NGO Basmeh and Zeitooneh Revives Dignity in Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

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By Re

More than nine million Syrians—well over one-third of the country’s 23 million people—are either internally displaced or have fled across borders to neighboring nations. Among them is Lebanon, a small nation beset by political instability and ensuing economic strife, already with a history of sectarian divide, yet bearing the increasingly volatile brunt of Syrian refugees who now amount to about a quarter of the local population. Lebanon remains home to the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), well more than half of whom are women.

And the influx is accelerating, as Lebanon registers 2,500 Syrian refugees each day—more than one person a minute, as reported by the UNHCR. According to the latest data, there are 1,151,057 million peoples of concern, and 1,129,889 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The funding required for 2014 reaches a total appeal of more than $1.5 billion; only about $6 million of that has been received to date.

“It seems like the refugees will be here for a while,” Program Manager of NGO Basmeh and Zeitooneh, Maria Minkara told Her Report via Skype from a refugee camp in Shatila she described as volatile. “This is very clearly a long-term crisis and we need long-term solutions, not just band-aids.”

The band-aids have thus far only covered 14 percent of the funding for which UNHCR has asked of international aid agencies. Relief efforts have thus been relegated to those deemed to need it most, widely exclusive of women. With no end in sight, efforts that now provide sheer relief are being reconsidered for longer-term objectives of education and employment. This new agenda must include women.

Minkara is among those supporting Syrian refugees, including women, on the ground. “I feel an obligation [to these women] just because it’s a humanitarian crisis,” she said. “I have a belief that no one should have to suffer like this—whether it be Syrians at the forefront because they’re going through so much, or the Lebanese, who have been enduring the very difficult political and economic environment for decades now. Just out of the commitment to humanity and human rights, I don’t believe anyone should have to endure such strife.”

But such strife and ensuing violence against women had emerged as a deadly epidemic early on in the Syrian conflict. The civil war in Syria between Sunni-led rebels and the government of Bashar al-Assad has also fuelled sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which has a large Sunni and Shia Muslim population. Thousands of women are victims of indiscriminate or deliberate shelling against civilians using explosives thrown from aircrafts, or Scud missiles, or heavy artillery, or snipers. Hundreds were killed during raids and massacres repeated in Syrian governorates. Others were tortured and killed in detention facilities, or subjected to arbitrary arrests, or enforced disappearances by governmental forces and supporting militia, or illegal persecutions on charges of supporting and financing terrorism and participating in terrorist operations, according to the Law No. 19 (2012) on terrorism. They are taken hostage—raped to pressure husbands and brothers; they are used as human shields and are key factors in the use of systematic violence by governmental forces and various armed groups. They are used as a deliberate tactic of defeat; they are targets as conflict rages on.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) released a report in August 2013 stating that sexual violence has also played a prominent role in the conflict, owing to fear and threat of rapes and by the violence committed during raids, at checkpoints and prisons across the country. Sexual violence is endemic, making an assessment of the magnitude difficult.

The magnitude of sexual violence, among other weapons of war, has only worsened following fighting in the town of Arsal in August, when clashes between Lebanese security forces and jihadists militants left dozens dead. Police and vigilante groups placed curfews in 45 municipalities for Syrian refugees, despite Human Rights Watch warnings that the curfews have violated international human rights law and appeared to be illegal under Lebanese law. Syrian refugees, including women, suffer a climate of discriminatory and retaliatory practices outside of refugee camps beyond curfew hours.

Syrian women now residing in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, for example, are suffering exasperated health complications, according to researchers from Yale University. These particular women are not living in camps, but in urban areas where health services are overstretched. The complications are largely a result of conflict-related stress, which has manifested itself in outbreaks of domestic violence. A number of women have reported that their husbands hit them, and they, themselves, regrettably lash out on their own children.

One woman told the Guardian, “My husband works day and night and earns 5,000 Lebanese pounds [£2]. We can’t pay rent. We understand that this makes them stressed and let go of their anger on us [through violence], because they have to support us.”

Jean-Basptiste Pesquet, a French doctoral student in the Middle East French Institute told Al-Monitor, “Women are the containers of violence for the other family members that suffered arrests and bombings. Often, the husband can neither work nor fight, and thus loses his status. He doesn’t have the capacity to ensure financial independence for his family anymore, and has no function in the household. Therefore, violence can illegitimately compensate a social function’s loss through physical domination.”

Ameilia Masterson, lead author of Assessment of reproductive health and violence against women among displaced Syrians in Lebanon, and colleagues carried out a needs assessment in Lebanon at the request of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), administering a cross-sectional survey in health clinics around the country. Between June and August 2012, they interviewed 452 women, aged 18 to 45, who had been in Lebanon for an average of five months. At the time, there were around 48,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Almost a third of the women (139) reported having been exposed to violence in the Syrian conflict, and 95.7 percent said their perpetrator was armed. 14 of the women said an armed person had subjected them to sexual violence in Syria, though the number is expected to be higher; some women presumably lied because of shame and fear of stigmatization. Over a quarter of all victims of violence had physical injuries and 67.7 percent suffered psychological issues; they reported gynecological complications including menstrual irregularity at 53.5 percent, severe pelvic pain at 51.6 percent and reproductive tract infections at 53.3 percent.

