At the Kakuma-Kalobeyei refugee camp in northern Kenya, mental health services are in short supply. The residents of the camp have fled murder and rape only to find that the daily life of the camp poses its own challenges. Working as a psychologist among people whose acute need of help is overwhelming takes its toll. What are some good ways to maintain resilience in the face of such challenges?
“REMEMBER: it’s important to have a life goal,” the teacher says, speaking to approximately forty students. The students listen intently, even though the classroom is over 30 degrees hot.
“What would be an example of a good life goal?”
“A nice house,” says one student.
“Eating sweets,” says another. “A good wife,” third one exclaims, and everyone bursts out laughing.
IN KENYA, SCHOOLS were closed for two weeks in May. Nevertheless, at the Kalobeyei refugee camp, kids were learning skills like self-esteem, setting goals for oneself, and conflict resolution at a life-skills camp.
The refugee camp is one of the largest in the world, housing around 300 000 refugees, mostly children and youth. Many live alone or with their siblings, as their parents have disappeared or died.
200 youth who have regularly attended school during the last term have been invited to participate. The invitation not only serves as a reward – the camp offers the kids meals, like in school – but also helps pass the message onwards. The youth attending the camp are likely to teach their skills to their friends in future.
“During the holidays, youth often get into trouble. Some join gangs, others get pregnant. That’s why we decided to organise a camp for teaching life skills,” says Maureen Achieng, 25.
Kakuma Kalobeyei refugee camp in Kenya is one of the largest in the world, housing around 300 000 refugees, mostly children and youth. Many live alone or with their siblings, as their parents have disappeared or died. Every week, there are new people arriving to the camp from neighbouring countries.
Maureen Achieng is a psychologist at the Finn Church Aid field office in Kakuma-Kalobeyei, Kenya. Her role is supporting the psychosocial well-being of children and youth and offering counselling for difficult situations.
EVERY WEEK, there are new people arriving to the camp from neighbouring countries. Currently, the biggest source of refugees is violence in Burundi. Some are fleeing for the second time. At the same time, the camp is waiting to see the effects of the conflict in Sudan for Kenya.
“Children here have all sorts of problems: serious trauma in their home country or from being on the run, abuse at home, teenage pregnancies. On top of that come the normal young people problems, such as school or heartbreaks,” Achieng says.
Dealing with these problems happens step by step. Achieng recommends young people set themselves goals and celebrate small achievements. Stressing the benefits of education is particularly important to girls, who are usually pressured into an early marriage. Nelly Havyarimana, 15, from Burundi, knows this very well personally.
“My mother and sisters and I came to Kenya in 2017. We had to leave home when my father died. As I had no brothers, our relatives wanted to marry us girls off. My mother thought that we should complete our studies, however, so we fled here.”
Havyarimana has learned about the importance of goals at the life skills camp.
“When I grow up, I want to be a surgeon. This can only happen through hard work – making decisions for the future and setting goals along the way. But I’m hopeful.”
Another useful skill that Havyarimana has learned in the camp: conflict resolution. The camp hosts people from many different nationalities, often without a common language. Conflicts are often inevitable.
“I’ve learned that I need to seek support from other communities. If, for example, Burundians and Sudanese are squabbling, I should at least get one person from the Sudanese side to support me, maybe some others, too. The parties to the conflict generally calm down when they realise that everyone wants them to stop.”
PSYCHOLOGIST Maureen Achieng also has other responsibilities at the camp, as she offers psychosocial support to students. In practice, this means problem-solving, therapy, academic counselling and much more. All of this is mentally taxing, even for a professional.
“I have often put myself in the shoes of a child who has had their parents murdered or a loved one raped in front of their eyes. They have had to walk to safety for days on end – without sleep, food or water.”
Achieng is also involved in an inter-organisational suicide prevention group. Both drug use and suicide attempts have recently increased alarmingly at the camp.
Maureen Achieng and other members of the staff live in relatively modest conditions and with little personal space in Kalobeyei refugee camp.
“Even if one tries to take time off, conversations with colleagues always circle back to work,” Achieng says. PHOTO: BJÖRN UDD / FCA
“The main reason is definitely the oppressive living conditions. Up to 70% of suicidal people give the living conditions as the reason of their suicidal tendencies. The same goes for drug use. It’s a way of escaping reality and hopelessness.”
The team searches for people at risk and harnesses the whole community to recognise the surrounding warning signs.
“For example, we made an agreement with the camp’s traders: if someone wants to buy a rope, a few follow-up questions are needed. What is the purpose of their purchase? All right, they want to tie up an animal. What kind of an animal? And so on. Many people give up their intentions after this sort of a thing, at least for a time.”
It is still difficult, coming to grips with things like suicide each and every day. Achieng considers it important to be able to get away from work in her free time. It’s never easy, though. There are many needing help and never enough time to help them all. On top of that, the staff live in relatively modest conditions and with little personal space.
“Even if one tries to take time off, conversations with colleagues always circle back to work. And it’s hard to avoid your colleagues if they live next door!”
IT THUS BECOMES necessary to working through the issues causing distress in others. Achieng is lucky, as she has an older colleague outside the camp for discussing ideas and getting good advice on how to solve difficult cases.
For Achieng, who is originally from Nairobi, moving to the small-scale environment of the refugee camp was also a challenge. A key part of addressing this was making their home more homelike.
“Personally, my most important household item is the video gaming console, which I take with me everywhere I go,” laughs Achieng. She admits to being a big racing game fan, but also plays other games. In addition to the console, Achieng has brought home her favourite treats, and has also taken up painting.
“Sometimes we organise art workshops for the children. Art therapy works – I have first-hand experience!” she says, smiling.
Achieng is working on a rotating schedule. In addition to the normal holidays, she has a week off after seven working weeks.
“Write this one in your story in capital letters: THE ROTATING LEAVE IS A MUST!”, Achieng urges.
“It is easy to notice that five weeks is all it takes for my colleagues to exhausted, as they start becoming very irritable easily. Especially those who have families miss their loved ones, because you can’t bring husbands, wives, or children here. A week off helps a lot.”
PSYCHOLOGISTS ARE NOT the only ones who have to think about how to deal with the stories students tell. Teachers hear them regularly too, and it’s possible for traumas to trigger for teachers, especially those with a refugee background. This is why peer support circles are organised for teachers to talk through their experiences.
This monthly ritual is particularly important for teachers. In an empty classroom, about ten people sit in a circle. Taking turns, they tell each other what’s on the top of their minds.
“This is an opportunity for us to talk openly about our problems and discuss how best to manage our classes,” says Edward Festo, who teaches English and Social Studies.
And a necessary opportunity it is. Class sizes can easily be around 200 pupils, making the teacher’s job difficult.
“Every day, I come home with a hoarse voice. Usually, I’m also mentally dead tired.”
Festo, from South Sudan, decided to flee the civil war in 2016 at the age of 19, after some of his siblings were killed.
“I lived in the north of the country, so making my escape through a country fighting a civil war was difficult. Many lives were lost on the way,” Festo says.
Many schoolchildren have similar backgrounds, so their stories can bring old feelings to the surface.
“We have received a lot of support in dealing with our traumas. It is our responsibility to be the professionals and adults, always and in every situation. Therapy and comprehensive training make it easier to keep it cool when things become heated,” says Festo.
He also understands the younger generation’s situation.
“Everything is more difficult nowadays. When we arrived, we were given schoolbooks, school uniforms and free education. Now the kids have to pay for books and uniforms themselves.”
Therapy has helped Festo to work through other issues.
“Living during a civil war is terrible. One must do bad things and link up with bad groups to survive. Therapy has been a life changer for me.”
