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Q+A: Inside the Aid Efforts of Syria’s Food Distribution Program

From Damascus, Abeer Etefa of the World Food Programme details the mechanics of food aid in Syria, from its arrival in the port of Tartous to its storage in one of five WFP centers across the country.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The World Food Programme has established food distribution centers across Syria, serving internally displaced civilians (IDPs). The distributed food boxes contain basic staples like sugar and wheat, which have become prohibitively expensive for Syrians who have lost their jobs or seen their wages scaled back by the war economy.

Abeer Etefa, regional communications manager for the WFP, is in Damascus, where she has been collecting data on the changing needs of IDPs and how her organization and others can meet their requirements. Here, she details the food distribution system in the capital, and what a day is like at one of the centers.

Syria Deeply: What are you seeing around you right now?

Abeer Etefa: In the center of the city, it looks like life is going back to normal. Even on Saturday, going back to Hamadiye, to the markets, it was so busy. But once you leave the center of the city and get into these neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus, you see the real suffering. It’s a surreal experience. A couple of areas are OK. Same for Homs, all the governorates are like this – a couple areas are calm, and outside it’s tense. But in general things are calming down a little bit here. I’m not hearing the shelling that I used to hear during previous visits. This time I’m able to examine what the situation is like, what the humanitarian needs are.

SD: What is the scene like at the centers? Who are they serving?

AE: I’ve been to a number of food distribution areas that have been receiving a lot of the IDPs. You see a lot of very old people, women, children. You’re seeing the displaced families, who are now living in something that used to be a beautiful apartment but is now home to 10 families.

We don’t distribute baby formula, but many women will come and ask if we have that, or if we have diapers, because they can’t afford to buy them. They say they have been displaced four or five times and that things are getting very difficult for them and their families, that their homes are gone, that they have very little to live off. They say things are becoming very expensive, and that the increasingly high prices of food and basic commodities make it hard to support their families. All of WFP’s beneficiaries are displaced and are now living with relatives or neighbors, or they’re renting apartments that are not their own.

SD: What are the mechanics of the aid system in Syria?

AE: I was able to go to one of our warehouses. A lot of work goes into the operation. We have had 300,000 metric tons of food delivered into Syria. That’s the size of 60 football stadiums. The food comes from Lebanon or the port of Tartous, and then transported to four WFP warehouses, where it all gets repackaged and put in boxes. One box is enough to feed one family of five for one month. It’s the basic food commodities: rice, bulgur, vegetable oil, sugar, wheat flour and canned foods.

It’s a huge machine of sorts inside the warehouses, and it’s all Syrian staff. It’s very intense labor. We have two warehouses in Damascus; one in Safita, which is in Tartous; and one in Latakia. We have a fifth one in Qamishli, which is used when we have [access to] airlifts, but we usually don’t have enough food in this warehouse because the roads into the northern governorates are difficult to navigate.

SD: Where are the IDPs coming from right now?

AE: In Homs, we’re seeing more people who have fled the Old City, and in Damascus we see people from Ghouta, from Moadimiya – the hotspot areas. It looks like things have opened a bit [because of cease-fires], and people are now able to leave these areas, so we’re seeing more displacement. The ability of people to live off what they have has been stretched to the max, and people are having a hard time supporting themselves. They are saying the food aid is hardly enough to feed their families, but what can we do?

SD: What kinds of people collect aid?

AE: I went to a makeshift shelter in a suburb of Damascus, and I saw people who had fled Yarmouk camp and were just living in the street. But they all said, “This is our country, and we love our country, and why would we live anywhere else?”

I met a man who had been displaced from Aleppo. Now he’s got his family and extended family, children and grandchildren – a total of 64 people living in one apartment in one suburb of Damascus. He’s really old and rode his bike to the food distribution center, trying to carry what he could, because the children were all off looking for jobs, trying to earn a day’s living. He sad, “I did not imagine that I would live my last days in displacement and away from my home.” The main thing they all say is that they want to go home.

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