How Kiva is Providing Microloans to Help Refugees Rebuild their Lives

The older I get and the further I travel, the more I realize how fortunate I am to have been born to a family who believes strongly in education and has afforded me with many opportunities to follow my dreams. Growing up, I never had to worry about what to eat each day, whether or not my water was safe to drink, or if my family would be forced to run from war, strife or conflict. I have been blessed and am fully aware of it which is why I have dedicated a big part of my life to giving back by either volunteering, donating money or my time as a writer for social justice causes.

With the tremendous need and upheaval in the world today, it is easy to become overwhelmed and complacent. Trust me, I have had to put the newspaper aside many times and I relish the moments when I can escape from all the bad news. Yet, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing good in the world or nothing you can do to help. There is indeed a lot of good happening every single moment of the day. The news just doesn’t cover it always as unfortunately the bad news is the news that sells. Therefore, I will continue to share some of the amazingly good and beautiful things happening out there in the world today on my blog and how you can personally make a difference.

“Dreams are universal, opportunity is not” – Kiva

Over the past several years, we have all heard many harrowing stories about the refugee crisis. If you are like me, I read the stories with a heavy heart, often feeling completely helpless on what on earth I can do to help change such a massive problem. Despite the fact that more people have been forced to flee their homes by conflict and crisis than any time since World War II, there is hope that refugees can rebuild and change their lives and there are organizations out there that are making a difference.

Kiva, the world’s largest crowdfunding organization, is doing just that by offering micro loans to refugees, something often perceived too risky due to their undocumented credit history and unstable livelihood. The good news is that Kiva’s newly released World Refugee Fund Impact Report has shown excellent results.  Kiva found that loans to refugees have a repayment rate of 96.6%, right on par with 96.8% for all non-refugee loans during that same period. Through the help of Kiva, refugees who are financially excluded now have the opportunity to get a small loan, and these loans can make an enormous difference on their lives.

As a strong supporter and lender to Kiva, I was immediately intrigued by this exciting news and had the opportunity to interview Jessica Hansen, Global Engagement Manager at Kiva to share more about Kiva’s mission and how they are making a difference in the lives of people around the world. Here is what she has to say.

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Photos above: Samira came to Lebanon in 2010. Her Lebanese neighbor Soaud encouraged her to take out a small loan from Kiva so that they could start a business reselling wedding dresses, and in turn, Samira could supplement her hairdressing business. Samira doubled her income with this money, and now calls Soaud – her business partner – “more than a sister.” Photo credit: Brandon Smith for Kiva

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Where it is Best and Worst in the World to be a Child

Save the Children, the world’s leading independent organization for children, has released the second annual End of Childhood Index in honor of International Children’s Day, a day to celebrate and raise awareness on children’s rights and wellbeing around the world. Save the Children’s annual End of Childhood Index ranks 175 countries based on eight childhood “ender” events that jeopardize children’s chance of a happy, healthy and safe childhood. While the report shows that the majority of countries have made progress for children since last year (95 out of 175 countries), conditions in about 40 countries appear significantly worse and are not improving fast enough.

No country is on track to meet the 2030 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) for children.  Over 1 billion children around the world live in countries plagued by poverty and it is not just a developing world problem. In the 2018 report, the United States didn’t rank in the top 10 or top 25. Instead, the U.S. shockingly ranked 36th place smack between Belarus and Russia. The growing urban and rural child poverty rate within the United States continues to widen.  The results of the report may surprise you.

This year’s report has two components: “The Many Faces of Exclusion” and “Growing Up in Rural America”, a new U.S. complement that offers first-of-its kind analysis of rural child poverty rates across America as well as state by state ranking of where childhood is most and least threatened. In advance of the report’s release, I listened in on a telebriefing by Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children to get some of the key highlights of the report and a call to action by governments around the world.

Here are some of the key findings worldwide and in America.

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LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

How LifeStraw is Saving the Planet and Lives

For many of us, clean water is so plentiful and readily available that we rarely, if ever, pause to consider what life would be like without it. – Marcus Samuelsson

Today, March 22 is World Water Day, a day designated by the United Nations to bring attention of the importance of water. Today, 2.1 billion people live without safe drinking water affecting their health, wellbeing, education and livelihoods. Water is life and in my opinion access to safe water is a basic human right. Water is so critical to life and wellbeing that it was added by the UN as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6) which commits the world to ensuring that everyone has access to safe water by 2030, and includes measures to protect the natural environment and reduce pollution.