TEACHERS are not the only ones getting help from therapy. Sixth grader Rashidi Shabani, 16, says he used to be very short-tempered.
“I got angry very easily. When I was out with my friends, I would get upset and start intense arguments with them. Therapy has helped me process these feelings. We’ve gone through what makes me get upset and evaluated my feelings generally. “
“Nowadays, if I find myself in a difficult situation, I take a deep breath or talk to others about my feelings. My anger dissipates and I feel free of stress.”
Shabani fled the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his mother and siblings in 2016. In the future, he wants to also be able to help his friends manage their emotions. He hopes to turn helping others into a career.
“When I grow up, I would like to be a psychologist. I’ve had a lot of help from psychologists, they do so much good. I would like to be like them as an adult.”
Text and photos by Björn Udd
Nelly Havyarimana (middle) is happy to ask her friends for help in case of any conflict or crisis in her life. PHOTO: Björn Udd / FCA
“Finns should just stay out of Kenya’s conflicts” – is that so, Alexon Mwasi?
Alexon Mwasi, the Programme Manager of Finn Church Aid’s Kenya Country Office, is a huge fan of kotikalja, a home-brewed non-alcoholic beer popular in Finland. It is also his opinion that Western media presents an incomplete picture of Africa. In our hot seat feature, it is our turn to ask him some tough questions about foreign aid and local work.
The European stereotype is that Africans grow up surrounded by nature and wildlife. Did elephants roam in your backyard when you were a child, Alexon Mwasi?
Applies to me, at least! My family lives next to the Tsavo National Park, so wild animals showing up in our backyard was a common thing. You better believe it was at times terrifying to walk several kilometers to school and back! When we grew up and started hunting antelope, however, this fear quickly turned into rousing fun.
After studying international development cooperation, you have worked in this field since 2004. But has the world become a better place during your career?
A tricky question. It is true that it is not easy for Kenyans to influence climate change and the related challenges, but there are things are better now than back then. The wells we drill are a lifesaver for countless people, for instance, and will be for a long time to come.
Kenya has been in turmoil lately. There are the cattle rustling issues and the related conflicts, as well as protests and political instability. Would you agree with the following statement? “It would be better if Finns did not get involved in Kenyan conflicts at all.”
Partly true. Some local conflicts are so complex that it is hard for outsiders to understand them, let alone find a resolution. On the other hand, outsiders can often help us greatly and offer fresh ideas for solving our problems.
What about these statements? “It is true that foreign aid workers just do a better job than locals.”
Absolutely untrue. Cooperation is the key. Local people and institutions know what is wrong and sometimes have the solutions, but experts from outside bring in a lot of new knowledge. In farming, for example, the locals are usually the best experts on which crop variants grow the best and sell the most. However, external help can still help improve their methods of farming and increase their water-use efficiency.
“It is time for Africans to help each other.”
True enough, but as I said, some problems, like climate change, are plain difficult for Africans to influence. There is no-one less responsible for climate emissions than Africans, but they are still very vulnerable to droughts, for example. There are issues where we need to help ourselves, but also issues where humanity needs to stand together.
“The Western media presents a balanced picture of Africa.”
The ongoing drought is something the Western media has mostly ignored, for example, though this might be because of the war in Ukraine and other major recent events. When it came to the recent protests in Kenya, though, the media was there, portraying them as enormous and violent. One might have been left with the impression that the whole country was burning, though the protests were, in the end, a minor affair.
“The war in Ukraine does not affect lives in East Africa.”
Completely untrue. We are very dependent on Ukraine. The crucial grain and cooking oil imports stopped completely when the war started, accelerating the food crisis and the inflation. Thankfully – and surprisingly – Ukraine managed to negotiate a deal that allowed them to start exporting grain to East Africa again, but the imports are still scarce. As a result, we are suffering.
You recently visited Finland and fell in love with the taste of kotikalja. Is it true that you are now making your own batches in the cleaning closet of FCA’s Nairobi office?
Ha ha! That sure is an interesting idea. I loved the taste of kotikalja! If I had the chance to brew more myself, one or two batches would not be enough.
Emergency aid is for the direst of situations. When a sudden natural disaster strikes or a country enters a protracted crisis, lives can be protected and human dignity preserved through global cooperation between organisations.
1. Emergency aid is a lifesaver.
When a disaster strikes, rapid aid delivery is often a literal matter of life and death. In line with the principles of humanitarianism, emergency aid is intended for those who need it the most, its purpose saving lives and preserving human dignity. In most cases, aid consists of water, food, shelter, and medicines – the basic necesssities. Education can save lives too and is thus at the heart of what FCA does.
2. Locations are selected based on the situation and the need.
The need for emergency aid may arise suddenly or result from a protracted crisis. Whatever the case, the local organizations and those international organizations already on the ground will endeavour to supply aid as rapidly as they can. The UN’s Emergency Relief Coordination Agency (OCHA) monitors the global situation and maps out potential cases, allowing the international community to correctly locate find situations and people who need aid, and schedule the aid correctly. In case of natural disasters, for example, comprehensive assessment is usually completed within weeks. The plan of action always evolves with the situation, however.
3. Aid comes in many forms.
The above assessment can determine the most acute requirements for aid and the most appropriate ways to provide it. When a functioning market continues to exist in the disaster area, for example, cash grants are better and more cost-effective than goods. If no market exists, though, direct donations of goods may be necessary. We always endeavour to source the goods from the vicinity of the crisis area. Listening to the community is crucial: families, for example, often want their children’s education to continue as soon as the basic needs for survival have been met.
4. Coordination through cooperation.
No organisation can be everywhere simultaneously. During major catastrophes, coordination within the international community is a crucial element. Organizations involve themselves based on their specific expertise and area knowledge. FCA often takes part in training efforts and leads related cooperation projects. Global coordination of aid allows everyone to track what aid is available, where it is and who is getting it. It can also help in identifying areas still without aid and missing categories of aid.
5. Politics can complicate humanitarianism.
Conflicts and political disputes hamper the delivery of emergency aid. The UN has thus passed a resolution calling for sanctions to be enacted in a way that does not block humanitarian aid. A host of problems may arise from closing banks or blocking money transfers due to sanctions. And things like roadblocks can also physically prevent the aid from reaching its destination in its destination.
6. Does “all the money just go to the warlords?” No.
Aid organizations are professional institutions. They closely monitor the use of their funds and the related cash flows and apply anti-corruption measures to their own activities, as well as those of partners and subcontractors. In many fragile countries, corruption is an ever-present problem. This also affects the humanitarian aid sector, and corruption cases are uncovered from time to time. However, the discovery of misuse also serves as a sign that the controls are working.
7. It’s not always possible to deliver aid.
Aid agencies, which often work in difficult circumstances, have prepared for a wide range of situations and threats. However, sometimes the situation can be so life-threatening that sending personnel to a given situation simply isn’t safe. Various armed groups in conflict zones increasingly view aid workers as a target, and problems also arise, for example, when authorities insist on distributing aid to their favoured recipients or demand that some of the supplies are given to soldiers. Even in these situations, organisations constantly negotiate to ensure that aid is distributed following the principles of humanitarian aid.
8. FCA’s disaster relief fund prepares for the unexpected.
Finn Church Aid not only raises funds for individual crises, but also maintains an ongoing collection for conflicts in general. Our disaster relief fund enables us to respond to acute emergencies. Money can be immediately released when funds are needed quickly and in a flexible manner. It can also help in situations that do not mobilise donors straight away in large numbers.
9. Emergency aid is needed both for acute disasters and long-term crises.
The need for emergency aid can be triggered by an acute disaster, such as an outbreak of war or a sudden natural disaster, or by a protracted, escalating crisis, such as a famine-inducing drought. Slow-onset disasters are often more complex and thus much more expensive to deal with, but they do not usually attract donor attention on the same scale as, for example, a sudden earthquake. The criteria for supplying emergency aid are nevertheless always the same: those who need aid shall receive it.
