Providing light and hope for thousands

To say that it’s been an amazing week would be a drastic understatement. Thinking of everything that we’ve learned in the past three days alone is mind blowing—and this is only the beginning.

This week we got to learn about the many ways that the IKEA Foundation contributes to the lives of thousands of refugees—but for the rest of this article, I’m just going to refer to them as people… because that’s what they are. Normal people like you and me, displaced from their homes. From their country. From their families, friends, colleagues—everyone. And while their world was falling apart, as they fled across the border, their neighbour, Jordan, accepted them with open arms.

Have you ever helped a neighbour out before? Maybe they needed some milk… or wanted you to look after their cat for a week. You did it, right?

As of March 2015, there were 680,155 refugees of all nationalities in Jordan—627,287 of them Syrian. And they all needed more than milk. They needed shelter. Food. Safety. And the people of Jordan responded with overwhelming support, despite having already limited resources themselves. Around 54% of these people are children.

Some children run up to greet us in the Zaatari Refugee Camp - by Ryan
Some children run up to greet us in the Zaatari Refugee Camp – by Ryan

These people were used to living in conditions just like me—in an urban environment, with electricity, water, their own homes, cars, games, toys, sports, electronics, television, etc. And so it makes sense that many would rather live in the city than in one of the two massive camps set up to house them.

That is why of the 680,155 people, only 100,707 live in camps. That means there’s almost 580,000 people living in an urban environment in Jordan. Sadly, two thirds of Syrians are living under the poverty line. Of the 1.4 million foreigners the government of Jordan has registered in its country, there have only been approximately 7,000 work visas issued. So, in all likelihood, those living in the city don’t have a job, or at least not a legal one. And if they are caught working illegally? They could very well be sent back to Syria.

But of course, they are provided with cash assistance, food assistance, right? Unfortunately, the funding for the Jordan mission is drying up… and this means limited resources. Of all these people, only around 22,000 of them are receiving cash assistance from the UNHCR. And the cash assistance they receive is barely enough to live on.

Food assistance? The WFP (World Food Programme) provides many with food assistance, but due to a recent reduction in funding, many have gone from receiving 20 JD a month per person to 10 JD a month per person (1 JD = 0.75 CAD). Imagine having your child ask you why… why are you not giving me enough food to eat? I’m hungry.

As a parent, how do you respond to that? Many here face that reality daily.

On top of everything, these are people who have come from a country waging a civil war. Where your neighbour could be reporting on you. Trust is not something that comes easily. Those we met living in the city have very little community to rely on. Despite there being a great many Syrians living in the city, they seem hesitant to join together and support each other. Many are afraid to leave their apartments. Despite being in a “safe” environment, they do not feel truly safe. Another area of concern for us was the number of children not attending schools.

In a typical refugee environment, families and children are thrilled to attend school. Not so much here, with a school enrolment rate of only 34%. There seem to be many different reasons why they are uninterested in attending school, some children saying they are embarrassed to go to school without new clothes, fearing that they will be made fun of. Others feel like they have fallen too far behind and do not wish to attend school outside of their grade level. Perfectly normal reasons, things that would seem very familiar to us.

One child we met had broken his glasses, and his parents do not have the money to repair or replace them right now. This is considered a nonessential item and not covered by the health care services. He tried going to school with them taped together but was made fun of and has since refused to return.

There are many, many more heartbreaking stories just like these all across the country. And more to come. There could be as many as eight million displaced Syrians in the coming years, and they all need to go somewhere.

What about those who have chosen to stay in the camps?

Dave and another IWitness visiting some kids in the Zaatari camp - by Ryan
Dave and Monica, visiting some kids in the Zaatari camp – by Ryan

One thing I can say about these camps is that there is a great feeling of community here. How could there not be? Everyone is living in very close quarters, sharing many things.

We had the chance to visit the health services in the Zaatari camp, which handles around 700 consultations a day. Just like everything else in this amazing operation, it is efficient and respectful. Over 350 children were born in the camps last year—a number they have already exceeded this year.

A doctor in the Zaatari Health Centre shares with the IWitness team the daily life of a doctor in the camp - by Ryan
A doctor in the Zaatari Health Centre shares with the IWitness team the daily life of a doctor in the camp – by Ryan

The staff there are amazing and truly dedicated to their work.

