UNHCR issues ATM cards to 7,000 needy Iraqi families in Syria
DAMASCUS, Syria, December 17 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has started distributing cashed-up ATM cards to 7,000 Iraqi refugee families in Syria who are in urgent need of financial assistance.
"We know that increasing numbers of refugees are finding it difficult to make ends meet. This financial assistance programme is one step of many that UNHCR is making to help Iraqi refugees to survive," Laurens Jolles, the agency's representative in Syria, said.
The bright blue ATM [automated teller machine] cards are issued by the Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi, but can be used at almost all banks in Syria. The first batch of 500 cards was handed out on Sunday in Damascus. The distribution should take about two weeks to complete.
Each eligible family will receive US$100 a month in financial assistance, plus US$10 for each dependant. To date, needy refugees have had to queue outside the UNHCR offices in Damascus to receive their financial assistance.
The programme, which will cost around US$1.5 million a month, represents a major component of UNHCR's strategy to prevent the growing impoverishment of Iraqi refugees living in Syria.
UNHCR has installed two television screens at the distribution site in Damascus to show refugees how to use ATM cards. Many of those waiting to pick up their cards on Sunday had never used a bank card.
"This money means I'll finally be able to buy some clothes for my children, two of whom are at school," said Hana, who fled to Syria three years ago after her husband was abducted in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. "We left Baghdad so quickly, we were not able to take much with us," added the mother of three, who has struggled to get by.
Another mother of three, Zeinab, fled Iraq two years ago and has received no support from her husband and limited help from her family. Last August her six-year-old son broke his hip, adding another financial burden. On Sunday, her son was all smiles at the prospect of being able to celebrate the Eid al-Adha festival on Thursday because of the assistance.
"Last Eid, we had nothing with which to celebrate. For this coming Eid, at least, I hope I'll be able to buy my children a little something to mark this happy occasion," Zeinab said as her son hugged her.
The UN refugee agency has established a number of criteria to help identify refugees in need. These include female-headed households, widows and people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Such information is gleaned from refugee registration details.
Each family receiving the financial assistance will be subject to random checks and reassessment every six months to ensure that they still meet the assistance criteria.
By Carole Lalève and Salwa Salti in Damascus, Syria