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A cash lifeline from the United Kingdom for Syrian refugees in Lebanon
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A cash lifeline from the United Kingdom for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

A Q&A with one Syrian mother reveals the impact of multi-purpose cash on her family

Fadwa lives in the corner of a Beirut car park with her husband and seven children.

It is an inadquate space to raise children. There is a busy road behind their concrete structure, cars constantly maneouvering in front, a leaking roof above, it is bone-achingly cold in winter, roasting hot in summer, and when they lie down to sleep, there is no floor space visible. However, for now it is home.

Fadwa’s story is typical of hundreds of thousands of Syrian familes, forced to flee home and find refuge in Lebanon. As confirmed in the 2017 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees, families have depleted whatever savings they had, they live in sub-standard conditions, their health, hopes and habitats are deteriorating. Their struggle for survival worsens with time.

With limited options to generate revenue for survival, such families are entirely dependent on external support. They were assessed by the World Food Programme (WFP), and given a red credit card onto which cash-based humanitarian assistance is provided by various organisations.

Much needed respite

WFP provides the most vulnerable refugee families like theirs with US$27 per person per month for food. Now, with a contribution from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), they also receive a monthly top up of US$175.

That cash can be withdrawn from any automated teller machine (ATM) across Lebanon and spent on their essential needs, food or otherwise. They have total autonomy on how to spend the cash.

The US$96 million donation from DFID is being transferred to refugee families like Fadwa’s over the next two years. One month into the programme, WFP visited Fadwa to ask how she is spending that cash.

Q. As a family of seven, you received US$364 last month. What have you done with it?

A. We visit the ATM almost every day — there is one next to where we live — and withdraw the cash as we need it. We buy the fresh food we need for the day since we have no fridge to keep it in. Before, I could only afford half a kilo of meat a month but now I can buy one whole kilo. I am also buying bananas and oranges for the first time since I arrived in Lebanon four years ago. Today I bought bread, eggs, yoghurt, canned beef, sugar and a big box of vegetables.

Q. You said you buy mostly food, but what else are you buying?

A. Asthma medicine for my children, kitchen cleaning products and we are saving to hire a tutor to give the children English catch up classes. Here their classes are in English and Arabic and they didn’t learn English in Syria so they need some help.

Q. Did you have any problems using the ATM?

A. No, we used ATMs in Syria, so we are familiar with them. We like having this choice now because it’s safer to keep the money there until we need it.

Q. Do you use different shops now that you can spend the cash anywhere?

A. Yes. There is a shop down the road that is closer than the WFP-contracted one that we used to go to. I can go there and back in five minutes and I can take the children as it is not too far for them to walk.

Q. How do you feel about receiving cash to spend on whatever you choose?

A. I’m happy to have a wider choice on how to spend it. It’s our only income so being able to choose how to spend it is important as we need different things from one month to the next. The children were excited because they thought it meant we would buy toys, but I told them its money for survival. I am able to buy them fruit juice and biscuits to take to school now though. They like that treat and I do too because they don’t have to feel like they are different from other kids anymore.

I hope that we won’t have to ask to borrow money again now. Before, we were borrowing money every time we needed to fix something in the house, or even to buy medicine.

We are also treated differently now. People don’t look at us like ‘Syrians living off aid’ because they see us as being self sufficient — buying food with cash. We have more privacy and it is easier for us to plan ahead, like with the tutor.

Q. This will be your fourth winter in Lebanon. What do you expect to change in winter?

A. We will need to buy more medicine — the children get sick every year living in this shelter that we scraped together. It is permanently cold and wet for four months. There are some repairs that we need to do to, like fix the gap under the door to stop the rain, and get more sheets for the roof.