Lebanon, with a population of 4.4 million, is currently acting as host to more than one million Syrian refugees - three-quarters of whom are women and children. As a consequence, many women are now supporting their families alone for the first time in their lives. The proportionally large influx of refugees into Lebanon has put a strain on schools, hospitals and water supplies. Many refugees have exhausted their limited savings, and some have taken under-the-table jobs with low wages and poor working conditions to feed their families. The refugees also live with the constant threat of being deported back to Syria.
In the run up to International Women‘s Day 2016, ActionAid met five Syrian women who have been making good use of the Gender Empowerment Training offered at ActionAid’s Community Centre in Baalbeck, Lebanon, and who are overcoming the odds to not just survive but to actually thrive in Lebanon.
Amira Hassan Al Bdroun, 31, is from Daraa in Syria. She is currently living in Baalbeck and fled Syria four years ago due to the fighting and fearing the safety of her five young children. She is now divorced and feels she has to take on a man’s role in the absence of her husband:
“For sure women are now taking on traditionally male roles. For me, I never imagined myself working in a gas station, now I am selling it and supporting refugees with their fuel allocations. This humanitarian work gives me the feeling I am an active agent in the community, drawing a smile on the refugees’ faces makes me feel better, and all the time I am saying as long as I am safe and my kids are safe, I have everything.”
Amira’s husband could not take care of her and their five young children. He left them all in a garage where they were living and went back to Syria. Amira favours her divorced status:
“I prefer this as my husband was so aggressive and stressed. Last year, he tried to throw boiling water on me. I can take care of my kids. I try to make my kids proud of what I do, and to be a positive role model.”
Amira was a teacher when living in Syria and once the bombing started she continued teaching her students at her home. In Lebanon, she is registered at the UNHCR who have given her food vouchers and pay her rent. However with no official right to work she has been vulnerable to people not paying her for jobs that she does. She says “I am depressed due to this. I hate that somebody is violating my rights, I just asked for my money and they will not pay me.”
Amira received empowerment training at ActionAid Community Centre in Baalbeck, including psycho-social support.
“After that, I was more comfortable and able to help others with their issues. All of us [Syrian refugees] are living under stress. Now I am a volunteer with the community centre.”
Without an official right to work in Lebanon, she has nonetheless become increasingly active in helping others. She works at the local gas station giving out fuel to refugees.
“The men smile and laugh when they see me working at the gas station. When you practice this kind of job, you have the feeling you are empowered. When I left Syria, I was so scared about how I would live alone, sleep alone in the garage at night with my kids, now I don’t care, I can work and walk around and I don’t worry.”
Bushra is 34 years old and from Syria. She travelled together with her mother from Damascus to Lebanon 4 months ago when Bushra’s father passed away. They currently live in Baalbeck, Lebanon with her mother, brother and his family.
“When I first arrived here, there was a big void. I had no job, I roamed the streets not knowing what to do.”
Bushra keeps herself busy fixing electronic products for her family - much to the curiosity of her niece.
“I like to discover what is inside electrical devices. I find myself with free time and nothing to do, so when things break at home, I immediately begin working. I love to work in it, but only as a hobby - I do not need to work in it. To work later and open a workshop, I’ll think about it. Why not? The role of an electrician is mostly for men. But it shouldn’t be exclusively for men. Why should it be them only? We can work even better than them. A woman can concentrate more in such matters, paying attention to fine points.”
Before the civil war, Bushra had spent time studying abroad and returned to work in social care, supporting people with autism. In Lebanon however, she is not registered as a refugee and has no right to work.
“Even if I was registered with the UNHCR, I still do not have the right work. This point had surprised me, not being able to work and make a living! My brother is the one who works day and night. Salaries for the Syrians are less than the Lebanese.”
Bushra intends to return to Syria and study further: “I don’t see a chance that I can go to university here. I want to study abroad, I want to improve myself then go to Syria and work in the private sector.” Bushra is also a recipient of the Gender Empowerment training at the Action Aid Community Centre in Baalbeck.
“I love doing volunteer work. When I came here, I wanted to offer something for the Syrians, to do something that makes me feel that I am contributing, and doing something for them. In the end, I will at least get something in return - developing myself.”
