Being a Refugee Doesn’t Stop Political Engagement
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of an original two-part series. Read Part 1, “Pity the Nations: Women Refugees in Lebanon,” here.
In a refugee camp in Lebanon, the nongovernmental organization group I was traveling with met a young refugee who radiated confidence and agreed to talk with us. Fatima, married at 17, with one child and another on the way, had managed to finish high school. Every day, she travels to the university where she is in her fourth year of studying philosophy. She was very proud to show us her box of books and written papers, which was buried under a basket of clothes in the family tent. Fatima’s mother taught her 10 children, particularly her girls, that “education is the biggest sword” for success in life. Fatima prides herself on being “a strong woman,” and “if anyone harasses me, I know how to handle [myself.” She is one of the teachers at the Syrian Support Society’s schools in the Bekaa Valley, established for Syrian refugee children.
In a country where refugee children struggle to attend school, the society supports an extensive project called Relief and Educational Assistance (REA) that educates children ages 5 to 14 from the camps. The scope of the program is impressive: It was begun by two dedicated Lebanese women who are now the program’s co-managers and is staffed by a committed group of teachers and volunteers. REA is a full-service program that delivers quality education in a setting free from religious and political ideologies. The program employs 200 refugee teachers, many of whom are educated Syrian women who generally cannot find work in Lebanon. The program also removes the environmental barriers, such as transportation to and from school, that stand in the way of refugee children attending school.
REA’s goals are practical and locally based: Provide each child with one nutritional meal per day; recruit local Syrian teachers, which helps support families and the local economy; and transport children to and from schools, thus increasing the number of girls who can safely attend. Students can participate in extracurricular activities including arts and crafts, sports, music and drama. The schools offer counseling services for students who have been traumatized in the refugee process. REA also provides ancillary jobs to drivers, assistants, management and maintenance staff.
Altogether, the program engages the refugee community—especially women—creates jobs and helps reduce poverty. REA has created five schools that provide education to 2,800 children and relief to refugee families in need of clothing, bedding and food. But while impressive, these programs reach only a small percentage of the children.
KAFA is one of the premier women’s organizations in Lebanon. It is a “feminist, secular, Lebanese non-governmental civil society organization seeking to create a society that is free of social, economic and legal patriarchal structures that discriminate against women.” KAFA aims to eliminate all forms of violence against women and seeks to promote and institutionalize women’s equality through a combination of different approaches: advocacy and law reform; influencing public opinion and practices; conducting research and training; empowering women and children victims of violence; and providing them with social, legal and psychological support.
During our trip to Lebanon, we visited a remarkable day center set up by KAFA in the Bekaa Valley. The organization has helped hundreds of Syrian refugees through holistic case management that includes psychosocial aid, literacy training, legal aid and mobile teams that go into the camps to identify women and children at risk for violence. The center also assists Lebanese women who are victims of male violence.
We also met with KAFA’s staff in Beirut, where we discussed their work on trafficking and prostitution. KAFA conducted a research study in Lebanon and shared its findings in a report, “Exploring the Demand for Prostitution.” It’s a groundbreaking analysis of what Lebanese men say about their motives, perceptions and practices of purchasing women for the sex of prostitution. Asked how many times they had used women in prostitution over the course of their lives, the men cited figures ranging from four to 300, with 42 percent stating they had used more than 50 women in their lifetime.
That same day, we met with organizers of the Syrian League for Citizenship. We spoke with two Syrian women activists, refugees themselves, who were forced to leave their country because they faced imprisonment for their opposition activities. They told us that the number of young Syrian women activists coming into Lebanon is increasing.
In a world where the term “global citizenship” is an oxymoron, and in a part of the world where civic responsibility has been ravaged by long-term civil wars, the league is promoting principles of citizenship. From exile in Lebanon and in the midst of the continuing carnage in Syria, a cadre of activists and researchers are creating an ethical blueprint for a better society to arise not only out of Syria’s ashes, but also from an informed citizenship based on the cooperation of those willing to form a secular community not centered on religious, sectarian or tribal relationships.
The mandate of the Syrian League for Citizenship is to raise awareness and build the capacity of young civil-society activists. League members believe that more than ever, after the evisceration of the Syrian state and collapse of the social fabric, it is important to establish a “transitional justice” that will help build a renewed Syria and a homeland for all its citizens.
