UN refugee cash card scheme boosts Lebanese grocers


A Syrian refugee presents his World Food Programme electronic card to a shop vendor at a shop, which accepts the UN's WFP cards, in Beirut on June 14th. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

A Syrian refugee presents his World Food Programme electronic card to a shop vendor at a shop, which accepts the UN's WFP cards, in Beirut on June 14th. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

In three years, Lebanese grocer Ali Khiami hired six staff, invested in property and funded his children's university education. Business is booming -- thanks to Syrian refugees using UN debit cards.

Displaced Syrian families in Lebanon are using electronic cards, topped up each month by the UN's World Food Programme with $27 per person, for their grocery shopping.

The WFP scheme has both helped refugees and delivered a windfall to cash-strapped Lebanese shop owners.

"This programme changed my life. I bought an apartment in Beirut and I paid for my three children's college degrees," said Khiami.

Since registering with the WFP, he has seen his personal income skyrocket from $2,000 per month to $10,000, allowing him to pay off a long-standing debt.

"I used to sell goods worth about 50 million Lebanese pounds (around $33,000) per year. Today, my turnover reaches 300 million pounds," said Khiami.

A small blue sticker in the window of his cosy store in southern Beirut identifies it as one of the 500 shops taking part in the WFP scheme.

Lebanon, a country of just four million people, hosts more than one million refugees who fled the conflict that has ravaged neighbouring Syria since 2011.

The influx has put added strain on Lebanon's already frail water, electricity and school networks.

The World Bank says the Syrian crisis has pushed an estimated 200,000 Lebanese into poverty, adding to the nation's one million poor.

Changing perceptions

With 700,000 Syrian refugees benefitting from the programme, the debit cards are offsetting at least some of that economic pressure.

When they buy from Lebanese shops, the country's "economy is also benefitting from WFP's programme, not just Syrian refugees", WFP spokesman Edward Johnson told AFP.

The UN agency says Syrian refugees have spent $900 million at partner shops in Lebanon since the programme was launched in 2013.

It selects stores based on their proximity to gatherings of Syrian refugees in camps or cities, as well as cleanliness, prices and availability of goods.

Umm Imad, a Syrian customer at Khiami's store, said shopping with the card makes her feel much more "independent" than with the WFP's previous food stamp programme.

"Now I can buy what I need at home," she said.

The scheme has also changed perceptions.

Instead of seeing refugees as a burden, shopkeepers like Khiami see them as potential customers to be won over.

He has begun stocking items favoured by his Syrian customers, such as clarified butter, halawa -- sweets made of sesame, almonds, and honey -- and plenty of tea, "which Syrians love".

"Syrian customers have bigger families, so they buy more than Lebanese customers," he said.

'We sell more'

Ali Sadek Hamzeh, 26, owns several WFP-partnered shops near Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where dozens of informal refugee camps have sprung up on farmland.

"In eight months, I rented three new locations to stock merchandise and opened up a new fruit and vegetable store," Hamzeh told AFP.

He said Syrian refugees make up around 60% of his customers, but he has also attracted new Lebanese clients with his lower prices.

But for some shop owners, partnering with the WFP has had a downside.

Omar al-Sheikh manages a shop in Nuwayri, a district of western Beirut.

Since he registered his store with WFP in 2013, his monthly profits have nearly doubled from $5,000 to $8,000 -- but at a price.

"My profits went up, but I have lost about 20% of my Lebanese customer base. Lebanese customers do not like it when it is busy," he said.

But Sheikh said he would continue to serve his Syrian customers.

"These are human beings. Their country is at war and we should help them."

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18 Comment(s)

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I've had the red card for 6 months, but I haven't seen anything so far. Where is justice?! They can only beg from donors for us!


I have been out of work for four years. I've been registered with the UN for four years. They say they know their job; they're employing [gibberish] who only care about their family members in the area. I have two young children and they didn't want to register them in the UN because they aren't good people.


I'm a Syrian refugee from Homs. I suffer from [gibberish] in my [gibberish] and a broken pelvis. I have had two abdomen surgeries, and I have impaired hearing and eye-sight. I have medical reports that have been submitted to the Commission. I have three daughters, the oldest is 3 years old. I've been registered for four years, but so far I haven't received the food card or assistance from the UN. I hope to receive it because I need it. God willing, you'll help me get the card.


Hello. Thanks to all those who have supported and helped the refugees! However, I don't the standard under which they work. There are so many people who need help, but no food programs have helped them. There are also many who don't need anything but take assistance. Please check more for those who need. Thanks.


I haven't received anything in four years.


We've been deprived of this and not receiving anything for two years. When we talk to anyone, they say that there are people who deserve more. I've been without work or money for 5 months. We're now indebted, and nobody is doing anything to help us.


I like this very much. However, there are many Syrian families who can't find any source of livelihood and who haven't received the food card. I'm one of those people who urgently need help. We hope that the UN commission will reconsider those who deserve to receive this card. Thanks a lot!


Peace be upon you, o, Sheikh! I haven't benefited from anything for four years. I have two children, and I swear I can't afford the rent.


Peace be upon you! I've been here for three years, and they haven't registered me in the UN under the pretext that there is no registration by the state.


I'm Syrian. I have seven children and a wife. Please help me.


I'm a Syrian-Kurdish refugee in Lebanon where I have been here for four years. I've been registered for two years, but they never asked about me. I don't want assistance; I just want to travel from Lebanon. I have a brother and a sister in Sweden, and I just want to go to them. That's all I want.


We thank brother Omar al-Sheikh because he is very good with the people.


I've had the red card for 5 months. They would contact me and ask why I didn't withdraw food assistance. When I go to the store, I find nothing on the card. I've found that they're all thieves


I swear by God that I need assistance more than anyone else. I have four orphan children, and I don't have anyone to help me. I'm not getting any assistance from the food programme. I owe more than 1.5 million to the [gibberish] stores (C1117914).


I've been dismissed by the UN and I'm not receiving anything. I have five young children -- the oldest is 8 and the youngest is 1. How can they dismiss me? This is not fair.


Peace be upon you! I haven't received anything in four years. Thank God.


I'm Syrian. I have a red card, but I haven't received any rice. Where is justice?! The UN are liars and thieves.


Yes, there are people who benefit from this programme. There are others who haven’t benefited and haven't received the assistance.