Ghroub Edriss is 40 years old, originally from Homs in Syria and has been in Lebanon for almost four years. She now lives in Baalbeck on a small farm with her husband and three children. In Syria, her husband was a lawyer and she was a manager for a research centre, living well and from a wealthy family: “I was born with a ‘golden spoon’ in my mouth,” she says of her past.
Ghroub and her family are registered with the UNHCR but they now do not receive food or fuel vouchers:
“As we are refugees here, we have no right to work. I worry when I travel to visit family in other areas of Lebanon that I will be stopped at a check point and expelled from the country.”
Her husband’s friend, a Lebanese doctor, asked them to live on his small farm, to look after the property and sell water to the neighbours. For each truckload they receive 5,000 Lebanese pounds.
“When we came to Baalbeck, I isolated myself with my kids for almost six months, I was really depressed. After a while, I started working on the farm. As my husband was away some of the time, I ended up driving the truck and selling the water in the neighbourhood.
“The men in the neighbourhood are surprised seeing me drive the truck. Women are equal to men. We are sisters of men. In my family we are all equal.”
Ghroub has transitioned to working in more ‘male’ roles to survive. “Because of the war, Syrian women need to cope with the new situation. For me, maybe this was easy but for others they are doing harder jobs.”
Fatima Yahya from Damascus is 30 years old. She left Syria for Lebanon when the conflict started and is working as a hairdresser to support her husband and kids. Her husband is a refugee in Germany and she is hoping to join him with their two daughters and son. She has had her salon for a year and cuts hair for both men and women. She worked as a hairdresser back in Syria but never used to cut men’s hair. Now she needs to make as much money as she can to support her children and her husband.
Fatima Yahya stands outside her salon in Baalbeck and talks about acceptance in her new home and role:
“Because of the situation, I see more women doing traditionally male roles, for sure we are doing it because we need the money, instead of asking people to support us. We have the power to do this.”
Baalbeck is a fairly conservative area in Lebanon. She finds men are not accepting of the new trend of Syrian women taking on more traditionally male roles, but finds some of the more open-minded men do accept it.
“To be a successful woman is hard, I miss the time with my kids and my husband, I miss what they are doing at school and tracking their school work but I have to do this to survive.”
Fatima has done various gender empowerment and leadership trainings with ActionAid:
“The most important thing with the gender training is that I felt empowered, I am self-confident and at the same time I feel I can now support others. It’s important to have your own career and business, and not to wait for others to support you or give you aid. If I didn’t have this salon, my kids and I would be in a bad situation. I want to improve my skills and career, perhaps progress to a bigger salon.”
Khuloud Kerbash is a 32 year old refugee from Sweida, Syria. She studied accounting at university but now works as a painter in Baalbeck, Lebanon. Working at the home of a client, she says:
“I wish to do all men’s jobs. I wish there was equality between men and women. I, for example, can be an ordinary woman in my home. I love cleaning the house and taking care of my home a lot. At the same time, I like to be a ‘man’ outside. I mean, to be self-sufficient and with a strong personality. I feel very, very happy that I am doing something that is difficult for a man or woman to think of. I feel very happy. I am the first woman painter.”
“The crisis, had a great impact on us, both men and women. Firstly, we lost a lot of our country’s men, and many women were widowed. I don’t think anyone in the whole world faced what we women did in Syria. We were the ones most affected. We are alone, some have lost their father, brother or husband.”
Khuloud and her husband have no right to work in Lebanon. Her husband suffers from skin cancer and is unable to afford treatment or get the necessary medical cover via aid organisations.
“There is no security for us, especially for us Syrians. We face a lot of problems, especially that I adopt a modern lifestyle, I feel that they look at me in a strange way. Excuse me but why does the man have power in his house, it’s because of his work and the material things he brings. I feel now that I have power. I can work and bring in money to help my home and myself, I certainly have it. Woman must break free from all those shackles. The days of your and my grandmothers are gone, with all their things. We must develop and depend on ourselves.”
Khuloud says of the ActionAid community centre in Baalbeck that all the women there have come to value it.
“I feel that I have left my soul in Syria. I guess that I have adapted to exile here, I have friends who are like sisters, and I feel that the Centre is my family home. It has compensated me [for the loss] of my family and country.
“Here, we are brothers and sisters, we are one hand and one heart.”