UN food aid chief says Syria funding ‘bleak’
World Food Program executive director Ertharin Cousin, center, listens while visiting a Syrian refugee family living in a one-room shelter in Amman, Jordan - AP
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AMMAN: Funding prospects are “bleak” and impoverished Syrian refugees face more cuts in food aid, the head of the World Food Program said in an interview, after inspecting the bare refrigerator of a refugee family and meeting boys forced to swap school for work to help their families survive.

Ertharin Cousin, the U.N. agency’s executive director, called on donor countries to give more to millions displaced by the Syria conflict, now in its fifth year.

“We need everyone to recognize that we as a global community must continue to stand by these families, these children, until the political situation is solved,” she told The Associated Press after meeting with refugees in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

“We are asking the community of donors and taxpayers around the world … to continue to assist us,” Cousin said, adding that “children must eat every day, a mother must cook and put food on the table every night.”

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. About 630,000 have found refuge in Jordan, with the vast majority living in poverty in local communities rather than in three refugee camps. Other host countries include Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

In Jordan, some 440,000 refugees currently receive WFP food vouchers, with aid scaled back repeatedly in recent months.

About 211,000 food aid recipients, considered the most vulnerable, get $14 per person per month, and that level of funding is secured through November, the WFP said.

The rest are considered less vulnerable because family members could potentially find informal jobs, even though refugees are largely barred from working in Jordan.

“Unfortunately, those families, starting in September, unless we receive additional contributions, they will receive nothing,” Cousin said.

In Iraq, meanwhile, the WFP announced further cuts in food aid for close to one million displaced people.

“The situation is bleak,” Cousin said after meeting Khaldiyeh Hussein, a mother of eight, in her one-room shelter in the Hashemi al-Shamali neighborhood of Amman.

Hussein, who fled her hometown of Homs two-and-a-half years ago, told Cousin that she mainly cooks rice and can no longer afford dairy products.

She is behind in rent and faces eviction, in part because she has to spend more money on food. She said she may have to choose between settling in a refugee camp where life is cheaper or moving in with a brother who has to feed a family of his own.

Hussein, flanked by her children, said she would like her oldest daughter, 17-year-old Hamida, to get married and help ease the economic burden. Hamida said she’s too young and Hussein told Cousin she will respect her daughter’s wishes.

Cousin and her hosts sat on mattresses laid out on the floor in the small room. Other mattresses, for sleeping, were stacked in a corner.

At one point, the WFP chief asked to see the kitchen in a small adjacent room. Hussein opened the door to the refrigerator, which contained a few eggs, some rice and pita bread in the freezer.

In an earlier stop, Cousin met 13 boys between the ages of 11 and 18 at a youth center in the Mahata neighborhood of Amman. The group consisted largely of Syrian refugees, but also included a few Jordanians.

All were out of school. Some had to quit school to work and help their families.

Amer al-Farraj, 16, told Cousin he left school after his family’s food aid was reduced. He now works, delivering large water bottles to homes.

Two other boys said they help their fathers in construction jobs, including laying tiles. They said they need to work to help their families cover the rent.

Almost all said they would like to return to school.

Asked about their aspirations, one of the boys said that before being displaced, he dreamed of becoming an athlete. Another said he had wanted to be a lawyer. A third said he once dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot.

Cousin later said that the boys have been robbed of a future.

“Those boys, with their big dreams, none of them will be fulfilled because they live for today, and the today requires that they work,” she said. “The challenge is that, eventually, this crisis will end, and when it does, what happens to those boys, who today are working to help feed their families? They don’t have a tomorrow.”

The WFP chief, who heads to Lebanon and Yemen this week, said donors aren’t giving less than in the past, but that “the need is outpacing the traditional generosity” because of competing demands from humanitarian crises in the region and the world.

“We need those who have given to give more, we need those who have not given to invest in our work,” she said.

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