UN refugee debit cards boost Lebanese grocers

Nora Schweitzer –
In three years, Lebanese grocer Ali Khiami hired six staff, invested in property and funded his children’s university education. Business is booming — thanks to Syrian refugees using UN debit cards.
Displaced Syrian families in Lebanon are using electronic cards, topped up each month by the United Nations’ World Food Programme with $27 per person, for their grocery shopping.
The WFP scheme has both helped refugees and delivered a windfall to cash-strapped Lebanese shop owners.
“This programme changed my life. I bought an apartment in Beirut and I paid for my three children’s college degrees,” said Khiami.
Since registering with the WFP, he has seen his personal income skyrocket from $2,000 per month to $10,000, allowing him to pay off a long-standing debt.
“I used to sell goods worth about 50 million Lebanese pounds (around $33,000) per year. Today, my turnover reaches 300 million pounds,” said Khiami.
Lebanon, a country of just four million people, hosts more than one million refugees who fled the conflict that has ravaged neighbouring Syria since 2011. The influx has put added strain on Lebanon’s already frail water, electricity, and school networks.
The World Bank says the Syrian crisis has pushed an estimated 200,000 Lebanese into poverty.
With 700,000 Syrian refugees benefiting from the programme, the debit cards are offsetting at least some of that economic pressure.
When they buy from Lebanese shops, the country’s “economy is also benefiting from WFP’s programme, not just Syrian refugees,” WFP spokesman Edward Johnson said.
The UN agency says Syrian refugees have spent $900 million at partner shops in Lebanon since the programme was launched in 2012.
It selects stores based on their proximity to gatherings of Syrian refugees in camps or cities, as well as cleanliness, prices and availability of goods.
Umm Imad, a Syrian customer at Khiami’s store, said shopping with the card makes her feel much more “independent” than with the WFP’s previous food stamp programme.
“Now I can buy what I need at home,” she said.
The scheme has also changed perceptions.