Watch: Hunger rises for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

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In Nabil al-Saeed’s refrigerator – which is not working because there is no electricity – there is a plate of leftover zucchini and tomato stew his wife made for lunch, which the family will also eat for dinner if it doesn’t go bad from the heat, some peaches from a nearby orchard, and a bag of bread.

The family – who live in a tent of wood and tarps in a small Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s western Beqaa Valley – ran out of cooking oil the day before, Saeed said, and now he has to wait until next month’s installment of aid from the UN Refugee Agency before they can get more. Meat and chicken have become a distant memory.

“If I want to get a kilo of meat for my kids, it’s 70,000 (Lebanese lira),” said Saeed’s neighbor, Osama Salameh, who comes from the same now-demolished town in Syria’s Idlib region. That amount – about $46 at the official exchange rate or less than $10 at the black market rate – is equivalent to the entire month’s per-person food aid allotment from UNHCR.

“No, I prefer to get bread. It’s better that than for a day to come when I won’t be able to get bread.”

His wife, Maysa, said the last time they had eaten meat was more than a month ago, during Ramadan.

“We used to buy meat – we don’t buy it anymore, or chicken either,” she said. “We used to buy 4 or 5 kilos of tomatoes in a week, for instance. Now we buy 1 kilo.”

Read more: Lebanon's supermarket shelves left empty amid panic buying

A general view of tents at a camp in Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon January 13, 2020. (Reuters)
A general view of tents at a camp in Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon January 13, 2020. (Reuters)

Lebanon’s ongoing currency crisis and the accompanying inflation have led to increased hunger among Lebanese and refugees alike. But with a majority of Syrian refugees already in extreme poverty before the economic meltdown, the effects on them have been particularly stark.

Mireille Girard, UNHCR's Representative in Lebanon, told Al Arabiya English that the percentage of refugees living in extreme poverty in the country has increased from 55 percent last year to around 75 percent.

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As a result, she said, “Parents are depriving themselves of meals to let the children eat. They eat less nutritious food. You also see people going into more debt.”

Syrians, who largely work in agriculture and construction, are suffering the trickle-down effects of the larger economic collapse. Construction work has nearly stopped, and many farmers reduced their planting this year because they were unable to afford the dollars needed to import supplies like seeds and fertilizer.

“The Lebanese farmer who used to bring, for instance, two workers once or twice a week to work, now maybe he’ll bring them once or twice in the month,” Salameh said. “Even the orchards, they abandoned them, because everything is expensive – the fertilizer is expensive, the water is expensive, the diesel fuel is expensive, everything is expensive.”

And when there is work, the pay is astonishingly low. While the prices of basic goods have doubled or tripled, the amount a Syrian worker makes for a day’s labor in the fields has not changed, at 10,000 to 20,000 lira a day.

“I work seven or eight hours to buy 2 kilos of sugar and that’s it,” Saeed said.

A Syrian refugee boy sits outside a tent at a camp in Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon January 13, 2020. Picture taken January 13, 2020. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy sits outside a tent at a camp in Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon January 13, 2020. Picture taken January 13, 2020. (Reuters)

Insufficient aid

Meanwhile, the value of international aid has also decreased, and many needy families do not receive any assistance.

While UNHCR has at least temporarily expanded the number of families receiving monthly payments to help with food costs – an additional 30,000 families were added to the rolls last month – Girard acknowledged that both the amount and the coverage are insufficient. Only about half of the families deemed severely vulnerable are getting aid.

While recipients used to get $27 per person, aid is now paid out in lira due to the country’s dollar shortage, and though the amount has been adjusted for inflation, it has not kept up with the rapid depreciation of the lira.

“We have adjusted, but this is insufficient compared to what we should be doing, partly the scope of coverage,” Girard said. “People are desperate, and we are far from covering all the people that should be receiving lifeline support.”

Meanwhile, as the desperation in Lebanon – and in Syria, which is undergoing its own currency crisis – is growing, the resources available from the international community appear to be shrinking, with many donor countries preoccupied by their own economic crises and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: Link between Lebanon and Syria's economies spells disaster for both

Pledges at last month’s fourth annual Brussels Conference on Syria totaled $7.7 billion – nearly $2 billion less than the $9.4 billion pledged at the previous year’s conference.

Girard said that the amount of support for the Syrian crisis is still substantial but added that “we really need more attention on this region.”

“The problems of the people [here] are not less serious because we have more problems elsewhere,” she said.

Meanwhile, for some smaller NGOs and grassroots initiatives providing aid to refugees, the same currency crisis that has made refugees’ situation increasingly desperate has hindered fundraising efforts. Except for those who have a special “fresh money” bank account, money transferred into the country in dollars has to be withdrawn in lira at an exchange rate significantly lower than the street rate.

Serene Dardari, founder of Chams Network, one such local initiative, said the economic crisis had hurt their fundraising efforts in a number of ways.

Syrian refugee women sit together in a tent at the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 9, 2019. (Reuters)
Syrian refugee women sit together in a tent at the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 9, 2019. (Reuters)

“First, the medium-sized foreign organizations who funded us are hesitant about sending funds to Lebanon,” she said. “Second, the ‘corruption’ reputation of Lebanon means the country’s name is appearing less and less each day in international funding opportunities. Third, we are unable to set up online crowdsourcing campaigns due to the depreciation of the Lebanese lira.”

On top of that, she said, Lebanese people in the country who used to donate cash “are worried and afraid of the future. They can’t access their money and so their cash donations have definitely shrunk, and I can’t blame them.”

Read more: Lebanese seek to fly out of dire economic situation as Beirut airport reopens

“We’ll die of hunger”

If the current situation is grim, many refugees are looking with dread to the winter months, when work usually dries up altogether. During the winter, many refugees rely on debt. Stores used to allow them to buy on credit, knowing that in the summer harvest season they would be able to pay it back, Salameh said.

But under the current economic circumstances, he said, “This year we’re very afraid that in the winter no one will lend to us, the supermarket or the stores…I believe that 90 percent of them won’t lend a single lira, especially since now the value of the dollar changes from day to day.”

Girard acknowledged that the outlook for the coming months is bleak.

“We’re certainly projecting a situation that is not going to get better in the future – three months, six months, one year,” she said. “We’re projecting a continued crisis, continued very high needs and a very high level of despair among people.”

Salameh was starker in his outlook.

“We’ll die of hunger,” he said. “If the inflation continues like this more than a month or two, honestly, we’ll die of hunger.”

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