No Escape from Suffering: Syrian Refugee Women in Beirut
By Yara Nahle
No Escape from Suffering: Syrian Refugee Women in Beirut
Hamra Street, historically regarded as the heart of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, continues to be known as a tourist destination with its trendy shops, restaurants, and cafés, and as a haven for its religiously and ethnically diverse population. Recently, however, a new group of people has arrived in a place once known as the Champs-Élysées of the Middle East: Syrians, including large numbers of women and children, who have fled war in their country only to face the harsh realities of working or even living in the streets of Beirut.
A New Hard Life in Exile
The crisis began six years ago when vicious fighting in neighboring Syria caused hundreds of thousands of people to escape to Lebanon. A recent UN report estimated that there are approximately 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon—representing nearly one-fourth of the country’s total population and making it the world’s largest per capita recipient of refugees. Among them are a growing number of women who struggle to find affordable living accommodations in the absence of newly constructed refugee camps; others are homeless and live on the streets of Beirut. Over the last few years, it has become increasingly common to see women selling chewing gum or flowers, or even begging in the streets—often with their children beside them—in an effort to survive.
According to a February 2016 Amnesty International (AI) report, one in five Syrian refugee households is headed by a woman, some of whom are widows, while others have husbands who have chosen to remain in Syria or have disappeared as a result of the conflict. These women face enormous pressure to provide for their households, especially in light of restrictions placed on Syrian refugees by the Lebanese government that prohibit them from working in occupations other than “agriculture, hygiene, [or] construction.” As a result, most Syrian women are forced to find temporary, informal, and low-skilled work—primarily in agriculture or as domestic help—that afford meager salaries and little job security. While the average wage of Syrian refugee women is just US$165 per month, the average rent in Beirut is US$236, AI reported. In addition, the many who do not have valid residence permits or cannot afford to renew them are even further limited in employment options and fear arrest and deportation back to Syria.
Twenty-two-year-old Sanaa is just one of the many Syrian refugee women who has experienced the consequences of war and displacement—a tragedy in which women are often the most vulnerable victims. Sanaa has two sons—six-year-old Hassan and three-year-old Izdihar—and a two-year-old daughter, Malaka. Originally from Idlib, in northwestern Syria, she decided to leave with her children eight months ago after not having heard for two years from her husband who had joined one of the groups fighting the Syrian regime. Alone in a foreign country, the young mother had no choice but to spend her days begging for food or money.
“I can’t work because I have no one to look after my children in my absence. I have to take them with me wherever I go, and the only place I can keep them by my side is the street, so I practically live on the street,” Sanaa says.
As Amnesty International has reported, Syrian refugee women are often sexually harassed, threatened, and even assaulted—an experience that Sanaa knows all too well. When she first arrived in Lebanon, Sanaa was homeless, so she would spend not only all day, but also all night, on the streets. Even in a relatively Westernized city like Beirut, women rarely go out alone after dark for fear of being assaulted or assumed to be a prostitute. And like many other women with no social safety net or financial security, Sanaa faces ongoing pressure to enter the world of prostitution.
“When I’m sitting here, peacefully, especially at night, men pass by and ask me for the price of one night,” she says bitterly. “I stay silent, I don’t say a word back, because there’s really nothing to say. People think that because I’m poor, they have the right to humiliate and take advantage of me. They think that because I live on the street, I am public property.”
While sexual exploitation and becoming a victim of sex trafficking are constant threats, other forms of physical violence are also an ever-present danger. This time, it comes from another Syrian refugee, a painter who sets up his canvas on a corner not far from where Sanaa sits with her children. He has assaulted Sanaa on two separate occasions because he believes that her children annoy his customers when they play nearby.
One afternoon, while Sanaa was sitting quietly on the street, the painter suddenly ran up to her, cursing and threatening to hurt her if she did not keep her children away from the area where he paints. “You don’t get to tell me what to do,” she shouted back. “Even if you get the government to kick me out of the street, I won’t leave. I’m staying here.” Sanaa, who never had the courage to confront anyone before, says that her recent experiences have made her braver, and that she will no longer allow anyone to humiliate her or harm her children.
Faced with inadequate housing and employment options and insufficient levels of humanitarian assistance, it is not only adult refugees who are forced to eke out a meager living selling goods on the streets of Beirut. Sixteen-year-old Fatima also spends her days on the street, trying to sell chewing gum to other girls her age passing by on the way to school or going to shop at expensive clothing stores. She hopes to return home—at 2:00 am—with 15,000 Lebanese pounds (US$10) in her pocket.
Despite her hardships, Fatima tries to lead the life of a normal teenager as much as possible. Like other girls her age, she enjoys following the latest fashion trends. Dressed in colorful clothes, she smiles as she gazes at the store windows before realizing that buying one of the garments inside would mean not being able to eat dinner for an entire week.
“My mother would kill me if I spent the money I make on a dress like the ones I see girls buying here,” she says. Fatima explains that this money is not just for her, but for her entire family of two sisters—one of whom is still an infant—her mother, and her father who was injured in the war. “I come here with my mother and my two sisters every day to sell flowers and chewing gum. Then we use the money we make to pay for rent and to buy food and other supplies since our father can’t work,” she says.
Having comes from an environment where it is not acceptable for girls to be alone in the street, Fatima admits that she was thrilled to spend so much time outside on her own when she first came to Beirut. “I felt like I could have as much fun as I want, like I could do whatever I want, play as much as I want,” she says. “I thought it was better than staying home all the time and going to school, but now I wish I could go to school. I miss school, but I still have fun in the streets,” she adds with a smile.
Although she has become friends with some of the people whom she sees regularly—both fellow refugees and others—she is nonetheless aware of the dangers that she faces on an ongoing basis. Shortly after arriving in Lebanon, a stranger invited her to get into his car and offered to buy her candy. “I said yes, and I was about to get in the car with him, when my mother saw me and came running towards me and stopped me,” she recalls. “Now, I never agree to get in the car with anyone. I know that they would take advantage of me.” She further recalls occasions when men have harassed her or offered to give her alcohol or drugs.
Fatima describes various acts of violence that she has witnessed. She has seen a woman being beaten, a man being forcefully taken into a car, another being hit with a belt by a group of men, and a girl being followed to her apartment by several men who were intoxicated. “This scares me,” she admits, as her ever-present smile slowly begins to fade.