Mohammed Omadi and his family, from Afghanistan, came face-to-face with death when they crossed the Aegean Sea to seek refuge in Greece. Their flimsy, overcrowded boat capsized and they lost everything before being rescued. “Our passports and all of our money which we had hidden in our bags, all gone,” recalls Mohammed.
More than 60,000 refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution in Asia, the Middle East and Africa are stranded in Greece. While the European Union has promised to relocate people, throughout the past year most refugees were stuck in inadequate temporary shelters.
The IRC runs a variety of programs designed to improve conditions and help refugees survive economically. One of the simplest, cheapest and most innovative is to give cash allowances directly to refugees and let them decide how best to take care of themselves.
Traditionally, aid is provided by governments or relief agencies in the form of in-kind donations such as blankets, heaters and bags of rice. While this is helpful in an immediate emergency, it does little to empower people or rebuild lives.
In Greece, the IRC distributes pre-paid debit cards that enable families like the Omadis to buy items that are culturally appropriate. After receiving their cards, families can purchase groceries and household items of their choice at shops that accept Visa. Each month, the cards are credited an amount between $100 and $350, depending on the family’s size.
For the Omadis, who live in a refugee camp in a suburb of Athens, cash relief is a small step toward regaining control of their lives. And pre-paid cards have the added advantage of reducing waste. Numerous studies have shown that a high percentage of in-kind aid is thrown away or resold at a loss.
“With cash I can go to the market and buy food I know my children will like so that nothing is wasted,” says Mohammed. “Food that will last for a month.”
Cash in the hands of refugees also stimulates the local economy and helps to forge economic and social ties between refugees and local shopkeepers. The Omadis have built a relationship with Harris, a store owner who was once himself a refugee from Albania. “I can see they are good people,” he says. “The [pre-paid cards] are very helpful for the market and for my shop, too. Just as I and others were able to try and build a life here, I strongly believe that these people can make it.”
For the Omadi family, the IRC cash program has been a lifeline. Explains Mohammed: “My daughter would ask me, ‘You promised we would go to a better place. Why did you lie?’ I explain I didn’t lie. Things will improve gradually, step-by step. And they are.”
The IRC’s emergency financial assistance programming in Greece is funded by the European Commission.