The stories of women who had escaped ISIS from when I was in Istanbul were still very much on my mind as we flew into Beirut. My sense of the city was a place under siege, in spite of a vibrant café culture. At this stage the elections were still to take place and the outcome – a continuation of repression – was still a possibility rather than reality.
We arrived in Beirut late in the afternoon and walked the tiny curvy lanes and steep steps past smashed stone buildings bumping against elegant frames. Small shops bright with gorgeous lamps, while nearby people sitting in bars and cafes smoked water pipes and, in the distance, backlit churches and elegant mosques.
We were in a land which has its descendants from Phoenicia and that had weathered the Turks, the Ottomans, the Crusaders, the Europeans and the Assyrians, the exiles and dispossessed over thousands of years.
The following day we began our visits to women’s rights groups funded by Global Fund for Women and the true horror of the refugee situation became evident.
The situation in the camps and settlements is desperate beyond imagination, with groups working with Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi and other refugees stretched to the limit in dealing with a human catastrophe of unimaginable scale.
Try to conceive of some 37,000 people crammed into a one kilometer space (less than a mile) and with no access to electricity, water, health services, let alone jobs and education. Families string their own live wires to a crisscross of wires running low above the tiny walkways around the settlements and every few weeks someone gets electrocuted. Water from the wells in the settlements is salty and so all drinking water has to be brought in. As numbers continue to grow so does the violence, especially against women and children.
Women have normalized domestic violence and many were saying it was understandable that their husbands were hitting them given they couldn’t work. Moreover, it was better that their husbands hit them than lash out at anyone else. Women saw themselves as sacrificing their bodies and minds in service of the greater good of the refugee community.
The United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNWRA) has prime responsibility for dealing with the issues inside the camps, and is totally unable to cope with the size of the catastrophe. This is exacerbated by the ‘trickling off’ factor of countries divesting their aid funding.
Lack of access to medical treatment means women are giving birth with little support and we heard from women about their children being born with disabilities and deformities. Due to the lack of access to health care these babies are medicated to a vegetative state in order for parents to deal with their children having fits from epilepsy and other mental disorders.
More and more children are being born as access to contraception is limited and changing behavior and attitudes is a major challenge. People in the settlements are banned from doing most jobs (the Lebanese government lists some 70 that are formally banned) except the most menial labor or creating their own informal incomes within the camp, so having enough to eat and drink remains a daily challenge.
Women’s groups are supporting women and children in the settlements in myriad ways. This includes providing a space for women to learn and know about their rights so they can talk to their husbands about the violence, know how to use and have access to contraception and to psycho-social support and legal advice.
By connecting women and providing a support group, women are able to firstly come to understand that domestic violence is not normal or acceptable and they need to act for themselves and their children. Many are then supported to challenge and change the violence perpetuated against them by their husbands.
It is infinitely preferable for a women to know her rights and to draw on her own power to change what she can than to be the recipient of passive welfare that keeps her suspended as a victim and dependent. While there are larger organizations providing psycho-social support and emergency relief to children in particular, the holistic approach to broader empowerment programs for women is essential to shift power and support real and sustained change within the community. Providing development relief is finite and temporary, while supporting women to know and act on their rights is powerful and permanent.
Once women can claim this power it makes it easier for them to imagine what they can do to earn a small income and our grantee partners are providing tools and training for women to sew clothes and curtains, sell food and knit garments that they can also trade and sell within the camps. With this income the women can access contraception outside of the camps in order to ensure a break from the perpetual pregnancies that are so common in these settlements, especially for Syrian women.
These women’s groups are also working with the men so that they realize that by sustaining violence against their wives and families they are also violating themselves, psychically and otherwise. Changing attitudes and behavior within these camps is critical to building a culture of peace and transformative action. Of course these women’s groups are also advocating to change laws that are creating such desperate conditions in the camps so that they address the root cause of some of this misery.
As a result of this denial of human rights, these camps are also a potential tinderbox for extremism – in these conditions you can imagine that people in these camps will take the first ticket out, and if that happens to by aligning with an extremist cause or an armed group in order to have a chance of a different life then so be it. Given the denial of so many basic human services including electricity, water, food, education, health care, and shelter by the Lebanese government, there is no reason for gratitude or loyalty to the host country. Refugees are rendered living ghosts by the state – existing rather than living – and yet their numbers are rising.
There are layers of rejection, ejection and dislocation that are played out in the camps. For many Palestinians refugees, they’ve had to leave their country, have existed in their own camps, then in camps in Syria, then left again for Lebanon and then here they are rejected by the local communities. This perpetual emotional and physical violence takes its toll.
