Close to three months after relief agencies operating in Lebanon introduced a common card designed to help Syrian refugees access humanitarian aid, many have yet to receive them, families in Bekaa Valley camps tell Al-Mashareq.
The joint debit card consolidates the efforts of the World Food Programme (WFP), UN children’s fund (UNICEF), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Lebanon Cash Consortium.
The common card, which replaces the multiple cards in use, is intended to help the most vulnerable people benefit from a range of humanitarian programmes, including access to special winter aid between November and March .
But halfway through the winter, some families say, the card has not arrived.
Participating agencies are still distributing the cards, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assistant public information officer Lisa Abu Khaled told Al-Mashareq, though the assistance provided is still available without them.
Among those who have yet to receive the card is Aisha Othman, who lives with her seven children, her husband and his parents in Bar Elias refugee camp in the western Bekaa Valley.
"Many families in the camp have received their card and begun using them about two months ago, while I still collect my winter aid with the white card and food aid with the blue card," she told Al-Mashareq.
"I have yet to receive a call or letter to inform me to pick up my [common] card," she said.
Meanwhile, Othman's neighbour, Fattoun Mohammed Ibrahim, told Al-Mashareq she received her new debit card last month.
"I picked up my joint card in December after receiving a text message informing me that I needed to head to the UNHCR centre to receive it," she said. "However, I could only collect food aid, and I await the activation of the winter aid to obtain fuel oil for heating for my four children and my mother."
Text messages and messengers
The UNHCR "informs us via text messages of everything new related to the aid and the cards, and when a delivery date is identified we head to its centre in the city of Zahle for pickup", Ibrahim said.
The agency also has a hotline refugees can call if they have questions about anything, she said, and makes use of "runners" inside the camp.
"If they are unable to communicate with us via mobile phone due to the occasional poor quality of the network, they send us word with Syrian youth volunteers working with the UNHCR inside the camp," she said.
These young volunteers serve as a liaison between the refugees and the UNHCR, relaying refugees requests and concerns and keeping them updated on all developments, including those related to aid, she added.
The UN refugee agency uses text messages and Syrian youth volunteers to communicate with registered refugees, "wherever they are in Lebanon, be it at the camps, shelters or their own residences", Abu Khaled said.
These volunteers live among the refugee population and are in daily contact with them, she said, noting that the agency has volunteers at every refugee camp.
The agency communicates with these volunteers via a commonly used cell phone app, she said, sending them messages that they in turn relay to the recipients, particularly those who do not have cell phones.
These include information about available aid, how to obtain the common card and other matters, she added.
"All beneficiaries of aid agency services have fixed addresses, including the place of residence and phone number, and [agencies] are informed of their new place of residence if it changes," Abu Khaled said. "Those who do not have a phone number are communicated with via the volunteers."
The UNHCR has fixed centres in all Lebanese provinces which are hosting Syrian refugees, she said, "and their doors are open to the displaced to inquire about anything they want to know".
"There is a special section for inquiries at each centre and a team of staffers to answer their questions and respond to their needs," she added.
Not everyone receives the same aid
The new card combines all the aid provided by aid agencies to the more than one million Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR, Abu Khaled said.
But not all refugees receive the same types of aid, which is allotted to them based on their social and financial situations as ascertained by field studies of their status conducted by the UNHCR, she explained.
The new card combines "$27 in food aid per person per month, and $147 in winter aid per family per month for a period of five months [November through March], and monthly aid for neediest families of $175", she said.
"The cash aid programme for education provided by UNICEF was added to the card, at $40 per student per month, as well as a programme dedicated to helping displaced families in emergency situations, such as illness or death, wherein cash aid of $250 per month is allocated for a period ranging from three months to a year," she said.
However, this cash aid is not provided to all refugees, she noted, as the monthly aid of $175 is allocated only to the neediest people, who receive additional winter aid ($75 per month) from November through March.
"The monthly aid covers 22% of the refugees registered with UNHCR," she said.
Refugees who do not receive monthly aid "receive winter aid of $147 per family for a period of five months, in addition to monthly food aid of $27 per person as well as education aid", Abu Khaled added.
"Every displaced person receives through the joint the aid allotted to him based on criteria and studies arrived at by relief organisations after assessing the status of the refugees," she said.
Aid available without new card
"The cards have been distributed to 840,000 refugees to date and we continue to distribute them to the remaining refugees registered with us", Abu Khaled said, adding that reaching the neediest people has been a priority.
"Not all of them came to us when we announced the distribution, but the majority has received them," she said.
Those who have yet to receive them can still receive the aid allotted to them with the cards they have until receiving the single card, she added.
The single card combines all the aid allocated and is easier to use than multiple cards, she said, noting that the level of aid itself remains unchanged.
"Despite our modest budget, we seek to provide aid to the largest number of refuges registered with us," she said.