By Agnieszka Rakoczy
These are the words of Mahmoud, who with his family is among more than 250,000 refugees living in Turkey and currently receiving
financial assistance under a new humanitarian aid programme funded by
the European Union. Part of the migrant deal signed between Brussels and Ankara in March last year, the number is expected to increase
to one million by June.
A significant feature of the innovative programme, the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN), is a bank card issued by Turkey's Halk Bank, on which each refugee enrolled in the ESSN scheme receives a monthly transfer of 100TL.
One of the largest humanitarian projects of its kind in the world, ESSN "directly supplies refugees with cash and allows them to decide for themselves what they want to spend it on", says Jane Lewis, head of the Ankara Office of the European Commission Directorate-General for Humanitarian and Civil Protection (Echo), the organisation responsible for budget and oversight.
The Echo budget comes from the initial three billion euros the EU allocated for refugee assistance in Turkey. Total outlay for the 2016-18 period is a planned 1.4 billion euros, and further EU funding is expected in phase two of the EU-Turkey deal.
In Turkey, Echo works with the World Food Program (WFP) and the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay), as well as the Turkish Directorate-General for Migration Management and the ministries of Family, Education and Health.
According to Ms Lewis, the combination of significant financial resources and close cooperation with Ankara is key to Echo having been able to create an innovative and sustainable humanitarian aid programme for the refugees in Turkey, based on a stable local infrastructure.
"These factors, in combination with our knowledge and experience, have given us a unique opportunity to comprehensively address refugee
problems in this country," she says.
There are currently about three million refugees in Turkey, mostly Syrians but also Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans. About 10 per cent of them live in camps, while the rest try to survive on their own.
Those outside the camps are eligible for the ESSN aid, but priority is given to large families, single mothers with children, families where parents are disabled or elderly, and families where no-one works.
All over Turkey, both local government offices and registration centres opened by Kızılay with the help of the WFP, are currently registering applications for the ESSN assistance.
One of the ESSN beneficiaries is Mahmoud's family. A 54-year-old Syrian Kurd who used to repair electronic goods in his homeland, he and his wife Medina and their seven children live in two small rooms in the suburb of Urfa, in southern Turkey, not far from the the Syrian border.
Since the beginning of the year, they have been receiving a monthly transfer of 900TL on their Halk Bank ESSN card.
The family came to Urfa from Kobani three years ago. Two of the eldest boys disappeared in Syria and the family still does not know what happened to them.
“One day they went to work and did not return," their father says. "There were protests in the city that day. We heard they were arrested by the government."
Of the seven children with Mahmoud and his wife, four are daughters, three are sons. The eldest daughter is 24 years old, the youngest son, eight. Both Mahmoud and the older children do their best to find work and earn a living.
Mahmoud, who has problems with his back and eyes, and one of his older boys sometimes get work on construction sites. Every summer, two of his daughters harvest cumin. But in reality the only family member who regularly brings money home is 14-year-old Ahmet. He works as a delivery boy at a bakery, and gets 10TL plus a loaf of bread for a 14-hour working day.
Forty-eight-year-old Medina says that thanks to the ESSN money, after paying all the bills, she is still able to buy some basic food items such as rice, flour, cooking oil and sugar. "After that, we just get by. Still, if the money on the card comes regularly, we will survive. Especially if at least one person in the family has a regular job."
None of Mahmoud's children goes to school. The family cannot afford it.
Echo's Jane Lewis admits that a monthly payment of 100TL per person is not a lot but explains that it is the sum agreed to by international organisations with the Turkish government.
"It is the same amount as what a poor Turkish person receives monthly from the state. The government wanted to avoid situations where there would be disparity between what a refugee and a Turkish citizen gets because it could lead to conflict," she adds by way of explanation.
However, EU assistance for families like Mahmoud's does not end with just the ESSN card.
Refugees can also benefit from free health care at clinics that have been created through a cooperative venture between Echo and the international Medical Corps NGO.
These clinics usually serve as the first point of health care and draw heavily on Syrian doctors, nurses and physiotherapists for their staffing. Medical personnel have been trained by the World Health Organisation (WHO), working alongside the Turkish Ministry of Health to ensure familiarity with the Turkish health care system as well as Turkish medical terminology.
The clinics are equipped with their own laboratories where all basic tests can be conducted. They also have pharmacies which can dispense basic medicines at no cost to the refugees. More complicated cases are sent to Turkish hospitals which are employing an increasing number of translators, again trained by the WHO and the Health Ministry, so that refugees can communicate more readily with Turkish doctors.
Echo, says Jane Lewis, will soon introduce additional help for refugee families with a monthly injection of cash for education of their children. The project aims to encompass children in primary and secondary schools. Financial assistance of between 40TL and 80TL per child (with the higher amounts earmarked for girls) will be transferred to a family’s ESSN card, strictly in relation to the child's school attendance.
Records will be maintained by the Turkish Ministry of Education with a strict eye on absenteeism and, just like the ESSN card itself, everything will be computerised.
Ms Lewis says that since the launch of the ESSN programme in September last year, cooperation between Echo and the Turkish government has gone from strength to strength.
"The government is working very hard to implement this programme. Our technical cooperation is very fruitful and develops very positively.
We have no problems."
Gabriel Munuera Vinals, deputy EU Head of Mission in Turkey, agrees and says he believes that, Turkish threats to end the migrant deal notwithstanding, it is important to differentiate between political rhetoric and day-to-day practice in this area.
"On a practical level, we don’t experience any problems," he says smilingly.
Mahmoud says simply: “This money is a blessing for my whole family.”
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