10. Not every crisis is in the news.
The media is not always the best barometer for need of aid. For example, while it is understandable that the war in Ukraine features heavily in the headlines, many other protracted situations, such as the prolonged drought in East Africa, have been overshadowed by the events of the day. A crisis must usually ferment for a long time before it catches media attention. A famine being declared, for example, is more likely to feature in the news than the threat of a famine.
+1. Local actors are in a key role for a successful FCA response.
People from and living in the affected area are the best guides to their own environment and networks. We do not believe it is sufficient for local staff and partners to purely offer advice and implementation for our decisions; they must also be involved in the decision-making process. FCA country offices are run by national staff, and in many aid areas, FCA works with or supports local partner organisations.
Sources: interviews with Merja Färm, FCA’s humanitarian advocacy expert, and Jan De Waegemaeker, humanitarian aid expert.
Text: Anne Salomäki Translation to English: Tatu Ahponen Illustration: Carla Ladau
Violence left the heart – Kenyan Festus Kipkorir found peace through education
A vicious circle of violence on top of well as climate change threaten the future of young people living in Kerio Valley, Kenya. This is a story about a young man who swapped cattle rustling for peace work.
A HERD OF brown and mottled cows bring traffic to a halt on a narrow unpaved road. The thorny bushes, large rocks, and deep pits in the reddish-brown sand leave no room for a 4×4 to get through.
In front of the car, sleepy cows are eyeing the vehicle, but they’re in no rush. Sweat drenches underarm, as the wait gets longer and longer under the morning sun. Even so, the driver waits patiently for one cow after another to move out of the way of the crawling vehicle.
It’s a view worth rejoicing at. In the Kerio Valley in western Kenya, all is well if the cattle can graze freely. Cows are considered valuable property, much like camels, which are less common in this part of the region. The communities in the valley steal cattle from each other, and the violence unfortunately often escalates into a conflict that spares no lives.
“Thieves killed my father in 2002. I was pretty small, and I also lost my aunt around that time. Two people at once”, says Festus Kipkorir, 24, and looks around.
In the bush between the road and the Kerio River his father was tending the family cattle, and this is where his body was found. The cattle probably continued the journey, herded by thieves, to the other side of the river. To the Kipkorir family, losing a father and husband and their most valuable property simultaneously led to hard times.
Cattle are the most important asset of the nomadic people in Kenya’s Kerio Valley. When the cattle graze freely, peace prevails in the valley. Photo: Antti Yrjönen / FCA
Although the family’s financial situation deteriorated rapidly, Kipkorir was still able to go to school until the 8th grade. However, his father’s fate continued to bother him.
“Violence stays in the heart,” describes Kipkorir of the feeling that leads to a circle of revenge – one even children and young people can’t avoid.
Stealing cattle is part of a cycle of revenge
“I was 13 when I first held a gun.”
Kipkorir says that boys as young as 10 become part of violence when a conflict flares between cattle thieves. The youngest are left behind to keep guard over the village, and the older boys go with the men to the neighbouring regions in the darkness of night. Stealing cattle from the other side of the river is a rite that turns boys into men.
Thieves can form a group of up to a hundred young men in order to go and steal cattle. A large group insures the success of the plundering foray, and the simple number of people can also scare their opponents.
“We might take two thousand animals at once,” Kipkorir reveals.
Kipkorir built his tin-roofed two-room house himself. The temperature outdoors has climbed past 30 degrees, and Kipkorir has invited us into the shade of his home. Hot milk tea, called Chiya, is steaming in mugs.
We talk about the environmental reasons that sustain the conflict between the communities in the Kerio Valley. Traditionally, the tribes of the valley have supported themselves as nomads. Cattle, particularly cows and camels, represent for people cash, credit and an investment fund for their families. By selling cattle, the families can pay bills, send children to school, and invest in business activities.
Cattle need a lot to eat and must be tended in large areas. In recent years, the situation in the Kerio Valley has become increasingly tense due to the lack of pasture during dry seasons. Climate change has made the annual cycle more unpredictable.
In Kenya, rain has been delayed particularly in the east and north of the country in the Garissa and Marsabiti regions, but here in the west in the Kerio Valley, autumn 2022 was dry.
“The other side of the Kerio River is very different to this side. It’s very dry, no trees, just thorny bushes and sand,” Kipkorir says. “That’s why our neighbours from the other side bring their cattle to this side of the river to graze more often. That leads to arguments, because then there’s not much to eat for our cattle.”
Due to the impact of climate change, life in the Kerio Valley in Kenya has become increasingly challenging for those who still support themselves as nomads. Due to drought, livestock grazing lands are shrinnking, especially in the central parts of the valley, which increases conflict and violence between different tribes. Photo: Antti Yrjönen / FCA
Kipkorir lives on the west side of the Kerio River, and here life isn’t as dependent on cattle as it is on the drier side of the river. The hills surrounding the valley rise as high as 2.5 kilometres above sea level. On the hillsides, there’s plenty of water for irrigation, which makes it easier to grow vegetables. Below the slopes, corn, tomatoes, beans, and papayas are grown.
Kipkorir guides us to sit down under a mango tree. This is his new life, a reason to give up cattle theft: mangoes, a patch of vegetables, and a dairy cow that produces, even on a meagre diet, enough milk to be sold. The cow is flicking flies with her tail and calmly chewing on her food.
“The biggest reason for the reduction of cattle theft is that people have been trained to farm and they’re no longer dependent on pastureland,” Kipkorir notes.
It’s hard to let go of violence
It was difficult for Kipkorir to leave the community of cattle thieves, even if it was a source of sadness and fear to loved ones.
“When my mother found out about my participation in cattle theft, she didn’t see me for a while,” Kirpkorir tells.
She couldn’t accept her son’s criminal and dangerous lifestyle.
“I tried to explain to her that this is about me, not her. In that situation, you just think you’re right. You’re not interested in anyone else’s opinion,” Kipkorir says.
“In reality, my opinions were dictated by a group I felt I was part of. I also felt the need to revenge my father’s death.”
Mother Salome Kiptoo says she feared her son wouldn’t come back from the night-time raids. Some of the young men never return, some come back disabled.
“I feared and prayed every time he left. I still remember what a good and hard-working student he was at school,” mother tells.
Climate change creates the threat of violence, which causes children to drop out of school
The cycle of violence and the sudden impoverishment of families in the Kerio Valley is also a threat to the education of children and adolescents. The obstacles are financial as well as security related. In recent years, cattle thieves have struck schools and even a bus that was taking students on a trip.
Festus Kipkoriri’s wife Francisca Kiptoo hangs laundry in the yard belonging to the small family. They have a home they built themselves and plot of land in Kenya’s Kerio Valley where they grow mangoes, vegetables and corn. The family also has a dairy cow with enough milk to sell. Photo: Antti Yrjönen / FCA
Festus Kipkorir hopes that the peace of the Kerio Valley will last and that it will be possible for him to send his own son to school. As a father, he wants his child to get a good education so that he can choose a more reliable livelihood than cattle rearing when he grows up. Photo: Antti Yrjönen / KUA
“Some of the schools in the Kerio Valley have lost a lot of their students. Those with money have transferred their children to other schools, and some simply don’t let their children go to school,” tells Finn Church Aid (FCA) programme director Alexon Mwasi.
The capricious nature of climate change adds to poverty. Based on an estimate by UNESCO, approximately two million children between the ages of 6 and 17 don’t go to school in Kenya. Most of them are from families that live a nomadic lifestyle in areas like the Kerio Valley.
