Qobb Elias, Bekaa Valley – The UN World Food Programme is making further cuts to its food assistance for Syrian refugees in both Jordan and Lebanon, forcing refugees to grapple with even tougher living conditions as voucher amounts drop drastically.
Since the beginning of July, food coupon amounts have been half of what they used to be in January.
Now, $13.50 is allocated every month for each registered refugee, causing many refugees to struggle for survival.
Um Haytham, a Syrian refugee, says she pays approximately $40 per month to buy milk for her baby. A packet of bread costs $1. A kilo of tomatoes is just over $1 and a kilo of rice is about $3.
“How are we supposed to feed our children, our babies, on this kind of money? This is not even enough to survive on,” said Um Haitham, with her youngest of three kids glued to her hip.
Now living in Lebanon, she described how she fled Aleppo, Syria, almost three years ago to seek refuge.
Yet after struggling with even the most basic costs, such as milk and formula for her baby, she feels that staying in violence-ravaged Aleppo may have been the better choice. “It’s like we are the living dead here. How are we expected to survive?” she said.
The World Food Programme has made cuts in the past, but the most recent one is the steepest yet for Syrian refugees receiving assistance.
These families and individuals number 1.6 million and are spread throughout five countries, according to the organisation.
The WFP, which gathers its financial support from a diverse donor spread of governments, individuals, and companies, says its Syrian refugee operation is 81 percent underfunded.
Under the strain of such a deficit, the programme can only funnel its resources to the most underprivileged refugees, leaving 50,000 others without support.
The organisation also fears that, if it does not receive immediate funding by August, it will have to suspend all assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan who are living outside camps, which would strip 440,000 people of any form of assistance.
According to Abeer Etafa, a spokesperson for WFP, the same could happen to Lebanon in September. “This means they will lose a very important form of assistance which they have been relying on for many months now,” said Etafa.
As a result, WFP is ringing alarm bells in order to bring attention to the dire situation.
“We’ve now reached a critical state,” said Etafa. “From a very practical standpoint, we need more money, as we have done all we can to reduce assistance and just focus on the most vulnerable and make this programme sustainable.”
Meanwhile in Lebanon, families are concerned about the substandard diet they’ve had to live on.
Rations were already tight, they say, and those with young children had previously been forced to make do with meals sapped of nutrients.
“Sometimes the children manage to gather vegetables that are almost rotten, so we just boil them and then eat them,” said one mother, who refrained from giving her name. “We all live off potato, bread, rice and sometimes pasta. This is our staple diet.”
Many of the refugees were informed about the cuts via text message from the WFP. Others found out by chance when watching the news.
Faten Hamdan, another refugee, has five children and voiced similar concerns over how to feed her family.
“I can’t remember the last time we ate meat,” she said. Pulling at her slim waist, she added, “Do you think I would be this skinny if I was eating meat and proper food?”
Etafa emphasised that the crisis today does not stem from a lack of funds by donors, but rather the barrage of emergency situations in the region, which are “all reaching into the same pocket”.
Why reduce it bit by bit? Just cut it completely and leave us be. What do they think $13 can get us, realistically? Sugar costs more.
“Even though donors have given more than any other year, it is still not enough,” she said.
There are approximately 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon that are registered with the UN.
However, as of May 6, the UNHCR has temporarily suspended its registration in Lebanon per the government’s instructions.
The country, whose population totals about 4.4 million, is overstretched in terms of infrastructure and its ability to cater to the refugee influx.
Many refugees are thus forced to pay rent for land on which they’ve established tents, or for rooms that they are renting in abandoned houses. They are left with little money to cover other expenses such as medical care or education.
As Ali, a refugee living in a tented settlement in Bar Elias pointed out, “It costs me more to put petrol in the car in order to [get] the food than what the new coupons amount to.”
For some, a complete end to assistance would be preferable to a humiliating succession of cuts.
“Why reduce it bit by bit? Just cut it completely and leave us be,” said Sara, who fled Idlib in northern Syria three years ago with her children. “What do they think $13 can get us, realistically? Sugar costs more.”
But Sondoss Shahni, a mother of six, looked panicked at the prospect of no assistance whatsoever.
“No, please don’t let them stop completely. It’ll destroy us,” she said. “Even a little bit helps. We need this.”
Yet, as organisations across the board face cuts due to lack of funds, the future continues to look bleak for Syria’s refugees.
“We are at risk of seeing the worst for the refugees,” Etafa warned.