06/05/2013 – Um Abdou was determined that her family would not go hungry. She knew things would be difficult when they left their home in shell-battered Aleppo. But she reckoned a bit of planning would see them through the early weeks as refugees.
So she packed three suitcases full of bulgar wheat, rice, lentils and tomato paste. And when the family boarded the bus to Lebanon last November, the three suitcases went with them, taking precedence over almost all other possessions.
“The only other thing I brought with me were a few clothes and my jewelry,” said the 39-year-old housewife. It wasn’t sentimental value that prompted Um Abdou to bring her necklaces and rings. It was because she knew they could be sold.
Six months later, sitting in her small apartment in Beirut with her five children looking on, Um Abdou told me about her family’s first few months as refugees. It was similar to the stories of most Syrian refugee families now living in Lebanon – husband unable to find work, money and supplies running out, a desperate longing to be home again and for the war to be over.
“It got to a point when we had no money, we had sold practically all my jewelry, and the children just couldn’t eat boiled bulgar anymore,” she said. “They’re not fussy eaters, but they were going crazy.”
Help came in the form of food vouchers distributed to Syrian refugees by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) as part of an operation partly funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).
The first time Um Abdou received vouchers she didn’t believe she would get any more, so she spent most of them on more rice and lentils. The second time she added canned fish, vegetables and a bit of cheese to liven things up.
Now she has come to understand that the vouchers are not a one-off occurrence and next time she plans to buy eggs, humus and maybe even a little meat. “Up until now we haven’t been in a position to even think about meat or chicken.”
Food vouchers are the main channel for WFP’s food assistance operation in Lebanon. At the moment some 300 000 refugees are receiving them monthly. Vouchers are worth about 20 euros and enable refugees to buy a wide range of food items in local shops.
“Refugees like getting vouchers because it means they get to decide what food their families eat,” says Laure Chadraoui, WFP spokesperson in Lebanon. “They appreciate having that level of independence”.
The shop-owners involved in the programme are happy to take part, realising that the voucher system is creating more business for them and helping to boost the local economy.
By Martin Penner,
United Nations World Food Programme