‘You can’t imagine having nothing until you have nothing’

How food assistance funded by USAID helps Syrians get by in Lebanon

Edward Johnson
World Food Programme Insight


On a Thursday evening after a grueling week on a construction site, Hussein and his son Mohamad lay on the roof of their home outside Damascus. The evening breeze, chirping crickets and the distant twinkling city lights and stars above made it the perfect spot to relax and slip into a deep sleep. Hussein built the house himself and the roof was his special sanctuary. Amid a brewing conflict, that rooftop was his special place.

That night will forever be etched into Hussein’s memory, and unfortunately into Mohamad’s. They were abruptly awoken when a helicopter appeared above them and launched a barrage of missiles at a nearby target. Mohamad froze in terror and has not spoken a word since. That was the night the family fled Syria in search of safety.

Hussein is the local foreman in his settlement, helping dozens of others to make new homes. Photo: WFP/Edward Johnson

They now live under another roof that Hussein built. But this one is in Lebanon’s verdant Bekaa Valley. The family had enough cash and belongings to trade to get by for a few months. Hussein used some of that cash and did what he does best — he built a house. It is modest — just three small rooms — but life under this new roof is reality for their foreseeable future.

When they arrived, there were three other Syrian families nearby. Now there are over one hundred in what has become one of the Bekaa Valley’s 400 or so informal tented settlements. Hussein has helped many of those families build their homes too. “I see people stacking wood but they don’t know how to build,” he explained. “Neighbours should help one another and I am happy to give a helping hand. This way, I can turn strangers into neighbours.”

Hussein is a handyman extraordinaire, proficient in construction, plumbing and electrical engineering. He proudly showed me the refrigerator that he found as scrap and brought back to life.

Hussein and Samira take great pride in their kitchen. Photo: WFP/Edward Johnson

“It is horrible here,” Hussein points at open sewers, “but at least I can work on something I enjoy and I’m good at.”

After a few months, Hussein and his wife Samira received an e-card from WFP loaded with cash to buy food. “The first time we went to the shop, we bought Mohamad a chocolate bar just because we could. Before then, it was just bread and handouts,” explained Samira.

The celebration was short lived though as in 2016, WFP was forced to significantly reduce the amount given to Syrians for food due to funding restraints.

Using sign language, Mohamad describes his ideal snack — a huge rolled flatbread sandwich and a cup of tea. Photo: WFP/Edward Johnson

WFP’s funding comes entirely from government contributions. This year, one of the largest contributions came from USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, which has helped provide the means for families like Hussein and Samira’s to buy the food that they need to survive. The stability offered by the e-card is essential for refugee families like theirs. WFP knows that without a reliable source of income for food, families are forced to adopt extreme measures to source food such as begging, sending children to work and reducing the number and frequency of meals often at the expense of their well-being.

Mohamad’s trauma means he struggles to communicate with his family, but he has developed his own form of sign language to communicate. ‘Sandwich’ and ‘tea’ are his most commonly used signs.

The family spends around US$ 20 a week on locally grown fruit and vegetables from the market next door. There is a plentiful supply of both, including the cucumbers that Mohamad likes in his cheese sandwiches.

Hussein at work and the house that he built. Photo: WFP/Edward Johnson

“In Syria, there was always fruit on the table and fish was a weekly treat,” Hussein explained. They have not been able to afford fish since arriving in Lebanon, and are eagerly awaiting to taste some Euphrates carp one day back home. Until then, beans, rice, vegetables and fruit — as well as Mohamad’s cheese sandwiches — make up their diet.

Hussein is able to generate some additional income working as a labourer, but it is sporadic work and it barely covers the US$ 80 a month needed for rent and electricity. Beyond WFP’s e-card, the family has next to nothing and cannot look beyond the next month.

“You can’t imagine having nothing until you have nothing,” explained Samira, “but the e-card is everything.” For her and 700,000 other Syrians in Lebanon receiving WFP food assistance thanks to USAID, there is some stability for now.

Read more about WFP’s work in Lebanon.



Edward Johnson
World Food Programme Insight

Communications guy at @wfp #Ethiopia. Into all things food. My views. #ZeroHunger