The league publishes a citizenship handbook in Arabic and English, and also organizes workshops, during which members use techniques such as role-playing to apply concepts of violation, consent, women’s rights and equality. One workshop illustrates their attempt to challenge the early marriage paradigm that dominates girls’ lives in traditional families. League members recognize that in addition to the patriarchal pressure that promotes early marriage, girls themselves may view marriage as a way out of their problems. Thus, the league works with mothers and daughters to challenge myths that early marriage “protects” young girls.
Girls might consider early marriage as a better option than a refugee tent, where privacy and security are nonexistent. A workshop facilitator asks a daughter to speak about her dreams: perhaps an education, a place of her own, a husband and eventually children.
The mothers, most whom have been married very early, are asked to speak about their experiences of marriage. Truths come out in these sessions. Many mothers echo the sentiments of one woman who said, “I lost my childhood. I had to leave school. Babies came quickly without my knowing anything about the sex act. I had a lot of responsibility and couldn’t continue to see my friends. I had more problems than I ever had before, including a dominating husband.”
Mothers and daughters are asked to exchange roles and debate what the other has reported. The role-playing helps de-romanticize rosy expectations girls may have of early marriage when they hear themselves speaking as their mothers. And the mothers, possibly for the first time, are able to speak honestly about their lives and how things might have been different.
We asked everyone we interviewed if they would return to Syria now that the war was winding down. Many refugees would like to return and many love their country, but the physical infrastructure has been devastated. Most buildings have been destroyed, there are few villages to return to and most roads are closed. Prices have skyrocketed for everything, given the influx of war profiteers.
Women told us they could not return without justice. Justice, to them, includes knowing what happened to relatives and friends who were detained or disappeared. Justice means not returning to a country that will conscript sons for the army. One refugee told us, “I cannot come back. My son is 16. They will take him to the army.” Justice includes accountability for the crimes Syrian President Bashar Assad has perpetrated against his people, although there is little chance of this in the short term. And justice includes security—the knowledge that in returning, they will be safe.
Women insisted, too, that justice includes the complete removal of ISIS from the country. ISIS is still present in parts of Syria. After being defeated in Raqqa, mainly by Kurdish-led forces, ISIS fighters were allowed to leave the city in a convoy of trucks, which conveyed them and their families across Syria. Many of them have regrouped in the Syrian city of Idlib, and others are spread throughout the country. Numerous ISIS combatants have escaped to other countries, where they have sworn to wreak havoc.
In the early months of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Assad initially imprisoned many Islamist fighters, only to unexpectedly free them several months later. Their release was viewed as a politically calculated strategy of the regime to destabilize opposition forces by redirecting their resistance, and complicate, confuse and subdue the citizenry. Samar Yazbek, in her extraordinary book “The Crossing,” quotes a Syrian activist who said, “It’s an impossible choice: either we focus on fighting Assad’s army or we fight the extremist battalions and the mercenaries who’ve muscled in on the revolution and corrupted it. We’re worn out from the sky with the planes, the barrel bombs and the missiles, and from the ground by these Islamist battalions.”
The fates of both Syria and Lebanon are in the hands of proxies. Syrian refugee activists told us that Russian forces are everywhere in Syria, and Russia supports Assad. A large part of the population still living in Syria also supports Assad.
The Syrians know they are not welcome in Lebanon. Refugees told us that they get blamed for everything there, even the traffic. The head of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian church, speaking from the pulpit in July, told his congregation that Syrian refugees are “snatching daily bread from our mouths and throwing them [Lebanese] into a state of deprivation.”
Tensions in Lebanon are sure to increase with the recent news that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Nariri was held in Saudi Arabia and just allowed to return to his country on Nov. 21. Reports suggest the Saudis pressured Hariri to criticize Iran for sowing “disorder and destruction” in Lebanon, and to rebuke Hezbollah for creating a “state within a state.” The fact that Hariri delivered his message in Saudi Arabia signaled that the Saudis have now plunged into Lebanon’s internal affairs and its fragile coalition government. The Saudi state minister for gulf affairs has warned, “The Lebanese must choose between peace or aligning with Hezbollah.”
The Saudi announcement may also show that they are ready to openly confront what they view as an aggressive and expansionist Iran, whose proxy in Syria is Hezbollah, fighting alongside Assad’s forces. Some analysts think that the Saudis would not have delivered this ultimatum unless it had the backing of the United States, another proxy in the Syrian civil war who so far has been on the losing side of the conflict.
Unfortunately, this article ends where it begins: mired in the unbreakable web that weaves these two countries of Lebanon and Syria together. The proxies of Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are now spinning an even bigger web, in which millions of refugees are caught and which will determine their future. One thing is certain: Any ensuing conflict will be fought on the battlefield of women’s bodies.