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[b]Delaney[/b]: Welcome back to the Impact series podcast, in which we share the experience of social entrepreneurs and change makers around the world. Today we are going to be talking about the organization about Firefly International, which is a nonprofit that supports grassroots projects in post-conflict or conflict ridden areas, to help provide children with a safe and supportive space. I’m Delaney, joined by my co-host Vandana. Today we are honored to have our guest Jeremy Wildeman on our call. Jeremy is a trustee in Firefly international, who volunteer on a daily basis supporting the Firefly directors to manage. He has 16 years of experience in teaching and designing education projects, conducting research in international affairs and running humanitarian and development aid projects in conflicts. How are you Jeremy?
[b]Jeremy[/b]: Good. How are you doing?
[b]Vandana[/b]: Great! Can you share with us the story of Firefly’s founding mission?
[b]Jeremy[/b]: Yes, It has an almost an two part founding. It began in 1998 when our founder Ellie Maxwell was in Bosnia during the conflict there while her father was a peacekeeper. And she established the Firefly Youth Project, which later became two organizations: Svitac, now in Brcko Bosnia, and the Firefly International, which is our British charity. I’m going to go back to her experience when she was there. She was an aid worker in Bosnia, and through her experience she came to believe that shared creative activities and contact with the outside world play an important role in reducing tensions in what was a very sectarian, violent conflict. So after the war, Ellie continued her work with music, arts, language class and various activities for children in refugee camps. This was in, at the time, Croatian Bosnia, as the borders were a bit more fluid. And eventually over time it became more established in a town called Brcko in the Northeastern Bosnia. It is a very special town in the sense that it’s went back to and retained its very multiethnic character, reflecting what Yugoslavia once was. Firefly and Svitac particularly, the Bosnian charity, has played a really important role, in continuing to reinforce that multiethnic character in that community. This is way back in 1998 and 1999. Unfortunately about ten years later, Ellie Maxwell died of cancer. And what happened was, rather than allowing the charity to not be able to support the part in Bosnia, people such as myself, her family and friends, became more involved and worked on a redevelopment of Firefly to expand its work to work in more regions. In my case I founded a charity in the West Bank, in the city of Nablus, with Palestinian colleagues. That is quite a large organization that has very similar structure in the sense of working with youth, development, helping reach out to different countries around the world and internally in the Palestinian territories. And we had partnered with Firefly just as Ellie was getting ill, so I was already connected to the charity, and stepped in for a couple years to help work with the other trustees to strengthen Firefly and to expand its work. We upped our relationship with Firefly with Project Hope in Nablus, the charity I helped to establish, in order to work with youth there through English classes, French classes, ongoing activities, creative arts. There is a quite a large program there. And since then we’ve begun work with Syrian refugees, particularly helping a refugee named Fadia, who is now in Antakya Turkey, to develop her own youth development center. So our mission, as a charity, is to support locally led projects in conflict and post conflict regions that create safe, supportive and inclusive spaces for young people to, as we say, “learn, thrive, and grow”. And our focus right now is on three regions I’ve mentioned, Bosnia, Palestine and Syria. And what’s really important for us is that we support local leaderships. Typically we’ve gotten involved in regions where we’ve identified or worked with a local social entrepreneur who wants to provide something for the youth in their community. And we provide them with resources and organization knowhow, and other means of support to develop their own program. We then want to see them establish their charity that we just help long term. So local leadership is vital to everything we do.
[b]Delaney[/b]: Wow, that’s really an amazing and inspiring story. Your story especially about taking her idea and forming an amazing thing out of it, I think that’s incredible. You’ve mentioned some of them, but what are some of the other highlights and accomplishments of firefly, your branch in Palestine and other branches of Firefly?
[b]Jeremy[/b]: It’s a difficult question because there’s so many, considering each region had its own major accomplishments. They are really hard places to work in their own unique ways. The main point is, especially with the Palestinian and the Bosnian one, we’ve been able to see lives shaped almost for twenty years in the case for Bosnia and nearly as long in Palestine. I think the fact that each of the organizations that we’ve focused on supporting, went from not existing to becoming important players in their local communities. In the case of Brcko and Nablus, the organizations we support are two of the most important organizations in their cities. They are really important to the social fabric there. They support the community and the youth on a massive scale. And we are seeing some very positive signs that the same could happen for Syrian refugees in the Turkish city that we are supporting. The fact that we are able to help a Palestinian organization to establish itself during the really violent insurgence with all the restrictions on the ground, that’s remarkable. In Bosnia, after such a vicious civil war, working between communities, that is something quite amazing as well. It’s not been easy to work with Syrian refugees at the moment either. I guess we like taking on these big challenges and supporting people in the most difficult circumstances, and that’s accomplishment to be proud of.
