Ahmad al-Mostafa cannot afford to buy milk for his little girl. A Syrian refugee, he has barely been able to feed his family since Lebanon sank into the economic crisis last year. But now, a coronavirus lockup has made matters worse.
“No one will hire us anymore,” said the 28-year-old, who lost his job at the restaurant a few months ago. He accumulated hundreds of dollars in debt at the local supermarket to get food before the owner said he could no longer borrow.
“We are afraid of tomorrow,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”
His fate echoes that faced by many of the 5.6 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, who had eaten up their meager daily wages, but now find that they have been denied it because of the coronavirus pandemic forces their host countries to close their doors.
Many Lebanese have themselves been hit by a financial crisis that has caused jobs to disappear and prices have skyrocketed, and have become less tolerant of Syrians who have increased the population from around 1.5 million to around 6 million.
“They don’t hire Syrians”
“Whenever I go looking for a job, they tell me they don’t hire Syrians,” said Mostafa, who fled to northern Lebanon in 2014. “I’m sitting at the ‘interior – and everything is expensive “.
He can no longer afford diapers, the price of which has doubled, and he has a charitable neighbor who gets milk for his one-year-old daughter.
More refugees say they are concerned about hunger than the virus, said Mireille Girard, representative of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR in Lebanon.
In a survey last month, UNHCR found that 70% of them were hungry, while many could not buy soap. Since the war in Syria broke out nine years ago, many have languished in overcrowded camps where aid workers fear that a COVID-19 epidemic will be swift and fatal.
“Not a single penny”
In Jordan, the Zaatari camp, which houses 80,000 Syrian refugees, was closed by the authorities during a two-month ban, which means that those who went to work on farms daily can no longer do so.
Jordan hosts a total of some 900,000 refugees, most of whom live outside the camps.
Abdullah Aba Zaid, who used to work to pick tomatoes, has had no income for two months.
“In the past 10 days, I haven’t even had a single cent in the house to pay for bread. I borrow here and there,” he said. “Everyone is waiting for God’s mercy … hoping things will get better.”
But even if companies resume work after the government eased restrictions this week, job losses are increasing, making more Syrians dependent on aid efforts already strained.
UNHCR is receiving more and more calls for help from largely independent refugee families, said Dominik Bartsch, its representative in Jordan.
Some Syrians said their accumulated debts forced them to sell United Nations food stamps to pay for rent and basic necessities.
“Everyone is hungry”
Since the Turkish economy fell into a brief recession two years ago, public sentiment towards the Syrians has deteriorated, with some claiming that they have lowered wages and taken jobs from locals.
Many of the three and a half million Syrian refugees work as day laborers in construction and manufacturing, particularly in textile factories – sectors which have been hit hard by the reduction of the pandemic.
Unlike millions of Turkish workers who have lost their wages, Syrians do not receive public aid but can request food aid from local municipalities. Yet many have no basic protection against the virus.
One in five does not have access to clean water, said Omar Kadkoy of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV). “This is taking the problem to an alarming level and the government should act to contain it.”
In a camp in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, which the authorities sealed off during the lockout, Younes Hamdou cannot find bread. Drinking water is also scarce, the disease is rife and social distancing is almost impossible.
“We are prisoners … We have no immunity due to the lack of food,” he said. “The Lebanese are hungry, the Syrians are hungry. Everyone is hungry. ”