By Marieke van Woudenberg
Operation Mercy in Kazakhstan has four projects: community-based rehabilitation, life skills education, anti-human trafficking, and women’s empowerment. When the pandemic started in March 2020, the government of Kazakhstan reacted with a lockdown. Cities were restricted for entry or exit, the exit of citizens from their place of residence became limited, people were only allowed to leave their house to purchase food, medicine and to go to work. Due to the lockdown, Operation Mercy Kazakhstan’s projects could not continue as they did before.
Several members of staff received phone calls and messages from their project’s recipients asking for help. There was a pressing need for basic necessities such as food, among their target groups. For example, the women involved in the anti-trafficking project are often perceived as ‘the lowest in society’. They are not likely to receive any help from community members around them. Added to this, these women do not have the correct documents needed to receive government funding, leaving them to care for themselves. The families involved in the community-based rehabilitation project also did not receive enough funds from the government to buy both food and medicines for their children with disabilities.
Therefore, the Operation Mercy office in Kazakhstan decided to respond to the COVID-19 crisis by distributing food parcels, as this was the most pressing need, among families with whom the office had already been working.
The families were selected by assessing who was most in need, this included people who were not able to provide for themselves or get provision from the people around them. For each target group it was considered what those families needed, and the food parcels were adapted based on those needs (e.g. for the families from the community based-rehabilitation project, diapers were added to their food parcels as this project focusses on children with disabilities). Moreover, the project was led by two local people who were aware of what was appropriate to buy for the food parcels and what not, e.g. it was pointed out by the locals that it was more efficient to give people flour instead of bread, as people would make their own bread and would have food for a longer amount of time.
For some people in Kazakhstan, it was a shame that they had lost their job and did not have enough money to provide for their family. For this reason, families struggled to accept the food parcels because in the Kazakh culture it is considered shameful to accept hand outs. But as their need was so great they did not have a choice other than to accept the food parcels. In order to save the families' dignity and to empower families by allowing them take ownership of their situation, Operation Mercy in Kazakhstan designed the project in such a way that each family received one parcel for themselves and one parcel to give away to someone else who was in need. Being able to share with others made it easier for the families to accept the food parcels.
Challenges encountered during the implementation of the food distribution project included that the need of the people in Kazakhstan was greater than what the Operation Mercy office was able to provide. The target group of this project was the families involved in already existing projects. When the Operation Mercy staff went out to meet their project recipients they encountered disapproval from local people not included in their target group. This happened mostly because Operation Mercy in Kazakhstan works with people who are often perceived as the lowest class in their society. An example of this is when the Operation Mercy staff went to meet women from the anti-trafficking project to provide them with food parcels, the neighbours were angry that they, or other poor people, were not receiving any parcels. They found it difficult to understand that the Operation Mercy team was helping these women and not other poor people in the area.
With the second distribution the staff decided to use a different approach. The staff went to a mall and let the women come to them one by one instead of meeting the whole group at once. This protected the women as well as the Operation Mercy staff involved in the distribution project.
A result of the distribution project was the improvement of relationship-building within the anti-trafficking project. The staff had been working with these women for three years and usually they would give fake numbers and fake names. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the food distribution, the women started to give their real names and numbers and even their addresses. This provided the staff with a way to meet with some of those women at their homes and the women called staff members themselves and asked them for meet-ups as they were stuck at home and had nothing to do due to government restrictions.
One of the project leaders summarized the final result as: “It deepened our relationship with them, it gave us a great opportunity to show God’s love through all this.”