UNHCR resumes second food distribution of the year in Syria

News Stories, 26 June 2008

© UNHCR/M.Bernard
Vulnerable Iraqi refugees wait for an earlier food distribution in Damascus.

DAMASCUS, Syria, June 26 (UNHCR) To the huge relief of tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Damascus, the UN refugee agency and sister organization, the World Food Programme (WFP), resumed food distribution this week in the Syrian capital after an unexpected two-month interruption.

"I totally depend on this food," said Iraqi refugee Om Khaled after picking up her food aid at the UNHCR Registration Centre in the suburb of Douma. "These past two months of waiting have been torture. I have had to rely on my neighbours for their charity. There were days where I cried in desperation. I have promised my landlord that I will give him some of the food instead of rent," added the widow, who has four children to look after.

The food distribution resumed on Tuesday, when 100 families each received a food basket containing basic foodstuffs from WFP (rice, lentils and vegetable oil) and complementary commodities supplied by UNHCR (tea, sugar, tomato paste, pasta, cracked wheat, washing detergent, mattresses and blankets).

On Wednesday, food packages were issued to another 1,000 families (5,000 people), and at least 150,000 people are expected to benefit from this distribution over the next month. Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society volunteers have been helping in the distribution.

Earlier food distributions in February and April were held at the Old Fairground site in central Damascus, but the government requisitioned the plot mid-way through the April exercise as part of a policy to develop recreation areas and green spaces in cities and towns around the country.

UNHCR and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have worked day and night to build the distribution facility at Douma, with a new warehouse constructed to store the food. The delivery of food and supplies will take place at night because the centre is used to register and counsel the thousands of refugees who visit the centre during daylight hours.

"The idea is that we centralize the assistance we offer to refugees living in Damascus. We are effectively offering a field service to refugees so that they can collect food and financial assistance from the same place where they can meet community service staff and protection officers," said UNHCR Senior Programme Officer Ayman Gharaibeh.

Starting from next week, additional services will move to the registration centre so that the majority of refugee issues can be dealt with in one spot. These include protection and community services, distribution of cash cards to those needing financial assistance. Those unable to afford school uniforms and supplies will be able to pick these up from the centre from August.

The registration centre at Douma also houses the UNICEF Child Friendly space and a clinic for females run by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and staffed by a doctor and a midwife.

Rising food and fuel prices, the seasonal rise in rents and diminishing savings are resulting in more and more Iraqi refugees, such as Mohamed, becoming reliant upon assistance from the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations. Mohamed was once a prosperous gold merchant in Iraq, but now the food assistance is his only source of support. "We can't work, can't travel, can't dream. At least keep me alive and, please, don't ever delay this distribution again" he said as he queued for his food on Wednesday.

But UNHCR is facing a major challenge in meeting the growing needs. The agency has only received half of the funds it needs for its operations in Syria this year. Without additional funds, the challenging and costly work of outreach to the Iraqi population is likely to be limited.

Of the thousands who queued up for food on the first day, many requested financial assistance. The current financial situation makes it impossible for UNHCR to consider expanding its financial assistance programme leading to increased destitution of the most vulnerable, including widows, single mothers, the sick and survivors of torture and trauma.

By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria