“We haven’t yet reached the stage where we’re unable to feed ourselves, but we can’t be far from it”
Life in Lebanon has never been kind to families like Fadia’s. While there were no luxuries, life was sustainable. “This year,” Fadia says, “we have no money to keep us going through the winter.”
Although with little to offer other than the warmth of her welcome, Fadia opens her home to us for the second time this year with a flurry of good wishes and an offer of tea. On this occasion, however, there’s no sugar – “Times are hard,” she says, “and we’re having to cut back wherever we can”. UNICEF is supporting Fadia’s children through our child grant programme Haddi.
Life in Lebanon has never been kind to families like Fadia’s. They live a meagre existence on the edge of a banana plantation in Ismaeie, a rural village outside the southern Lebanese city of Tyre. Her husband has spent his life as a fruit picker, moving from one field to the next as the seasons change and different fruits ripen. Typically, what he earns in summer and autumn provides enough to see the family through until springtime, when his annual schedule repeats. While there were no luxuries, life was sustainable.
“This year,” Fadia says, “we have no money to keep us going through the winter.”
Within the country’s ongoing economic crisis, price rises in Lebanon have rocketed beyond manageable levels for its citizens. Between June 2019 and June 2021, the inflation rate in Lebanon was 281 per cent, though prices of many basic food items have increased by five or six times and fuel by up to ten times.
When last we met, in April 2021, both of her sons, Hadi and Abdullah, had cut their school hours – at that time, online - and were working alongside their father, picking citrus fruits. With the season over and as the year draws to a close, no one is bringing an income home.
Back then, Fadia shared with us her fears for the family. At the time, she said, “My biggest worry is not being able to feed my family. I’ve never had this concern before now”.
Today’s family meal is a lentil soup with potato and tomato, and yesterday’s was cucumbers with potato and tomato. With prices rising, affordable options are increasingly limited, mealtimes are unhealthily repetitive and once regularly consumed foods, including meat and a wider variety of vegetables, have become a distant memory for this family of four. Increasingly, their daily fare is likely to be simply bread and zaatar – a Levantine staple for centuries, but never before eaten by so many families as the only meal of the day.
“We haven’t yet reached the stage where we’re unable to feed ourselves”
“We haven’t yet reached the stage where we’re unable to feed ourselves,” she reflects, “but we can’t be far from it.”
As the amount of cash they have has reduced, so have their nutrition and defences against vulnerability in other critical areas of life. As the autumn wind blows around us, it rattles the roof and delivers a reminder of the long winter ahead.
Ten months ago, a storm ripped the roof off their home. Although father and sons did their best to restore it, whenever rain falls, water floods the single room they all share. “It won’t survive another battering,” Fadia insists.
Currently, the family’s only financial support is provided through UNICEF’s ‘Haddi’ (meaning ‘next to me’) child grant. Under ‘Haddi’, families with one registered child receive a child grant of US$40 per month, those with two children, US$60, and households with three or more registered children, US$80. For this family, it is their survival lifeline. Receiving the grant in US dollars, instead of in the devaluing local currency, is vital.
A UNICEF survey of Haddi recipients revealed that their level of vulnerability is such that the economic crisis is taking a severe toll, with almost all households having to cut spending on children, over 90% cutting food intake, and three-quarters postponing health visits. Worryingly, almost a third of households reported having had to send a child out to work. Haddi is providing an immediate response to children’s various needs.
Vulnerable children are identified through UNICEF partners as needing high-priority complementary services, such as education for children excluded from schooling, child protection for children at risk of child labour, or nutrition support for undernourished children.
With prices continuing to rise, this cash support barely keeps them fed, and there are limited opportunities to set any aside for future costs. The family has barely more clothes than those they stand up in and would find it equally challenging to cover medical expenses should father or sons fall ill. Fadia claps her hands together, looks skywards, and says, “We’re blessed with good health, for now”.
Currently, and to Fadia’s great relief, the family remains debt-free. She knows how easy it is to get into debt; and is equally aware of how hard it would be to extract herself. Fadia will continue to focus on staying debt-free. Even so, with a bleak winter ahead, this mother’s stoicism may be put to the test.
Fifteen-year-old Hadi is at school when we visit. It’s only his fifth day back after a break of over a year, and he’s happy to be there. Fadia notes that her son continues to wear his only pair of trousers and shoes to school every day. She knows she needs put a little cash aside every month to save for new clothes for her rapidly growing son, and tightly rations expenditure in every area of life to manage this.
Meanwhile, his brother, Abdullah, two years Hadi’s senior, sleeps curled up on a thin mat on the concrete floor of their home. Shaking her head, Fadia says, “He refused to go back to school. He felt he’d missed so much time and would never catch up. He knows there’s no work for the youth anyway. My son is only seventeen and has already lost hope”.
As she bids us a surprisingly ebullient farewell, Fadia invites us to return soon.
For now, through the ‘Haddi’ programme, her family continues to be supported, and UNICEF implementing partner Terre De Hommes Lausanne will work with Abdullah to introduce him to a vocational training programme that will deliver skills that may facilitate his entry to the labour market.
Yet, despite this continued support, it feels likely that it may be more than mere sugar that Fadia cannot offer us next time.
Learn more on UNICEF’s response to the multiple crises hitting Lebanon https://uni.cf/3oxX52P