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West Bank Families in Food Crisis

By David Snyder

Perched on the edge of his well-worn sofa, Yusri Zahdeh casts his mind back to the years when he had a permit to work in Israel. He remembers it as a time when things were easy. His thick hands cracked from years working as a plumber, Yusri says that since Israel took those work permits away more than a decade ago, work has been scarce in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Yusri Zahdeh with his family

Yusri Zahdeh sits with his family in the West Bank city of Hebron. He purchased milk and other essentials at a local grocery store using the electronic voucher card he received through the CRS-supported Urban Voucher program. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"I used to make $47 a day. Now, sometimes I make $32 a day—sometimes less," Yusri says. "This month I had just $219."

That's $219 to pay his bills, put gas in his battered Fiat and feed the six children still living with him and wife, Majedeh, in their house on a hill above the old quarter of this ancient city. So when Majedeh heard of a program that provides food voucher cards for struggling families, the Zahdehs were quick to sign up. They joined the ranks of 4,735 other West Bank families to benefit from the Urban Voucher program.

Clearing Food Hurdles With Voucher Cards

Launched by Catholic Relief Services in 2009, the program protects families in struggling households from the ongoing global food crisis, which has seen prices for essential commodities rise sharply as household incomes have remained the same or declined.

Through this World Food Program- and CRS-funded program, families who meet the criteria receive a food voucher card that is automatically credited with money each week; family size determines the amount. Families use the card to buy essential supplies such as milk, cheese, bread and cooking oil at participating local groceries.

"If I have some money, I might add some more items each week, but it's not stable," Yusri says. "Some months when I have no income at all, I depend completely on the voucher."

A plumber his entire life, and proud to have raised nine children through work of his own hands, Yusri and his family are exactly the people the Urban Voucher program is designed to assist. Living now with their six youngest children, all of whom have inherited a rare blood disorder that requires expensive ongoing treatment, the Zahdehs are in debt from years of borrowing and have seen their main breadwinner out of regular work for more than a decade. The $20 or so of voucher credit they receive each week helps them clear the food hurdle they were facing.

Boosting the Local Economy

But the Urban Voucher program benefits more than those using the cards for food. By working only with local manufacturers and suppliers, the program helps boost the local economy at all levels, keeping residents employed and providing a much-needed influx of cash into the economy.

Yusri shops with his youngest daughter

For West Bank resident Yusri Zahdeh, shown shopping for groceries with his youngest daughter, the CRS Urban Voucher program is a lifesaver. "Some months when I have no income at all, I depend completely on the voucher," he says. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"This program has had a tremendous impact on my life, both at the family level and the business level," says Sadi Natseh, owner of the Abu Amjad grocery store in Hebron, one of 36 small grocers in the city taking part in program. "It allows my two sons to work here, where, before, I could not even find enough work for myself."

Just weeks away from bankruptcy in 2009 when CRS approached him to join the voucher program, Sadi says 80 percent of his customers now use the voucher cards to buy dairy products, bread and oil through his shop, things most of his customers couldn't afford before the program started.

He has renovated his shop and added a refrigerator to meet the demand for fresh dairy products. Because he is able to buy more of those products, Sadi helps keep local manufacturers in business too. For instance, the Al Jebrini Dairy and Food company reported a 15 percent increase in profits after the launch of the voucher program. As a result, the company was able to retain a staff of 250 workers.

Back in his living room, Yusri has just returned home from his weekly trip to the Abu Amjad grocery. As he looks on, his youngest daughter sips a cup of popular yogurt, sharing it with her 18-month-old niece. A proud man frustrated by years of unemployment, Yusri offers a simple summary of the real effect of the global food crisis in the city of Hebron.

"The problem is not having no house. We have a house," Yusri says. "The problem is food."

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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