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On the Frontlines of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

— By: The Team at Nau
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If it wasn’t for global aid organizations like Mercy Corps, one of Nau’s Partner’s for Change, the nearly two million Syrian refugees would have little hope for survival. This month in the Thought Kitchen, Cassandra Nelson, Mercy Corps’ Director of Multimedia Projects, travels to Lebanon to document the work the organization is doing to bring renewed comfort and confidence to refugees like Hannah and her seven children.

August 1, 2013: Cassandra Nelson reporting from Lebanon

Nearly a decade ago, I began a journey—from a marriage, from a career editing a New York–based women’s magazine, and from what had been all the familiar trappings of life—that has taken me to 45 countries, 11 war zones, 7 natural disasters, and countless humanitarian crises. As the spokesperson and field photographer for Portland-based Mercy Corps, I often have been among the first aid workers on the scene, be it war or an earthquake. The conditions, emotions, and actions can be extreme, but what is always strikingly steady and enduring is the strength of the women.

In places like Syria or Afghanistan, women may appear to be the silent ones behind the shrouds, but what outsiders don’t see is how strong and courageous they are in reality.

These women have come to serve as inspirations and role models for me. They are on their own journeys, many difficult beyond imagination: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

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For the past year I have been working with Mercy Corps’ humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The number of people fleeing violence in Syria has reached over 1.8 million, escalating to an average of 6,000 a day during 2013, a rate that has not been seen since the Rwandan genocide almost twenty years ago. Over a half-a-million of the refugees from Syria have fled to Lebanon for security.

For the past several months, I have been working in Lebanon to document the challenges the refugees face, particularly the women and children who account for over 75% of the refugee population.

My work takes me into the lives and homes (if you can call the places they stay for shelter a “home”) of many refugee mothers who are struggling to keep their families together, and safe.

I recently met Hannah, a refugee and mother of seven children. She escaped from the fighting in her home city of Idlib, Syria with her children seven-months ago and came to Lebanon for security. Her husband left her to be with his second wife. Today, Hannah is the sole supporter of her family in a country where she has no friends, no home, no work, no money: nada.  She lives in an old abandoned shack where she pays $100 a month for rent. It may not seem like much, but for Hannah it means making painful choices of skipping meals and watching her children go hungry, so she can pay the rent.

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Giving-up is not an option for Hannah. Everyday she goes out to find work wherever she can – pulling weeds in the fields, cleaning peoples homes, anything it takes to survive and find food to feed her kids. She is working to get her children enrolled in a local school so they can continue their educations, despite the war. She told me she tries to remain optimistic because pessimism won’t solve anything. Spending a day with her and her family fills me with awe at her strength and determination.

People often ask me if my work, responding to humanitarian crisis, is depressing. It can be exhausting and sad to see how so many people suffer because of the circumstances around them.  But Hannah and so many amazing women who I meet give me a sense of meaning and the energy to continue helping people who are committed to not just enduring their situation, but to changing their lives and building a for their children.

To learn more about Mercy Corps and their work with Syrian Refugees, visit www.mercycorps.org/syriacrisis.

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