[b]Delaney[/b]: Yeah, it’s really incredible.
[b]Vandana[/b]: Could you give us a brief overview of the projects Firefly is currently running?
[b]Jeremy[/b]: Yeah, and I think it’s important to say that we are not “running”, but we are “supporting”, because our structure is to support local partners. The only thing we’re running is our own organization in the UK to support those local partners. Our focus right now is on our three major partners in Bosnia, the West Bank, and the city of Antakya where the Syrian refugees are. In each case they have unique needs. In the case of Bosnia, the situation is that even though it has been twenty years since the civil war and its immediate aftereffects, the conditions in Bosnia are not great. The economy never recovered and there is constant ethnic tension, and it is not easy to keep working there. At the same time, there’s not attention paid by donors because they don’t get enough media attention. One of our major challenges is finding resources for our partner in Bosnia, because it is much more difficult to find funding for them than Palestinians or Syrians. The other thing we are supporting them with is that they are always looking for international volunteers, and we are encouraging Americans and Canadians to volunteer there. With Svitac, it’s a very beautiful country and a great experience. It’s probably the easiest organization to work with, of the ones we’ve worked with. Now in the case of Nablus, they’re also always recruiting international volunteers. They have quite a big volunteer program. They have fewer problems recruiting volunteers because there is a lot of interest in Palestine. They also have an Arabic language program for internationals wanting to learn Arabic on a semi-formal basis and one-on-one with tutors. We are often helping them to design funding proposals though, to raise funds for their large program. They work with hundreds of kids every month and over sixty local partners. That takes a lot of time. We are really focused on raising funds for refugees in Antakya. There are so many refugees, and the program there is fantastic. Fadia has developed some amazing science programs that I wish I had growing up in rural Canada. Like learning DNA and there are creative means of learning maths. They have a lot of talent there, and ideas for programs. The main thing we are supporting with working with youth there is, funding. Overall between all the partners, often what they most need is funding and to certain extent, volunteers. To add to the case for Syrian refugees, they are targeting a specific community and this is children who have to work, and who are not living in the refugee camps, but living in the city. They don’t have the same program as refugees. Life is not great as a refugee, but it’s maybe even tougher for the children in the cities who are forced to work. Many of them have missed education for several years now. Their families are in an emergency situation, and need their children to work to survive. And in many cases they thought the situation would be temporary. Who in Syria would have thought the Civil War would drag on like it did? So there is really an acute need to work with these young people. Each program is so complex that we could probably spend an hour talking about what each one is doing!
[b]Delaney[/b]: Yeah, definitely. And given your extensive focus in the Middle East, and other areas that have complicated relationships with education, can you describe some of the attitudes towards education or the responses you’ve seen in those communities?
[b]Jeremy[/b]: Yeah, they have a veracious hunger for education. So many people see school as a way to improve their circumstances. And going back to being a fellow North American, I feel like there is not the same fight to be educated amongst youth in North America as I’ve seen in youth in the Middle East. It’s really important to them and their families. So there’s an endless demand for anything our partners can support. Also among these youths there’s an interest in the outside world. Maybe it’s common everywhere, but they are very, very interested in being connected to foreigners, seeing other ways of lives and learning about what it’s like in other countries. I think it’s probably a no small measure due to the restrictions on their movement and just how difficult their own societies are.
Vandana: That’s really interesting. So clearly firefly focuses on areas that are torn up or affected by major conflicts. Many charities focusing on these areas face serious difficulties, and we recently came upon an article that discuss a charity that completely lost contact of the village that they were supporting in a conflict-ridden area. So we were wanting to know if Firefly had any similar experiences, and how they were dealt with.
[b]Jeremy[/b]: Yeah I know by email, you’d mentioned something about this village, and I was wondering if this is an organization in UK that we know that had lost contact with the village they were supporting. There’s been number of cases like this. Each has its unique problems in the regions we are working with. And we definitely focus on the most difficult place to work, like the areas that are so hard to work in to a point where they might not even have support from international NGOs wanting to improve lives in these regions. In the case of the Syrian refugees we are working with, one of the challenges is the fluidity, as there is a constant movement of people from region to region. The children are constantly moving, the people are constantly moving. It can be very difficult to support a program in one spot due to this movement and dealing with the numbers of people coming in. Also there is a host government that will have its unique relationship with us and own challenges to work with. So in the case of Syrian refugees, in Turkey, it’s been a challenging, difficult time with the coup that happened last year. There is a suspicion around foreign NGOs and a legitimate concern of caution and security by the Turkish government of the people working with refugees. So those can be very difficult to work with. We really can’t work in Syria either, as it is very challenging and dangerous. We could maybe support a group working there but for now we focus on the refugees on the outside. In the case of the Palestinians, who are under Israeli rules, there are restrictions on movement and real hostility towards foreigners who are showing support for Palestinians. So that is quite a challenging place to work on its own too. In the case of Bosnia, there are a lot fewer restrictions. It’s probably an easier place to work in. But there are quite a few local government administrative issues that make work challenging. It’s very admin-heavy there.