In my work, I’ve had several opportunities to write about water and have recently witnessed firsthand the impact of brining safe water to communities during a trip to Western Kenya last month with LifeStraw.

In light of this important day, I wanted to share with you a few shocking facts about the lack of safe water around the world, ways that single use plastic water bottles are threatening our planet and ideas on how you can help. Please feel free to share this post and help spread awareness of this critical issue.

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

Demonstrating washing hands with safe water

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

Trying out the LifeStraw Community Filter

LifeStraw1million Campaign Kenya

The youngest child at the school, age 3, takes her first sip of safe water

Did you know….

World population impacted by unsafe water: 

  • Globally, 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services. By 2050, the world’s population will have grown by an estimated 2 billion people and global water demand could be up to 30% higher than today. (UNESCO-United Nations World Water Development Report 2018)
  • Today, around 1.9 billion people live in potentially severely water-scarce areas. By 2050, this could increase to around 3 billion people.
  • 2.5 million children miss school every day around the world due to waterborne illness
  • 29 percent of the global population (2.1 billion people), and 42 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa, lack access to safe drinking water services. (UN)
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How to Help Syrian Children From Losing Their Childhood

Seven years later, civil war continues to loom in Syria destroying the world they once knew and tearing families apart. Millions of Syrians are living amidst unimaginable violence and uncertainty. 12 million people, over half of the pre-war Syrian population, are either internally displaced or have had to flee the country in search of safety. Furthermore, over half of all Syrian refuges are children and 2.8 million of these children are out of school. For children under age 8, war is the only life they know and their childhood has been taken away from them forever.

As a mother of two children, my heart is torn apart knowing about the dire situation for the children and families in Syria. SOS Children’s Villages has been on the ground providing a safe home, care for children and support for vulnerable families for more than 30 years. SOS began emergency relief programs in 2012 and currently operates in Aleppo, Damascus and Tartous. I have personally seen SOS Children’s program in Ethiopia and have been a huge supporter of their work ever since.

In light of the ongoing crisis in Syria, I am sharing a guest post written by Abeer Pamuk, a former SOS Children’s Village team member in Syria as well as more information on what SOS Children’s Villages is doing on the ground right now to help. 

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The Refugee Crisis in Lesbos, Greece: A Story of Heartbreak and Hope

“Our goal is to place a human face on this world event and meaning to the term refugee. This ongoing crisis is changing the world. We believe there is an urgent need to educate and offer an opportunity for people to connect to the human side of this tragedy.” – Robin and Robert Jones

It was a typical warm April evening on the Greek Island of Lesbos when the first raft arrived that would change this island community and the world forever. Santa Barbara-based couple Robin and Robert Jones had been living part-time in the small, beautiful village of Molyvos on Lesbos for the past 42 years and had witnessed the town develop from a fishing and agricultural community to one dependent on tourism.

View from Robin and Robert Jones house

View from Robin and Robert Jones house. Photo credit: Robin Shanti Jones

They were dining with friends at their beautiful home when they looked out the window and off in the distance approaching perilously in the sea was an inflatable raft filled over capacity with people wearing bright orange life vests. There were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, babies and grandparents. It would be the first of many rafts to come ashore to their tiny town of 1,000 people.

For these refugees, Lesbos was a beacon of hope from the dark, cruel world of war and death that they were escaping in Syria and other parts of the world. Despite the dangerous, treacherous passing across the sea, reaching Lesbos represented a promise of safety and hope for a better life.

Map of Lesbos, Greece.

Map of Lesbos, Greece.

Coming ashore. Photo credit: Robin Shanti Jones

Coming ashore. Photo credit: Robin Shanti Jones

 

Refugees arriving by raft. Photo credit: Robin Shanti Jones

Refugees arriving by raft. Photo credit: Robin Shanti Jones

In 2015 Lesbos became an epicenter for the refugee crisis sweeping across Europe and Asia. At the beginning, fewer than 150 refugees a week were landing on the island. By the time the Jones returned to the US in November, 3,000 desperate people were pouring onto their beaches every day after having made the dangerous crossing from Turkey. They arrived wet, cold, scared and hungry yet filled with hope.

For the first several months as the rafts began trickling in, there was no organized help set up. The town and the world were completely taken by surprise and unprepared at how to provide aid and services to all the refugees. Thankfully, a large group of volunteers took over and helped the refugees by providing food, water, and whatever help they could. Tragically this was only the beginning of their long mass exodus to safety.

