At every bank they were refused. Even loan sharks turned them away. But they were desperate. Without money or insurance, Lebanese hospitals don’t admit poor Palestinian refugees. And without some kind of dowry, couples were unable to get married. Frustrated, the inhabitants of a Palestinian camp in Beirut decided to take matters into their own hands. ‘It was the best thing we ever did,’ said Jihad Halimeh as she welcomed me into her house where several women were holding a meeting. There were about 10 women altogether and each was handing over the hard-earned sum of $100 — scrimped and saved from monthly incomes averaging around $250 to $300 — to their designated accountant.
‘You see,’ said Halimeh. ‘We don’t need anyone any more. We don’t have to be scoffed at or humiliated as banks and others tell us to go away. Now, we depend on each other.’
The idea is simple: a group of residents meet once a month and deposit a certain amount of money. And every month, one of the group members collects the entire sum. The sum goes around until everyone has had a turn.
‘Let me explain it better,’ said Halimeh. ‘Right now, I have a group going made up of 10 people. Every month and for 10 months, each person of the group has to give me $100. This brings a monthly sum of $1,000 and every month one person of the group gets this $1,000 to do what he or she pleases with it.’
Two years ago, Halimeh used that money to pay for her son’s appendicitis operation.
‘How else could I have paid for it?’ she said. ‘I don’t even know if the hospital would have admitted my son if I hadn’t had the money ready.’ It was Halimeh who created the first group in 1995. Her cousin was visiting from a refugee camp in Damascus and told her about these groups, popular in Syrian camps, which create quick lump sums of money. And as life in the poverty-stricken camps in Beirut was getting even harder with high unemployment and debts piling up, Halimeh decided to try out the idea at her own camp. She recruited a group. Among them was Mariam Hariri, who was eager to begin her daughter’s dowry.
‘We were only about five or six people then and each person put in $50,’ recalled Hariri. ‘But it was enough to buy some gold for my daughter.’
The idea quickly caught on and many flocked to Halimeh and Hariri wanting to create their own groups. In the seven years that Hariri has joined groups, she’s been able to throw a wedding reception for one of her sons, build an extension to her home and ‘best of all, I presented my son on the eve of his marriage with $4,000,’ she said proudly.
One woman bought a taxi licence for her unemployed husband and ensured a steady income for her family while another group member was finally able to purchase a wheelchair for her physically disabled brother.
Whoever launches the group is responsible for its book-keeping and for any shortcomings.
‘We’ve never had anyone not pay up their dues,’ said Halimeh. ‘It could happen that one month I may have to cover for somebody but that person immediately pays me back the following month.’
Those needing the collected sum for medical reasons always take priority in receiving the money. ‘Other than that we take turns,’ said Halimeh.
For one woman, Majida, groups have become her life security.
‘I’m always in one group or another,’ she said. ‘You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. If somebody in my family gets sick, I immediately ask for my money. And if the year passes and no emergencies occur, then I use it to buy things for the house. This year, for example, we’ll use it to go on holiday in Syria.’
A group of children was quietly watching the proceedings in the room. They, too, have started their own banking system. Their banker is their grandmother.
‘The last time I had 45 children from the camp in a group and each had to give me $3 every week,’ explained the grandmother proudly. ‘Every three weeks, one child would receive around $60.’
Suddenly all eyes turned to me. ‘Why don’t you create your own group in your neighbourhood?’ said Halimeh.
I promised to try. But I have yet to. Somehow I doubted that I would find the same loyalty, determination and commitment as the refugees did in each other. Halimeh offered me the chance to join her group when I need money. I may just do that.
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