“FCA supports the poorest families in the Kerio Valley as well as a few other areas that have suffered from drought, so that the children can return to school. The aim is to reach about 41 500 school dropouts,” says Mwasi.
Education secures the future
Kipkorir knows he’s lucky; in the end, he was able to finish school despite the family facing poverty after the death of his father. He believes that education helped him give up cattle theft. Based on his experiences, he’s tried to convince his former friends to leave behind a violent life.
“I’ve reminded them that just like me, they’ve also gone to school. At school, we’ve been taught community spirit and brotherhood. It’s not right to kill and steal.”
Kipkorir says that some of the former cattle thieves are now, like him, on the side of peace. They play in the same football team with some younger men.
“Football gives us an opportunity to get to know our neighbours on the other side of the river. Playing is a much fairer way to measure our strength,” Kipkorir points out.
“We are peace ambassadors on this side, and our neighbours in the other team are peace ambassadors on their own side. Together, we can stop the violence.”
Salome Kiptoo’s big eyes are shining when she talks about how her son has changed.
“Initially I didn’t even believe him when he told me he’s giving up cattle theft and starting to farm land. At last I started to believe, and I helped him buy seeds to grow green lentils and beans.”
Now her son has his own little farm and a family, a wife and son. Just like his mother wanted.
“I believe that a lasting peace with come with many blessings. There’ll be no need to fear that the children won’t come back at night. Good things will happen in the community when there’s peace. Everyone wins,” says Salome Kiptoo.
Kipkorir’s son is still tiny. What does the young father wish for his son?
“I want him to finish school.”
Right now, there is peace. Children in school uniforms are walking on the side of the road, people of different ages are sat in the shade of large trees, and the doors and windows of low, tin-roofed kiosks are open. Trucks are bouncing and swaying on the bouncy road, and men are picking up sack of mangoes piled on the side of the road.
Text: Elisa Rimaila Photos: Antti Yrjönen
FINN CHURCH AID (FCA) supports the education of children and young people in Kenya through the Common Responsibility Campaign in areas where climate change has increased poverty and insecurity. In many places, young people become involved in local conflicts between different communities. The project supports the return of young people to school, who have previously dropped out. In addition to material and educational support, young people in a particularly vulnerable position receive psychosocial support. The project will also build and renovate toilets and handwashing stations in schools. The Common Responsibility Campaign builds up FCA’s disaster fund, which can be used to help where the need is greatest.
Nairobian Christine Murugi loves cartoons, and soon they might be her job
Finn Church Aid believes that vocational training for young people is crucial to access the job market. Hairdressers, chefs, and mechanics are examples of traditional professions, but the transformation of the labour market also changes educational needs. Now, FCA is training digital professionals in Kenya.
IN THE Kenyan capital Nairobi, 18 young people are typing on their computers in a small classroom. One of the students, Christine Murugi, is working on a 3D model known from the film Minions, mulling over the best way to animate the character’s hand.
Christine, 20, studies animation in Finn Church Aid’s Creative Industries programme. In her studies, she practises creating three-dimensional characters and making them move.
“I’m a huge fan of cartoons. They’re so funny, and I love the stories. I’d find it interesting to take part in creating them,” she tells.
Currently, Christine is inspired by Bold, a Disney animation that depicts a dog’s life as a TV star. She also finds ideas in “DC League of Super-Pets”, an animation series about the pets of superheroes.
Graphic design, digital market and animators
FCA’s Creative Industries programme is free of charge and aimed at low-income youth. The students train to become graphic designers, digital marketing professionals, or animators. Christine is happy about the opportunity, because without it and as the only child of a single-parent family, she wouldn’t have had a chance to study.
“When Covid hit, my mum’s financial situation got even worse. I had to drop out of school.”
Without anything to do, Christine moved out to live with her uncle, so that her mother was able to work more. At her uncle’s, she had more company, and she was able to help her uncle with household chores.
“Fortunately, I heard about this programme, so I was able to continue studying.”
In the beginning she was nervous. Animation is a male-dominated field, both in Kenya and around the world. Christine is the only woman in the class.
“When I joined, I was the only girl amongst 18 students. Initially it was unsettling, but now I’ve made friends with my classmates, so I can be more relaxed.”
After the initial tension, classmates have become one of the best things about studying. Christine likes her new friends; she particularly enjoys brainstorming ideas and exchanging thoughts with her classmates.
Smartphones more common than computers in Kenya
Although smartphones are common in Kenya, some students are completely unfamiliar with them. All students in the programme go through an elementary IT course.
Christine already knew how to use a computer, as she had taken computer classes in upper secondary school. Her studies have progressed as planned.
“I might be the best in class,” she says laughingly, “or at least I’m doing well.”
Despite her success in the classroom, the future concerns Murugi. In Kenya, the digital industry is on the rise, but competition is fierce and global. Finding a permanent job might be difficult, and many work as freelancers.
“It’s a little discouraging sometimes, but I remain optimistic. I know I’m a really good animator, so I’m certain I’ll be able to sell my skills.”
Christine is determined. There’s no doubt about what she would like to do in the future.
“Movies, absolutely. I love movies, and that’s what I want to do. With this training, I could make websites, for example, but at least for now my focus is on the movie industry.”
Mother was injured in a rocket attack, father has spent a year in the army, and the children are missing the carefree life. A year of war has put an emotional strain on the Starodub family, just like many Ukrainian famillies. This year, they’re wishing for ordinary life without the sound of air-raid sirens.
MARIA, 10, concentrates on the image in the mirror, spreading violet eyeshadow on her eyelids. Mother Oksana sit next to her, watching her daughter with a horrified expression on her face.
In mid-January in Chernihiv, northern Ukraine, the Starodub family is celebrating New Year according to the Julian calendar. The children of the neighbourhood go from door to door singing, and they’re rewarded with sweets and small coins.
Maria gives her mother a grin and wonders how many sweets she’ll be able to collect tonight. The makeup has to be impressive, as children go singing dressed in colourful scarfs and flower headbands.
On the surface, everything seems normal; but in reality, nothing is. It’s lucky for Maria and her brother Kyryl to be able to enjoy both the presence of their father as well as their mother’s cooking today. The past year has been painful for the family.
Chernihiv was under heavy fire
Ominous. That’s the word Oksana uses to describe the morning of 6 March 2022. Russia’s attack on Ukraine had lasted for a couple of weeks, and Chernihiv was under heavy fire.
In the morning Oksana was volunteering at the school where she teaches Ukrainian. Her husband Mykola had a career in the food industry, and he had enlisted in the regional forces of the Ukrainian army.
Around 5pm, Oksana ordered the children to go to the windowless hallway, the safest place in their home, where she and the children had slept on the floor every night ever since the attack began. Oksana was suffering from fever and resting in the bedroom of the dark house. She was on the phone to her husband when the strike hit. The windows exploded, and objects were flying around.
“I realised something happened to my legs. I was in shock. I was throwing stuff off my legs and dragged myself to my children,” Oksana describes.
“I could instantly tell that mum wasn’t alright. There was a lot of blood. Her hip had fractured,” Kyryl, 15, relates and recalls how he and her little sister bandaged the wound with a pony-patterned jumper. Mykola, left on the phone, understood the situation immediately and started to organise transportation for his wife together with other soldiers.
The entire family still remembers how heartbreakingly Maria cried that night.
In January 2023, the school Oksana Starodub works as teacher in Chernihiv is in sub-zero degrees. Oksana is teaching her students remotely and all the books in from the school library have been stored in plastic bags to keep them dry. PHOTO: ANTTI YRJÖNEN / FCA
Children need special attention
In war, children see and hear things they never should have to experience at such a young age.
