of retribution.

We talk for a while about why I am here, in this camp. We talk about the importance of speaking out about what we see, why it matters to ensure people’s stories are known. Then we talk about Mona, and how she left Syria, and why.

Life is fear

“Life in Syria…is fear. Everyone is afraid. Sometimes it is quiet, and you are waiting for it to start. And then it is bombardment, and you are waiting for it to end. I kept thinking it would get better, but it kept getting worse”.

I glance at her children, with her on the mattress. Mona touches the face of her youngest, a beautiful child of about 3.

“My children cry in their sleep. They have lost their childhood.”

I ask about their home, and her husband. “My husband…built our home from scratch. In total it took him 12 years. It was burnt down in no more than an hour.” Mona begins to weep, and I do not ask again where her husband is.

To be a woman

As we are finishing our conversation, I ask her about women in Syria, and what they are facing.

“I’ll tell you what it is to be a woman in Syria now. As a woman you are either saying goodbye to someone or trying to protect your children from shells. That is all.”

Please support our campaign to protect children in Syria and donate to support our work with refugees.