Consistent food assistance helps most vulnerable Syrians avoid desperate actions

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Adel and his wife, parents of the three children in the photo plus two more, are Palestinian Syrians who found refuge in one room in Lebanon after Adel’s dry cleaning business in Damascus, Syria, was destroyed four years ago. This family is one that is receiving $100 in food vouchers each month through MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. (Their names are incomplete for their security.) MCC photo/Doreen Martens

The following story was written by Doreen Martens on behalf of Foodgrains Bank member Mennonite Central Committee Canada.

Adel welcomes visitors jovially to his tiny home: a small, unfurnished, rough concrete room shared by his family of seven, plus a lean-to kitchen with a corrugated metal roof, in an informal refugee settlement called Maashouk in southern Lebanon.

A refugee who fled Damascus with his wife, Iman, and their children when their dry cleaning business and a neighbour’s home were destroyed in shelling by militants four years ago, he looks older than his 41 years. But the lines in his face speak of habitual laughter, not worry. It’s a choice he makes every day, he says with a smile.

“My story is a sad one,” he says through an interpreter, “but I put sugar on it. The pain is inside, but we try to laugh and forget.” As long as there’s life, there’s hope, he adds.

One tangible sign of that hope: the $100 in food vouchers the family receives each month through Mennonite Central Committee’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which he says is enough to buy staples in a local store – like rice, oil, sugar, tea, cheese and milk for the kids – to get them through half of the month.

When they arrived in Lebanon with $10 in their pockets, they sold cast-off items they found on the streets to survive. The couple often found themselves telling their children: “Eat first, and we will eat later.”

Displaced within Syria three times before coming to Lebanon, life has dealt them a double blow: they are both Syrian and Palestinian, a circumstance that leaves them with few rights in Lebanon and makes it difficult to find any paying work in a country of 4.5 million that has been flooded with more than 1.1 million refugees – all forced to scramble for shelter in a nation that has not allowed the U.N. to set up official camps.

According to figures released in November by the United Nations World Food Program, 93 per cent of Palestinians in the country – who are legally barred from all but a few low-paid occupations – face food insecurity. One of the hardest hit areas is in the Tyre region, where Adel and his family live.

MCC works with a local partner, Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD), to visit informal refugee communities, known as “gatherings,” planted near long-recognized Palestinian camps and to identify families in particular need. Large families and those with single or disabled parents get priority.

“The vouchers help a lot of families, because they can save some of their money for other things, like taking a child to a doctor, paying for school uniforms or the bus to school,” says Ahlam Said, 27, who grew up in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut and now coordinates the voucher distribution for PARD in 13 gatherings.

Three are adjacent to Shatila in Beirut, where thousands live in an apocalyptic warren of tiny, often windowless rooms built into, atop and between multi-storey, crumbling concrete buildings. Ten others are in southern Lebanon, where some live in improvised tent communities that are more airy but also rough and cold in winter.

Rawan, Shaima and Douha are Palestinian Syrians pictured in the kitchen with its adjacent bathroom in a tiny apartment where three adults and five children live. The family, from Hama, Syria, have lived in this Lebanon apartment for the past three years, managing to pay $400 per month for rent. Monthly food vouchers, financed through MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, help the family to survive. (The family’s last name and location are not used for their security.) MCC photo/Doreen Martens

Families receive vouchers worth $25 per month per person, to a maximum of five, to spend at a local market on food they choose. The program helps support local economies where children often scramble for pennies by bagging groceries or shining shoes.

“The dream of every parent is to provide support for their children with dignity and safety. With the help of Canadian Foodgrains Bank funding for 5,800 people on a consistent basis, children can go to school and have access to shelter because their food needs are taken care of,” says Naomi Enns, of Winnipeg, Man., who serves along with husband Doug as MCC’s Syria and Lebanon representatives. “No child should go to bed hungry, and no parent should face that, especially those who have been forced to leave their homes and jobs due to the crisis in Syria.”

Families receiving the help are more stable, less stressed, more able to pay for rent and medications, and less likely to resort to desperate measures like asking their children to beg, marrying off underage daughters, or risking their lives at sea trying to reach another country.

Meanwhile, an even bigger response to the crisis is going on in Syria itself, where about 32,000 people – some 6,000 families – in Hama, rural Homs region and Qalamoun receive regular monthly food baskets through MCC’s account with the Foodgrains Bank, distributed by local partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue. Each basket includes local staples such as bulgur wheat, rice, vegetable and olive oil, pasta, lentils, chickpeas, tomato paste, sugar, salt, margarine and canned meat.

A November workshop sponsored by MCC in Beirut brought together field staff from Syrian and Lebanese partners to better understand how to conduct food needs assessments and target the most vulnerable populations – a tricky issue in Syria, where armed conflict is constantly on the move and some 6.5 million people are internally displaced.

Even with supplemental food assistance, it was noted that malnutrition is growing and food consumption is barely acceptable. Evaluations provide further confirmation that without help from the Foodgrains Bank – including a 4-to-1 match of donations provided by the Canadian government – many more families would be going hungry.

Father Paulos Melki, a Syriac Orthodox priest working in Hama in northern Syria, an hour’s drive from Homs, brought a plea for more aid to his area, where suffering and displacement have increased amid fighting involving government and Russian forces, who hold the city, and militants surrounding it. Internally displaced people have flooded into the relatively safe city seeking refuge, while the villages around suffer the brunt of the battles.

Melki and a team of dedicated young volunteers have been distributing 300 monthly food baskets to families in the city – most of them Muslim – and in five surrounding villages, mostly Orthodox Christians. About 75 of those recipients are widows, and the rest are people who are ill, disabled or have lost their means of making a living, he says, such as truck drivers who have had their vehicles commandeered by the army.

Security is a constant worry. He recalls a recent trip to a village about 20 minutes out of the city that suddenly came under attack, with shells “falling like rain.” The team had to hole up in a house for three days before it was safe to go out and distribute the food.

Melki hears a lot of heartbreaking stories from internally displaced people who come to his church for help, like the 55-year-old man from Raqqa whose 15-year-old daughter had been kidnapped by Daesh. The father sold his house to pay her ransom. “He came to Hama with nothing,” Melki says. “Many times he has asked, please, can I give him money to buy bread. So this basket is very good, but they need many things.”

Rahaf Abdouh, 25, based in the Syrian town of Deir Attieh, is the project coordinator for food distribution through FDCD. Visiting homes, registering families and doing evaluations, she sees the need first-hand.

“Without the food parcel, people would be starving. You can’t imagine their look on their faces if you tell them, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t give you anything this month,” she says, adding that the conflict has driven up prices for everything.

“I know some people who have dangerous illnesses but they can’t pay money for medicine; they prefer to eat. They can’t send their children to school or anything.

“I think the baskets help the people in a very good way, and help them stay in the country. People tell me, ‘You are helping us stay here; we want to stay here, but if we don’t have anything to eat, we will try to travel.’ If we don’t help them to stay all of them will be in Canada and other countries,” Abdouh said with a rueful chuckle. “So be careful.”