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Putting the furthest behind first

Putting the furthest behind first Fatima and five of her children. Photo: WFP/Ziad Rizkallah

One hundred families live in Industrial City; that’s the moniker refugees have given to a ramshackle metropolis of plastic sheeting, timber frames and damp clothing flapping in the dusty wind. In the shadows of cement factories, each family has a different story to tell, none of which are easy to hear.
Fatima sits on a grubby mat beneath a whirring electric fan. There’s nothing else in the room since she sold most of belongings to buy food and pay rent. There’s just one other room — a dark and damp kitchen-cum bathroom. This is where Fatima lives with her six children.

Back in 2013, newly married mother of one, Fatima, lived in rural Aleppo. She spent her evenings listening to crickets and sipping tea with her husband. They’d talk about growing old together, and the songs they’d teach their grandchildren.

One night, Fatima’s bucolic safe space was destroyed and life turned upside down when a missile slammed into the house next door. The flash and almighty explosion still haunt her at night. The couple packed bags in the dark and at day break they ran as fast and as far as they could; towards Lebanon.

They settled in a field over the mountains and Fatima’s mother joined them. The family soon had to find ways to make ends meet. The husband sought out work and supplemented the depleting savings to buy food, clothing and when winter came, blankets and fuel.

Weeks and months drifted by as more and more violence wracked their home city and more and more Aleppines followed suit, becoming refugees in Lebanon. Fatima had four children and one day the World Food Programme (WFP) gave her an e-card loaded with money to buy food.

“Everyone abandoned me.”

One morning, when Fatima was pregnant again, her husband stepped outside, announcing he was going to buy a television.

A year later, he’s yet to return.

Fatima had no option but to join other women picking potatoes in the nearby fields. It was back-breaking work for little pay. She’d leave her increasingly frail mother at home to keep a watchful eye on the children, until one night she died in her sleep.

Now, Fatima’s unable to leave home. “Everyone abandoned me,” she says. Once she left the kids alone, then returned to find them in the kitchen, unscrewing a valve on the butane canister. Her only remaining option is to ask neighbours for childcare help but friends are few and far between and taking care of her now six children is more responsibility than most will to accept.

Four-month-old Anij cries a lot. Really, a lot. She looks sickly and her only source of nourishment is an expensive milk formula as Fatima is unable to produce breast milk.

“I have a burner but only cook rice on it. And we eat two bags of bread a day. It’s filling but not the best.”

Fatima is desperately lonely and struggling from day break to dusk. The evenings she used to spend mapping her future have been replaced by evenings consumed with worry that another child will become sick tomorrow and she won’t have a spare dollar for medicine.

The kitchen/bathroom is grim. It’s dark, miserable and scurrying cockroaches give the impression of a moving floor. There’s no fridge, and the summer sun and humidity rapidly spoil food. There’s half a jar of tomato sauce on the counter and a bottle of oil on the ground, but otherwise there’s no food to be seen.

“I have a burner but only cook rice on it. And we eat two bags of bread a day. It’s filling but not the best,” she says.

Fatima knows Anij doesn’t get the nourishment she needs. She implores us to compare her legs with the legs of the four-month-old next door. Apparently he looks “like a real child”.

She’s saving cash to replace the roof that won’t stand up to another winter. Two strong storms earlier this year battered the house and Fatima is fearful that without renovations, the family will end up homeless.

The family receive cash from WFP that Fatima withdraws from an ATM. From that point onwards, she decides where and how to spend it. With a $1,000 debt at the local shop, $120 of monthly rent, $20 of school transport fees, and seven mouths to feed, that money — is welcome — but it only goes so far.

For most vulnerable families in Lebanon, like Fatima’s, survival is possible only thanks to generous multi-purpose cash contributions. The Government of Norway has been a stalwart supporter of the programme since 2017. Such contributions ensure that whilst the misfortune continues, WFP is not abandoning the neediest.

Fatma’s seven-year-old Wafaa is now as old as the conflict. While she physically attends school, her mind is elsewhere. Convinced that her father is returning one day with that television, she barely focuses on anything else.

Written by Edward Johnson
Read more about WFP’s work in Lebanon. .