Even after 13 years with UNHCR, associate cash-based intervention officer Rasha Batarseh is still moved by the incredible hardships some families face.
“Recently, I met a grandmother, Amira*, who was caring for her son-in-law and his three young children,” she says over the phone from Amman. “Amira’s daughter had died in front of her children in an explosion in Syria, and one of them was clearly psychologically traumatised.”
Struggling to cope, the family had fled to Jordan to live with Amira. To compound their difficulties, the son-in-law had kidney failure, which meant he needed weekly dialysis.
Without basic needs assistance, there would have been no way for the family to cover their costs. COVID-19 lockdowns have led to even higher levels of unemployment.
Fortunately, Amira was able to access UNHCR’s cash assistance program, a monthly cash payment that helps cover her rent and other essential bills.
For Rasha, knowing that she’s helping vulnerable families is what keeps her going. Once a family has been assessed as eligible, they receive monthly payments for as long as they need provided that funding is available.
“The smile on the faces of families who receive assistance- it’s priceless, indescribable,” she says. “It’s what keeps you going."
Since joining UNHCR in 2007, Rasha has worked with the organisation’s cash-based intervention unit, which manages assessment and eligibility for the cash assistance program. She also manages UNHCR’s helpline for refugees in Jordan, which has received a spike in calls due to the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on already vulnerable families.
“During March, April and May, Jordan went into lockdown, which affected everyone’s jobs — and families that might have been just managing, with a family member working, suddenly found themselves struggling,” she says. “Many couldn’t pay their rent, and landlords were putting pressure on them to pay or leave.”
Today in Jordan, 30,000 Syrian refugees and 3,000 refugees of other nationalities receive financial support from UNHCR. Another 8,000 refugee families are on the waiting list, as funds just aren’t available for them; some can spend many months without assistance. “They try to support themselves by securing whatever work they can, but the challenge for the majority of families is that there is no-one within the family who is able to work,” Rasha says. “At the moment we’re waiting for confirmation of funds to make an extra winter payment. It’s extremely stressful.”
Sadly, the cash assistance program isn’t a cure-all; in fact, in UNHCR’s most recent monitoring survey, beneficiaries revealed the assistance wasn’t enough to pay most families’ rent. More than 80 per cent of Syrian refugees live in urban areas in Jordan, which is an expensive country, Rasha says. “But cash assistance relieves the pressure of being evicted and the regular payments give them the ability to plan their expenses.”
Most refugees’ finances are carefully calibrated. Rasha remembers meeting one refugee woman who was living with her three children in a rooftop room. The family’s circumstances were chaotic: her husband suffered a psychological illness and spent his days roaming the streets.
“She was in such a challenging situation, but she was an excellent household manager,” Rasha says. “She could tell me the exact price of everything she needed, from food to detergent, and when she would need to buy it. Everything was accounted for, but without the cash assistance she would certainly be on the streets.”
In Jordan, Rasha and her team are trialling new ways to deliver this essential financial support. Normally, refugees need to go to a bank that has special iris-scanning ATMs to receive their funds. “This can be crowded and difficult for women with children,” Rasha says. “It also means you have to withdraw all your money at once.”
Instead, more than 800 refugees currently on a pilot scheme have been able to access their funds using a mobile wallet on their phone; once a month, they’re required to visit an agent who scans their irises as a security and anti-fraud measure.
“The results are positive so far, so we’ll start to use mobile wallets as a payment modality,” Rasha says. “It means recipients have the choice to get cash out or use their phones to pay for items as they need them.”
For Rasha, this is another way to restore dignity and agency to refugees, most of whom lived independent and successful lives before the war. “Cash assistance means refugees can shop in their local neighbourhood, which reduces any tensions with Jordanian citizens,” she says. “They don’t have to beg for food and it gives them the choice and dignity to prioritise what they need.”
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