In the Starodub family, the events are discussed openly to ensure that the children aren’t left alone with their thoughts. Maria particularly has been reacting to the events afterwards. Oksana says that so far, the family hasn’t needed help from a psychologist, but it’s something they might in the future.
The adults haven’t been able to avoid trauma either. Oksana recalls how, after her injury she layin a hospital bed on the fifth floor listening to bombings.
“The nurses rushed to the bomb shelter and told us patients to pray. The windows of the hospital were clinking,” she remembers with agony in her eyes.
In the middle of a crisis, the human mind yearns for routines and the feeling of normality; and the Starodub family has tried to cherish those moments during the exceptional year. Last summer, daughter Maria took part in summer clubs organised by Finn Church Aid and its local partner organisation DOCCU.
“It was wonderful,” she exclaims. “We were watching videos and doing activities together. I liked boardgames the most. Whilst playing them I met a girl who’s since become a good friend.”
The clubs were organised in July and August, and the children were also offered psychosocial support. Maria liked the clubs so much she attended them the whole summer.
A rocket strike broke the windows
Russian forces withdrew from the Chernihiv area in late March and early April 2022. But in January 2023, bombed buildings, weekly air raid alerts and constant lack of electricity still remind people of the horrors of last spring.
Oksana’s school is now unheated. The windows, broken in a rocket strike, have already been fixed, but faults in the heating system keep the school in sub-zero temperatures. The walls have holes due to shelling. Oksana does her teaching remotely.
“I would love to get back to school, to my own blackboard, to see the children laughing,” she tells, wiping the corners of her eyes.
She says she returned to teaching in August after her legs had been operated on and she was able to start moving again.
“Then I met some of my students who’d graduated in the spring. I noticed that 9th-graders had become adults in just six months. War does that to children.”
According to Oksana, returning to teaching has been an empowering experience. She talks about the frontline of education and how important it is for the future of Ukrainians. She says that the war has increased the interest of children and adolescents in the history and cultural traditions of Ukraine. That warms the heart of a Ukrainian teacher.
“When the war ends, I want to be home raising my children”
On the evening of 13 January, there’s plenty going on in the Starodub family kitchen. In the old Orthodox tradition, the day is first and foremost the celebration of Saint Basil the Great. The saint protects communities and the most vulnerable.
Mykola has a four-day vacation from the army. Every now and then Maria receives kisses from her father, to whom she presents her haul of sweets while singing. Kyryl is planning a chess game between the men of the house andstrokes the family’s cat Lord, who’s found a spot in the warmth of the kitchen radiator.
Oksana is frying Ukrainian pancakes to be filled with cottage cheese and dried fruit. There are plenty of familiar things for Finns on the table: these are stuffed cabbage leaves, that resemble a rosolli, and a pie that tastes like liver casserole.
There’s also kutia, a traditional Ukrainian treat for Christmas and new year, made from barley groats, raisins, nuts, and honey. On the day of Saint Basil the Great, there must be pork on the table, as that is believed to bring prosperity to the family.
Mykola eyes his wife and children warmly, with a faint and mysterious smile on his face.
“What we wish from the new year is winning the war and prosperity for Ukraine. When the war ends, I want to be home raising my children. I want an ordinary life without air raid alerts,” he tells.
The children also bring up very normal dreams. Last summer they couldn’t go swimming, because the beach in their town was said to be mined. Maria also dreams of travelling within her home country and seeing all the places she’s read about.
The conversation pauses when the doorbell rings. Another group of children dressed up in traditional costume sings at the door. As they leave, the children wish the family all the best: health, peace, and good times together.
All the best is needed, indeed; Oksana and Mykola have heavy hearts knowing the war will rage on, and Mykola has been transferred closer to the frontline.
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Translation: Anne Salomäki Kuvat: Antti Yrjönen
FCA focuses on education and psychosocial support
The work of Finn Church Aid began in Ukraine in February 2022 as emergency aid, which was delivered in co-operation with the Hungarian partner organisation Hungarian Interchurch Aid. Later, Finn Church Aid established its own country office in Ukraine and started working on education in Chernihiv, northern Ukraine. In collaboration with partner organisations, aid is delivered to other parts of Ukraine as well.
Almost 6 000 children took part in Finn Church Aid’s summer clubs. On top of this, approximately 530 teachers have been provided with training, and 70 teachers and school psychologists have participated in psychosocial support training.
A joint 14-million project by FCA, international Save the Children, People in Need, and War Child, funded by the EU, is set to reach 45 000 children during 2023. As part of the project, schools damaged by the war are repaired, psychosocial support is provided, and teachers are trained.
When your whole fortune dries up. The two-year drought has taken everything from the pastoralists of northern Kenya
East Africa is struggling through an unprecedented drought. Since October 2020, four consecutive rainy seasons have failed, and the fifth seems to fail as well. In northern Kenya, the nomadic population has lost all of their property, meaning cattle, which has traditionally been by far the most popular investment in the region. The situation can be compared to a total collapse of the stock exchange in Finland. Lives are in danger, too.
SHEDO ISACKO ROBA, 25, started her journey to the nearest borehole with her friends yesterday. The distance is approximately 40 kilometres, and the young woman, familiar with the conditions of the journey, covers it in a couple of days. There is no water in Shedo Isacko’s home village, Gareru in the north of Kenya.
Shedo Isacko knows how much hardship the failure of the rainy seasons causes in the lives of the locals.
“For the past two years I’ve come here to get water and look for food for my children,” she says whilst washing her laundry at the well.
The clothes are so covered in sand dust that the water instantly turns brown, and they need to be rinsed several times.
After finishing her load of laundry, Shedo Isacko fills up her worn-out yellow plastic jugs with water and ties them on a donkey’s back for the way home. 40 litres of water is enough for a family of five for two days, but due to the drought, Isacko can’t find enough food.
“We share what we can get between us. Sometimes we have food, sometimes we don’t. Life is tough.”
The cattle perish first – then the people
Isacko’s family lives a nomadic life, just like most people in the region. The drought has killed most of the family’s livestock. Shedo Isacko mourns not only for the lost property but also for what’s ahead.
“I’m afraid there will be no more rain. When the cattle have already died as a result of drought, we’ll soon be losing human lives. That’s what scares me.”
According to official figures, by the beginning of November no-one has died directly due to the ongoing drought or food shortage. In neighbouring Somalia, the situation is several steps ahead: based on a UN report, thousands of people had died by mid-October and half a million people are at risk of death. In the Marsabit region in northern Kenya, health officials are extremely concerned about the direction of development.
“At the moment, the deaths in the region aren’t directly caused by malnutrition, but they are strongly linked. Many deaths, particularly among the elderly, are caused by illnesses that hit undernourished people,” says Bokayo Arero, the director of nutrition at the Marsabit health department.
The pastoralists of Marsabit in Northern Kenya are severely affected by the droughts. Since the drought began in 2020 the working water supplies are further and further away, and a lot of livestock has died from lack of food and water. Photo: Björn Udd / FCA
Undernourished people are more likely to contract pneumonia, diarrhoea, and tuberculosis. The elderly, children, pregnant women, and disabled people are in a particularly vulnerable position. According to a health screening conducted in October, 92 percent of the surveyed children under the age of five in Marsabit were malnourished, and approximately half of them had received urgent treatment.
Especially in the case of children, malnutrition leads to serious, life-long consequences.
“Both physical and mental development suffer from malnutrition,” Bokayo Arero emphasises.
Food shortage also puts people under mental strain. Those whose entire property dries up can suffer from mental health issues.
“The population here is completely dependent on their livestock. There have even been a few reports of suicides being committed, when people notice that they have nothing left,” notes Bokay Arero.
