Syrian refugee girls face adolescence amid uncertainty
January 14, 2013 by Alina Potts
|Syrian refugee women knit at the IRC Women's Center in Arsaal, Lebanon. This is just one of the many activities at the center which brings Syrian women and girls together. Photo: Peter Biro/IRC|
A group of girls sits on cushions on the floor, warming themselves by the diesel stove. It’s cold in this high mountain village near the border with Syria, but they leave their shoes outside the carpeted room, enjoying cups of hot tea and each other’s company.
Aged from 12 to 15 years old, these girls are at our new Women and Girls Community Center that we run in partnership with a leading Lebanese group called ABAAD. They’ve come here to share their experiences with others who understand what they’ve been through, and to discuss the challenges they face in Lebanon.
As a member of the International Rescue Committee’s Emergency Response Team, I’m here to help set up our programming for women and girl refugees; this center is a key component of our efforts. Guided group discussions like this one allow women and girls to access emotional support in a safe, confidential space. Women and girls fleeing Syria bear the scars of conflict, however as in many other of the world’s war zones, their needs are often overlooked. Yet in these same communities, they are the cornerstone of healing and recovery.
For adolescents, fitting in is often hard—and it is certainly no exception here. After the horrors many experienced in Syria, these girls speak of the difficulties they face in their daily lives: how their new community treats them, how it feels to be teased or unable to go to school. “When we want to go anywhere, we have to go in groups, but even then we get verbally harassed,” says Aisha*, a young girl living in an abandoned school with 22 other Syrian families.
While Aisha and her family may be safer now than in Syria, there are new challenges in Lebanon. All the families living in the school must pay rent, despite poor conditions and overcrowding. The building lacks basic necessities such as clean water, fuel for heating, blankets, and private washing and cooking areas. But with dwindling assets and few alternatives, at least it offers some shelter from the cold. Despite being only two hours’ drive from the Mediterranean, temperatures here drop to below zero in winter, and snow is common.
While aid groups are racing to build new shelters and improve those already in use, they are unable to keep up with the pace of new arrivals.. Arsaal, home to roughly 33,000 Lebanese, has seen its population swell by more than 30 percent since fighting broke out in Syria in March of 2011. The town hosts over 12,000 Syrian refugees, with more arriving daily; throughout Lebanon close to 200,000 Syrians are seeking refuge. The majority are women and children, many of them young girls.
Lara Nuwayhid, a social worker at the center, provides counseling and support, and organizes group sessions for adolescent girls. “With all that’s going on, all the problems they have to deal with, all the trauma they’ve been through, people need a safe and comforting environment to express themselves,” she explains. “They need to be heard. It’s really comforting to talk about what’s been going on, to say what they have been through and hear what other people have experienced. It makes them feel like they’re not alone.” The IRC center is one of two that opened late last year, with two more planned for early 2013. As many as 50 women and girls have come through the doors in a single day.
I am constantly struck by the remarkable resilience of the women and girls I’ve met. They have survived tremendous loss, and find themselves in an uncertain and harsh environment. Yet they possess an extraordinary ability to persevere. Here at the IRC center, they are able to connect with each other, draw on each other’s strength, and find services tailored to their needs.
Recovery will be a long and difficult process for many. However, at the end of Aisha’s session, I notice that she and her peers seem more at ease. “I actually feel comfortable and more relaxed now that I’ve expressed myself. I feel better after coming here.”
*Names have been changed to ensure privacy
Alina Potts is the Women’s Protection and Empowerment Emergency Coordinator on the IRC’s Emergency Response Team. She has been with the IRC for more than four years. Her work to protect and empower women and girls has taken her to the Dadaab Refugee Camps, North Kivu and Darfur.