Navigating a New Life

E-vouchers provide nutritious food for Syrian refugees while boosting the Turkish economy

A Syrian refugee chooses apples at a supermarket funded by the European Union and implemented by the UN World Food Program in partnership with Turkish Red Crescent and AFAD, at a refugee camp in Osmaniye, Turkey. / Adem Altan, AFP

In Kahramanmaras, a city in southern Turkey, I recently spent a day with four Syrian refugee women, including some who fled their country under cover of night with their children.

Sitting in cold and sparsely furnished apartments, they shared with me their hopes, their fears and their struggle for survival as they navigate a new life in a foreign land without their husbands.

One woman shared photos of her husband with me — killed by airstrikes inside Syria as he went to pick up his daughter from school — while a second teared up as she recounted the beheading of her husband by ISIS.

I watched videos of children dancing with the father they so missed. These images keep them company as they struggle to get by in Turkey. Several of the mothers also feared letting their children walk alone to school, so many aren’t going. Despite their evident trauma, they wanted to express what had happened “so unfairly” to the ones they loved.

Barrel bombs, airstrikes, active ground fighting — those are just some of the hardships that have caused more than 11 million Syrians to flee their homes, including more than 4.6 million seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

The majority of Turkey’s Syrian refugees are living in urban areas, with only about 250,000 living in camps, established by the Turkish government with help of the Turkish Red Crescent Society of the IFRC. Yet the camps remain well over capacity and there is little opportunity for privacy, with tents hosting large families and standing within arm’s length of one another. In both camps and cities, Syrian refugees are receiving food assistance from the United States and other donors in the form of an electronic debit card.

Syrian refugees in the camps in Turkey can buy more nutritious food, such as fresh vegetables and fruits, with monthly assistance of about $29 per person via electronic voucher cards from the UN World Food Program and the Turkish Red Crescent. Syrian refugees living in Turkish cities are only more recently receiving monthly food assistance of about $17 per person from the UN World Food Program. / Marisa Traniello, USAID

While refugees living in the camps have been receiving assistance since 2012, the UN World Food Program and the Turkish Red Crescent only more recently began supporting refugees living outside of the camps. In January, some of these refugees — including the four single mothers I visited — received their very first electronic voucher for food assistance.

One woman shared with me how thrilled she was to be able to buy nutritious food for her family for the first time since fleeing Syria months earlier.

USAID’s Office of Food for Peace Director Dina Esposito meets with a Syrian beneficiary in Turkey — which has accepted more Syrian refugees than any other country in the world. / Brianna White-Gaynor, USAID
“When I first received the card, I bought items my children hadn’t eaten in a long time. They were so happy to have chicken and cheese,” she exclaimed.

One of the biggest benefits of this program is that refugees can save their limited personal savings for other pressing priorities, such as rent and heat.

In the city, I visited a modern supermarket where Syrian refugees and local Turks are shopping together. In response to the new Syrian customers, the shop expanded its regular customer shuttle services to better serve the refugees and put new items on its shelves that Syrians prefer.

The positive economic potential of this program was obvious in this locale, and all told, the e-card program administered by the UN World Food Program has injected more than $147 million into the Turkish economy. In addition, the UN Agency has spent another $1.1 billion in procuring food inside Turkey, which is then boxed into family size packages and distributed inside Syria.

E-voucher assistance from the UN World Food Program to refugees in Turkey not living in camps began in July 2015, and is having a positive impact on Turkish communities. In this store in Kahramanmaras city, bilingual staff help Syrian refugees navigate the large store. / Brianna White-Gaynor, USAID

The food program’s ability to provide sustenance to refugees while supporting the Turkish economy is one small silver lining in an otherwise overwhelming and tragic situation.

The women I met in Kahramanmaras wanted to express thanks for the United States’ continued support and explained how it makes a difference in their daily lives. They are grateful for the help they receive from the United States, the United Nations, the Government of Turkey and the citizens of Turkey.

And while they are grateful to have escaped the violence of Syria, they all say that the most important thing is for the war to end in Syria.

Their greatest hope and desire remains to return home to the place they know, the land they love.

About the Author

Dina Esposito is the director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace. Follow her @DEsposito_FFP.

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