At the same time, we cannot expect the countries closest to the conflict and repression to absorb the load. We need a global contract on a quota system for each country in the world to take their allocation of refugees with a commitment to provide them their basic human rights. As long as we continue to expect those countries bumping the borders of repressive and extremist states to take the lion’s share of refugees we’re going to contribute to a human catastrophe of an exponential scale, lose another generation of young people and accelerate and extend the violence, wars and conflict playing out in so many countries at present.
We must advocate individually and collectively for this kind of compact.
In the midst of this darkness I walked into a space where a children’s yoga class was taking place in one of the camps. The class was conducted by Nikita Shahbazi, a yoga teacher supported by I Move Foundation, one of the women’s organizations funded by Global Fund for Women.
What has the yoga class meant for you?, we asked one boy through a translator. “I hear the voices of animals when I move, and I dream of nature,” he said. This boy had tapped into a stream of spiritual awareness and consciousness beyond the drab everyday surroundings. I stand and watch the children, mesmerized and, equally mesmerized, a clear-eyed girl stands watching me.
Later, back in the room of one of the women’s groups, I ask a young girl what she wants to be and she smiles and says via a translator, that she’d like to be an interior designer. These children still have dreams, ideas and hope. I ask a boy who has survived domestic violence what he wants to be when he grow up – a pilot he says. Of course – he wants to rise above it all and fly away.
“All of the problems of the parents are pouring themselves into the children,” explains one of the women who led us into the camp. This may be true of families anywhere, I think, however, that the depth of suffering in such a confined space over so long substantially increases the impact of these problems when they transfer to children, especially in the form of violence. While many children still have light and life, when I look into the eyes of many of the women I pass in the camps, their eyes are dead.
There is graffiti on the walls of the camps, only this graffiti is warning children about harassment and encouraging them to scream if they are touched or grabbed. We’re told that Syrian children aren’t used to screaming – this is a new way of their responding to a situation and yet, we were told, one girl did exactly that recently, and people came running to protect her from an older man. If girls escape harassment they may still be married early, especially as polygamy and sexual slavery is on the increase and girls as young as 10 are given away, supposedly to protect their security and yet the opposite is true. Some girls end up being taken to the Gulf States where older men will use and abuse them.
What is critical is giving women access to some form of income so they can use money for water, food, access to contraception outside the camps and to health care. The groups we visited were providing women the tools to start their own micro-businesses within the camp so they can sell goods such as knitted garments, handmade clothes and curtains, sweets – and two sisters had created a yogurt business with the tools provided.
One woman had experience in preparing traditional sweets and accessed $350 of tools provided by a grantee partner. She widened her work from income she received. Then she created a workshop and her son bought a trolley to sell sweets in front of schools. From this she would have made about $200 per month. Other women were using sewing machines to repair dresses and to make curtains, and these curtains are in demand because people are rebuilding.
I wonder out loud if the children have any access to crayons and paints to be able to draw what they are feeling. “Yes,” says one of the women involved in one of the organizations we’re supporting. Children are drawing bombs, missiles and people dead on streets when they first come to camp – later their drawings change to trees and homes as they settle in and get support from psychologists.
After time in the camps I feel a sense of guilt as well as relief at returning to our hotel accommodation. The next day is the emotionally-charged Ashura, which commemorates the death in battle of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein 1,300 years ago. We’re told to stay close to the hotel and to not walk the streets or travel far. This is an event that is pivotal to the split between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam and it’s marked by Shi’ites around the world with a re-telling of the story, weeping and prayer, and men flagellating themselves in some parts of the country. Hezbollah increasingly uses the occasion to mobilize followers with the understanding that Islamic State is one of the most powerful Sunni groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s becoming each year more and more an occasion to send messages, to mobilize,” International Crisis Group expert Sahar Atrache said of Hezbollah’s observance of Ashura. “Now the rationale is… it’s either Assad or the Islamic State. For them it’s really an existential war.”
I take a break and grab my goggles for a swim in the rooftop pool in the hotel where we’re staying. As always, I’m the only one swimming, and it feels surreal, stroke by stroke, to be swimming while only a few miles away are the refugee settlements and camps with all I’ve experienced there.
Above me is the brightest moon and I will not forget this – the great wash of forces, refugees struggling for survival, the rising fundamentalism, those children finding dreams and hope and peace in their yoga classes in the camps, and myself, a woman swimming under a night sky seeking to make sense of it all.