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An unexpected ordinary story

An unexpected ordinary story
During an unplanned conversation with a Syrian family, I realised how USAID funds are maintaining normalcy in Lebanon
Nestled between make-shift shelters in a crowded settlement in the Bekaa Valley is a sparsely-filled three-room shelter. There are two rooms for sleeping and one kitchen that doubles as a bathroom. Inside are a few donated mattresses stacked up, some pots and pans and one bag nailed to the wall. The bag contains the family’s precious possessions: medicine, a bit of cash and a red debit card — their lifeline and access to food.

The World Food Programme (WFP) refers to these red cards as electronic cards — or e-cards — that it uses to transfer funds to vulnerable refugees so they can buy food for their families.

A serendipitous meeting

This is where Amira lives with her husband and six children. I met Amira by accident, while looking for another Amira whom I had planned to visit. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a serendipitous visit.

There are few windows but the dark space provides a welcome escape from the scorching sun outside. Silver insulation covers the walls, keeping a moderate temperature all year round.

“After five years here, we learned how to adapt,” she explained.

Amira is one of around a million Syrians in Lebanon, displaced by the war at home. We sat for an hour talking before I realised she was not the Amira I was looking for.

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary

It was not an exceptional story: everything she told me I had heard dozens of times before; the narration of fleeing Syria empty-handed, “we had to start from scratch”; being entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance for survival, “the e-card is all we have”; the longing to go home, “it’s all I want”; and aspirations that her children will one day play in the green fields of Idlib rather than in dusty thoroughfares of a Bekaa Valley settlement.

As she talked, her six-year-old son Mohamad sat quietly in the corner writing his name in English over and over in a notepad. He should be in school but the family has no money for the fees. Instead, Amira teaches him the basic English that she has picked up.

During that hour, saturated by lashings of piping hot sweet tea, I was struck more and more by how familiar her story was, and began to wonder if there really was a story to tell. Looking for more, I probed, asking how she feels living on humanitarian aid, what are her ambitions, her struggles. I was looking for a hook. But there was nothing exceptional.

Driving back to Beirut, I considered deleting the photos my colleague and I had taken — I had no idea how to write it up. But, after glancing over my notes again, I realised that her ordinary story is precisely the story.

Surviving on the ordinary
The 700,000 Syrians in Lebanon with a red WFP e-card are ordinary people from ordinary backgrounds with ordinary aspirations who have been plunged into an extraordinary situation. WFP’s transfers are a means of survival, often referred to as ‘ordinary food assistance’ in humanitarian circles. The e-card makes life a little easier and provides the means for families like Amira’s to maintain some normalcy and live as close to an ordinary life as possible.

It is only with generous contributions from donor governments that WFP can maintain that lifeline of food assistance — and hope. This month, those funds transferred through that little red e-card came from donors including USAID, one of the greatest supporters to Lebanon and the region. In 2018 alone, USAID has contributed US$95 million, helping vulnerable Syrian refugees buy the food they need from ordinary Lebanese shops.

Read more about WFP’s work in Lebanon .