In Jordan, slashed UN food aid has even 'well off' Syrians feeling the pinch

With Jordan limiting job opportunities and the UN reducing food aid, even middle-class refugees from war-torn Syria are asking how, and where, they can survive.

Muhammad Hamed/REUTERS
Syrian refugees walk at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, September 15, 2014.

Ahmed, a father of four, was sentenced to death in 2012 after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime found rebel weapons in his home. With his connections he was able to get out of prison after eight months, and fled with his family to Jordan.

Today he’s thinking of returning to Syria because he’s lost his lifeline as a refugee: monthly United Nations food coupons.

Ahmed works illegally at a restaurant to support his four children, his sick mother, and his brother’s widow. He makes 200 Jordanian dinars a month ($280); rent alone is 140 dinars. Until last week, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) provided coupons of 24 JD ($34) per person per month that made it possible to scrape by. Now the coupons are being stopped. 

“To die in our country is better than to stay here and ask people for charity,” he says.

Many of the estimated 3.2 million refugees who have fled Syria to neighboring countries come from middle-class backgrounds and have balked at conditions in refugee camps. Yet in Jordan it is becoming increasingly difficult to survive outside the camps as the government cracks down on those who leave without securing a sponsor.

Humanitarian organizations worry about refugees returning to a country in the throes of a war that’s already killed close to 200,000 people. But in Jordan and elsewhere, they face a bleak financial picture – due in part to crises ranging from Ukraine to the Ebola epidemic. That leaves aid agencies and refugees like Ahmed’s household in the border city of al-Ramtha, one of 12,000 cut from the WFP program, facing difficult choices.

“It’s always easy to get money for F-16s, but not so much for food and cash,” says Andrew Harper, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan, which says it may have to cut cash assistance programs for 20,000 families in November and December due to lack of funding.

$35 million a week for food coupons

The WFP is spending $35 million a week to provide food coupons for Syrians in their own country as well as in five neighboring countries: Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Last month the organization announced impending cuts in all six countries, but last-minute donations postponed the cuts by a month.

In an effort to better target its resources, WFP has for the first time since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis removed 36,000 recipients in Jordan – about 7 percent – from the program. It plans to remove another 8 percent, based on an assessment that 15 percent of refugees can meet their basic needs.

The detailed assessment was carried out beginning in July and looked at factors involving the head of household, such as level of education, as well as the number of dependents, and chronic health issues in the family.

Jordan's per capita intake of refugees is equivalent to the US absorbing the entire population of Canada. The pressure on its small economy has made it almost impossible for Syrians to work here legally, as Jordan is keen to keep what jobs remain for its own citizens. As a result, even highly educated Syrians say it's difficult to provide for their families.

Take Awad al-Hamed, a lawyer whose wife is an agricultural engineer. After his house was bombed, he fled to Jordan and lobbied the Jordanian lawyer’s union with more than a dozen other Syrian lawyers for permission to work.

“If we open [this door], it will not be closed,” he recalls being told. His two sons, one of whom he says was top in his high school class, are studying at Egyptian universities on scholarships. But his daughter who was studying law at a Jordanian university had to drop out because of a lack of funds.

For Mr. Hamed, whose family also just got cut from the food coupons program, it’s not just about his family’s future but that of his country, since it means families won't be able to afford to pay for their children's schooling. 

“The future of Syria needs these guys, because what happened is a huge disaster,” he says. “We need people to rebuild.”

‘If we are allowed to work, we don’t need help’

On Sunday, the first working day after the WFP text message went out, the UN received more than 1,000 calls on a special hotline by early afternoon.

Jonathan Campbell, head of Jordan operations for WFP, says it can be difficult to discern which ones most need the aid.

“Often the people that scream loudest are those who actually need it the least, and the ones who don’t scream at all that are actually the ones most in need,” he says, noting how hard it is to find those silent ones. “They are the people who don’t get it quite right in life, they don’t have the education or initiative to scream, and they don’t have the credit on their mobile phones to call the hotlines.”

But even those who called have stories of hardship. Tawfik Hifawi, a relative of Hamed, says he hasn’t been able to find a stable job since coming here two years ago from the Deraa region of southern Syria.

After a Shiite neighbor held a gun to his chin and told him to leave or be killed, he walked across the border – ducking under whizzing bullets – with his nine-months pregnant wife, their two kids, his mother, and his 103-year-old grandmother. They arrived in Zaatari camp in northern Jordan, where his wife gave birth to a son in a tent.

Two-year-old Omar is now running around their sparsely furnished Amman apartment in diapers, wielding a toy rifle, as the family serves a meal of flatbread stuffed with meat and spices – joking that this may be the last time they can enjoy it until next year.

“There’s a proverb, that the worst in the world makes you laugh,” says Zeinab Mohammed, the engineer wife of Hamed. “This is a crazy world, which spends billions of dollars for the war [against the Islamic State] and can’t buy food for us.”

But some say there is another solution.

“Just make us able to work without dangers for us,” says Mamoun al-Hariri, who quit his job out of fear that he’d be arrested and deported to Syria. “If we are allowed to work, we don’t need help from anybody.”

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