BEIRUT — For the last six years, Intesar Kallaa, a 35-year-old woman from East Ghouta has been helping other Syrian refugees cope with their situation in Lebanon. But last March, when the country went into lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt despair had reached unseen levels.  “The situation was really bad, people didn’t even have bread,” she told Syria Direct.  

The aid of international organizations and local NGOs fell short, so Intesar reached out to her Syrian friends in Europe and they wired her enough money to distribute pasta, sugar and tahini to a hundred families in the Beqaa Valley (eastern Lebanon) during Ramadan.  “People need more, but we can’t do more,” Intesar said sadly.

The economic impact of COVID-19 in Lebanon seems to be the nail in the coffin for a country that in 2020 expects to see poverty rates surge to 45 percent and extreme poverty rates reach 22 percent, according to World Bank estimates. Food insecurity looms in Lebanon and Syrian refugees are being hit hard.

A spike in food insecurity levels

In 2019, 55 percent of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon fell below the Survival Minimum Expenditure Basket (SMEB), that is, they lived on less than $2.9 per person daily. But the economic deterioration in 2020 has quickly made these figures obsolete. The Country Director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), Abdallah Alwardat told Syria Direct that currently 80 percent of Syrian refugees —1.2 million— survive on less than $2.9 per day. 

The WFP reaches 750,000 Syrian refugees monthly mainly through the food e-card ($27 per person) or the multipurpose cash e-card ($175 per household), but more than 350,000 Syrians that live below the SMEB are not being reached, Alwardat added. This has pushed many to adopt coping strategies like reducing health expenses, borrowing money or withdrawing children from school. “If they had been eating meat twice per month, now they would not eat meat even once and they skip meals,” the WFP official warned. 

Due to the closure of schools under COVID-19 restrictions, the WFP school snack program targeting 34,000 vulnerable Syrian and Lebanese students was put on hold, but Alwardat said in June they will start delivering in-kind food parcels to the families of these students.

Between September 2019 and April 2020, the price of the eight basic food items used to calculate the SMEB rose 56 percent according to Alwardat. In an effort to catch up with the rising levels of inflation, WFP adjusted the amount of their food assistance; from 40,000 Lebanese Pound (LBP) to 50,000 LBP in April, while it will reach  60,000 LBP in June (around $40 at the official rate and $15 at the parallel market rate).

Further, as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19, 60 percent of Syrian refugees have been laid-off and those still working have seen a reduction in wages from an average of 365,000 LBP (around $92 at the parallel market rate) to 77,000 LBP (around $20), according to a recent International Labour Organization study. The study showed that “income in March 2020 decreased by more than two-thirds for both Lebanese and Syrian respondents compared to their average monthly income in the previous 12 months.”

In Lebanon, the middle class is evaporating. Those earning salaries in Lebanese pound (lira) have seen their purchase power plummet as the national currency has reached 4,800 in the parallel market - while the official exchange rate per dollar is 1,505 LBP.  

Given the dollar scarcity in the country, importing has become a difficult task, and since 80 percent of the food basket is imported, food scarcity in supermarkets is no longer a far-fetched scenario. “A few more months down the line there will be a serious social fallout, there might even be famine as the foreign exchange reserves keep dwindling, there will be shortages and the prices will keep rising,” said Heiko Wimmen, Project Director of Lebanon and Syria at the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization.

With a public debt equivalent to 170 percent of its GDP, Lebanon defaulted last March on its Eurobond debt of $1.2 billion and the government is currently in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on an economic rescue plan. Bigger turbulence will come if Lebanon enters the hyperinflation scenario, public salaries can’t be paid or, as Wimmen pointed,  if the Central Bank in Lebanon runs out of dollars to subsidize fuel imports. “Price of petrol will triple, and this could be another tipping point.”

Syrians take the blow

In this challenging context, Syrian refugees deal with added layers of vulnerability. The roadblocks during the Lebanese uprising last year and the current mobility restrictions due to COVID-19 have severely affected Syrians because most of them are day laborers. 

