Letter from Lebanon

Three women sew at Basmeh & Zeitooneh in Shatila, Lebanon, in 2014. Photo by Youssef Shoufan

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.

shatila-camp-palestinians-beirut-03The 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.

shatila-refugee-campThe 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.

Three women sew at Basmeh & Zeitooneh in Shatila, Lebanon, in 2014. Photo by Youssef Shoufan
Three women sew at Basmeh & Zeitooneh in Shatila, Lebanon, in 2014. Photo by Youssef Shoufan

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.

shatila-camp-palestinians-beirut-06As 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.

 IMOVE Foundation: www.move4syrians.org
I MOVE Foundation: www.move4syrians.org

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.

shatila-camp-palestinians-beirut-05There 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.

Ashura 2After 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.

Jane Sloane

Letter From Turkey #1

I woke up on my boat the day of my departure for Ankara in Turkey to news that two bombs there had killed almost 100 people and caused horrific injuries to hundreds more. With Ankara in chaos I instead flew into Istanbul with a colleague in order to meet with women’s groups in Turkey, and to join a convening of Syrian women activists that Global Fund for Women co-funded with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and MADRE.

Syrian women activists http://www.albawaba.com/editorchoice/syrian-women-578319Arriving into Istanbul, we heard the call to prayer as we drove alongside an ancient stone wall. I looked ahead to see temples on the horizon, glowing green and pink in the evening light. The next morning some 60 people gathered, including nine Syrian women activists and sixteen Iraqi women activists. Many more from Syria had tried to come but were stopped for political reasons.

In Istanbul we were joined by photographer Alissa Everett, who had been commissioned by Global Fund for Women to take photos and record narratives of the women we were to meet. Her photo-activism and human rights documentary is captured on her website.

The testimony from the women gathered was searing. In the final hour of our two day conference, a 22 year old Yazidi woman asked to speak. She asked to be called Louzina and for her real name to not be shared publicly. This is her story.

I have come to this conference from Kocho village in the Somal District, which is part of Doagok in Northern Iraq. I am one of the Yazidi girls who survived ISIS. Nearly all of my family, my mother, my father, two of my brothers, were all killed. I have one brother left and my sister who also recently escaped captivity.

Amongst you, here with you, I feel strong. When I return I don’t know if I will feel the same. I was kidnapped on August 14 2014 and was kept captive in Mosul until May 2015. I was being moved from one place to another and the person keeping guard was planting explosive devices for ISIS as we moved. I managed to escape and now I am in a camp with other Yazidi people. I would like to do something for my people. We are a kind people, we are a closed religion. We don’t do any harm, we don’t proselytize. Yet we have no one protecting us, we are attacked for our faith and because we are not Muslim.

They (ISIS) killed all the men, they raped all the women, they stole all our wealth. I don’t know what more they can take from us. Out of 1,700 people they took 1,400 people and killed all but 16 men and children between 12 and 17 were sent to institutes and those under 12 stayed with their families. Many women were taken as sex slaves in captivity. In other areas Yazidi males were forced to convert to Islam and if they refused they were killed.

This was not just ISIS, it was also other tribes. I would like to be an activist and talk about women’s rights. I have finished sixth grade and would like to finish my studies but I can’t continue in the camp. The camp is my home and my lifeline for now.

The man who accompanied ‘Louzina’ to the convening is a Kurdish Muslim who is married with three children and works as a lawyer. He has known many people from the Sinjar Province, an area which includes Yazidi villages. Following the attack by ISIS on Aug 3rd 2014, a close Yazidi friend of his came to Waleed, telling him hysterically that his sister was kidnapped by ISIS. Two days later the friend’s sister escaped and Waleed witnessed her trauma first hand — she was screaming names in total psychological shock.

IRAQ-UNREST-YAZIDIS-DISPLACED http://eaworldview.com/2015/06/iraq-1st-hand-rape-abuse-slavery-a-yazidi-womans-ordeal-with-the-islamic-state/After a few days she was able to share her story that she had been kidnapped and raped. He was able to gain her trust because he is a friend of her brother and he spoke their Kurdish dialect. Through his work on a project with one of the women’s groups funded by Global Fund for Women that helps support to rape survivors, this man started meeting more and more Yazidi girls and heard their stories. He gained their trust, and survivors started contacting him directly to ask for help if they knew of any other relatives who may have escaped from ISIS.

