Lebanon: Syrian Refugees Face Sexual Harassment, Abuse
By: Doha Shams
Published Friday, January 24, 2014
There is no respite for Syrian women refugees in North Lebanon’s Akkar from the daily humiliations of sexual harassment. Impoverished and desperate, they are forced to work under abusive bosses, rent from shady landlords, and are even married off by their own fathers. Meanwhile, the local residents worsen the situation by claiming that “cheap” Syrian wives are “stealing our men.”
While examining reports about Syrian women refugees subjected to sexual harassment in Akkar, North Lebanon, images from the US invasion of Iraq come to mind. In Akkar, Syrians were received with open arms, but this welcoming environment later soured.
Until this day, we are haunted by mob scenes from the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. Unfortunately, it seems as if we have been dragged into another primitive war, where triumphant soldiers act as they please in the lands of their adversaries. They can capture women, take away children, and make men their slaves. I’m exaggerating, right? Well, let’s see.
With a smirk on his face, Ali Taha, a councilman in the Akkar town of Tal Hayat, told us, “No one speaks honestly. It is a very sensitive subject, but sometimes a few stories leak in. We are in a little village, after all, and you cannot hide much! How should I explain it? Well, three to four women rent a house. The owner would have to sleep with … ” he counted on his hands, “the mother, the daughter, the sister, the grandmother!”
That was Taha’s reaction to questions about sexual harassment targeting Syrian women in this very conservative region. Many refugees were lured here because it offered a welcoming environment, and both host and refugee are cut from the same sectarian cloth. However, this environment is apparently “welcoming” Syrian women a bit too much, and the Waqf Tiba scandal seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.
A sensitive issue, you might say? Indeed. But are people showing any sensitivity toward these women? Syrian men and women are subjected to all kinds of abuse from every side. They are treated like war booty, everyone trying to snatch a piece. The trafficker who helps them cross the borders charges 100,000 Lebanese lira ($66) per person and forces them to work for an entire year – while withholding their ID papers – to pay off the debt.
Refugees are under the mercy of landlords and landowners, not to mention the ranger charged with running the tent camps, who actually turns it into a slave market.
Even within the family, the strong sells the weak. Women and children are transformed into mere commodities, and their wildest dream is only to have a roof over their heads. Sometimes, women and children are traded for a house to rent, to pay off a debt, an aid box, or even a cell phone recharge card. Meanwhile, some people in the region are tarnishing the reputation of Syrian women, calling them “homewreckers.” Some say they are “stealing our men” and make for “cheap wives." But actually, these women are turned into “slaves” in this male-dominated jungle, even in the eyes of other women.
“Syrians are spoiled,” said Taha. “They are provided with everything but if you go to any of the camps and ask about aid, they say that they haven’t received a thing."
Confidently sitting behind his desk at the municipality hall, Taha said, “Beggary is now a hobby for them! They consider everything they can obtain as an additional profit. They think that Lebanese are living on their expense. About six million mattresses have been distributed so far, and none say they have one." Though he noticed our amazement, he continued, “That’s how these people are! Of course not all of them, but they have been like this even before escaping their country. A [woman refugee] would say: Give me an aid box, and take whatever you want from me!"
We asked, “What about sexual harassment against Syrian women?" He replied, “You mean the Waqf Tiba [scandal], right? Well, it is all correct." And what about the rest of the incidents? He said, “Waqf Tiba was headed by a Saudi who married a woman refugee every once in a while with the assistance of a so-called sheikh and a Lebanese broker. They were acting without any surveillance, but the others are quite honorable because they are under scrutiny."
“You remember those who went on TV trashing Waqf Tiba? Well, they are even worse than them! They live on the border. You know what living on the border means?” He said, “The activities of Islamic organizations fell back by about 70 percent, mainly Qatari ones, due to the lack of funding. When they lost in politics, they stopped their funding."
In Halba we met “Samara," which is not the real name of this 14-year-old girl. We sat under the sun on the stairs of a local NGO, watching children play on the playground. Samara began to wear the veil after getting married at age 13 – a marriage that lasted only three weeks. When asked why she got married, she discussed her family’s circumstances. Her father is handicapped and her mother has arthritis.
She said, “We are renting a warehouse. I used to work for a lady who gave me 200,000 Lebanese lira ($133) to work at her house and her shop, and to help her with the children. My two sisters, Aisha, 11, and Sham, 12, worked for other families. I once broke a porcelain bear in the toilet so the lady hit me and I had to quit. We were down on rent money, and we still had to pay 50,000 lira ($33). We didn’t know what to do, and the owner threatened to evict us. By chance, a man asked my aunt to find him a good wife, so she told him about me, but my father refused, saying, ‘My daughters are still too young.’”
“Anyway, I was quite aware about our situation so I convinced myself that I had to marry him. I would have a husband, and we would have a man in the family to help my father. I accepted his offer and my father approved our marriage."
We were told that Samara used to be a pleasant girl, but after her divorce she became isolated and depressed. “What happened?” I asked her quietly. She answered while playfully touching her veil, with her head down. “What should I tell you? You know I am a child, and on our first night, he should have been easy on me, but it was all by force. He got me six rings, golden earrings, and a watch. He kept repeating: ‘Put on the watch, put on the rings. You don’t get it, you idiot, you animal?’ And he would hit me."
“I ran away two times, but he brought me back. One time, I put on my slippers and ran away and never came back." Samara called her ex-husband “a bastard," adding “his parents know what kind of a bastard he is. Actually, when he came to propose, they didn’t come with him because they didn’t want him to have a bride."
What about her sisters? She said, “My sister Aisha is 11. She used to go with my mother to clean the house of an 80-year-old man. She sometimes sat to watch cartoons, but one time the old man sneaked from behind and pinched her breast. She screamed but mom didn’t hear her. When she later told her what happened, they stopped working for him. How would we pay the rent now?”
Meanwhile, Fouton, 15, told us how a group of young men forced her into their car. She screamed until they let her go. Other women refugees reveal many other aspects of harassment techniques: They are pinched while standing in line to receive aid; their bosses and local youth fondle their privates.
Rouida told us about an incident when she opened the backdoor of a warehouse used to distribute aid and found a young woman refugee in the arms of the distributor. These women revealed additional information to social assistants: “Every profit we make from work is used to pay the rent. Sometimes we sell mattresses and blankets and coupons to cover the rent."
Some Lebanese interpret these actions by saying, “No Syrian would admit to receiving aid. Even if you distribute half a million portions, they would tell you that they haven’t received a thing. That’s because they sell them to make profits."
When asked about house owners, a woman refugee said, “Landlords invade the house for any small thing and start demanding the rent by the 25th of the month. Then they warn us about receiving visits. If another related family moves in with us, they raise the rent."
Concerning life inside these small houses and tents, one woman said, “It is really tough. There is tension between all family members, and mainly with the young men. We are treated like a punching bag by everyone – men, children, the whole family.”
What about privacy? A young woman laughed, saying, “What privacy? In the crowded house or inside the tent? Dear, we forgot all about hygiene, we forgot all about our womanhood. I only remember that I am a woman when they harass us."
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.