Iraqis in Syria face food shortages

DAMASCUS, Syria — Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria face a bleak winter, with rising fuel costs that could leave many without enough money for food, the director of the World Food Program said Monday.

About a third of Iraqi respondents in a recent United Nations study said they skipped one meal a day to feed their children. Nearly 60 percent said that they're buying cheaper, less nutritious food to cope with a dramatic increase in prices.

With the weather turning colder and heating prices rising, humanitarian workers predict more Iraqis will go hungry in order to keep up with rent and utilities.

"We need more help here," WFP executive director Josette Sheeran said in an interview.

The WFP, a U.N. agency that is the world's largest humanitarian organization, provides food to about 50,000 Iraqi families who've sought refuge in Syria. Sheeran said that her organization doesn't have the funds to maintain its $5.6 million operation and that she soon will call for more international assistance.

"It's important the people of Syria see that the burden is being shared," she said.

An estimated 1.4 million Iraqis have fled their homes for Syria, and while a few have returned to Iraq, most are expected to stay for the foreseeable future. Nearly half of them need urgent food assistance, according to the U.N. survey.

Close cultural and religious ties between Iraqis and Syrians has meant a smoother transition for many of the displaced families, but that closeness also makes it hard for humanitarian workers to find at-risk cases or bring international attention to the crisis, Sheeran said. Unlike other refugee communities, there are no Iraqi refugee camps.

"There's no picture of refugees gathering in one spot to wait for food," Sheeran said. "The fact that they are diffused throughout the community is a best-case scenario for refugees, but makes it challenging to express the urgency of the situation."

The WFP distributes food baskets to the families monthly. The baskets contain rice, lentils, sugar, cooking oil and other staples. Iraqi refugees interviewed this week said they struggle to make the supplies last for a month, especially in households with several children.

In order to survive, Iraqis often withdraw their children from school, move into cramped quarters to split the rent with other families and rely on sympathetic Syrian neighbors who drop by with meals and clothing.

"It's worse than the embargo days in Iraq. We buy just enough meat to flavor the food — we buy it with pennies," said Umm Basma Abdel Wahab, 56, a mother of two who didn't want to disclose her full name because of threats against relatives still in Iraq. "I can't even buy a kilo of sweets for the Eid holiday."

Sawsan Hussein, 37, is a divorced Iraqi who's supporting her teenage daughter. They came to Syria a year ago and receive the WFP food baskets. The handouts help, she said, but it's never enough. The canned tomatoes last for only a couple of stews, and Hussein said she always runs out of lentils and rice by the end of the month.

Hussein and her daughter live in a heavily Palestinian district, where neighbors have given her blankets, heaters and mattresses to get her through the winter. Many Syrians empathize with the refugees, she said, but they face their own hardships.

"Some people help, but only in a few cases," Hussein said. "The economic conditions in Syria are so bad."

(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)