We also had a chance to visit the marketplace, a huge draw in the Zaatari camp. It’s a row of shops created by the people themselves with no official support—truly amazing to see. It was here that we actually met up with a former IKEA co-worker from Saudi Arabia who is now a refugee living in the camp. The IWitness group from Norway last year met him, so we got the chance to have lunch with him and see how things are going now. It was a very impactful experience and again really drives home the message—it could be you.

Former IKEA co-worker (back middle) joins us in having lunch, sharing his stories over the past year
Former IKEA co-worker (back middle) joins us in having lunch, sharing his stories over the past year

Back to the market—you can buy everything here—cell phones, toys, electronics. You can even rent a wedding dress!

A stall in the marketplace to purchase shoes
A stall in the marketplace to purchase shoes

This, of course, brings up the subject of weddings… and a concern by the UNHCR about the number of young, underage women being married. Many marry for security, and of course right now the sense of security amongst this group of people is not high. Underage girls are frequently getting married because the families think they will be safer that way. This can lead to underage pregnancy, another mouth to feed and child to support, and of course, more young people not attending school.

It’s a vicious cycle.

The Azraq camp sign as you drive in
The Azraq camp sign as you drive in

In the Azraq camp, we had the opportunity to see some of the impact IKEA has had directly on the Jordan mission, and one of the focuses of our Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign. There is no electricity in this camp yet—no light, no TV, no computers, no cell phones… could you live like that?

One of the solar lights issued to every family. The main piece on the left can be used either as a lantern by putting the light into the slot on the right, or a reading light/flashlight as it is used now
One of the solar lights issued to every family. The main piece on the left can be used either as a lantern by putting the light into the slot on the right, or a reading light/flashlight as it is used now

The solar panel is detachable and can be placed several metres away (e.g. on top of a roof) to allow for easy charging, and the cables at the back are used to charge cellular phones or other USB devices with a variety of connectors.

The IKEA Foundation donated funds for solar lamps to provide light to people at night, and to allow them to charge their phones—providing two very basic and necessary things: the ability to function after dark and the ability to communicate with the outside world. The IKEA Foundation also donated funds for solar street lights, allowing people to feel safe moving about at night.

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A solar street light funded by the IKEA Foundation in the Azraq camp
A solar street light funded by the IKEA Foundation in the Azraq camp

I was so proud to see the impact that our company has had on the lives of these people. Oftentimes it seems like money donated can go into a black hole—it’s all necessary, and all used, but it’s hard to see tangible results. In this case, it was very easy to see—we provide light.

One of the UNHCR staff, Arantxa, showing off the solar light with a group of kids in the Azraq camp
One of the UNHCR staff, Arantxa, showing off the solar light with a group of kids in the Azraq camp

The support of IKEA and the IKEA Foundation is critical to the mission in Jordan, and it’s amazing to see the impact that we have… we are so impactful that we actually have our own football (or soccer, to Canadians) team at the Azraq camp!

Refugees, IKEA team members and UNHCR team members share an after-game photo
Refugees, IKEA team members and UNHCR team members share an after-game photo

To commemorate the one-year anniversary of the camp, they held football matches, and IKEA had its own team. While in the Azraq camp, we were surprised with the opportunity to play against them—and it was amazing. For a brief moment I forgot where I was, and who I was with and just played some football. It was one of the brightest moments of the week.

As the day drew to a close, we had the opportunity to travel to a high point in the camp to get a good look at it. Wow. A capacity of 130,000, this is a truly massive place—and as the sun went down and the solar lights flickered on, we could truly see the difference light makes.

A picture of the Azraq camp as the sun goes down and the solar street lights start to turn on
A picture of the Azraq camp as the sun goes down and the solar street lights start to turn on

Since I started researching this mission, the word “hero” has been bouncing around my mind. I thought of all the amazing people who have given up their lives to support the lives of these refugees. Are they heroes? They insist that they are not. The true heroes are the refugees whose lives have been turned upside down and inside out, and are still here to talk about it. And invite us into their homes, and with pride show us the work they have done to create a home.

Some of the many heroes we met in both the Zaatari and Azraq camps
Some of the many heroes we met in both the Zaatari and Azraq camps

They support their children with everything they have. They find creative ways to live out their days, building up their homes as much as they can, growing gardens (in a desert!), and most of all remaining hopeful—hopeful that the situation in their home country improves… hopeful that they can someday, somehow, return home.

I feel truly privileged to have spent a few days among heroes, and will do my very best to share their story. They may not be in a comic book, they may not be in the next Avengers movie, but these people are stronger than any superhero I’ve seen.

One of the many thank-you signs around both camps
One of the many thank-you signs around both camps
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