Visiting a Syrian family, the food is endless. Stuffed peppers and hummus drizzled with olive oil are followed by plates laden down with roast lamb and rice, and delicious sweets like halawat al jibin, rice pudding or baklawa. Syrian culture is all about hospitality and family. A mom and her kids might sit around the table together rolling tangy yabra (grape leaves), talking and laughing.
I once had the best chocolate eclair ever, found in a back corner of the Damascus suk, under the bullet-pierced tin roof, another legacy of the French. I sipped thick, sludgy Arabic coffee in a roadside cafe overlooking the city, while a family picniced on a rock outcropping below.
As a guest, you would never leave a Syrian table hungry, and this spirit of hospitality pervades the country’s history. Prior to the current crisis, Syria had welcomed tens of thousands of Palestinian, Armenian, and Iraqi refugees and was one of the largest recipients of displaced persons in the region.
That’s all changed now.
The conflict has decimated Syria’s means of food production and the sharp and continuous devaluation of the Syrian pound puts purchasing food out of reach for many who were formerly self-sufficient.
Nearly 13 million people inside Syria and refugees in bordering countries rely on food assistance for sustenance. The World Food Program (WFP) needs $35 million each week to deliver its food assistance of basics such as lentils, flour, cooking oil, and rice. Kebab and fresh vegetables are a distant memory for many of Syria’s displaced. Funding shortages have forced the WFP to reduce portion sizes – in November to as few as 825 calories per person per day and in December to suspend food aid altogether to 1.7 million in need.
These food shortages are leaving some families in the heart-wrenching position of having to marry off their young daughters in hopes that older husbands can provide for them and reduce the burden on the family.
The World Food Program conducted a 72-hour campaign this week featuring the hashtag #ADollarALifeline and the inspiring Aloe Blacc song “I Need A Dollar.” The campaign was considered a great success and it raised enough money to resume assistance for December and part of January — but it’s still not enough.
Yesterday, an elderly man in the elevator at my office was holding a package of “French and Middle Eastern Pastries.” Recounting the story of the eclair to him, he said, “Yes, I grew up in Damascus! I remember the best ice cream too. It’s all gone now.”
Many organizations are working to relieve hunger in Syria and provide long-lasting, sustainable solutions to ensure healthy diets and full bellies. Read more about the challenges Syrians face and discover some of the innovative nutrition, agriculture and food assistance projects designed to support them by following @just_825 on Twitter and visiting www.just825.org.
No one can thrive on just 825 calories a day. But together we can help.
Karen Hansen is the Membership and Programs Manager for Radio Television Digital News Association and Operations Director for the Washington, DC Younger Women’s Task Force.
Christy Delafield is the former Liaison for Humanitarian Aid of the Syrian Coalition.
Read the whole Perspectives on Syria series here!