“All I want is a roof over my head and my kids”

Forcibly displaced and left without a source of income, single women head of households need cash to provide for their children and pay for medical bills.

22.04.20

Amaal* and Aziza* were both displaced when the conflict between rival political and armed groups escalated last April 2019.

As an oil-rich country, Libya once had one of the highest standards of living in Africa, with free healthcare and education. But the stability that led to its prosperity has been shattered and the capital, Tripoli, is now the scene of daily fighting.

Clashes and airstrikes in and around the city are putting Amal, Aziza and thousands of other men, women and children under extreme vulnerability. 

The ongoing conflict is also fuelling a shortage of cash which further prevents Libyans from safely accessing food, water and other basic items. Facing soaring inflation with achingly low incomes and very limited social security systems, Amaal and Aziza’s life has become dire.

To help overcome this, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), with support from the European Commission of Humanitarian Office (ECHO), has stepped in to provide urgent life-saving cash assistance, allowing hundreds of families to pay for food, medical bills and other essential goods.

Amaal’s constant struggle to protect her children

A former professor at the University of Tripoli, Amaal had to give up her position due to multiple health issues a few years ago. With two children to provide for and an estranged husband, she initially succeeded in making ends meet by selling baked goods:

"And then, the war started," she recalls.

Without any warning or time to gather her belongings, she was forced to abandon her home:

"We stayed there even during the heavy bombing. Once, the bombing stopped, so I went out to drop my daughter in university and my son in school. But when I came back, they told me I could not go to my house."

She had to flee to a safer area in Tripoli.

Banks have difficulties to operate in Libya and Amaal often cannot withdraw money from her account. In order to feed her family, she has resorted to accumulating a substantial debt with a local supermarket that allows her to pay on credit.

People she used to make pies and sweets for still owe her money:

"But I can’t ask for it, as they might need it more than I do."

Since April 2019, prices have skyrocketed in the capital. Amaal managed to find a house that she now shares with two other families, but the place is unsanitary:

"Every time it rains, the whole wall gets soaked and starts leaking water into the room. All the mattresses get soaked."

Every time she talks to the landlord about repairing it, he tells her that she will be leaving soon. This is far too common. More and more landlords are evicting displaced Libyans and take advantage of the situation by increasing rents or using these spaces commercially.

These living conditions negatively impact Amaal’s health. Psychologically, the uncertainty also takes a toll on her:

"I have to pretend I’m not in pain most of the time, because I don’t want my kids to notice and worry about me."

With one being in medical school and the other in high school, her children had a bright future. Her daughter still manages to push through her studies, despite the suffering of constantly living in the fear of becoming homeless. For her son, prospects are all but dashed.

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Amaal was selected to receive cash assistance by the Danish Refugee Council, once a month, for three months, thanks to the support of ECHO. She was able to purchase food, some clothes and school supplies for her children. It also helped her carry out the medical tests she needed and buy some medication to improve her health condition.

Her hopes? Only “a roof over my head and my kids’.” Only then, she says, could she envision a future for herself and her children.

Aziza’s fight to repay medical debts

Aziza also fled her home in April 2019 under heavy clashes with her son, three daughters and a son-in-law. After his house was hit by an airstrike, Aziza’s brother joined them, bringing along his wife and three kids. While sharing her story, she recounts:

"What was I to do, leave my brother’s children on the streets?" 

After her displacement in Tripoli her precarious situation went from bad to worse. Finding somewhere to stay has been tiring, it took her many months to find the temporary shelter, a disused school, that she now lives in. Twelve other displaced families have also found refuge there.

Aziza shares a single room with both her brother’s and daughter’s households. At some point, she will need a more permanent solution, going back to her hometown of Alaziziya is not an option:

"The only thing left are the walls", she says.

This lasting uncertainty and insecurity create enormous stress for Aziza. Suffering from chronic asthma, the impact of her ordeal has also worsened her medical condition and she cannot afford medication. The small governmental pension she irregularly receives is barely enough to feed everyone. A string of medical debts has accumulated.

A few months ago, the DRC teams visited Aziza’s shelter and she was selected to receive cash assistance. Thanks to this financial support she was able to cover part of her medical expenses and even began repaying some debts:

"I am grateful for any amount that would help cover anything", she concluded.

What DRC does and how we could do more

Increased instability and a wavering economy make cash less and less accessible in Libya. Displaced Libyans are struggling to meet their basic needs.

Households such as Aziza’s and Amaal’s are even more vulnerable. Being single women supporting their family, their scarce income are often questioned. They are continuously facing social barriers that impact their freedom of movement and ability to earn money by themselves, leaving them at risk of seeing their reputations tarnished and being expelled from their shelters.

Until behaviours change, external support is crucial. For the past three months, the Danish Refugee Council, with support from ECHO, has provided 400 families with cash assistance. This had a positive impact immediately felt by these households. But it is far from sufficient to help them pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

In 2019 alone, more than 170,000 people in Libya became newly displaced and at least 647 civilians have been killed or injured as a result of indiscriminate attacks, primarily in Tripoli. Families like Amaal’s and Aziza’s already have very little to survive in a country that doesn’t provide them with a safety net.

Due to the protracted nature of the conflict, accessing the small amounts of money they can is becoming challenging, even to buy food. Renting an apartment will soon become impossible. Considering the situation today, a year later, their daily life is highly likely to keep deteriorating.

With no political resolution in sight, it is critical that, as a humanitarian community, we scale up the response. In this extremely volatile and hostile environment, cash assistance remains a viable, efficient and necessary option to help displaced Libyans meet their needs with dignity.

* The names have been changes to preserve the identity of the persons