The Jones’s joined other volunteers to help the refugees, over half of whom were women and children. Until buses started in the fall they had to walk 60 kilometers over mountain roads in sweltering heat to cross the island to the official Registration centers. Picking up refugees in personal cars was illegal but many people like the Jones helped transport refugee families.

The long walk to the registration center. Photo credit: Robin Shanti Jones

The long walk to the registration center. Photo credit: Robin Shanti Jones

At a rest stop set up for the refugees, Robin, an art teacher, provided paper, colored pens and a blue and white checkered Greek tablecloth she spread on the ground to give the children a place to draw. They sketched tanks and guns but also flowers and homes. Streaks of blue represented the water they had just crossed. The kids were at first a little shy but then they began to draw. And as more and more children got involved, an amazing scene developed. The activity offered a moment of relief to the many children arriving on the beach or entering the temporary chaos of the transit camps.

Robin brought table cloths, pads of paper and colored pens to give the children, who had just made the horrendous sea crossing a few hour before, the opportunity to draw pictures and give them a sense of normalcy in the chaotic environment. Photo credit: Robin Shanti Jones

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The Graceful Beauty of a Rainforest Flower

“Infuse your life with action. Don’t wait for it to happen. Make it happen. Make your own future. Make your own hope. Make your own love. And whatever your beliefs, honor your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen… yourself, right now, right down here on Earth”. –  Bradley Whitford

As I am filled with utter dread about the stark reality that our nation now has a leader who appears to be against every single thing that matters to me and my beliefs, I search the darkness for a shimmering light. A candle in the unknown that glows and grows within me.

I was not able to attend the Women’s March in DC yesterday nor the local one here in St. Paul, Minnesota. I doubted my choice over and over again but despite not physically being present I was there 100% in spirit. When I browsed over my Facebook feed late last night, I felt nothing but pride. There were all my amazing friends and fellow advocates, all around the world out there standing up for their beliefs. None of the protests that they attended were violent or disrespectful. They were all full of beauty and grace.

It restored my faith in democracy, and it gave me hope again in humanity. I fully believe that every person should be able to have their own beliefs, even if I don’t agree with them. However, I am not going to support a government that does not respect human rights and our planet nor am I going to become complacent. I have joined several causes -even more than ever before – to get educated on what I need to know and what I need to do. I am not going to give up quietly. There is too much at stake.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”. – Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.

In the meantime, I wanted to leave some photos of the gorgeous flowers I found in the rainforest of Costa Rica. Their graceful, fragile beauty symbolize the beauty of the women I know and have never met who have fought so hard to be treated as equals.

At yesterday’s Women’s March in Saint Paul, Minnesota (with record attendance of over 90,000 making it one of the largest political marches in Minnesota history) Newly elected State Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis (the first Somali woman in the United States to be elected to public office) poetically said:

“I hope to remind people that it is our differences that make our country beautiful.” 

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“Sooner or later, even the fastest runners have to stand and fight”. – Stephen King

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Vanam Foundation: Improving Education and Conservation outside Bandipur National Park

About 230 km (143 miles) away from Bangalore lies the Bandipur National Park in the district of Chamarajnagar. Tucked around the stunning Western Ghat Mountains in Karnataka, Bandipur National Park is regarded as one of the most beautiful parks in India and is home to many types of wildlife including tigers, elephants and gaurs (a type of bull) as well as the predominantly indigenous communities that surround the park. Together with Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and Nagarhole National Park in the North, it creates the India’s largest biosphere reserve popularly known as the ‘Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve’ and is an important part of India’s efforts towards eco-conservation.

Bandipur National Park was founded in 1974 under the Indian Government in efforts to conserve the tigers and wildlife community, however, in the process of establishing the park the tribal populations who has lived in the forests of the reserve for centuries were moved off of their land and into the villages and hamlets that surround the park. They had lost access to their traditional way of life as forest dwellers and were moved into subsistence farming on dry plots of land.

Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

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Mkuru Training Camp Maasai Tanzania

One Love for Humankind

One love refers to the universal love and respect expressed by all people for all people, regardless of race, creed, or color. —The Urban Dictionary

Anne McCarthy writes: “I realized that the universe is constantly whispering words of love: expressions of pure joy, respect, loyalty, and sacrifice for someone other than ourselves, and instructions on letting go and focusing on what is most important in this world”.

Her remark could not be more poignant today as we face an opportunity to either open the doors and embrace others different from ourselves or build a wall and shut the door. We are at a critical time in history in which more and more democracies including our own are struggling to keep intolerance, injustice and hate out of becoming who we are. With the rise of politicians and people breeding hatred and intolerance of others based on gender, religion, sex and ethnicity, it frightens me. I wonder what kind of world my children will live in. One of ignorance and hate or one of acceptance and love. It is a scary time in history.

