Boiled Potatoes for Iftar

15 September 2009


"Boiled potatoes and mjedara. That’s what we ate for iftar last night," says Adibeh Aisey Moustafa, tears streaming down her face. "It is Ramadan, and this is all we ate." Ms. Moustafa is one of 32,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria who receives special hardship case food rations on a quarterly basis from UNRWA. Without it, one wonders how she and her family would break fast.

Thanks to generous support from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department, or ECHO, UNRWA Syria is able to distribute food ration packages to 11,000 families consisting of 3 kilos rice, 3 kilos sugar, 3 liters sunflower oil, 1.5 kilos condensed milk, 1.5 kilos chick peas, 1.5 kilos broad beans. "We are about to implement a new set of poverty-based criteria for determining special hardship cases," explains Lama Khouli, Assistant Field Relief Services Officer. "This new approach will better determine those who are in abject poverty and will allow us to better tackle the issue of issuing relief services and not just with regard to food rations." UNRWA currently distributes food rations to beneficiaries considered as special hardship cases, and with the new criteria, Khouli and her colleagues expect even more families and individuals on their list.

The Mansour family’s special hardship case is fresh. They have never required assistance before, and their new special hardship status is a burden to bear in more ways than one. In their case, having known self-sufficiency, dependence becomes as traumatizing as the need for aid itself.

Ms. Moustafa’s husband suffers from a congenital heart condition and severe chronic venous insufficiency. His medications cost the family a whopping five thousand Syrian pounds per month. Samer Mansour, their son, suffers from severe edema in his left leg - a result of nephrectomy (kidney removal surgery) six years ago. So inflamed is his condition, that he can no longer provide for his wife and four children. "My son was strong and healthy, his honest work used to bring good money and subsistence to this family," laments Ms. Moustafa. "Now we are embarrassed. We have to eat from charity."

"This family suffers in a different way than most other special hardship families," explains Nada Adnan Rizq, UNRWA Community Development Social Worker at the Women’s Programme Center in Alliance, an old quarter straddling the ancient wall of Damascus’ old city. "In a way, the Mansour family is luckier than other special hardship cases, as they have known greater financial stability. Most of the food ration beneficiaries were raised in abject poverty."

Najah Awad Ahmad and her husband Muhammad Muta’ib ‘Ali Shtewi have been struggling for years to care and provide for their seven children and Mr. Shtewi’s ageing mother. "I don’t know what I would do without the rations, really," says Ms. Ahmad. "These rations make a huge difference for our family, without a doubt." What’s more, they struggle with the challenges of raising their eldest son, 29 years, who is severely mentally and physically disabled. Ms. Ahmad’s second teenage son has recently become incontinent, and may also suffer from a yet undiagnosed mental or physical illness. Their eldest sister left her university courses – not to work and provide greater income – but in order to help her mother care for her brothers and paternal grandmother at home.

Ms. Ahmad displays gratitude for the funded food rations and asks when the next package will arrive, knowing full well its routine quarterly distribution. She more than leans on what UNRWA provides her, sending two of her middle children to the Alliance Community Center just on the other side of the city walls for extra studying in preparation for the ominous basic education exam students must pass at grade nine in Syria.

What else could UNRWA provide her? "Help with the children and their school work, medical attention and supplies for my mentally disabled son, school supplies, diapers, napkins," Ms. Ahmad replies. "I really don’t know what we would do without the rations. I would not be able to manage." No doubt, so desperate is this family’s situation - any help is of great impact.

ECHO has provided funding for the distribution of food rations to special hardship cases and this is but one of many UNRWA projects made possible by such support. Without ECHO’s generosity, UNRWA might not be able to reach as many beneficiaries. ECHO’s funding is thus all the more crucial.

As financial markets lose stability, donor funds become sparse, and the cost of living increases one cannot help but fear for the future of the Mansour and Shtewi families. The water level rises precariously, but the food packages provided last only two months. With what will they celebrate Eid el-Fitr?

Text by Nouna al-Dimashqiya
Photos unavailable out of discretion for families


ECHO logo

Since 1992, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) has funded relief to millions of victims of both natural disasters and man-made crises outside the EU. Aid is channeled impartially, straight to victims, regardless of their race, religion and political beliefs.  For the past 18 years, ECHO has supported UNRWA through a variety of programmes.

To find out more, visit the ECHO website