Helping families on the run from conflict in Syria and Iraq

Iraq, Syria, November 13, 2014

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  • People like Zahya fled Syria to find safety in Iraq, but life is still full of challenges. Our team is helping by providing cash assistance to displaced families, allowing them to buy what they need most. All photos: Rasht Twana for Mercy Corps

The city of Erbil in northern Iraq is home to close to 100,000 Syrian refugees and increasingly more internally-displaced Iraqis. Families escaping the war in Syria have been coming to this area for years now, and it’s still a relatively safe haven from the conflict sweeping through Iraq, but the influx of people seeking safety means that humanitarian needs continue to grow.

The unpredictable violence doesn’t make it easy to provide traditional emergency assistance in Iraq. And we believe there is a better way to help families who don’t know when they can return home and have nothing to start a new life.

The majority of displaced people in Erbil are in urban areas, sheltering in makeshift living spaces that often lack heating, windows, proper kitchens or clean water. So we are helping nearly 5,000 people purchase what they need to make the places safe and warm.


People line up to receive their shelter vouchers, which are worth about $365 and can be used to purchase household items and shelter improvements.

Each person receives the equivalent of about $365 USD to redeem at a variety of stores in Erbil. The team makes sure each store has the enough items in stock — heaters, lamps, gas stoves, refrigerators, water filter and other household supplies like soap and mops — and is selling them at reasonable prices.


Mercy Corps staff inform beneficiaries about how they can use their vouchers. The vouchers can be redeemed at seven different local vendors in Erbil.

“Now that Syrians in Iraq have been displaced for over a year, they have set up households, but a one-size-fits all approach is not suitable,” explained Elizabeth Hallinan, our program manager in Iraq.

Cash assistance — rather than handing out food or supplies — allows people to decide for themselves what they need most. It may seem simple, but the power of making your own choices is gift for those who have had nearly everything about their lives taken out of their control. A renewed sense of dignity goes beyond any dollar amount.

Meet a few of the people we’re helping in Erbil:


Zahya and her family have been living in Erbil for nearly three years. She and her husband cannot find work and have six children to support. She is looking forward to buying some household items to make her home more comfortable.


Tofiq is from Kobane in northern Syria, but had been working as a laborer in Iraq until 8 months ago when he fell and broke his leg. With his injury, he is unable to find work.


Sabur is from the Anbar region of Iraq, but conflict forced him to move to Erbil where the situation is more stable. He recently lost his oldest son in an explosion. He is looking forward to buying a new gas stove with his voucher.


Rana is from Efrin in northern Syria and has been living in Iraq for a year and a half with her husband and three boys. Because her husband struggled to find work, Rana works a night job at the local mall to help her family make ends meet. She is hoping to purchase a new water filter for her home.


Mohammed, from northern Syria, has been living in Iraq for a year and has a new baby on the way. He works at a local laundry to earn some income. “It is some money, but not enough,” he says. He also plans to buy a water filter to help his family stay healthy.

With no end in sight to either conflict in Syria or Iraq, we will continue expanding cash assistance to reach the most vulnerable displaced families. “We believe strongly that cash and vouchers provide a flexible, dignified alternative to [other] distributions,” said Hallinan.

Every person’s needs are unique, and continue to change as the situation does, so this is the best way to help them through the variety of challenges they face.