Rasha never seems to rest. The energetic, smart young Palestinian refugee starts each day in her one-room temporary shelter figuring out how she will find food for her family, earn some money to pay for it and keep her children from spending their day crying and longing for their home back in Syria. She also has to contend with her bad-tempered husband, still frustrated and humiliated over not being able to provide for his family.
Rasha and her family arrived in Lebanon half a year ago and headed for the already overcrowded Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. Rasha now admits they might never have come if they had known what awaited them: a maze of narrow, dirty alleyways under a tangle of electric wires with water dripping down the crumbling walls. Rasha has to pay $300 a month for a room with no running water and often no electricity, either.
“At night, I spend hours counting how much I have to get for food and for the rent,” she told me. “It has become an obsession.”
More than 90,000 Palestinians from Syria have sought shelter in Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps. The camps, set up more than 60 years ago, can barely accommodate its longtime residents, let alone the flood of new refugee families. According to a survey conducted earlier in the year by American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), three out of four refugees from Syria regularly lack food. Women and children account for 74% of the refugees. Six out of 10 families have to share one room and end up hanging blankets or pieces of cloth to mark off space for privacy.
Women struggle to hold their families together despite the heightened social and economic pressures. Many have become the heads of their households because their husbands were killed or stayed behind in Syria, or have come to Lebanon with them but can't cope with being unable to find work to provide for the family, as they did back home.
Humanitarian organizations like ANERA have updated their emergency relief programs to the meet the special needs of women with health kits and basic household supplies they could not otherwise afford. But the cramped quarters and heightened pressures are revealing another struggle for women: domestic violence. Social workers now are adapting their services to deal with this less visible but urgent challenge.
“Women absorb the pain and suffering,” explains Majeda Jawad of Najdeh, an organization that works with women and children in the Palestinian camps of Lebanon. “But Palestinian women from Syria have a double burden. Since they are mostly the ones responsible for the household, the children and the sick, they suffer the most emotionally from the deterioration of their living conditions,” Jawad explains. “Secondly, they also suffer from domestic violence.”
Rasha’s cousin Ghofran made the trip from Syria to Lebanon with her six children. Against all expectations, her husband arrived four months later. But Ghofran says his presence has caused more despair, not relief.
“He is still jobless and spends his days sitting around with other unemployed men,” says Ghofran. “And he is always asking me for money.”
Lebanese law prohibits Palestinians from working in more than 70 professions. The current unemployment rate in the Palestinian camps there averages 90%.
Ghofran watches her husband’s frustration grow by the day and admits their violent quarrels are destroying a once-happy relationship. She feels helpless, saying, “My husband feels humiliated and angry about the discrimination, but the children and I are the ones who pay the price for his anger. Most of the time, I wish he had not come.”
Randa Haddad, a psychotherapist with Najdeh, sees an increase in emotional and physical abuse among the Palestinians from Syria. But the pattern of domestic violence existed even before the current crisis, she says, explaining, “Our first challenge is to shake the widespread acceptance of domestic violence in Palestinian society. A number of women still believe their husbands have the right to beat them.”
Haddad says refugee women believe they should keep quiet until the war is over to spare their family additional problems. She says, “This tendency toward self-sacrifice goes even further with the growing practice of early marriages.” Parents now are encouraging marriage for their teenage daughters, hoping that a husband will help them escape the misery of the camps. Social workers fear the early marriages could lead to human trafficking and prostitution.
Although women have adopted various strategies to survive as refugees, relief workers say it is urgent to break the veil of silence over the physical and emotional abuse they endure. Local organizations are setting up counseling sessions with therapy generally aimed at women. But there are an increasing number of sessions for men who recognize the need to vent their frustrations, too, in order to control their anger and channel their emotions and energy toward something more positive.
Haddad says many suffer from post-traumatic stress and mask it by linking their personal suffering to a higher cause.
“Because of their difficult history, Palestinian narratives are interwoven with stories of abuse and injustice,” she suggests. “Violence is associated with resistance, which plays a fundamental role in the quest for meaning and identity.”
Counseling, Haddad explains, gives women and men much-needed emotional support and lets them see they are not alone. Amal, 22, says the counseling helped her find resources within herself she didn’t know she had, explaining, “At first I thought I would collapse under the pressures, but the counseling made me so much stronger because it helped me overcome my feelings of guilt over my ability to survive.”
Amal escaped the bombings in Aleppo with her 5-year-old son. Her much older husband had passed away just before the war. She says, “I realized that in order to survive all this, I would have to be a mother and a father at the same time, working during the day and singing lullabies at night.”
Amal now lives in a small flat with her uncle’s family. Among the 12 adults in the house, she and her cousin are the only ones who have found some work.
With the war in Syria raging on and refugees continuing to flood Lebanon’s camps, the economic and social problems refugee families face will grow and intensify with no clear end. As women assume a large amount of responsibility for their families’ well-being, breaking their silence and sense of isolation is almost as vital for their survival as relief supplies.