Hungry children have trouble learning
The drought and the resulting food shortage have an impact on schooling, too. A few dried-up trees stand in the schoolyard of the Boru Haro village school, and the most energetic of the children are playing in the shade. The rest of the pupils sit and rest under the roofs of the building.
The principal Wako Salesa Dambi says that the drought and lack of food make children stay home instead of coming to school. The pupils who do come to school tend to be tired, and staying focused in class can be difficult.
“Even just for the sake of humanity, I think it’s important that the basic needs of the pupils are met. If their tummies are full, they listen, learn, and do their homework,” Wako Salesa points out.
Previously the state supported school lunches, but currently there’s no support available. After the elections in August, the resources are scarce, as the resulting transfer of power has brought financial transactions between the state and the local government almost to a standstill.
A school lunch is an important meal for children and a reason to come to school for many. Particularly younger students are likely to stay at home, if they haven’t had anything to eat the night before.
12-year-old George Guyo has returned to school after being absent for 10 days. Now he sits in the front row learning how to read a clock.
“My parents haven’t got money for food, so I can’t come to school. When I don’t get enough food, my health gets worse.”
George Guyo can clearly tell how hunger makes it more difficult to go to school, and his learning results deteriorate.
“When I’m hungry, I think about food all the time, and I can’t focus in class.”
“My biggest wish is that there would be enough food for us children and that we’d be able to maintain a balanced diet.”
In December in Kenya, a national exam will be held to students finishing primary school. The result of the exam determines which secondary school the pupil will continue in. Wako Salesa fears that the results will be negatively impacted by the food shortage.
“Getting a good exam result will be difficult for the children who’ve had to skip breakfast and lunch. It would be great if we could offer food for the pupils, but it seems impossible. The parents are currently so poor that they can’t afford to pack a lunch for their kids,” says Wako Salesa.
“This two-year drought is completely exceptional”
One of the main reasons to the poverty in the region is that the majority of cattle has either died or in such a dire shape that it’s lost its value. Previously, a cow would be sold for 20 000 Kenyan shillings, or approximately 160 euros. Now, a cow is worth as little as 500 shillings, or four euros, as the livestock is in bad condition and many people are simultaneously trying to sell their animals to the butcher.
Locally, the situation is comparable to a total market crash. Traditionally, the nomadic population has invested its entire wealth in livestock.
50-year-old Elema Gufu Sharamu has, in his words, been a nomad since he was born. He has brought his caravan of camels to drink from the well repaired by Finn Church Aid. He used to have plenty of cows and goats, but most of them have died because of the food shortage caused by the drought.
“There have been dry periods previously, but this two-year drought is completely exceptional. The circumstances have led to grass not growing, and there’s nothing for the animals to eat.”
As a nomad, Elema Gufu is used to being on the move. It takes him eight hours to walk to the nearest bore well.
“This well is really important to us. If it didn’t exist, we’d have to travel even further.”
Sharamu’s family comprises of two wives and nine children. He used to be able to easily provide for them all, but the situation has changed.
“I take cattle to the market and sell it there, but the prices have dropped dramatically. I haven’t got enough money for food, and sometimes we must skip lunch. It feels bad not to have enough food for my family.”
Currently Elema Gufu Sharamu borrows food from his neighbours, which isn’t a sustainable solution. He’s afraid for his family.
“If this drought continues and the rest of my cattle dies, we too will die. I have no other option. I can’t read, and I won’t be able to get another job. There’s nothing for me in the city.”
The health officials of Marsabit have noticed that parts of the population are drifting towards towns and cities. The director of health Bokayo Arero deems this problematic.
“I don’t think it’s a good survival mechanism. There really isn’t enough work for even those who already live near the cities. Now, an entire family might move to live with a young man working a day job at a construction site. A single income simply isn’t sufficient.”
Conflicts in the area escalate
However, sometimes circumstances force people to move close to population centres. In Marsabit, there are tensions between tribes that every now and then spew out for various reasons. A year ago, the home of Biftu Boroyani’s family was burned in clashes. The family of four used to live in a house of their own, had a small allotment that provided them with enough food, and a few goats.
“When I lived there, I was able to live in peace. I felt no stress. We used to make a good living from our plot.”
Now the family has had to come up with new ways to make a living. Biftu Boroyani’s husband is working in construction. When they have enough food at home, Biftu cooks a larger batch at once and sells it to the nearby construction workers.
“Recently it’s been difficult for both of us to find work opportunities. Because of the drought and lack of money few people are building right now, so making money is hard.”
Because of the difficult situation, Biftu Boroyani used to be able to offer food for the family only once a day. She was stressed out when she noticed how hunger made her children too tired to play.
Now the Boroyani family has received a cash allowance from Finn Church Aid. The 74-euro allowance is given in three consecutive months directly to a mobile phone in mobile money. Biftu Boroyani has received the first instalment, which she spent on food and school fees. Although food is scarce, Biftu Boroyani thinks that the children’s education is at least just as important.
“If the children get a good education, they can get a good job and then support us later. That’s why I make sure the school fees are covered.”
Although the first part of the allowance was spent on food and education, Biftu hopes to be able to use the coming instalments on establishing a small business. She’s planning on buying basic supplies from the city and then selling them near her home.
However, Biftu is still scared that the drought will drag on.
“I can only pray for the rain to come.”
Text and photos: Björn Udd
The prolonged drought in Northern Kenya has resulted in a lack of access to water. Here a group of women were washing their clothes at a borehole in October. Goats are better equipped to deal with drought and lake of grazing opportunities than cattle, but even the goats have started to perish now. Kuva: Björn Udd / FCA
“In the future I’ll be measuring instead of guessing” – A tech innovation by a young Jordanian helps farmers increase crop yields
Sager Marayha, 28, developed a device he hopes will boost the most important trade in his birthplace – farming. FCA supports the young agricultural engineer with a grant to start production.
THE AIR FEELS thick and there are flies buzzing around. In early November, Jordan is preparing for winter; but in the sheltered Jordan Valley, west of the country, summery conditions continue.
The greenhouses are brimming with foliage. Between them, cucumbers are loaded onto a truck that’ll soon begin its journey to the capital Amman. There, the cucumbers will be pickled and then sold to be served in local restaurants.
Sager Marayha, 28, stands in the scorching sun and fiddles with a tiny plastic bag. Inside it, there’s something that can reduce farmers’ workload and improve crops in the future.
“This is the prototype, like a small computer with several sensors,” Marahaya says, digging into his bag.
“This sensor measures soil temperature, this one assesses humidity, this one acidity and salinity.”
Marayha demonstrates how the innovation works. First, it’s thrusted into the soil, and soon, the farmer will receive information regarding the properties of the soil on a smartphone app. A new result will appear on the screen every five seconds.
“The farmers in the Jordan Valley use fertilisers and water without knowing exactly what the farmland actually needs. It’s possible that the soil is so rich in nutrients already that it’s impossible to grow anything anymore. The device will help reduce the unnecessary use of fertilisers and watering just in case.”
As a teenager, Marayha already worked in the fields and greenhouses. The community encouraged him to continue his studies at a university. Marayha became the first in his family to have a higher education.
During his studies, Marayha got to know different kinds of agricultural measuring instruments and wondered why they all seemed so complex and clumsy. Could a small and easy-to-use alternative provide all that information in one go?
Northern Jordan Valley. Jordan Valley is an area in West Jordan which is known for its agricultural opportunities and crops that benefit the whole country. Photo: Sherbel Dissi
A cucumber farmer is ready to invest in smart tech
The practical experience from the field and the knowledge from university helped Marayha get started with developing the device. Soon the technology began to garner the interest of not only farmers and the media but also researchers.
“The problem is that Jordanian agriculture doesn’t really attract investors,” Marayha points out.
