In Sad­dam’s for­mer jail, cash aid al­lays grim rou­tine for refugees

Jerusalem Post - - REGIONAL NEWS - • By SE­BASTIEN MALO

AKRE, Iraq (Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion) – As Muham­mad Said Amin wit­nessed the in­ten­si­fy­ing bat­tle be­tween gov­ern­ment forces and rebel groups for con­trol of his home­town of Da­m­as­cus, he and his wife made a plan to es­cape.

They left for Ras al-Ayn, a Syr­ian town bor­der­ing Turkey. But when it came un­der at­tack from the Nusra Front, the for­mer bus driver felt he had no op­tion but to take up arms against the al-Qaida-linked group.

“We fought them for weeks,” Amin, 48, said in a tired voice. “Who would want to do that? But we had to pro­tect our women, our homes, our land.”

Two years on, Amin and his wife, Na­dia, are refugees liv­ing in Iraq’s Kur­dish re­gion – a haven for about 235,000 peo­ple up­rooted by Syria’s civil war and more than 1 mil­lion Iraqis who have fled vi­o­lence in other parts of their coun­try.

Once a pros­per­ous oil-pro­duc­ing re­gion, Iraq’s Kur­dis­tan has been hit by an eco­nomic cri­sis caused by a slump in oil prices with protests ear­lier this year against aus­ter­ity mea­sures.

The war against Is­lamic State and the in­flux of dis­placed peo­ple has only com­pounded the cri­sis. Jobs are few and far be­tween, es­pe­cially for the more re­cent ar­rivals.

Amin’s new home is in a con­verted prison once used by Sad­dam Hus­sein to hold po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents dur­ing his iron-fisted rule span­ning more than two decades.

Some 1,000 Syr­ian refugees are shel­ter­ing in the gloomy fortress-like build­ing in the north­ern town of Akre. The front-line in fight­ing is some 30 miles (50 kms) away, be­yond Akre’s bar­ren hills.

Although Amin has no job, he and his wife re­ceive a $38 monthly lump sum from the UN World Food Pro­gram (WFP) as part of a pi­lot project to of­fer as­sis­tance in cash rather than goods, food or vouch­ers.

More than 14,000 house­holds re­ceive cash un­der the pro­gram launched in Iraq this year.

Aid of­fi­cials say the rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan has made it pos­si­ble to roll out a form of food as­sis­tance that has been touted as a more ef­fi­cient way of de­liv­er­ing aid.

“Cash pro­vides peo­ple with flex­i­bil­ity so they spend it on what­ever they need – be it food or medicine or part of their rent,” said WFP spokes­woman Abeer Etefa.

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s hu­man­i­tar­ian de­part­ment ECHO has pro­vided most of the nearly $680,000 (600,000 euros) needed to run the pro­gram, part of a $20 mil­lion pot of fund­ing the agency has pro­vided WPF in Iraq since 2015.

Ni­cholas Hutch­ings, a tech­ni­cal as­sis­tant with ECHO, said that while it was im­pos­si­ble to rule out the risk that re­cip­i­ents would spend cash on ci­garettes and al­co­hol, rather than food and rent, there was lit­tle to sug­gest they do.

“Not just in this coun­try but in oth­ers, ev­i­dence shows that peo­ple don’t spend it on vice,” he said.

Giv­ing cash ben­e­fits the lo­cal econ­omy and of­fers peo­ple the dig­nity of choice, but it must be done in a way that does not cause in­fla­tion, pro­po­nents of cash as­sis­tance say.

“Of course with large-scale num­bers of peo­ple re­ceiv­ing as­sis­tance ... there is the risk of push­ing the prices up,” WFP’s Etefa told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion.

In con­flict ar­eas in Syria, where WFP is pro­vid­ing food to more than 4 mil­lion peo­ple, hand­ing out cash in­dis­crim­i­nately would risk caus­ing in­fla­tion, she said.

Pre­vi­ously, refugees like Amin would of­ten have had to queue for bags of beans, flour, bul­gur wheat and other sta­ples.

Many fam­i­lies find the experience hu­mil­i­at­ing, and such op­er­a­tions are more ex­pen­sive to run be­cause of trans­port, stor­age and other costs, aid of­fi­cials say.

Clutch­ing his rum­pled US dol­lar bills, Amin sat and talked in­side his dark liv­ing quar­ters – a for­mer prison cell which the cou­ple have tried to brighten up with red rib­bons hung on the con­crete walls.

Amin said cash was bet­ter than food vouch­ers which he could only use in spe­cially des­ig­nated shops, where goods are of­ten pricier than in neigh­bor­ing stores.

“Now I can take the money and go buy whole­sale from the su­per­mar­ket,” Amin said. “When it was the voucher, the prices were fixed and I would lose some of the value of the dol­lar.”

De­spite the as­sis­tance they re­ceive, the lump sum does not cover all the refugees’ needs and most would pre­fer to work.

Re­call­ing his life in Da­m­as­cus, Amin lamented how the war had sti­fled his plans to open his own shop, with which he hoped to se­cure the fi­nan­cial future of his nine chil­dren who fled Syria ahead of him and are now in Turkey and Ger­many.

“I worked re­ally hard,” he said. “I wanted them to re­mem­ber me af­ter­wards by say­ing ‘Our fa­ther has done his best to pro­vide for us’.”

But op­por­tu­ni­ties to work in Akre are close to none, leav­ing Amin and many oth­ers feel­ing frus­trated and aim­less.

The lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, who say they are feel­ing the strain of the refugee cri­sis, are also call­ing for more cash as­sis­tance for dis­placed Iraqis.

“It’s not easy to have large num­bers of dis­placed peo­ple com­ing to your city and up­set­ting the sta­tus quo,” said Jane Pearce, WFP’s coun­try di­rec­tor in Iraq.

Like other aid of­fi­cials, Pearce is con­cerned about the hu­man­i­tar­ian con­se­quences of a planned of­fen­sive by Iraqi forces, with help from a U.S.-led coali­tion, to re­take Iraq’s sec­ond big­gest city of Mo­sul from Is­lamic State later this year.

“I’d like to see [some­thing] like a Marshall plan for Iraq that could re­build and keep it sta­ble,” she said, re­fer­ring to the mas­sive re­lief the United States pro­vided to re­build Europe af­ter World War Two. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s Hu­man­i­tar­ian Aid and Civil Pro­tec­tion de­part­ment pro­vided a travel grant for this trip.

(Se­bastien Malo/Reuters)

SYR­IAN REFUGEE Muham­mad Said Amin, 48, sits in a for­mer prison cell that as been con­verted into liv­ing quar­ters for refugees in the Akre refugee camp in Iraq.

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