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Part of the European Union strategy for preventing Syrians from overwhelming European is to keep them in Turkey and help Turkey provide for them. But many arrive there desperate, having lost everything as they fled. And so the EU has come up with a way to aid them directly - give them debit cards. NPR's Peter Kenyon has the story from Istanbul.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: There are parts of Istanbul you can wander into these days where you might think you'd crossed a border without noticing.
On a recent Sunday morning, the raucous horns, drums and cries of a Syrian wedding echoed off the modest apartment blocks in this working-class neighborhood. A young Syrian woman named Jazia is guiding me to her family's small apartment. Her mother, Haifa, greets us and waves us into a small sitting room with cushions on the floor, Middle-East style. We're not using their family name because Haifa's husband is still in Syria.
JAZIA: (Foreign language spoken).
KENYON: Jazia describes three failed attempts to reach Greece by boat that left her terrified of the ocean. Now Jazia, her 20-year-old brother and a sister who's just 15 spend 12-hour days at a shirt-making factory to keep the family afloat. Only 11-year-old Mohammad, smiling shyly in the corner, is still in school - for now at least.
Their mother, Haifa, looks with interest at a photo of the new EU debit card soon to be distributed to a million refugees. It's called the Kizilay card, which refers to the Turkish Red Crescent, one of the groups involved in the program. At the group's Ankara headquarters, Director General Mehmet Gulluoglu says the card used to be just for refugees in camps to buy food. But this new program offers something else. Refugees outside the camps, which is most of them, will be able to take these cards to an ATM and get cash, up to 100 Turkish lira a month, or about $30 for each registered family member.
MEHMET GULLUOGLU: They can pay their rents. They can pay their bills or for food, whatever they need because it will be certain. It will be concrete. And it will be regular support.
KENYON: It will also be spent on local businesses. There have been cash-based aid programs before, but not on this scale. Jonny Hogg, spokesman for the World Food Program, says this is the biggest humanitarian relief contract ever signed by the EU. It aims to help refugees not just survive, but have a tiny bit of control over their lives again.
JONNY HOGG: These refugees who've had their entire existence turned upside down - by a conflict, by poverty, by displacement - how can we give them a sense that actually, they're real members of society? They're not second-class citizens. And we believe that we're giving them the ability to choose how they live their lives.
KENYON: A pilot program has begun to look for potential problems. How many people are spending the cash on cigarettes and lottery tickets, for example? Some supporters have already pointed to an obvious issue; despite aiming to reach a million of the neediest Syrians in Turkey, how much help can they really get from 100 lira, just over $30 a month? Hogg says you'd be surprised.
HOGG: I've met refugees who are living in caves because they can't find anywhere else to live. They've spent the winter in caves. A hundred Turkish lira is going to make a profound difference to these people's lives.
KENYON: Back in Istanbul, Jazia and her family doubt they'll qualify for the cards. Poor as they are, other families are worse off. But if they did somehow qualify, the extra cash might just help them keep her 11-year-old brother in school, instead of adding him to the Syrian child labor force in Turkey.
When I asked the Turkish Red Crescent director if $30 a month is enough, he gave a tight smile and said it's a start. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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