‘How do you survive?’ Khaled Hosseini on life for Syria's refugees

Khaled Hosseini, bestselling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, reports from a three-day visit to Jordan's refugee camps

This past weekend I took my 12-year-old daughter to see the movie ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. I paid nearly $60 for tickets, popcorn, sodas, and snacks. Had my wife and son joined us, it would have cost $120. So $120 for a couple of hours of 3D superhero mayhem. About the price of a pair of sneakers.

For a family of Syrian refugees in Jordan, that is the difference between having a home and living on the streets. It is the difference between your kids going to school and having to send them out to work. It’s the difference between just about coping and holding the family together, and having to resort to dangerous survival strategies like early marriage, prostitution, even - in extremis - returning to Syria.

Can we be surprised that the knock-on effect of such high-risk decisions sometimes leads to the even riskier choice that some Syrian families make, to undertake the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to seek safety in Europe?

Two days before I took my daughter to the movies, I sat with a Syrian refugee named Hassan, the 75-year-old patriarch of a family of 15. Two years ago, Hassan and his clan uncoiled themselves from their roots near Daara, Syria, and moved to the basement of a dilapidated building in the Jordanian city of Madaba.

Like 85 per cent of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Hassan’s family chose to live in an urban environment, a setting more familiar to them than the artificial setting of a camp, despite the services provided in camps and despite the fact that urban life for refugees can often prove an undignified, enormously daunting task.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that two-thirds of Syrian non-camp refugees live below Jordan’s poverty line; one out of six in abject poverty. Hassan, a spirited man with a creased but winsome face, told me his family savings have long evaporated. Like the overwhelming majority of Syrians in Jordan, he has no work permit and little income with which to pay rent, by far the biggest expense for refugees in Jordan.

“How do you survive?” I wondered aloud, and Hassan pointed to his young daughter-in-law, Fatima, a mother of eight children, whose husband - Hassan’s eldest son - was detained in Syria four years ago and has since disappeared without a trace.

Ironically, Fatima’s loss is also the family’s lifeline, because it has qualified her for UNHCR’s cash assistance programme, which targets the most vulnerable Syrian refugees living in Jordanian cities. Through this programme, she monthly receives 120 Jordanian Dinars (about $170) that the family uses to help pay rent, buy food and school supplies for Fatima’s children.

Fatima and her family are one of 21,000 Syrian families who would be likely homeless if not for this programme. The question of cash vs. in-kind donation is an old debate in the humanitarian world.

A donor’s impulse to send shoes or blankets is an understandable one, but the reality is all items are a representation of monetary value. Items have a price tag and they often get sold in order to serve a priority need.

Cash, I learned through speaking to Hassan and others, gives refugees freedom to make their own decisions to best meet their families’ specific needs. It is also a much speedier method of assistance - cash reaches the intended recipient in a matter of days, if not hours.

Research shows that refugees like Fatima use 98 per cent of cash assistance on basic needs, mostly on rent, but also food, health and children’s needs. Cash also helps the local economy, and enables refugees to better integrate into their host community. Since it is a less visible form of aid than in-kind assistance, there is less stigma attached to it – no long queues at public distribution centers, no vouchers in supermarkets. It can help lessen some of the tensions created by the enormous strain that has been put on the local economy, infrastructure, and society since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis.

I asked Hassan how his family would cope without the monthly cash assistance. He smiled, then sighed, as if from a deep well of weariness. “Well, God is here,” he said. That was answer enough for me.

About the writer

Khaled Hosseini is a bestselling author, former Afghan refugee and goodwill ambassador for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. For more info on UNHCR’s cash assistance programme, please click here

Photo credit: Jordi Matas/UNHCR