International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Women refugees from Syria find a safe space and support in Lebanon

There are 12 women at this morning’s class. The topic? Skin care. The teacher? Forty-five year old Sawsan, who was a beautician in Syria before fighting led her to flee her home. Sharing her knowledge at this IRC women’s center in northern Lebanon enables her to do something she enjoys, and to make a bit of money. She’s paid four dollars an hour and says it’s her only income.

Times are increasingly difficult for Syrian refugees, and particularly so for women. It’s the main reason why the IRC has opened four centers for women and girl refugees in the Northern Lebanon and Bekaa Valley provinces. Close to a million Syrians are now in Lebanon, scattered across more than 1,200 communities. When the IRC opened its first women’s center last September, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon was estimated to be approaching 100,000. Today, the Lebanese government says more than 1-million refugees are now in this country of just 4-million.

“The needs are increasing by the day, especially for women and girls,” says Sinead Murray, who oversees the IRC’s women’s programming in Lebanon. “More than half the refugees arriving in Lebanon are women, and many have survived traumatizing experiences in Syria and continue to face immense challenges as refugees.”

The IRC sets up its women’s centers as “safe spaces;” havens for women and girls where they can share and find support. The IRC operates similar centers in Iraq and Jordan for Syrian refugees, where women, children, and in some cases men can meet and discuss issues they might not with their families.

In Lebanon, the IRC’s centers provide various types of support. They serve as a vital source of information to refugee women and girls on where they can access services and what they are entitled to. Women and girls can take classes such as weaving, painting, or Sawsan’s skin care class; they can also study reading and English. It’s less about learning a craft or receiving job training; it’s much more about being together and finding support in a positive atmosphere. That said, some of the women say they now knit piecework at home to make some extra money.

The IRC also works with women and girls who have experienced violence. Caseworkers lead emotional support groups and also work one on one to support healing and recovery. As one IRC psychologist told me, often within minutes she can see positive change, when women and girls realize they are not alone, and that others have shared similar experiences and have an intimate understanding of what they’ve been through.

Many of the women say they feel isolated as refugees in Lebanon. It’s not easy to leave the apartment or tent that most call home. “But it is unhealthy there,” says one mother. “There are so many of us packed into a small space.” The majority who come to the centers say they are heads of households- their men are back in Syria. Others are war widows. They feel a primary responsibility to their children, but increasingly, realize that caring for themselves is essential, and will in turn help them better care for others.

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