Delany: Definitely. In these areas that are hard to reach on their own, how do you guys measure impact? Do you use certain metric or tools to quantify and evaluate your impact, even though it’s hard to get to the area you’re supporting?
[b]Jeremy[/b]: This is quite a challenge for anybody working in development work, and that is the reporting you need to show to your donors that they’ve been funding this, and also in our case to the UK government, just for regulatory measures. They keep track of what you do as a charity. Well, this is actually one of the biggest challenges in this field of work because you need to somehow show you’re having an impact and convince your donors and potential donors to fund what’s happening. You have to convey the importance of your program. The other point is that locally, in our case, for Bosnians or Palestinians and Syrians, you have to convey upon them and train them how to record that data and show why it is important. It’s a constant struggle, it’s really really hard. We help keep a lot of quantitative data. That’s reasonably easy. Numbers to show how many kids have been in certain activities or how many activities are taking place or how many towns you’ve worked in. This has been relatively easy off an on over the years. We’ve found it very easy in Bosnia maybe because there’s such an administrative culture leftover from when it was communist. The most challenging part is with our Palestinian partners where you really have struggle constantly to get data. It’s a common problem we struggle with among other NGOs in Nablus. The other point is that, as a researcher, that the qualitative data is what really matters. This is not just the numbers but the experiences or the impact that program like this have. It’s really difficult to measure, you can always argue about what measurement is most useful. And I say this as a researcher in a major UK University working on development topics. It’s especially hard for charities with limited resources and charities that are always stretched in by demand to be active not to be recording their data. How do you show the impact of your program psychologically or developmentally on youth? How do you measure over short time span, like one or two years like a donor often gives you money, rather than in ten, twenty, thirty years of a young person's life and how they develop as an adult? One of the innovations we came up with then is to have as many narrative reports as we can to complement the numbers to describe the experience of the people, and to capitalize on social media to act as the window that shows the impact of our programs in each of our regions.
[b]Vandana[/b]: As you're looking to the future, where do you see firefly in five or ten years from now?
[b]Jeremy[/b]: In the short term, we are working with a Canadian partner called Alternities with whom we would like to help more Syrians to develop centers in the Middle East for youth similar to what we’ve been supporting in Antakya. So we’re working with them in Canada and trying to find funding for maybe a series of centers. That would be quite a great project if that could take off. In long term, in general, we would like to see ourselves still working with our existing partners, sharing their journeys with others. And ideally working with several more partners. Because we spend so much time working with each partner helping them develop as an organization, we can only take on so many at one time, and it’s a really intensive work. But we would like to see ourselves working with more people in similar circumstances in conflict and post-conflict regions in the world. Maybe even outside the Middle East.
[b]Delany[/b]: So you’ve mentioned earlier that some of the projects you support take launch years. What are some ways like that where people can be involved in Firefly to help you guys help other people?
Jeremy: Yeah, there’s fantastic volunteer experiences both in our Bosnian and Palestinian partners. They are two of the most advanced organizations to volunteer in their respective regions. Their websites can be found through our website, and they manage all the volunteer regions. We help them to take over the management and volunteers themselves. I would say that the Bosnian one is more simple to go and volunteer at, and the Palestinian one is more of a live experience as we are seeing the conflict there is still ongoing. In each case, it is important to remark that it’s a really rich experience for the people who volunteer themselves. You’ll often learn so much. It’s tough to gage if you’re able to give back as much as you’re able to learn yourself. Overall it’s a really rich experience for everyone involved. And in the cases of these partners, they really appreciate that interaction with foreigners and that sharing of experiences. And it also helps contextually with regions that are experiencing difficulties with conflict based on identity. In the case of Syrian refugees we don’t, for various reasons at the moment, have any means to help people to volunteer. You can find our partners on our website on our website, which is at fireflyinternational.org, and it’s really easy to look up how to volunteer.
[b]Vandana[/b]: That’s great! Your story was really inspiring and we’re so thankful that you could join us today for the Impact Series Podcast. We look forward to seeing the developments of Firefly in the years to come!
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