In Haret Hrek, a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon where many refugees from Iraq have settled, Iraqi mothers frequently visit International Medical Corps’ Social Center for weekly educational sessions. The goal behind the recent International Medical Corps nutrition educational session was to promote healthy eating habits and behaviors, with topics ranging from exclusive breastfeeding, caring and feeding of children with diarrhea, to the Food Pyramid and planning healthy family meals.
“Nutrition and diet have always been a topic of interest for Iraqi mothers,” said Zeinab Hussein, the center’s manager and head social worker. “Their biggest concern is whether they will be able to provide their families with a healthy and balanced diet, considering their limited budget.”
The nutritional educational sessions were based on focus group discussions held by International Medical Corps in this community to gain an understanding of the specific issues of concern for local Iraqi families. The focus group discussions revealed that the majority of the Iraqi families in the group have changed their eating behaviors. For example, they eat less fat in their diet than when they lived in Iraq; they have decreased the number of meals a day; and they have introduced Lebanese foods into their family’s diet. There are two main reasons why the refugees are eating less: poor appetite due to worries related to their refugee status, and inability to afford more foods. The focus group discussions also revealed that most Iraqi mothers were concerned about what to do when their children developed diarrhea, which foods should be avoided, and what are the best home remedies. In addition, they sought information on the best types of foods to help children’s concentration and energy levels and how they could reduce their family’s consumption of junk food.
For most Iraqi refugees, income-generating activities are scarce and most are living on limited budgets. Therefore, they are usually driven towards purchasing foods that are the least expensive – most often unhealthy foods. “A healthy lifestyle and diet based on the food pyramid, is costly” explained Caroline Abla, International Medical Corps’ Nutrition and Food Security Director, who recently conducted a nutrition session at the social center in Haret Hrek. She noted that the healthier choices of the pyramid, including fruits and vegetables, comprise the most expensive foods to purchase on a daily basis. “It’s interesting to note that the healthiest foods are overpriced; whereas junk food such as fast foods, chips, and sweets are the cheapest.”
Another topic discussed at the session was how to prepare oral rehydration salts (ORS) for children suffering from diarrhea. Many mothers noted that they can’t afford ORS, which cost approximately $8 (US). Ms. Abla demonstrated how to prepare ORS at home using clean water, salt and sugar. The importance of breastfeeding was also stressed, since the majority of participants were new mothers. “Breastfeeding helps foster and strengthen the newborn’s immune system; therefore it is essential to breastfeed,” Mrs. Abla explained.
Many of the participants also had specific questions about their family’s eating habits, which were answered during the session. The session concluded with healthy snacks including a variety of fruits for all participants.
“Everything is related and interlinked,” Mrs. Abla said. “Nutrition has an effect on health, which in turn has an effect on mental health. One cannot ignore the other; they all go hand-in-hand. When we eat healthily, we feel healthy – both physically and psychologically.”