“It was very important to me to visit Lebanon as one of the first countries in this region because of the significant operation that we have begun here ... to address the needs of refugees coming from Syria,” Cousin said.
She said in addition to the constant flow of refugees coming into the country, Syrians who have lived here for extended amounts of time are depleting their savings and turning to the aid organizations for help.
Many of them have been forced to sell their possessions for money and are in desperate need, increasing the demand for food aid, she said.
“What they are finding is they have been here for a year, 13, 18 months in some cases and they have depleted their assets,” Cousin said. “We are seeing the traditional coping mechanisms where they are beginning to sell the few valuables they may have, in turn they come and register.”
WFP is running perhaps the largest food aid operation for displaced and refugee Syrians in the region. The organization is operating a $62 million program for over 350,000 refugees in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.
WFP has also provided assistance to 1.5 million people in Syria who have been impacted by the simmering conflict between rebels and the Syrian regime. Cousin says she plans to visit Syria soon to check on WFP’s operations in the country.
Cousin met with President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati and toured WFP’s food aid operations in the country. She traveled to the Bekaa Valley, where she visited a grocery store in the town of Britel in Baalbek. Most food aid in Lebanon is done through vouchers that are redeemed at local stores by families.
“This is a country that has a viable grocery and market system. So as opposed to us bringing in food we are providing vouchers, which give the families choice and which give the families access to the most nutritious food but also provide economic opportunity to those host communities that are receiving the refugees,” Cousin said.
There are over 100,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon that are registered or waiting to register with the United Nations, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Local activists and charities say there are tens of thousands more refugees in the country who have not sought official recognition.
Shelter has been one of the most pressing concerns of the refugee community in Lebanon’s saturated low-budget housing market. But as the crisis in Syria continues and worsens, food could become an increasing concern, officials say.
“We must meet their food needs on an ongoing basis. It’s not a one month response – it is an every month response,” Cousin said.