Sitting around a table brimming with homemade food, Syrian refugee women and girls gathered to blow out candles in a local beauty salon in Choueifat. Despite their pain, they were celebrating the end of their three-month training.
“It is a bittersweet goodbye,” one of the women said. “But we decided to meet for lunch once a month.”
“At least once a month,” interrupted another woman, unable to stop herself from giggling.
Forced to leave Syria almost four years ago due to the ongoing violence, these women have faced high levels of social isolation in Lebanon, and have been sidelined to the margins of a society marked by racism and discrimination.
“Syrian refugee women, like men, are struggling to secure their livelihoods,” Jana Nakhal, The Livelihood Project’s coordinator manager, told al-Akhbar English. “Our project aims to engage these women in society and build on their existing skills to restore dignity and hopefully give them an opportunity to become financially independent.”
According to Nakhal, 55 Syrian women and three Lebanese women were the beneficiaries of the UNFPA-funded project — 16 each in the Beirut suburbs of Chiyah and Choueifat, and 26 in the Chouf region.
“We are pleased to have challenged stereotypes and united Lebanese and Syrian women in need of help,” she explained.
Obeida, one of the three Lebanese beneficiaries, was jumping around, laughing and engaging in conversations.
“Syrian or Lebanese or Chinese I don’t see any difference,” Obeida, who is from Baalbeck but lives in Choueifat, asserted. “We are all human. We are all women.”
Obeida said she wasn’t hesitant to take part in a program that focuses on Syrian refugee women. However, her friends and neighbors had a different stance.
“I was really frustrated by the reactions of some ‘educated’ Lebanese women,” she declared with an angry tone, saying that many were shocked by her decision to participate.
“‘Why?’ They asked me with disgust,” she continued. “‘Why not? Give me one reason,’ I would reply. And then silence.”
Among the women stood a 13-year-old Syrian girl, Hiam. From a distance, she looked older than her age.
According to human rights organizations, women are among the most vulnerable groups, solely by virtue of their gender.
“I feel safe and happy,” Hiam said in a timid voice. “This was a dream come true,” she added, as the sparkle in her eyes gave away her true age.
For Hiam, this project was not only about hair and makeup, it was her escape plan and safe harbor.
Driven by poverty, fear and social pressure, Hiam’s mother, like an increasing number of Syrian women refugees, wanted to marry her off in order to “secure her future.”
“I was only 12 when a man knocked on our door and proposed,” Hiam said, nervously pressing her hands to her lap. “I didn’t want to get married, I am too young.”
High levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) have been documented by organizations assessing the magnitude and impact of the Syrian crisis on women. According to human rights organizations, women are among the most vulnerable groups, solely by virtue of their gender.
Other forms of violence against women during conflict also exist, including Intimate partner violence (IPV), sexual exploitation and early marriage.
Hiam, the eldest of seven girls, was forced to drop out of school and help her sick mother around the house.
“After we left Aleppo’s northern countryside, I studied two years in Tripoli [in northern Lebanon] before dropping out and moving to Choueifat,” Hiam explained. “I don’t know French or English so I was already facing difficulties catching up with my classmates.”
Having barely left the house for eight months, Hiam was starting to feel depressed and hopeless.
“My father was against the idea, but my mother thought marriage was the best solution. She said he would secure my future,” Hiam said, staring at the floor.
The young girl then heard about The Livelihood Project from her aunt and neighbor. Her parents rejected the idea at first, prompting the social workers at INTERSOS to contact the family.
“Sahar [one of the social workers] was able to convince my parents,” Hiam said, “For the first time in a while, I felt like I could breathe. I know I’m too young to find a job but I will start working from home using the makeup kit INTERSOS gave us.”
The kit, filled with makeup and hair products, was, according to Nakhal, to encourage these women to start working after the project was over.
“When we first started the project, the vast majority of the beneficiaries wanted to enhance their skills and then work from home, completely sidelining the idea of leaving their houses and engaging with Lebanese society,” Nakhal explained.
According to Nakhal, a few weeks were enough to make them change their minds.
“Now more than half are actively seeking jobs at local salons and many have already started working from home until they find someone to hire them,” she added. “ But even if these women don’t become family providers, they have been given a feeling of purpose and hope.”
In a local salon in the Chouf region, 16-year-old Samah was telling her fellow Syrian refugee and beneficiary, 27-year-old Ahlam, to hold still as she applied makeup to her face.
“My husband was very skeptic at first,” Ahlam said to al-Akhbar English. “He thought I would be in constant contact with other men. Maybe he was a bit jealous,” she laughed as Samah told her to hold still, again.
“I convinced him and now he is very supportive,” Ahlam continued. “I come back home from the training sessions with a positive attitude and it is helping our marriage and family.”
Providing a healthy environment for their children is one of the biggest concerns for Syrian refugee women. Living in households that are socially isolated and suffering from tremendous financial stress contributes to increasing tensions that sometimes lead to violence, often perpetrated by a male head of household.
For many of these women, leaving the house is in itself an issue as they need the permission of the men in their families.
These restrictions prompted INTERSOS to adopt a culturally-sensitive project. The project assures minimal interaction with men, offers transportation — a bus to take them to and from the salons — and gives women skills that can help them become financial providers without having to leave the house.
Nonetheless, by choosing to work within a certain cultural framework imposed by both tradition and patriarchy, the project reinforces gender roles. While this might be a first step towards encouraging women to take an active role in society, ultimately future projects need to break away and challenge the boundaries and restrictions that confine women to narrowly-defined roles.
Another key concern for Syrian refugee women is finding ways to support their families. Ahlam said she didn’t want to feel like an extra burden on her husband.
“My husband said I should keep the money I make to myself. But even if it is scarce money, we need it. We need every penny,” she explained.
The refugee influx has put huge pressure on Lebanon’s already deteriorating economy, scarce resources and poor infrastructure, education and health systems, and has also contributed to rising tensions in a nation vulnerable to security breaches and instability.
“UNFPA decided to support The Livelihood Project because it was different from the many awareness raising projects as it empowers women by giving them the opportunity to make money from the skills they have acquired,” Wencke Gelinck, a gender-based violence (GBV) expert at UNFPA, told al-Akhbar English.
According to Gelinck, the project was part of a bigger program, comprising of awareness raising sessions on GBV, basic life skills, and problem solving and capacity building.
Meanwhile for Samah, it was more about the psychological aspect of the project. She was forced to drop out of school and spent all her time at a makeshift home in the Chouf.
“I was about to lose my mind,” she said in a sarcastic tone. “We don’t know when are we going back, we can’t just sit around and wait. Being idle is psychologically destructive.”
Samah said that occupying her time and feeling like she was doing something with her life was the best part of the program.
“I feel excited and motivated to get out of bed every morning,” Samah said.
Engaging locals is critical in refugee integration, something that was clearly noticeable in the Chouf.
“A lot of locals are allowing the women to practice on them,” Lilian, the owner of the salon and the one training the refugees, told al-Akhbar English. “The support these women have been receiving has transformed their lives for the better.”
Besides practicing their work on locals, the women are also training on family members and staff members and other locals at the INTERSOS office in the region on Mondays and Wednesdays.
“Many women have been practicing makeup on family members, including their husbands,” Nakhal laughed.
For these women, this program has given them hope. But hope isn’t all they need. After completing this program, these women are once again thrust into a society that they still fear, albeit less than before. For a project to induce change and ensure long-lasting consequences it must, first and foremost, be sustainable.
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