Helping to settle a Syrian family in Armenia
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Published on 30 July 2014

Two years since leaving Syria with her family, Maral has found work in a bistro in Yerevan. 

It is seven months since I first met Maral Gahvesjian, waiting patiently in a long queue of Syrians of Armenian descent, for their WFP food rations at Charents 20, a residential area of the capital, Yerevan. Maral, her husband and their three sons, fled their home in Aleppo, Syria nearly two years ago – as she put it, “leaving the dark days behind."

Life hasn’t been easy in Yerevan for Maral, 50.  The family managed to rent cheap accommodation on the outskirts of the city, without heating during the cold winter – but she was happy that they were all together in Armenia, safe and sound. She told me WFP food assistance was a crucial safety net: “The wheat flour, vegetable oil, rice, pulses and pasta helped us a lot as my eldest son was the only one with a job in the family.”

These basic commodities are provided – thanks to Russia’s contribution - through WFP’s six-month emergency food assistance programme to some 5,000 people in Armenia.  Maral told me the family ration meant that the little money they had could go towards other household essentials. “Every day,” she said, “I bake Syrian bread using the WFP flour.  I sprinkle it with a few drops of water and draw a cross in the air while wishing peace and better days to come for Syria.”

Seven months after my first encounter with Maral, we met again in a small bistro, where she is  now working, in a residential area of Yerevan. She told me she feels more secure and settled – though I spotted the Syrian flag displayed in the restaurant. Maral says she is thinking of continuing her life in Armenia, a safe haven, rather than returning to Aleppo when the war ends, as her family had initially planned.

Behind the scenes: how WFP packaged food for Maral’s family - and many others.

The Armenian government made an unexpected request to WFP – to provide individually boxed monthly food rations for ethnic Armenians who had fled the war in Syria.

While it might sound simple, my colleagues were not used to anything but bulk distribution. However, Yessai Nikoyan, head of logistics, had previously worked for a private company specializing in packing and moving – so he coordinated our small team to get things rolling.

The first step was to design the packaging and find a supplier to provide good quality (and tough) corrugated boxes and paper bags. Then we needed to hire skilled workers to sort the commodities and pack the boxes, checking and weighing the contents. Yessai formed an assembly line, assigning one person per commodity, with a team leader at the end, to ensure that each of the five commodities were well-packed and sealed. Five layers of corrugated cardboard reinforced the boxes  to withstand handling.

WFP’s Armenia office has completed three packing and distribution cycles so far, with new box designs required each time there’s a change in type of food distributed – just to keep things interesting!

Russia has been exceptionally flexible in allowing WFP Armenia to re-programme some of its contribution for the existing school feeding operation to cover the needs of displaced Syrians of Armenian origin that have settled in Armenia after fleeing Syria. The six-month emergency food assistance reaches some 5,000 displaced Syrian Armenians out of a total of 16,000 who have arrived in Armenia since the beginning of the Syria crisis.