Without getting too political or depressing, I wanted to share with you what my belief is in “one love”. Why I believe that we should open our doors to others instead of turn away. The world is an amazing place and a huge part of what makes it so incredibly magical is us. All of us. Not just the white, catholic christians. Everyone. Black, brown, yellow, white. Jewish, Muslim. Christian, Buddhist or atheist. All of us.

That is what one love means.

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Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

Mkuru Training Camp Maasai Tanzania

Me and Mary

Mkura Maasi Training Camp TanzaniaKilimanjaro Orphanage Moshi Tanzania

Moshi Tanzania

Of course I couldn’t resist getting my picture taken with these lovely girls.

Kilimanjaro Orphanage Moshi Tanzania

Holding a small child at the Kilimanjaro Orphanage Centre in Moshi, Tanzania.

IMG_2052-1Jamel, Haitipapier-mâché artisans Jacmel HaitiJacmel HaitiP1020353-1

Mosebo Village

In Ethiopia at Mosebo Village. June 2014

Our multi-cultural team to Haiti. How I wish these lovely ladies all lived here!

Our multi-cultural team to Haiti. How I wish these lovely ladies all lived here!

Condoriri Valley Bolivia

Cerro Austria Bolivia

Eugenia, our cook, inside the “kitchen” tent gives us a big smile.

Carnival Port au Prince, Haiti 2015Aymara Women La Paz BoliviaStreet Photography Havana

Sisters in Cuba

Hair Braiding in Havana

Hair Braiding in Havana

Cuban Street PhotographyLos tres amigos de Cuba

How would I have met and talked to Tomas if I was on the bus all day long?

Maria. Guatemala.

Maria. Guatemala.

Honduran childRoutan HondurasXela GuatemalaHonduras

Volunteering in Morocco, I get Henna done.

Volunteering in Morocco, I get Henna done.

Volunteering in Costa Rica

Volunteering in Costa Rica

The Great Wall of China

Entos Eyesu Monastery Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Smiling at her Polaroid of herself.

Bete Maryam Monastery Bahir Dar Ethiopia

I bought this small painting for my home.

Faces of Ethiopia

This post was inspired by the Weekly Photo Challenge: One Love.

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Freedom Tower NYC

Remembering 9/11: In a Series of Monochromatic Photographs

“A powerful monochromatic image is composed of a gradient of a single color, and has an emphasis on texture and composition. While the images I’ve shared in this post are not entirely monochromatic, they show the power that a simple color palette can have in a photograph”. – WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge Host, Jen Hooks

September 11, 2001.  Fourteen years ago today.  How long it seems since that fateful terrifying day.  How fast time has gone that it seems as if it was just yesterday.  The images and feelings of shock, anger, horror, sadness, fear and what ifs will forever be engrained in our minds.  The images and emotions are things that we will never be able to forget and will never stop seeing when we close our eyes.   The fruitless human lives that were lost.  Our freedom imprisoned.  Our hearts never the same.  Our lives forsaken.

Today, I want to honor the people whose lives were lost on that horrific day and every single day in this cruel world. The people of Syria dying in search for freedom and a better life. The endless murders and shootings of innocent human beings. All lives that are lost, everywhere on this planet due to another human being.

Will there ever be peace? Will the countless mass murders – many happening here in the United States – ever be curtailed? In a world of violence will we ever truly be free?

Freedom Tower NYC

1 World Trade Center Tower or “The Freedom Tower” is the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, in July 2013. She looms directly behind the 9/11 Memorial.

“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength”.  – Dalai Lama

9/11 Memorial

Each name of a person who died on 9/11 is inscribed along the side of the memorials.

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Annapurna Trek Nepal

My heart breaks for Nepal

“We cannot stop natural disasters but we can arm ourselves with knowledge: so many lives wouldn’t have to be lost if there was enough disaster preparedness.” – Petra Nemcova

News of the devastating earthquake this past Saturday has sent shock waves throughout the world. Once again, Nepal is struggling to help rescue survivors after another catastrophe. For me personally, my heart is broken. A place that has meant so much to me has continually suffered and is now in ruins. A place where I found my voice and was inspired to start this blog.

Annapurna Trek Nepal

Me and my Dad at the start of the Annapurna Trek. November 2010.

They sometimes say that bad things happen in threes. In Nepal’s case, I certainly hope it ends at three. A series of natural tragedies over the last year has brought heartache and struggle to this tiny mountain country, one of the poorest countries in the world.

