Suffering itself can seem like a global epidemic. War. Drought. Disease. We see the images. We hear the stories. Our hearts break a little and we go on with our lives. But not Robert Maroni ’87.
After college, the biology major he worked in numerous countries, including Rwanda, where he helped rebuild villages for Hutus returning from Tanzanian refugee camps to a country ravaged by genocide. In Eritrea, Maroni coordinated HIV prevention, and in Zimbabwe, he helped children orphaned by the HIV crisis. “It feels good to help people – absolutely,” said Maroni, country director for Mercy Corps, a global relief organization working to improves lives in failing states, conflict zones, and countries that have endured natural disasters.
Now, and for the past nearly four years, he’s helping 120,000 Syrians who fled a civil war and are living in the Za’atari refugee camp, a former patch of desert in Jordan that is now the country’s fourth-largest city. He sees a staggering number of refugees cross the border daily, most on foot at night to avoid being shot. “It is an absolute crisis. Most people cross the border with just the shirts on their backs . . . they have kids, no food, no clothes. It’s a huge undertaking to ensure their basic needs are met.”
Food and housing can be airlifted in but water cannot. In a country suffering through a decade-long drought, that’s a life-threatening problem. Maroni and his team of 100 workers manage 10 projects, including a $20 million project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to refurbish Jordan’s failing municipal water system. At the camp, they’ve built a pump station and chlorination system to provide clean water to 65,000 refugees daily and they’re creating another at a different camp. Mercy Corps has drilled two wells to reach deep into underground reservoirs.
But it’s not all about water. Mercy Corps has also constructed seven playgrounds in the camps. Maroni, who lives in Jordan with his wife and their two girls, ages 10 and 12, said refugee children have witnessed horrible acts, their villages blown up and people shot. Providing a place for them to play gives some much-needed joy.
“Every time I go to a camp, I go to the playgrounds to pick up some of the smaller kids and hold them and play with them until I see a smile,” Maroni said. Around here, and there, smiles are big.