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OPT: Refugee Stories - ECHO helps beneficiaries make ends meet

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Damascus, November 2008 - Despite his poor health, Ahmed Ata Jichi waits patiently in line to receive UNRWA's quarterly distribution of food and cash assistance. Today is a good day for him. He will be able to take back food for his family. "My children are most excited about the milk," he says. "It is as if I travelled abroad and brought back presents for them."

In reality, Jichi only walks a short distance to the distribution centre. Originally from the village of Safad Faradeh, he now lives with his wife and eight children in Homs refugee camp in Syria.

As a patient of epilepsy, it is extremely difficult for him to find a stable source of income. Consequently, his family must borrow money and rely on the assistance funded by donors such as the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).

ECHO is one of the largest contributors to UNRWA's Social Safety Net programme (SSN), providing €15 million for food assistance in 2008. Under the programme, each family member receives on a quarterly basis $10 in cash assistance along with 1.5 kilograms of lentils, 3 kilograms of sugar, 3 kilograms of rice, 3 cans of tuna fish, 3 bottles of sunflower oil, and 2 kilograms of milk.

The cash subsidy attempts to give vulnerable families the flexibility to make purchases according to their needs, to enable beneficiaries to purchase fresh food and to support local suppliers.

Some families are more vulnerable than others. Those families who are abjectly poor and unable to meet their basic minimum nutritional requirements, even with the aid from the Social Safety Net programme, are eligible for additional cash subsidies. These subsidies allow families to at least cover their basic nutritional requirements. In 2008, this further cash assistance was covered by an €8 million donation from the European Commission.

Baheyeh Hassun, originally from Haifa, lives in the Homs Camp with her four children. As a single unemployed mother, she finds life extremely difficult. "The ration is everything for my family. I am really grateful for it, but I hope the amount and frequency of the rations will be increased" she says.

The rations last about a month and then, like Jichi, Hassun must look for other sources to feed her children. Most of the time she is forced to borrow money. Every three months, she hopes that donors will increase the rations.

However, commodities on which she relied in the past have now been discontinued. Hassun recalls, "There used to be flour and tomato paste. I really miss the flour."

Samir Ghannam expresses similar views, "They used to give us flour, and tomatoes. Flour is very important. We can't buy it from the market because it's really expensive."

The distribution of flour was phased out in 2005. This was due to funding shortfalls, the fact that many families were selling their flour ration, and a desire to introduce commodities with richer protein content. Mixed pulses were introduced as a substitute.

Ghannam, an unemployed man who lives in Bab Hud, is originally from Teireh, a village in Haifa. He uses the cash assistance to pay rent for the little apartment in which his wife and four children live.

With tears in his eyes, Ghannam talks about the difficulty of finding jobs and providing for his family, "I am helpless. I rely on the assistance provided by different donors. Though I am thankful to all the donor countries, I hope they will help us more. We suffer every day."

With the sharp increase in food prices, general rise in the cost of living, high unemployment and falling incomes, most refugees find themselves in steadily deteriorating living conditions and increasing debt.

Consequently, a number of refugees use the cash assistance to pay back debts instead of spending it on other food items. Meat and fruits are a rarity, and many struggle simply to obtain staples. They rely heavily on UNRWA's quarterly assistance, but given the poverty that most of these refugees live in, a lot more aid is required to make life bearable, if not better.

By Meher Makda