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Why is it so hard to talk about race in America?

“Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome”. – Rosa Parks

I’ve always been an avid reader and the more I travel, the more I want to read and learn about different cultures and perspectives around the world. Lately however I’ve been on a quest to learn more about our own country and identity, and reexamine my own personal beliefs and perspectives. What is the American culture and where is it headed? As a nation based on immigration and “life, liberty and justice for all” why does racism and other intolerances and hatred still continue to exist and why does it exist so strongly?

Recent events have made me question our country and the intolerance of some people who judge others based on race, sex, homosexuality, class and religion. As these issues come to a head and play in our minds, some are improved (such as gay marriage rights) while others continue to be ignored. The increased police brutality against black young men has been on the news 24/7 yet has our conversation really even begin to touch the real roots of racism? Are we as a nation truly able to speak honestly and openly about race and what it means to be black in this country? No.

In order to answer these questions, I’ve done a lot of soul searching and reading. I devoured Maya Angelou’s famous book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and just last week I completed the brilliant novel “Americanah” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which brings the issue of race, class and status of immigrants in America to an entirely new level. Quite honestly, this book has really made me think about race issues in America and in a very different, unsettling way. It has also dismantled the American Dream quite easily but I’ve never been that naive to believe that simply coming to America would be a cure for all.

Our multi-cultural team to Haiti. How I wish these lovely ladies all lived here!

Our multi-cultural team to Haiti. How I wish these lovely ladies all lived here! All my friends in Minnesota sadly look like me. Although the population has become much more ethnically diverse over the last 20 years, communities are still segregated economically and racially.

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Special report: UNICEF’s on the ground support offers glimmer of hope for children traumatized by Typhoon Haiyan

Friday marks the two week date since Super Typhoon Haiyan bombarded the Philippines, causing devastation, destruction and utter despair among this island nation. In the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan, millions of Filipinos are displaced, 18,175 people were injured, 3,976 people are confirmed dead, 1,598 people are still missing and estimated damage continues to spike up to $674 million (Source: New York Times).

The storm, one of the most powerful ever recorded in the world, also destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, roads, communications and other basic infrastructure, and damaged power and water supply systems making relief services extremely complicated and difficult.

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While world coverage of Super Typhoon Haiyan continues to filtrate the newspaper mostly speaking of the damage, destruction and despair, there are a few more subtle stories here and there about the most vulnerable victims of this devastating storm: The children.

On 12 November, a woman cradling a baby stands amid debris and other destruction caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan, in Tacloban City – the area worst affected by the disaster – on the central island of Leyte. Water, sanitation and hygiene, food, medicine, shelter, debris clearance and communications are among the priority needs. Blocked roads have limited access and  the delivery of relief supplies. On 12 November 2013 in the Philippines, Government-led emergency relief and recovery operations continue in the wake of the destruction caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda), which hit the central Philippines on 8 November. At least 2,500 people have been killed in the Category-5 storm; the death toll is expected to rise as more affected areas become accessible. Some 11.3 million people, including an estimated 4.7 million children, in nine regions across the country have been affected, and more than 673,000 people have been displaced. Most of them are sheltering in overcrowded evacuation centres. The storm, one of the most powerful ever recorded in the world, also destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, roads, communications and other basic infrastructure, and damaged power and water supply systems. As a result, access to the many areas remains limited, hampering humanitarian relief operations. In response to the emergency, UNICEF is rushing critical supplies to affected areas, including therapeutic food for children, health kits, and water and hygiene kits for up to 3,000 families. UNICEF is also airlifting US $1.3 million in additional relief supplies from its supply warehouse in Copenhagen for another 10,000 families, including those affected by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that hit Bohol Province in mid-October. The shipments contain water purification tablets, soap, medical kits, tarpaulin sheets and micronutrient supplements. UNICEF is also supporting water and sanitation, education and child protection interventions for vulnerable children and families. UNICEF is requesting US $34.3 million as part of a US $301 million United Nations Flash Appeal for the Philippines, to provide essential humanitarian supplies and services through May 2014. Photo credit:

On 12 November, a woman cradling a baby stands amid debris and other destruction caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan, in Tacloban City – the area worst affected by the disaster –on the central island of Leyte. Water, sanitation and hygiene, food, medicine, shelter, debris clearance and communications are among the priority needs. Blocked roads have limited access and the delivery of relief supplies. Photo credit: Jeoffrey Maitem/UNICEF

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