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The Problem with Eating Like a Refugee for a Week

Humanitarian charity Concern Worldwide's "Ration Challenge" asks fundraisers to spend a week eating the supply packs provided to refugees. But does it undermine the scale of the crisis?

by Ruby Lott-Lavigna
27 June 2019, 4:18pm

Lentils, rice, chickpeas and other basics found in Concern Worldwide's refugee supply pack. Photo via Concern Worldwide

It’s 11PM on a Monday night and I’m in my kitchen boiling 800 grams of rice. A pan of red lentils bubbles next to it on the hob, and I place a portion of chickpeas in a bowl of water to soften. Like getting blood from a stone (flavour from a lentil?), I’m trying to make this collection of unseasoned beans and carbs into a dish I’d actually want to eat. I don’t have onion, garlic or fresh vegetables, nor can I improve the flavour with salt and pepper. I heat some vegetable oil and fry the rice and lentils, plus a small portion of sardines, and hope that this stodgy pile of grey will sustain me. Tomorrow, this will be my breakfast. It will also be my lunch and dinner.

No, I haven’t forgotten how to cook. Bland, limited meals like this are what refugees the world over eat every day, according to international humanitarian charity Concern Worldwide. Each June, it runs the Ration Challenge, a campaign that asks fundraisers to survive on the contents of a ration box, like those its partner organisation Act for Peace gives out at camps in Jordan (including at the Talbiah camp), for a whole week. The small cardboard box contains lentils, rice, chickpeas, one can of fish, kidney beans and flour. You can earn tokens for additional items, like vegetables, salt or tea bags, through fundraising.

The Ration Challenge, in addition to raising money for Concern Worldwide, aims to provide a tiny insight into the difficulties faced by the 70.8 million displaced people in the world today. Alongside dealing with disease and rancid living conditions, many refugees have to go without the meals that hold huge personal and cultural significance to them.

“With the Ration Challenge, we can raise far more funds than we would otherwise and engage more people in the issues we care about,” Rose Caldwell, executive director for Concern Worldwide says. “It’s more than just a fundraising exercise – people taking part are showing refugees that they’re not alone.”

The next day at work with running water and no risk of disease, I continue my Ration Challenge. I eat fried rice again for breakfast, and continue to snack on it throughout the day like a form of elongated culinary torture. The monotonous texture and lack of flavour (not to mention vitamins), makes eating painfully laborious. My mind becomes fixated on anything food-related: all I can think about is what it would be like to bite into a peach, or the fresh crunch of a cucumber slice. I would probably have murdered a colleague for a sip of coffee, or the faintest sprinkle of salt.

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The author's lunch of rice, lentils and sardines. Photo by author.

Concern Worldwide’s ration initiative is one of many recent attempts by charities to engage the public with the global refugee crisis. Many of these also centre on food, although the focus is usually on eating, rather than foregoing meals. Cook For Syria sees high-profile chefs put on charity dinners in aid of Syrian refugees, while Samos Volunteers published Displaced Dishes, a charity cookbook featuring recipes submitted by those living in the Samos refugee camp.

“The Ration Challenge is also a conversation starter,” says Caldwell. “By talking to their family and friends about living on rations, people can help open hearts and minds to what many refugees are going through.”

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The ration pack given to fundraisers taking part in the Concern Worldwide Ration Challenge. Photo via Concern Worldwide.

Clearly, the challenge is one of the more difficult refugee fundraising activities out there, but what was the food doing to my body? I couldn’t manage the Ration Challenge for a whole week, but felt the effects of the diet quickly. “[The ration pack] is very minimal in terms of nutritional content,” says Frankie Phillips, dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, when we speak over the phone. I've just described the box's contents to her. “Because it's only a week, it's unlikely to cause any major problems, but over a long period of time this type of diet could lead to long-term nutrient deficiencies.”

Eating this kind of food every day would not only affect your physical health, but also your mental wellbeing. “Certainly, there are nutrients that do affect mental health, and Omega-3 is one of them,” explains Phillips. “That does have an impact on the brain, so [if it is lacking], there can be longer-term consequences in terms of mental health.”

Concern Worldwide’s Ration Challenge is doing an admirable thing in raising awareness of the global refugee crisis, but is a stunty fundraising drive the best way to go about it? Of course, gimmick-led charity challenges are nothing new. From waxing your chest hair to running the London Marathon dressed as a marshmallow, discomfort has long been an effective way of raising money for a good cause. When it comes to the refugee crisis, however, a problem unprecedented in its scale, these methods could appear to undermine the magnitude of the problem.

“We are now facing more than 70 million people who are displaced, either in their own countries or outside of their countries,” Annette Spanggaard, Danish Refugee Council (DRC) global director for communication and fundraising, tells me over the phone. DRC is an international NGO that operates in 30 countries and, like Concern Worldwide, also aids refugees. “There is absolutely no way this will stop because what we will see in addition to the 70 million is climate refugees adding themselves to the statistics.”

Last year, the UK accepted only 26,350 refugees and asylum seekers, a mere 5 percent of the asylum applications lodged in the EU, while the Conservative government (and, not to mention, our potential next Prime Minister) regularly threaten to slash the UK foreign aid budget. Add to that the increasingly hostile sentiment towards refugee resettlement in Europe, and the crisis looks set to grow, making the work of third-sector organisations and charities like Concern Worldwide even more important. And yet, the refugee crisis proves to be one of the most difficult to rally people around, due to its sheer scale.

“[The stats] add to this fatigue,” Spanggaard says. “People cannot absorb these kinds of crazy numbers, and therefore we are in a situation where people just think about the refugee situation as a number, not as human beings. I think in terms of refugees, the issue has been politicised so much,” she adds. “[It’s spoken about as] a cause that should not be included in any internal policies, and countries have closed their borders. It has a very negative connotation.”

Faced with a growing humanitarian crisis and inefficient government involvement, refugee charities need money. But Spanggaard has concerns about stunt-focused fundraising drives like the Ration Challenge. “We always say that we need to treat displaced people with the largest amount of dignity, and we don't want to expose them as people who are not empowered or as people who eat bad food,” she explains. “So we would never [fundraise] in that way.”

As the refugee crisis worsens (setting a new world record of displaced people this year), it indeed seems we may need a different approach. But how do charities help refugees, without defining them by their suffering?

“We would go on a fact-finding mission, where we can really document how it looks, rather than taking one little example and blowing it up as a major problem,” suggests Spanggaard. “I would fear it would highlight the failures of a government, by going out with a very blunt campaign.” In line with this thinking, the DNC now sources many of its donations from corporate donors in the private sector, and focuses on “more engaging, community” campaigns, rather than mass advertising.

Ultimately, a week-long food challenge can never reflect the permanence of the insecurity facing displaced people from places like Syria and Yemen. It’s a problem that doesn’t disappear when you’ve finished your last bowl of rice.

“It's difficult to ask people for money because it is sort of an endless stream of problems all the time and people sort of become immune,” says Spanggaard. “A lot of people think to themselves, I have supported once, can this really keep going on?

@rubyJLL