The young agricultural engineer was given support from a joint project of Finn Church Aid and the foreign ministry of the Netherlands. The project trains young agricultural professionals to ensure the industry continues to attract future workforce. After proving his commitment and willingness to develop, Marayha was given a grant he can use to begin the production of the devices and selling them to farmers.
There are plenty of potential buyers. Cucumber farmer Abu Muhammad has a total of a hundred cucumber tunnels in Jordan, and in three months, a single tunnel produces 7000 to 7500 kilos of crop.
According to Marayha, a 500-square metre tunnel can be covered with three devices. Manufacturing one device costs approximately 65 euros, but it hasn’t got a market price yet. Even so, the farmer is ready to invest in the innovation.
“The price doesn’t concern me, and I don’t care about it. I’m sure the benefits will outweigh the price,” Abu Muhammad says.
He’s confident that the device will be particularly useful during sowing.
“Sometimes I fertilise wrong and end up losing both the money spent on fertilisers and the crop. In the future my farming will be based on scientific measuring instead of guessing.”
Making a living as a farmer isn’t easy. The biggest reason, Abu Muhammad says, is that there’s no fixed market price for crops in Jordan.
“As we’re farming, we don’t know for what price we’ll be able to sell. Many have quit, and most people have started to cultivate various plant species to mitigate the risk. I’m taking a significant risk with all these tons of cucumber. I get along, because I have a contract for getting them pickled. If all my cucumbers were sold in the fresh market, the profit would be uncertain.”
Farming is badly lacking young professionals
The situation in the rest of the world also poses a challenge for Jordan’s farmers. The crops no longer travel to dinner tables around the world like they used to.
“We used to farm a lot to meet the needs in Syria, and through Syria, our products would go to Turkey and from there to Russia. Because of the war in our neighbouring country, the trade route has been closed. Previously we also sold to the Gulf countries, but now they have their own farms,” says Abu Muhammad.
Abu Muhammad says he’s constantly on a razor’s edge due to the fluctuating markets.
“I only have to fail once. If I can’t sell my next crop, I’ll give up farming.”
At worst, the consequences to food production can be dramatic. If one farmer after another quits their profession and the young aren’t drawn to it, Jordan might have to start importing more food in the future. The cucumber farmer has faith in young professionals who otherwise have no work opportunities in the region.
“It’s great that Marayha and other young people are developing agriculture. Everyone wins: the farmers benefit from the innovations and the young get more work opportunities. Marayha has a university degree, and the studies have cost a fortune, and currently he hasn’t got anything else to do for work. It’s up to us farmers to encourage the young to make a living for themselves,” Abu Muhammad ponders.
Marayha says that his education as well as the grant he received improve the financial situation of his family. The young man wishes that with the help of his future income, his hard-working mother could finally get some rest.
“I dream about my future every day. I have already received inquiries from people who could help me sell the device abroad. My dream is to see the device in use specifically in Jordan, so it could benefit the people in my own region.”
The Cool-Ya project is funded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The project is seeking to attract more youth to the agriculture sector by making it more appealing and interesting for the young people.
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Translation: Anne Salomäki Photos: Sherbel Dissi
Girls in class boost boys’ grades in a Syrian school
Although the crisis in Syria has disappeared from headlines in recent years, the need for help remains extensive. A boys’ school supported by Finn Church Aid opened its doors to girls in the countryside of Hama. The new set-up was a challenge to the pupils, teachers, and families alike, but the efforts have been rewarded.
THE JOYFUL NOISE is deafening. In the countryside of Hama in western Syria, around 30 girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 14 have packed into a tiny classroom.
The situation might seem ordinary, but in today’s Syria, it’s a rare one. The war has dragged on for almost 12 years, and during its course, girls and boys have gone to separate schools. School directors assure that this hasn’t always been the case; before the war, girls and boys sat in the same classes. During the war, rules and practices became stricter.
Together with the EU humanitarian aid, Finn Church Aid supports a former boy’s school that has taken on girls in 2022. FCA support refurbished the school and provided teacher training. 380 girls took part in remedial lessons organised in the summer, and now there are approximately two dozen girls in the school of 400 students.
The school staff say that the reforms has filled the classrooms with cheerful energy and positive competition. A teacher and two students share their experiences of life in wartime and how the school experiment that brought girls and boys in the same classrooms has broken the ice in the community.
“Now I even have boys as friends”
“My family didn’t flee; we stayed in this region throughout the conflict. In 2018–2019, we spent a year sheltering below our house, for about 20 hours a day. I was 11 years old, and I was afraid when I heard helicopters, missiles, or shells. One of them hit our house, and my brother blacked out. We had no water or electricity. My father had a small store, and we emptied it in a year.
My girls’ school was closed that year. Once my father tried to take me to a school in another district, but that didn’t work out. Everyone was scared, and there weren’t any teachers. We dropped education for that year.
I think my situation is better now than it was before. The atmosphere in the mixed school is happy. Previously, when I was attending an all-girls school, it was difficult for me to talk to boys. Now I even have boys as friends. My school friends Ahmad, Muhammad, Ali, and others are part of our group of friends. I used to just be friends with the boys in my family.
Initially my family was concerned that the boys in school would harm me. However, this experience has strengthened the relationship I have with my family. They trust me, and they think that their daughter can go to a boys’ school and look after herself.
What do I think about girls’ education? Education is my right. Studying, working, and travelling are women’s rights. We have exactly the same rights as men. Our place isn’t just at home. I hope to become a doctor or an engineer.” – Student Foton, 14
“I suppose they are strong women in a way”
“My family and I left our home, when the battles in our region were really intense. We fled and took nothing with us. Throughout the entire conflict I was really scared because of the shells and missiles. I still have anxiety thinking someone might attack us.
Finn Church Aid organised revision lessons in our school. The sounds of the war have been playing in my head for a long time, but the activities gave me something else to think about and helped me forget about the horrors.
This is my school, and it used to be just us boys here. We were all somehow similar. Now we boys want to prove that we’re smarter than girls. We compete for good grades in front of the teachers. We try to be polite and respectful towards the girls. Things can often get tough among the boys, but now there are girls in the classroom, too.
During this experiment, we boys have gained more self-confidence. I’m used to thinking that girls are shy. When they came to our school, I noticed that girls are confident. I suppose they are strong women in a way.
I don’t mind continuing like this at all, studying together with girls. I have to admit that it hasn’t been very easy. I sometimes feel a little shy and think that it would be better if they went back to their own school. But would I really want that? No, no, no! They boost study motivation for us boys. – Student Turki, 13
“Now girls and boys are classmates, friends, and colleagues”
“A lot has changed in Syria during the war. In many respects, rules have been forgotten, and sometimes groups of people don’t respect each other. During the war years, we have lost plenty of opportunities and been left behind in global development.
We have to fix our ways of thinking in terms of gender issues as well, because we must be able to accept each other. It’s important to start driving the change here at school. Why? As a teacher I want to think that all of my students will move on to university studies. At university, women and men study together. That will be difficult, if these young people have never done anything together before.
It’s great to have girls in this school. Unlike before, now we have activities and teaching that bring boys and girls together. I’ve noticed that after the initial awkwardness they’ve started talking to each other. They treat each other normally: sit and learn next to each other, without having to constantly interpret the situation. Now they are classmates, friends, and colleagues to each other. The ice has somehow been broken.
Girls tend to do better in school than boys but, bringing girls in the former all boys’ school has showed boys are now improving their grades. FCA support refurbished the school in Hama, western part of Syria, and provided teacher training. 380 girls took part in remedial lessons organised in the summer, and now there are approximately two dozen girls in the school of 400 students. Photo: Erik Nyström / FCA
As an English teacher I must say that the reform has had its share of challenges. The girls who joined the school hadn’t really studied English before, and I’ve had to revise everything from the beginning.
