Khaled Abdel-Qader limps as he ascends the flight of stairs, his smile concealing the grit with which he has endured over two decades away from home. The Iraqi refugee from Kirkuk picked up the wound during his country’s eight-year war with Iran, leaving him permanently disabled.
He fled with his family in 1991, shortly after the Gulf War, to Jordan, and from there to Syria. Last year, they fled one last time, from Aleppo to Lebanon. Three of his five children are in college, and his wife, Zainab Khammas, is struggling to make ends meet, taking odd jobs at homes in Beirut.
Lately, she hasn’t even been able to find jobs washing dishes. “It’s hard for me to ask for something,” Khammas said. “I work and clean and help and come back happy – work is not shameful – but there is no work now.”
Money is hard to come by for the family to pay for college. Their spartan home is lightly furnished with pillows on the floor along with a small carpet, and a Spiderman towel hangs from one of the doors. The rent and utilities, medical bills and college fees are a challenge.
The family receives some aid from a church in Fanar as well as food and financial assistance from Caritas, an international NGO. They have spent most of their savings on their children’s education. The family eats one meal a day, and they try to do it together.
They economize, often cooking inexpensive meals such as mujaddara. Chicken and meat are extremely rare. “We try and smile and joke and say that God is generous,” Khammas said. More than 11 years after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqi refugees are the second-largest community of displaced people in Lebanon that are registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, after Syrians.
The figures don’t include Palestinians, who are under the mandate of another U.N. agency, UNRWA. Civil conflict at home makes it unlikely that any will return soon. Worse yet, new research into food insecurity among Iraqi refugees in Lebanon highlights alarming rates of poor nutrition.
A survey led by Hala Ghattas of the department of nutrition and food sciences at the American University of Beirut and published in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that over 40 percent of Iraqi refugee children under the age of 5 have anemia, an iron deficiency that could have major health consequences later.
The survey of 800 UNHCR-registered households found “alarmingly high” rates of food insecurity and poor nutritional diversity among them, particularly in families with children. The study said that poor income and job opportunities exacerbated the challenges facing Iraqi refugees.
“High food insecurity, low diet quality and high prevalence of anemia in Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon call for urgent programs to address the food and health situation of this population with restricted rights,” the authors said.
Carol El Sayed, head of the community development unit at UNHCR, said there were 6,380 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon as of the end of April. Almost 1,000 of those are between 15 and 24 years old, and 10 percent are under 5, the population with high levels of anemia.
Sayed said the number of Iraqi families, a little over 3,000, had been relatively stable for the past few years. They are scattered around Lebanon, but concentrated in the northern and southern suburbs of Beirut. She said many could not find work sponsors and so were often either unemployed or underemployed.
They also face competition from Lebanon’s large skilled workforce. UNHCR itself provides the poorest Iraqi refugees with financial assistance, as well as food coupons. Sayed said the adults in the AUB survey likely had poor nutrition for a variety of reasons, including limited family ties, as some had fled to Lebanon on their own.
Since many work long hours, they don’t have the luxury to eat well-balanced, home-cooked food. Instead, they often skip meals or resort to less nutritious options. In addition, refugees have to contend with rising rents and expensive health care costs, and much of their income goes to those expenses.
“Because of all the expenses the families face, they have to prioritize somewhere,” she said. However, Sayed said that the preliminary results of the survey had prompted the UNHCR to provide Iraqi children under 5 with cereals fortified with iron.
Other NGOs that work with the UNHCR are also carrying out awareness programs on the importance of a more varied diet. Sayed said that the large influx of Syrian refugees had also impacted the Iraqi refugee population.
Services such as education and health care have become overburdened, leading to an overall decrease in non-Syria refugee funding. But the challenge now is to provide Iraqis with more durable, long-term solutions.
With instability persisting in Baghdad 10 years after the American invasion, it is unlikely that many will return home any time soon. Subsequently, the Iraqi refugee population needs more “durable” solutions, Sayed said.
By Kareem Shaheen
By Kareem Shaheen