Coming from a closed society, Yazidi girls and women need special psycho-social support and treatment because of their violent exposure to the outside world and because they are not used to talking openly to others as another layering factor on top of the depth of trauma from being raped. They are often raped viciously and multiple times due to the beliefs of their violators.

As you may know, the Yazidis are a Kurdish speaking people who live principally in northern Iraq. They number approximately 500,000 – 600,000 with another 200,000 settled in other parts of the world. Most of the Yazidi population are poor and oppressed and they hold tightly to their spiritual tradition that they claim is the world’s oldest. They are monotheists, believing in God as creator of the world, which he has placed under the care of seven holy beings or angels, the chief of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Persecution of Yazidis has continued in their home communities within Iraq, under fundamentalist Sunni Muslim revolutionaries. From August 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria targeted Yazidis in its commitment and campaign to “purify” Iraq and neighboring countries of non-Islamic influences.

Iraqi-Women-Activists1This convening was an important opportunity to hear testimony directly from women’s rights activists from Syria and Iraq who are at the frontline of the conflict. These women’s human rights defenders represent an early warning system for what is happening in these countries. They also represent a frontline response and the best hope of peacekeeping and sustainable peace in the region. For this reason, it is essential to support them in their organizing for human rights and in taking advantage of the available legal human rights mechanisms to push for reform and justice.

Many of these women risked their lives and their safety by attending the convening. Some won’t be able to return to the same place they left and will travel to a new place as a result of coming. All of them have collectively been involved in such strategies and solutions as creating underground networks for emergency escape, shelters for women who have been violated, medical and health care support, distribution systems for aid distribution and brokering ceasefires and armed conflict.

We need to get more money into the hands of women’s groups to support their advocacy and campaigning as an essential strategy to advance women’s and girls’ human rights and to end the gendercide perpetrated by state actors, militias and other armed groups. I was told that without the funding Global Fund for Women was able to contribute, this convening would not have taken place. These women needed this platform to speak and the strategic space to plan their recommendations for action by the international community to address the human rights crisis faced by Iraqi and Syrian women.

Away from the convening, we had some time to regroup and rest on the weekend. One of my colleagues and I spent a few hours visiting the Blue Mosque, the museum of Hagia Sophia, the Istanbul Hippodrome and the Grand Bazaar.

At Hagia Sophia we craned our necks high to the huge dome and the incredible sight of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and angels side by side with Islamic features such as the member (pulpit), mihrab (prayer niche) and four minarets in a holy place. It felt surreal, and this feeling was augmented by the miracle testing spectacle of the Weeping Column. The column comprises a worn copper facing pierced by a hole.

Legend has it that the pillar was blessed by St Gregory the Miracle Worker and that putting one’s finger into the hole can lead to ailments being healed if the finger emerges moist. I watched a long line of hopeful tourists all awaiting their turn to check for their own miracle healing, and of course to snap that ubiquitous selfie of miracle-in-the-making.

Hagia Sophia, whose name means holy wisdom, was originally an Orthodox church that was converted to a mosque when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The new rulers decided to convert the church to a mosque and plaster over the Christian features, not knowing that plaster is one of the best forms of preservation. It remained a mosque until 1931, and in 1935 it was reopened as a museum by the Republic of Turkey.

blue mosque http://islaam_introduction.tripod.com/al-islaamPhotos.htmlAt the Blue Mosque, I thought I’d made the right decision to bring a scarf and to wear a dress with longish sleeves and below the knee, but it turns out I wasn’t modest enough and so I was given a very flattering faded elasticized skirt to wear over my dress to ensure no flesh was exposed.

“They’re worried about your calves” said the man behind me, who turned out to be a doctor from Adelaide, my home town, who had spoken at the future health leaders gathering that I’m due to speak at in a couple of week’s time in Australia.

Later, in the Grand Bazaar, I had the wonderful experience of discovering cashmere slippers, every kind of Turkish delights in the most sticky and stretchy forms and a herbalist who intoxicated me with aromatic herbal teas and potions for every kind of ailment.
“You try, it is the most wonderful tea!” he said before reaching for another blend. Soon rosebuds and citrus and cardamom and lavender were floating softly into little bags and, after we left, I turned back to see my tea magician waving to me with both hands.

I’ll be sharing another letter from Turkey as well as from Lebanon and Egypt to capture some of the stories and searing experiences of women’s groups and human rights defenders we’re meeting with on this trip.

Listening to these women’s stories – they are at once heartbreaking, infuriating, inspiring, devastating – affirms our responsibility to do all that we can to change the course of history.

Jane Sloane