A lifeline for Syrian families
For most Syrian families seeking refuge in Lebanon, receiving food vouchers has been a lifeline. However, the value of the vouchers was recently halved due to funding shortfalls, and the change is pushing many families into debt as they try to feed themselves - making their situations even more unstable. We met Mohammad and Zakiya who explained the contrast between their situation now, and their life back in Syria.
When Mohammad, 50, and Zakiya, 42, married in Syria 20 years ago, they had one major wish; to create a big family. Their wish came true. God gave them eight beautiful children.
Like many women in rural Syria, Zakiya didn't work, but focused on bringing up their children. Mohammad supported his family working as a tile setter. They often struggled financially, but Mohammad was able to provide most of the basic needs for his family.
In 2012, the family’s story changed as fighting approached their home in Syria. Seeking refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, the family found themselves living in a makeshift tent they built themselves with a basic wooden frame covered by pieces of carton and tattered canvas. Their temporary tent has now been the family’s home for the past three years. They have no neighbours nearby - just large piles of sand and gravel that provide an unhealthy playground for their children.
They were unaware that many other Syrian refugee families were living together in informal settlements in the Bekaa Valley. When Mohammad, Zakiya and their children came to Lebanon, they simply focused on obtaining the basics for survival – shelter, food and water.
Mohammad is unable to work and his varicose veins make movement difficult.
“I was not this sick in Syria.”
Mohammad’s tearful eyes spoke before his words did.
Currently, the family’s main source of income is the £8.80 for food assistance they receive on electronic ‘e-cards’ for each family member every month - delivered by World Vision Lebanon and funded by the World Food Programme.
“Our survival depends on the e-cards. says Zakiya with a smile. Zakiya’s smiles accompany everything she says. Mohammad tells me proudly that her ability to smile has never wavered, in spite of the family’s difficult circumstances.
“The £8.80 e-card lasts for only five days. For the rest of the month, we have no option but to go into debt to survive,” explains Mohammad.
“Living in debt is better than seeing our children starve. Whether happy or sad, life has to go on…Aren’t our children still alive? So, we thank God,” Zakiya says.
With that £8.80 per person per month, and the food bought on credit, the family is able to buy basic items such as rice, bread, bulgur, sugar, tea, lentils, beans, yoghurt and water.
“When we go to the supermarket, we crave meat, sweets, fruit, juices and milk, but we know that we cannot afford everything we want,” says Zakiya, staying silent for a few seconds, without forgetting to smile.
Their seven-year-old daughter, Nour, finally breaks her shyness and jumps in saying - “I only eat once per day - mostly fried potatoes.”
Fatmeh, her four-year-old sister, looks too thin and has dark lines beneath her eyes, but keeps on jumping and playing nonetheless.
In Syria, Zakiya explains, mothers usually stop breastfeeding when the babies are one-and-a-half-years-old.
“Fatmeh, my four-year-old child, was just one-year-old when we fled Syria. I breastfed her until she was two-years-old because I couldn't afford to buy milk. And since she was two-years-old, Fatmeh has not had any milk. I couldn't afford to get her any,” she reflects.
Worry for the future
In contrast to his wife, Mohammad's face is pale and stricken with worry about their situation. He says he has lost over three stone during his three years in Lebanon.
“The e-card used to feed us for at least 15 days. Sometimes, we could even afford to eat meat. My debt has reached £620 now and I am afraid that the supermarket owner will stop allowing me to buy food on credit. I am also scared that the land owner will ask us to get off his land if we do not pay him the accumulated unpaid rent.”
He explains that the WFP e-card was more helpful when the amount was £17 in summer and about £20 last winter. Due to a funding shortfall, the value of the e-cards was cut to £12.30 and then again to £8.80 per person per month, less than 40 pence per day.
The cuts are usually communicated through text messages sent directly to refugees’ mobile phones. Information posters are also displayed in shops and World Vision Lebanon provides a hotline service for refugees who have questions about the aid they are receiving.
Mohammad smiles for the first time since our conversation began.
“Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine that I receive a text message to my mobile phone saying: the e-card value is now £26 a month. Do you think that will ever happen?”
World Vision’s Food Assistance Manager Johnson Lafortune summed up the issue. “Refugees are showing fatigue and many are resorting to child labour and early marriage just to help the family survive.”
World Vision's response to the refugee crisis is expanding, and now includes supporting refugees in Serbia, while the greatest needs and relief efforts remain focused in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Approximately two million refugees, internally displaced people and vulnerable host community members have been assisted through interventions including food, water, sanitation, health, child-friendly spaces and remedial education. Visit www.worldvision.org.uk/syria to find out more.