“In the [Shatila refugee] camp, most people are daily workers so when the COVID-19 outbreak started, they couldn’t stay at home because they depended on their daily income,” explained Omar al-Saiegh, the Shatila Center Coordinator of the Lebanon-based NGO Basmeh and Zeitooneh. The average daily income for a Syrian household in this refugee camp in Beirut is 10,000 LBP (around $6 at the official rate, but $2.5 at the parallel rate). “Now the dinner is nothing but bread,” al-Saiegh told Syria Direct, adding that Basmeh and Zeitooneh has distributed food vouchers worth 126.000 LBP and a voucher for a COVID-19-hygiene kit to 1,200 families in Shatila. 

Another constraint is mobility. Seventy-eight percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack legal residency which translates to constant fear of being arrested at checkpoints. In addition, as of January, 330 municipalities were imposing curfews on Syrian refugees, and during the pandemic another 21 municipalities adopted COVID-19 curfews applying only to Syrians, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Last year’s crackdown of Lebanese authorities on Syrians working without permits pushed many Syrian workers to destitution.

Despite the worsening of economic conditions in Lebanon, returning to Syria doesn’t seem an option. “Those who thought they had a chance of returning, have returned,” said Wimmen, who pointed that fear of arrest or conscription in Syria are the main obstacles for return. For many, there is no home to return to. “Going back to Syria to become an Internally Displaced Person is not an option,” added Wimmen. So far this year UNHCR has registered 5,076 returns, while in 2018 and 2019 the UN agency confirmed 16,709 and 24,117 individuals, respectively, returning from Lebanon to Syria, according to Lisa Abou Khaled, Public Information Officer at UNHCR. These numbers, however, reflect only the movements directly confirmed by UNHCR, but the real figures are estimated higher.

Mitigating the storm

At the heart of the fertile Beqaa Valley, in Chtaura, Wesam Sabaaneh, the director of the Jafra Foundation, sips coffee at sunset while observing the 3,000 square meters land parcel that the foundation turned from an abandoned lot into an ‘ecological farming project’ earlier this spring. Wesam, a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, showcases the foundation’s lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers with pride.   

Wesam Sabaaneh displays the Jafra Foundation's produce

Wesam Sabaaneh displays the Jafra Foundation's produce, 03/06/2020 (Syria Direct)

Several Syrian families living in the surrounding informal settlements cultivate fruits, vegetables and flowers in this plot. It is a pilot project. “We see what plants work well in the area and how can we provide a piece of land for Syrian or Palestinian families so they can survive with this,” Sabaaneh told Syria Direct.

On the plot, they plant to obtain the seeds that they later send to refugee camps in Lebanon so they can grow their vegetables to feed themselves or grow flowers to sell. Sabaaneh designed a ‘clever chicken cage’ from a YouTube tutorial. They produce their own compost and seeds. This month they plan to distribute plants to 200 families in the camps. 

“Here people will not take a food basket but knowledge and support to do their own food,” Sabaaneh said. So far, the foundation has trained 30 Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese in composting, cultivating and livestock care, and they plan to train 100 more individuals. 

In the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj Barajneh in Beirut, the ‘urban garden rooftop’— where zaatar (thyme), pepper and corn flourish—helps to support five families.  Siham Hmedi, a 32-year-old woman originally from Syria’s northeast city of Raqqa and mother of five, participates in the cultivation of this ‘garden’ on the rooftop. The food voucher of WFP is not nearly enough, so now she grows beans, parsley and onions at her home. She is in good spirits because her husband got a job recently but stressed their precarious situation: “We survive day by day. Everything is expensive, what can we do?”  

An urban garden in the Palestinian Refugee Camp in Burj Barajneh, Beirut (Syria Direct)

An urban garden in the Palestinian Refugee Camp in Burj Barajneh, Beirut, 04/06/2020 (Syria Direct)

Jafra plans to open six rooftops in Burj Barajneh, Shatila and Ein El Hilweh, three Palestinian camps which also host many Syrians. These seeds and plants may help hundreds, the food basket of Intesar may support dozens and the WFP reaches hundreds of thousands.  These efforts seek to spare Syrian refugees the seemingly inevitable nightmare of not knowing when will the next meal come.


This article reflects minor changes made on 6/11/2020 at 2:28 pm.