UK-based Muslims trying to help families in crisis-hit homelands

With food prices soaring in many countries, Eid gifts are often more a necessity than a celebration this year

A Turkish Red Crescent employee delivers a box with aid to a displaced Syrian woman at Taybe camp in Sarmada district, near Idlib, north-west Syria. EPA
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Ramadan is centred on charity. Fasting from food and drink during daylight hours is a spiritual act of compassion with the poor and hungry.

During the holy month, Muslims around the world are encouraged to donate money to those in need and this culminates with Eid celebrations where sweets and new clothes are gifted and celebrated among family and friends.

This year however, as soaring cost of food staples in import-dependent Middle Eastern and North African countries create ever greater challenges for millions of families already struggling to keep hunger at bay, the needy are far closer to home and Eid gifts are more necessary than celebratory.

This year’s Ramadan has been a much more muted affair for the millions of people that aid organisations say are struggling to buy even the most basic foods.

A “toxic combination” of conflict, climate change, the economic aftermath of Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine has pushed people’s resilience “to breaking point”, according to the UN's World Food Programme.

Even before the war in Ukraine, inflation and increasing prices were putting basic food items beyond the reach of the most vulnerable, as food prices reached an all-time high in February 2022, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Food Price Index.

Humanitarian food aid packages are delivered in the town of Al Najieh, in Syria's rebel-held north-western Idlib province. AFP

Since the Russian invasion, the prices of wheat flour and vegetable oil — two key staples in the diet of most families — have risen exponentially and the region is “very much at an unprecedented point”, a senior spokesperson for WFP Middle East and North Africa told The National.

“People have exhausted their coping mechanisms during the pandemic, they are not resilient,” says Abeer Etefa.

“The reality is that no one is spared, the poor will suffer, the middle class will become poorer, and the burden will fall on those who can help.”

With giant international aid organisations like the WFP also affected by global food price increases and facing a 50 per cent increase in global operations costs since 2019 — an additional US$71 million per month ― the onus on individuals helping friends and family is even greater.

Indeed, the ubiquity of the crisis in the Middle East and North Africa is no longer the exclusive problem for the impoverished. Families of formerly comfortable means increasingly seek assistance to feed themselves.

Many are turning to their relatives abroad for money transfers to buy basic foods this Eid.

England to Syria

Syrian-Iraqi Hanan Al Tahan has been living in the UK for more than two decades. After the civil war started, most of her immediate family joined her England on a government resettlement scheme for Syrians but she still has friends and relatives who live in Damascus.

The former translator, who comes from a middle-class community, says many of her friends in Syria told her they couldn’t afford to buy any meat this Ramadan.

“My cousins can’t afford it, so many people can’t any more. Prices have gone up so much, especially in the past three months,” Ms Al Tahan tells The National.

According to the WFP, the price of Syria’s standard food basket is 97 per cent higher than a year ago and 33 per cent more than six months ago. A drought severely affected the country’s limited wheat production and the Ukraine war has compounded the crisis.

“Anyone who can afford to send money, sends money,” says Ms Al Tahan.

Whereas charitable donations, particularly during Ramadan, used to be directed towards the destitute and orphaned, many are now redirecting their charity towards their own families whose purchasing power has plummeted.

“Everyone is asking for money now, everyone is sending to their families, everyone’s family needs it,” she says.

From London to Lebanon

Syria’s neighbour Lebanon is in a similarly perilous state. It has to contend with a deep economic crisis rooted in corruption and mismanagement, described by the World Bank as one of the worst since the mid-19th century.

This was compounded when a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut port in August 2020, killing at least 219 people and devastating a large area of the capital.

Ramy Kanso knows exactly when he began sending his parents in Lebanon money. In September 2019, the London-based graphic designer had been on a visit to his home country when, just before he left, his mother told him “things were very bad financially”.

The explosion at Beirut's port killed at least 219 people, injured thousands, and caused billions of dollars of damage. Getty Images

“I had been living the tourist life in Lebanon, going out and having fun and then she dropped the news on me as I was heading to the airport and I realised I had to step up and help,” he says.

A month later, a widespread protest movement erupted on the streets and the economy began its rapid free fall.

In the past year, the cost of a basic food basket has increased by 351 per cent in Lebanon — the highest in the region, according to the WFP.

Ms Etefa says the “compounding effect” of numerous crises — including that grain silos were destroyed in the Beirut blast, reducing the ability to store wheat — has made Lebanon “extremely vulnerable to market conditions.”

Almost every food item has to be imported into Lebanon and what farmers produce locally, such as citrus fruit, is being exported for desperately needed foreign currency.

“Money isn’t the only issue though,” points out Mr Kanso. “The more punishing thing is waiting for hours in a queue for something you might not even get. When I hear about my father waiting in line for eight hours, it breaks my heart.”

“That’s when I stopped enjoying the simple things here in London,” he says. “I just felt so much guilt and worry for them.”

Liverpool to Yemen

Fears of widespread famine have plagued Yemen for years and the latest statistics offer little solace for the large UK-based Yemeni community trying to help from afar.

More than 17 million Yemenis food insecure, a number the WFP predicts will rise to 19 million by the end of this year.

The rate of child malnutrition is one of the highest in the world. Conflict, sharply depreciating currency and heavy reliance on imports has resulted in an 81 per cent hike in food prices in the past year.

It’s a problem that is not going away, says Yemeni Tahir Qassim, a long-term resident of Liverpool, in northern England.

Children queue at a charity kitchen in Yemen's capital Sanaa, during the holy month of Ramadan. Reuters

The former public health practitioner worked for decades in his home country and is a part of a network trying to restore the healthcare system in Yemen from the UK.

In the last three months the situation has become “incredibly harsh” for many families, he tells me.

“The situation has definitely got worse,” he said. People can’t find enough to eat.”

Some of the doctors he is in touch with in Yemen say parents tell them that all they have to feed their children is water mixed with sugar.

Mr Qassim sends what financial support he can to his son, who lives in Yemen with his wife and children.

“I wish I could send him more, but I’m retired now which makes it difficult,” he says.

“The demand is huge, there are so many people who need food — everyone’s relatives need help.”

Mr Qassim knows of fellow countrymen who have been raising money for their friends to eat. Former university professors, many are now out on the streets in Yemen selling tissues for food.

“These people are key, the future leaders of the country, and they’re starving,” says Mr Qassim. “It’s terrible but I know many people like that, just trying to support anyone they know.”

Updated: April 30, 2022, 6:00 AM
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