Back to school season is upon us, and with it, comes school lunches and after-school snacks. While many of us have the luxury to buy a school lunch, or pack our child a nutritious meal from home, refugee families are one of the most vulnerable groups of people impacted by food insecurity. Lack of foods rich in proteins and vitamins can take a toll on a growing child’s physical and emotional well-being. Hunger even impacts a child’s ability to learn.

Studies show that a high correlation exists between academic performance and healthy nutrition. According to Mary Garvin of the Nemours Foundation: “Children with insufficient diets are reported to have more problems with health, academic learning, and psychosocial behavior. Malnutrition can result in long-term neural issues in the brain, which can impact a child’s emotional responses, reactions to stress, learning disabilities, and other medical complications.”

At Carry the Future, we believe that all children should have access to healthy foods, which is why we have committed to partnering with PILAglobal and The Azraq Education and Community Fund to provide healthy meals and nutritious snacks to refugee kids in Mexico and Jordan.

Just 30 minutes from the US border lies a respite for migrant and refugee families, PILAglobal’s Canyon Nest. It’s a place where families with children ages 0-10 in transit can engage in educational and play-based programs. It’s located in Tijuana, where approximately 2,000 migrants and refugees from Haiti, Central America and Mexico live together in the community as they await resettlement.

The Nest does have a budget to provide some breakfasts and lunches to the children, but donations from non-profit organizations make up for the difference, Thérèse O’Neill, Volunteer Chair of PILAglobal shares. Covid impacted food security, due to NGO’s lack of funding and/or the inability to make food drop offs during quarantines and shutdowns. The result was a lack of fresh produce and healthy snacks at the Nest.

“We all know how important it is for children to have vitamins from fruits and vegetables. Once we started receiving donations from Carry the Future, we were able to provide snacks during the day at the Nest. This has made a big difference for the kids. Most of them live at a shelter where they can be living with over 1,000 people,” she explains.

Due to the environment of life in a shelter, the kids need to adhere to a strict meal schedule, so students often feel rushed to eat or miss meals entirely. Most of the children are under-slept due to the levels of noise in the shelter. Each family is assigned only one bunk for sleeping. “If someone is crying or coughing or sneezing, you can imagine how hard it can be to sleep,” comments Thérèse.

Already at a disadvantage with poor sleep and less-than-ideal living conditions, students are more likely to have the inability to regulate their emotions and behaviors. The stress, noise, and schedule of the shelter takes its toll on their minds and bodies, therefore learning often falls to the wayside. PILAglobal hopes to offer a respite to these children who have already had traumas from fleeing their home countries.

Thérèse says, “It’s a huge benefit in having snacks at the Nest. These kids have quiet, cozy reading corners, something in their bellies, and they become so much more regulated. It’s a game changer. The kids are so hungry.” She explains how just having full bellies help them relate better to other students, have the ability to manage emotions, stay focused, and just overall have the ability to concentrate.

Carry the Future provides snacks such as fruit, granola bars and mozzarella sticks every month. Thérèse notes the importance of these vitamins, good carbs, and protein on brain development, especially for children ages 3-11. “Numerous studies show the quality of food on brain development, the ability to concentrate and focus on a task and do well in school. It’s hard to focus when you’re hungry and there’s not enough [nutrients] for a growing body,” she says.

The children not only consume the food, but they help prepare it. They count it, sort it. “Having been a preschool teacher in the Bay Area for decades,” says Thérèse, “I have never seen children so excited about an orange or an apple. They just love to peel and eat them.”

Thérèse shares an emotional anecdote about one little boy whom she calls “A.” He had crossed into the US with his father; they were caught and sent back to Mexico. The experience left A with deep physical and emotional trauma. Thérèse does not know what happened to the boy’s mother, but across his forehead was a large scar. One day at the Nest, he was drawing a self-portrait and he became overwhelmed with emotion. The drawing triggered difficult memories, and as he drew himself with a scar on his face, he began to cry.

“He felt like he wasn’t handsome anymore, so I showed him my own scar and told him how we were the same. We bonded. He wanted to show me his bunkbed.” They boy had an orange from the Nest, that he was saving to eat later in the day. He held out his fruit, and in Spanish, asked her to keep it.

“This is the equivalent of the most intensely kind hospitality that can be given. The fruit is so valuable to these kids that I didn’t know what to do,” Thérèse shares.

Seeing her hesitation, he just looked at her and said, “Por favor.”

“I took it. It’s such a beautiful thing that these kids who have so little, just have this generosity of spirit.” Showing her his bunk was like inviting her to his home, she explains. “Mi casa. It’s like they’re saying, you’re a guest and the best thing I can give you is this really wonderful, juicy fruit, and I’m offering it to you.”

Carry the Future has helped the expanding needs of PILAglobal as they went from serving 115 kids a day to 300.  

 

Across the globe lies the The Azraq Education Center in South Azraq, Jordan, which was opened to help Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians receive education. The center offers daily classes for over 350 students from pre-K through Grade 12.

The center sits in a small town where the population has high unemployment levels and little access to education. The community’s population has nearly doubled since the Syrian refugee crisis began. The Syrian population has integrated into the Jordanian community, but they are still struggling and at risk, whether they live in the refugee camps or outside of one, says Lexi Shereshewsky, Executive Director of the center. “The reality in Jordan is that less than 20% of the refugees are in camps. Towns and villages bring more freedom of mobility, independence and self-respect,” she says. 

Yet without the support and donations of the camp, fewer resources and handouts are available to meet basic needs. Most of this population was already below the poverty line, as Syrians are not legally allowed to work in the country of Jordan. The recent years of the Covid-19 pandemic has only created more difficulties of poverty and food insecurity.

Lexi acknowledges that when faced with food insecurity, families often have to make difficult choices for survival. Education is often the first to be sacrificed, whether that means a young woman will be married instead of attending classes, or a child has to drop out of school to go to work. In May 2022, Carry the Future granted $7,250 USD (5,180 JOD) to The Azraq Education and Community Fund (AECF) to help support their school lunch program.

Lexi says she’s seen an undeniable connection between nutrition and schooling. For one, the Azraq School has committed to providing every single student with a meal and snack. The food incentive promotes attendance. Two Syrian women provide hearty meals in the center’s kitchen to keep the children full throughout the day.

One of the main cooks, A’isha, is a Syrian refugee and mom of four children, whose husband has been missing. She has no family in Jordan. She prepares lunches five days a week for over 300 students, allowing her to provide for her children.“She’s such a warm, kind person who puts so much love into all she does. The Center has been such a life raft for her and her family.”

Carry the Future also helps support Alia, a Syrian woman who helps cook healthy, hot, free meals for every student. The women prepare meals with healthy fats and high proteins like chickpeas, lentils, and yogurt.

The center also has a community garden, where many of the Syrian children and families are involved in the process of growing their own food. “Many of these families have an agricultural background,” Lexi says. The fact that they can use their skills and knowledge brings a sense of empowerment. The garden grows eggplants, radishes, tomatoes, and cucumbers, to name a few of the fresh fruits and vegetables grown. “There’s just something special about growing your own food,” Lexi gushes.

As many NGOs have cut donations due to the overwhelming needs throughout the world and smaller budgets, Carry the Future has stepped in and continues to commit to providing meals to students at Azraq.

Every child deserves an education. Every child deserves a full belly. With your continued donations to Carry the Future, we can help refugee children around the world be fed, educated, and have a better tomorrow.

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