Ultimately, this situation has been really useful. Based on my experience, girls tend to do better in school than boys. A new situation, in which the girls and boys take the same classes, creates positive competition between the students. The boys have improved their grades and overall performance.
Education plays a significant role when we plan a future for Syria. Children spend more time in school than at home, and a teacher is like an extra parent to a child. Everything starts at school: we can impact the child’s ways of thinking, help them develop their skills, and thus also have an impact on the direction Syria takes and how reconstruction proceeds.” – Teacher Najah Kasem
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Translation: Anne Salomäki Photos: Erik Nyström
“You’re emotionally numb! Nothing touches you anymore!” Jouni Hemberg, FCA’s Executive Director, addresses 12 claims regarding FCA and its work.
Jouni Hemberg has seen more than a fair share of humanitarian crises, and he’s been around the block a few times as a rock musician. In our interview, he addresses some tough allegations people frequently make in FCA’s social media channels.
“It’s Finland who needs the help”
Finn Church Aid, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, was founded in 1947 when post-war reconstruction began. Back then, Finland was a beneficiary, not a donor. Today, war is again raging in Europe, forcing us back towards where we started.
We are not going back in the sense that we would focus our work on Finland. Our work in Europe currently focuses on Ukraine. It is tragic that a war interrupted a long period of peace in Europe, but we hope the situation in Ukraine will not escalate and that instead, we could set our sights on reconstruction.
“You get numb to suffering”
You have decades of experience in humanitarian disasters and development work. As a young man, you witnessed the horrors Romania endured under Ceaușescu’s rule in the early 90s. Having witnessed so much suffering has made you emotionally numb, and nothing touches you anymore.
No, that’s not true. Admittedly, I have adopted a more professional role, but human suffering touches me every bit as much as it did when I was a young man. My first job in Romania was quite shocking and I saw all kinds of things, but that has happened again later in my career. The important thing is to focus on your ability to do something; not being able to do anything is devastating. I have not yet been in a situation where nothing could be done to help.
“Development cooperation creates dependency”
There is no point in pouring more money into development cooperation because nothing in this world will change for the better.
Not true. On the contrary; development cooperation in its various forms is precisely what we should spend money on. There are many alternatives available. We can offer loans to companies, or our expertise and knowledge to the beneficiary countries. Development cooperation is about working together towards common goals. Cooperation in itself is something worth striving for.
Cooperation usually results in improvements and better outcomes. Although there have been occasional setbacks, we have seen dramatic improvements: extreme poverty has halved and the number of children with access to education has increased. Development cooperation is a worthwhile investment. Two out of three Finns consider it very important or fairly important.
“Finn Church Aid beg for money everywhere”
Your employees shake their collecting boxes on every street corner and call people in the evenings, asking for donations. Because of cuts in the government’s development funding, FCA is constantly begging for money.
Yes, that’s true. With so many people in need of help, regrettably our need for new donors and donations is also growing. This is our reality. We are begging for money in more ways than one, both in Finland and in international contexts. Every single donation in Finland, no matter how small, is really important because they enable cooperation with foreign funding providers, whereas monthly donations ensure our ability to provide aid over a longer term. Without the contribution of individuals, parishes and businesses in Finland we would not be able to continue our work.
“The money flows into the pockets of the privileged”
The only people benefitting from fundraising conducted by development cooperation organisations is big shots like you. Your wallet is so thick it won’t fit in your back pocket.
Haha. It is true that my wallet is thick, but only because it’s full of receipts. But to be honest, there’s very little money or anything worth any money in it. We have discovered that our salaries are low in the sense that they are not competitive with the private sector or UN agencies.
Organisations like ours have to fight for skilled labour. In fact, there is room for improvement in this area. Everyone deserves to be paid for their work, and if you are employed full-time, you need more than ideology in return for your contribution. Sadly, I receive just as many bills by email or post as the next person.
“Wells solve the drought”
FCA’s finances are subject to both external and internal audit. Of each euro donated to us, 90 cents go directly to our programme work.
It seems unlikely that money or cash assistance could solve the drought in East Africa. Digging wells would be a better idea.
It takes more than wells to solve the drought plaguing East Africa. In some conditions, a well might offer relief in the acute crisis, but unfortunately the ground water level is so low that digging wells is becoming more difficult every year. The parched fields in East Africa desperately need rain. Considering this is the fifth consecutive failed rainy season, a well would be scant comfort. We need to address climate change and help people to cope and adapt by taking action on a wide front. For all this, we need money.
“Africans need contraceptives”
You become annoyed by comments people make on social media where they downplay the importance of education and suggest sending condoms, tractors and clothes to Africa instead.
Absolutely! How would you feel if someone made comments like that about Finland? Finland’s economy is struggling, let’s send them some condoms to solve the problem? I don’t think you would appreciate that. Equality and companionship between people is important, whether they come from the north, east, south or west. People in all corners of the world are equally valuable and deserve to be treated equally.
“Finnish companies need support”
FCA keeps sending money to its programme countries even though it would be smarter to have companies go in and start a business.
We are, as a matter of fact, strongly increasing our cooperation with the private sector. Naturally it is not our job to act as a marketing channel for Finnish companies, but we have realised that by engaging the private sector we can achieve more sustainable change. We have, for instance, offered loans to small and medium-sized enterprises, which we feel offers strong employment potential and better income opportunities. The fact that we can contribute to a process that enhances corporate responsibility, tax revenues, and environmental and climate awareness, is extremely important for us.
“FCA is just a church proxy”
Finn Church Aid is an independent foundation with close ties to the Lutheran Church. In global operations, affiliation with the church does more good than harm.
That is correct, but I think we should clarify what this affiliation entails. Although we are rooted in the Lutheran Church, religion is not a guiding element but rather the foundation, or a springboard. Today, we operate as an independent foundation. Full adherence to humanitarian principles means our humanitarian work and aid provision is completely separate from religious activities.
It is also true that in global contexts our affiliation with the church does more good than harm. Although religion plays a lesser role in Europe, in other parts of the world religions still carry great social significance. As a faith-based organisation, our doors are generally open for cooperation at various levels and in all parts of the world.
“A church organisation should be for those only who belong to the church”
It is strange that Finn Church Aid does not focus primarily on helping Christians.
We adhere to humanitarian principles. That means our mission is not limited to helping Christians; instead, we want to offer assistance to everyone in need, regardless of religion, ethnicity or political position. We firmly believe that humanitarian law and humanitarian principles provide a strong foundation for our work, and we are convinced that they help us achieve positive results.
“Companies are more useful than development cooperation organisations”
You are known as a visionary and you often talk about agility. You think FCA should operate more like a company.
That’s not entirely true. I don’t think FCA should operate more like a company, but I would welcome a combination of different elements from both sectors. Strict separation of the private sector and civil society organisations makes our cooperation more difficult and complicated. By combining the best of both worlds we could increase our efficiency and agility, which would allow us to carry out our work much more effectively than we do today.
“Rock’n’Roll life is more fun than running an aid organisation”
You like running Finland’s biggest aid organisation just fine, but you would rather become a rock musician again. In fact, you have offered to play with your band, The Streets, in upcoming charity concerts.
Haha. I do love rock music. Back in 1967 I played more professionally, but for the most part music has been something I’ve done on the side, in addition to my actual career. It’s been a while since The Streets albums were released, and not all of our original members are able to participate any more. But I can see myself playing with a band in the future. Running Finland’s largest international aid organisation is a full-time job, but perhaps I will have more time for music when I retire.
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Photos: Tatu Blomqvist Translation: Leni Vapaavuori