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Amid rising poverty, local charity assists poor

[Syria] Mahar Mifarej escaped poverty by joining a charity and training as a chef. [Date picture taken: 05/07/2006]
Mahar Mifarej escaped poverty by joining a charity and training as a chef (Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

Mahar Mifarej, a 25-year-old assistant chef in the kitchen of Damascus’ Hefez al-Na’amah charity for the poor, stirs his pot and ruminates on how his life might have turned out had he not found the charity.

“After I finished my military service I had no qualifications, so I couldn’t find a job,” recounted Mifarej, whose father died when he was a boy and who now lives with his mother, three brothers and a sister-in-law in the impoverished suburb of Sayeda Zeiynab on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. “I joined the charity and trained as a chef for two years, starting on a salary of SYP 5,000 [roughly $95] per month.”

“Now, if I work overtime, I can earn SYP 10,000 per month,” added Mifarej proudly. “This project saved me.”

Mifarej’s story is a familiar one. With 65 percent of the population under 25-years-old, one in five young people unemployed and some 200,000 workers entering the job market each year, finding a reliable source of income is becoming increasingly difficult.

Between 2003 and 2004, almost two million individuals – 11.4 percent of the population – were unable to acquire their basic food and non-food needs, according to Syria’s first-ever nationwide report on poverty, published last July by the State Planning Commission and the United Nations Development Project (UNDP).

For impoverished families like Mifarej’s, the lack of job prospects has led increasing numbers of young Syrians to turn to begging or to charities like al-Na’amah. “Nowadays, a lot of people are asking for food,” said Mohammed Riad Horsheed, head of al-Na’amah, which operates four centres in Damascus where poor families are provided with food, clothes, medicine and furniture. “Between five and 15 new people come to register with the charity every day.”

Since its establishment in 2002, the charity has registered some 3,500 families from Damascus and surrounding areas, with an average family of five entitled to monthly packages of food and clothes worth SYP 1,500 (approximately US $29). The charity repackages food left overs from hotels and restaurants and collects unused medicines (over US $154,000-worth last year, according to Horsheed), clothes and furniture from wealthy families.

The charity’s efforts have also been buttressed by government poverty-reduction initiatives. Social Affairs Minister Diyala Haj Aref recently launched a scheme that aims to work with charities such as al-Na’amah to encourage families to become more productive domestically. “The minister believes charities should do more than just give money,” explained Horsheed. “They should offer training for girls who stay at home, for example, so they can learn computer skills. Our future plan is to turn this charity into a workshop to train the poor.”

A social affairs ministry spokesman confirmed that training schemes for the very poor “were part of Syria’s national plan”, although he declined to elaborate.

For Mifarej, meanwhile, training as a chef has allowed him to help not only his own family, but others as well, with much of the food he prepares being distributed to the poor. “We make meals for 500 families a day,” explained Mifarej’s supervisor, Head Chef Amer Qasr. “With an average family of five people, that’s a lot of meals.”

Not everyone, however, has been given such an opportunity. Twelve-year-old Hassan Mahfouz and his nine-year-old brother Mahmoud, for example, sell chewing gum and beg for money in central Damascus. “I’m a man and I have to get money to help my family,” said Hassan. “I feel ashamed to ask people here to give me money."

Both Hassan and Mahmoud are in primary school, but at the weekend they sell their chewing gum, bought wholesale, managing to make around SYP 200 (approximately US $3.85) a day, which they take back to their mother in Kissawa, a poor neighbourhood 20km south of the capital.

But though their current prospects are limited, Hassan and Mahmoud remain optimistic for the future. “I like school and want to study – I don’t want to be a beggar all my life,” said Hassan. “Now I’m working to help my family, but I also want to study to become a lawyer.”

Back at the kitchen, changing into a fresh white apron to pose for a photograph, Mifarej says he has a simple message to communicate to his compatriots living in poverty. “Now I tell any beggars I see: ‘Come and register your name with the charity rather than working on the street,’” he said. “Because I believe this project was a gift from God.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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