Finding financial independence, following passions

Turkey is currently home to the world’s largest refugee population, hosting almost four million people who are trying to rebuild their lives. About 3.7 million people are Syrians who fled the conflict that has devastated their country over the last ten years.

Funded by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) under the European Union (EU) Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) is the biggest humanitarian programme in the history of the EU. It provides monthly cash assistance via debit cards to nearly 1.5 million vulnerable refugees in Turkey who struggle to make ends meet. The ESSN is implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), in coordination with the government of Turkey. 

The ESSN was launched in 2016 and is foreseen to be funded by the European Commission until 2023. In April 2020, the IFRC took over from the World Food Programme (WFP) as its leading partner, with around 300 dedicated Turkish Red Crescent staff working on the ground. Through predictable cash assistance, refugee families receive a monthly allowance per family member, enabling them to decide for themselves how to cover essential needs like rent, transport, bills, food and medicine. Based on family size, the programme offers additional quarterly top-ups. 

In January 2022, the IFRC launched the #PowerToBe campaign as part of the ESSN programme to counter negative perceptions of refugees across Europe. The campaign follows four Syrians living in Turkey – Hiba, a musician, Eslam, an illustrator, Ibrahim, a swimmer and Mohammed, a coffee lover – who are regaining control of their lives through the help of these monthly cash instalments, ultimately heliping to give them the power to be themselves. 

In 2022, Ibrahim wants to participate in the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim, Istanbul, 2021. © Nicole Tung / IFRC

The four protagonists each meet digitally with influential people from Germany, Italy, Sweden, Turkey, Portugal and Poland who share a common passion for music, art, water sports and coffee. The campaign shows how people from all walks of life can connect with one another at eye-level despite differences in language or background.

In the #PowerToBe campaign, fifteen-year-old drawer Eslam speaks to well-known German artist and illustrator Steffen Kraft, Italian street artist and painter Alice Pasquini and Swedish street artist Johan Karlgren about her passion for illustration. “Drawing a lot helped me to show the world, even if only a little, what happened in Syria,” Eslam said.

Ibrahim, who became paralysed during the conflict in Syria, connects with Polish professional high diver, Kris Kolanus about the freedom and boundlessness they both feel in the ocean. “Even though many things can hinder me, I am trying to do something. For next year, I'm preparing myself to swim the competition across the Bosporus,” Ibrahim shared.

Eslam and her sister Maya share the same passion and often draw together, Istanbul, 2021. © Nicole Tung / IFRC

Mohammed, a father of two, talks to Turkish coffee bean suppliers Hasibe and Ümit about his passion and memories associated with coffee. “When we came to Turkey to an empty house, we had nothing at all. Some Turkish brothers helped us, gave us some furniture.” They tasted his coffee and told him it was “the best they've ever had”.

Hiba, who now attends a music school in Istanbul, connects with Portuguese singer-songwriter April Ivy, whom she wrote and sang a song with. “I like to give people hope because whatever struggles we go through, there are actually nice things happening as well,” Hiba said.

The cash assistance provided by the ESSN programme helps give refugees some relief from an exceptionally challenging period of time where many are facing deepening debt and poverty due to the secondary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cash assistance helps give people like Hiba, Eslam, Mohammed and Ibrahim the freedom and dignity to decide how to cover essential needs, while at the same time providing the opportunity to invest back into the communities that host them, supporting the local Turkish economy. The enhanced financial independence afforded by regularly topped-up credit cards also allows individuals like the four #PowerToBe protagonists to unfold their full potential and follow their passions. 

Basic information

Activity name

Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN)




2016 - ongoing


Turkish Red Crescent, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), European Commission Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO), Turkish Government 


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