Lebanon News

As stipends dry up, refugees struggle to feed themselves

Lebanon's Syrian refugees risk starvation. (Ratib Al Safadi - Anadolu Agency)

BEIRUT: A few days ago, Abu Mohammad took his battered Nokia phone from his pocket and read a text message from the United Nations World Food Program on the pixilated screen. “The WFP is sorry to inform you that the amount of money for food is going to be $13.50 per person for the month of July,” the message read.Abu Mohammad, a Syrian refugee from Raqqa, and his family are among those hit hardest by the WFP’s funding crisis and ensuing reductions in food assistance. It takes approximately $15 per day to feed his eight children, he told The Daily Star.

“You can’t even get bread with $13.50 per month,” he sighed, rubbing his weary eyes.

When Abu Mohammad and his family arrived in Lebanon after fleeing the terror of ISIS in 2014, each refugee received $27 per month to buy food. “It was good then, it was enough,” he said.

According to Joelle Eid, a spokesperson for the WFP, $27 was “the minimum of what [refugees] need to survive.”

But in January, a funding crunch forced the WFP to limit the monthly food assistance to $19 per refugee per month.

“With $19 we could buy the main things, like rice and sugar,” Abu Mohammad said.

On July 1, refugees like Abu Mohammad received the unwelcome text message about further reductions. In the Bekaa Valley, the text message sent waves of panic across a Bar Elias refugee camp.

“People are crying and don’t have enough to eat ... Many are going to start protesting ... Many are going to steal,” said Abu Jassem, a refugee in the camp.

“Everyone was so disappointed,” he told The Daily Star over the phone.

“We don’t have enough money to buy milk for the kids,” Abu Khaled, a refugee in Zahle told The Daily Star, as his daughter wailed in the background of the phone call.

“What can we do? Even the $19 wasn’t enough.”

According to Eid, the agency’s funding situation is “critical.” If the WFP does not receive new funding in the coming weeks, it will be forced to completely cut food assistance to 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The funding shortage, she said, was a matter of simple arithmetic: “Resources simply undermatch the needs ... What’s coming in is just not enough,” she said.

Some refugees, like Abu Mohammad, are afforded a small financial cushion by working. He collects broken electronics and scrap metal in the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila for recycling and resale, earning a small sum each month that goes toward rent and food.

“Everyone is broke now and looking for work,” agreed Saleh, a refugee in Anjar who found work at a local NGO.

But refugees like Abu Jassem and those in his camp rely solely on the WFP’s monthly cash allocations to buy food.

“There isn’t even work for us to solve our money problem,” he said. “All people were waiting till the end of the month to receive [the usual amount] on their card and so they spent that much ... Now that it’s $13 they had to borrow from people and can’t even pay them back.”

Refugees overwhelmingly said they blamed the United Nations’ system for the aid cutbacks.

“I blame the U.N.,” Saleh said of the most recent round of cuts. “It has low funding because it doesn’t know how to advertise itself.”

Eid said that the WFP, which is funded by voluntary donations from governments, the private sector and individuals, is running dangerously low on cash.

While the international community pledged $3.8 billion toward the Syrian refugee crisis at a conference in Kuwait last March, it remains unclear exactly which United Nations agencies will be receiving funding or even if the pledges will be fully met.

Moreover, donors are “overstretched” by a number of concurrent global crises, Eid said.

“While we know that they will step up and help us, we don’t have the money right now,” she said. “We’re feeling helpless.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 03, 2015, on page 2.

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