Last March, as Jordan entered its first COVID-19 lockdown, Syrian refugee Tahani found herself in a precarious situation. All of her cleaning work disappeared almost overnight, and the fragile financial security she had worked so long to establish began to erode.

“I had no job,” she says, from her home in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid. “People were nervous to let me come and clean their houses. I didn’t know what to do.”

Like many refugees, Tahani had no savings or safety net to cushion a change of circumstance, and she and her family started to accumulate debt. Sadly, she wasn’t alone.

Since the start of the pandemic, close to 1 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and the Kurdish region of Iraq have been pushed below the poverty line, according to a World Bank-UNHCR report published at the end of last year. Most Syrian refugees already lived in poverty; the pandemic made their lives even harder.

“The COVID-19 crisis has taken a huge toll on people’s wellbeing and their prospects for the future,” says Ayman Gharaibeh, Director of UNHCR’s Bureau for the Middle East and North Africa.

Syrian refugee, Tahani, 26, is photographed at home with her niece and mother in Irbid, Jordan.

Syrian refugee, Tahani, 26, at home with her mother and niece in Irbid, Jordan © UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

“People are cutting down on meals and taking on unsustainable debt, while we also hear about rising child labour. We need to help the most vulnerable to mitigate the devastating consequences.”

In these difficult circumstances, UNHCR’s well-established cash assistance programme has proved a lifeline for refugees. Delivered via specially adapted ATMs, direct cash assistance enables refugees to manage their own household budgets and buy what they need for their families, rather than relying on traditional forms of aid.

“We have seen in many areas, both in camps and urban areas, that the aid provided is not always what is needed,” says Carolyn Ennis, Deputy Representative to UNHCR in Jordan. “Often refugees will sell unwanted items they have been given, in order to obtain what they really need.”

Syrian refugee, Tahani, 26, toasts nuts in Irbid, Jordan.

Tahani, 26, toasts nuts in Irbid, Jordan © UNHCR/Lilly Carlisle

With a registration and cash assistance system already in place, UNHCR was able to quickly scale up its COVID-19 response. Since May, $33.4 million in emergency assistance has been distributed to approximately 51,000 refugee families.

Tahani and her family were among the first group of refugees in Jordan to receive emergency funds. “The cash assistance wasn’t enough for us to realise all our dreams, but it was enough,” she says. “It helped me to repay some debts and gave me peace of mind to keep going.”

Ever since she arrived in Jordan nine years ago from the city of Dara’a, in southern Syria, Tahani has worked hard for her family – doing everything from cleaning to hair and beauty. “It’s not stable, but work is work; we try to survive as best we can,” she says.

In Jordan, it’s difficult for refugee women to find legitimate employment. Of the 150,000 work permits issued to Syrian refugees in Jordan, only four per cent go to women.

During lockdown, Tahani enrolled in a two-month job-training programme facilitated by UNHCR and local partner Jordan River Foundation. The course led to employment at a local restaurant that makes mansaf, Jordan’s celebratory national dish of slow-cooked lamb with rice and yoghurt.

Tahani’s hours vary, due to the continuing uncertainty and restrictions. “Weddings have been cancelled so no-one is ordering as much mansaf, and, because of the lockdowns, sometimes my salary is less because I am not able to work on those days,” she says.

But thanks to the cash assistance she has received, Tahani and her family have managed to keep paying the rent on their cramped apartment, and she remains hopeful that a brighter future lies ahead.

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