Lebanon: Bekaa Valley Coupon Racket Scams Syrian Refugees

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Sacks of bread and other relief material are prepared ready for transportation to Syrian refugees encamped in Arsal, in the Lebanese Bekaa valley, on December 17, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Ibrahim Chalhoub)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Along one of the main roads cutting Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in half, a number of Syrian refugee settlements have fallen victim to a scam involving a coupon. The coupon, which claims to be under the authority of the Saudi government in memory of a deceased Saudi national, promises the holder $120 worth of goods in exchange for only 2,000 Lebanese lira ($1.33). As it turns out, it is a promise too good to be true.

A few weeks ago, a young employee of one of the many NGOs working to provide aid to Syrian refugees was touring different settlements along the Bekaa Valley.

During the course of the conversation with the refugees about what types of aid they have received so far, they told him and his companions that a Saudi organization had been along more than a month ago, passing out coupons that promised $120 worth of goods.

“We saw three remote refugee camps at that time, in total it was about 150 families. They told us that a Saudi organization had come to them, saying that [the Syrian refugees] would get $120 in a couple of weeks after they had given their names and paid a fee of 2,000 lira ($1.33),” the young NGO worker told Al-Akhbar.

The coupon, obtained by Al-Akhbar , seemed to be a plain piece of paper, blue with a hint of green, with no official markings. On the top it states in Arabic: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and for the soul of the deceased Hamad Saud al-Hamad.

It then states a promise of $120 worth of goods, the point of delivery underneath a popular bakery in Saadnayel, in the Bekaa Valley. The name of the refugee is recorded, and a number is given.

At the bottom there is a note, which states that the holder of the coupon should not go to the delivery point unless they are contacted.

According to the victims of the alleged scam that Al-Akhbar spoke with, they described the man as medium in height, lean, and hair combed to the back. They added that he looked Syrian and spoke in a Syrian dialect, arriving to the camp on foot.

“This happened more than a month ago. All of us did it, as well as the small neighboring camp across the street. We don't know about the camps elsewhere, but at least us and across the street were victims,” said Abu Amraan, the head organizer of one of the affected Syrian informal tented settlements, composed of mainly the same family, all from the northern Syrian town of Idlib.

“Most of the men were at work, and this person knocked on our doors and spoke to our wives saying there was a coupon that said they would get $120 of goods for only a fee of 2,000 lira if they showed their Syrian family documents,” he stated.

“What would you do? If someone knocks on your door and presents something that possibly helps you situation, wouldn't you just take the risk?”

“But it's unsurprising that there are people exploiting this desperation. I think he must have made about $100 to $200 that day. It's not a game,” Abu Amraan added flatly.

“At the minimum, the individual with the coupon seemed to have gotten $15,000 that day. If he has been targeting settlements from Tripoli to the south, he potentially could have gotten much more,” the NGO worker said. “He seemed to have targeted smaller, really remote camps and ones with no NGO presence.”

According to the NGO worker, his contacts at the UNHCR working in the area were not aware of the alleged scam.

“I think if you went to the delivery point, you won't find anything. In the end, however, and this will take time, if you really want to you can hunt them down,” he said.

Al-Akhbar visited the address of the alleged delivery point stated on the coupon. The location, a popular bakery, is a well-known geographic spot in the area just off the main road connecting Ksara and Saadnayel.

Almost all the employees at the bakery were unaware of such an organization when asked by Al-Akhbar. Only one claimed a Syrian refugee with a similar coupon had come by weeks previously asking about the goods.

News of the coupon and the man with the combed-back hair had spread to other camps.

Ahmad – not his real name – is one of the local leaders living in a settlement holding approximately 41 tents in the area of Joub Jannine. “I've heard of this coupon,” he told Al-Akhbar.

Ahmad heard about the coupon from friends at various camps in the town of Ghazze. He personally was not convinced of the deal.

“I think it's a scam, and we've decided that if they came to our area, we'd catch them and send them to the authorities. But no one comes to us anyways. Here, we are alone,” he said, his point buttressed by the silence and darkness.

Back at the Abu Amraan camp, where the majority had bought the coupon, the sentiment was deflated. Only a handful refused to buy it.

“I decided not to do it,” said one young Syrian who was glad to have escaped the racket. “I asked him where this distribution center was and he said Saadnayel. And I asked him where in Saadnayel since I was working in Saadnayel at the time, and he said it was underneath the bakery. When I told him there was nothing there, he just hesitated so I told him I was not interested.”

“You know, if a person's a fraud, you just get this feeling in your gut,” Abu Khaled, Abu Amraan's uncle, said. Just like the others, his wife bought the coupon.

“When I had come back home and she told me about it, I immediately got the sense that it was a fraud,” he said with a slight smile.

“And Um Khaled told me that she said to him that if he was lying to her that God would punish him,” Abu Khaled chuckled lightly. “Honestly though, we would have given 10,000 lira ($6.6) if it did anything.”

At a smaller settlement across from the Abu Amraan camp, everyone immediately recognized the coupon and they echoed the description, this time adding that the scammer had told them that he was from Aleppo.

“This was my mistake,” said a middle-aged gentleman, surrounded by others who all murmured in agreement. “I should have taken his name and his mobile number. But when he showed the coupon booklet and said that the opposing camp had all taken coupons, that's how we were convinced.”

They, too, were driven by desperation and had willingly bought it in hopes of getting some aid.

“We were happy at first because it seemed like finally some help was coming in after six months, but I guess it's a scam. Our camp is getting nothing. Organizations and the municipality have passed out goods to neighboring settlements and not to us,” said a young man, disgruntled about the situation.

“How are we to know better? You came to us now, how am I supposed to know what your intentions are? If you promised me something like cooking fuel and asked for some money, I'd give it to you. I want help for myself and my family. You ask for 2,000 lira [and] I'll give it to you immediately,” he added.

The Saudi embassy denied any connection to the alleged scam when contacted by Al-Akhbar.

“We have no idea about this. How is it conceivable to ask for money during a donation?” a Saudi official, who requested not to be named, said.

“The story seems to be clearly a scam. There are two main Saudi organizations helping [Syrian refugees] since the beginning of the conflict. We don't go around in such a limited way or ask for money in return,” he stressed.

For now, whoever was involved in this coupon scam is still out there, profiting at the expense of the refugees.

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