Seventy-three women had been pregnant at some point during the conflict, and just under half had delivered, according to the study. 23.7 percent had been pre-term births, four had been miscarriages or induced abortions 10.5 and one baby died at the time of the study. There were complications in over a third (or 36.8 percent) of the pregnancies; the most common was hemorrhage and the remaining 39.5 percent of pregnant women reported problems such as abnormal weakness and tiredness, severe abdominal pain, bleeding and fevers. Access to basic reproductive healthcare is not available to these women, and those who are pregnant are not getting antenatal checks, while others have untreated infections.

Despite the severity of violence against Syrian women in Lebanon, only half of the women reportedly spoke of their experiences; over a quarter told their husbands and the remaining spoke to those in their surrounding communities. But the 64.6 percent affected did not seek medical care due to insufficient funds, lack of knowledge and availability and sheer shame. As a result, only 9.2 percent, or less than one in 10, received any sort of counseling or mental health assistance.

All of the aforementioned numbers, of course, have since grown; the situation has inevitably worsened since the data had been reported. And despite the growing atrocities, there remains a void in the agenda of politicians and human rights activists to aid Syrian refugees. The work thus far conducted by human rights organizations has just barely impacted the stand of the international community, despite years of conflict marked by repeated patterns of devastating violations and crimes under international law.

Fortunately, there is one organization in Syria committed to facilitating the support among women.

In 2012 Basmeh and Zeitooneh began as a collective of volunteers—Syrian expatriates—keen to facilitate the amalgamation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and induce hope in both Syrian youth and women victimized by inexorable conflict.

Minkara told Her Report, “Slowly by interacting with the refugee communities here, [the founders] started to realize what the more pressing needs were, and what areas needed the most help. Eventually, they realized that women were the most marginalized and they were suffering the most throughout the crisis in the refugee camps, because they’re confined to small shelters; they were suffering from depression; they were living kind of in fear because of the fact that they were in a new environment and they didn’t know much.”

Basmeh and Zeeitoneh, however, has since founded and initiated self-sustaining avenues of skill-development and financial stability in an ample effort to cultivate and revive dignity in the lives of those affected, remedying the approaches of international humanitarian agencies that have reduced refugees to a mere number, and providing care for those ineligible for aid programs provided by the aforementioned agencies.

“It wasn’t very easy to start the whole initiative just because of the socio-cultural norms that are present. Many of the women—especially from the lower socio-economic classes—are very reliant on male companionship. Whenever they leave the house, there is usually somebody with them, [or] they need to inform the male head-of-household. So the first mission really was to work with the males and females to kind of encourage the idea of the women leaving the house to learn a skill, and not to do it in a way that would shock the cultural background that these people are coming from,” Minkara said. “It had to be very subtle, very gradual.”

After the initial assessment phase and just one year later, the group had become a registered and well-regarded NGO, and today serves about 15,000 Syrians in Beirut alone, employing 66 full-time staff members in high-volume refugee cities—Shatila, Burj Al Barajneh and Bar Elias.

“We always make sure that our programs really do respond to the needs on the ground; they are not disconnected from the realities on the ground, which I find is very prevalent in some international governmental organizations,” Minkara admitted. “They don’t enter camps like this because of security concerns.”

Because of the NGO’s dedication to the actual needs of Syrian refugees, Basmeh and Zeitooneh’s Women’s Workshop participants grew from just 10 to a total of 90 women in one year—all of whom were formerly housewives in Syria, and are now active members of their communities and independently supporting themselves and their families. The workshop involves training in embroidery and in crochet, and subsequently allows the women an opportunity to sell their products, thus giving them an adequate income.

In addition to embroidery and crochet, the center offers women occasional awareness sessions from topics ranging from general health awareness to women’s rights and women’s empowerment. This became an intricate part of the program after Basmeh and Zeitooneh employees realized that neither the notion of human rights nor the concept of women’s empowerment were even mere thoughts in the women’s minds. These women now have futures with applicable skill sets, knowledge of their rights, confidence and independence; they are no longer reliant upon humanitarian aid, nor their husbands. This therefore also alleviates the stress on their husbands to support their families, and the ensuing domestic violence against women.

“Most of [the women] didn’t even believe that they could produce something that someone would want to buy,” Minkara said. “The idea was that once they started believing that they could actually produce something—they had the self-confidence…it’d make such a huge difference and their lives; they’re no longer depressed; they’re no longer confined to the household…They have friends in the community now, and they have an independent source of income, which is the most important aspect of it all.”

Also available for those not yet registered with the UNHCR for assistance and for those who cannot afford to pay the remaining 25 percent of their medical bills not covered by the UNHCR, is healthcare. Basmeh and Zeitooneh is currently networking and cooperating with non-governmental organizations and various agencies that are specialized in social-medical services such as Medicins San Frontieres (MSF), Ajyalouna, The Society of Jesus and the Muslim Charity (UK), to provide refugees with adequate medical coverage.

As of September 9th last year, Basmeh and Zeitooneh also hosts a small clinic on the first floor of the center in Shatila, in cooperation with Medicins San Frontiers, which provides free medical services to pregnant women, children under the age of 15 and those who suffer from chronic diseases.

Moreover, Basmeh and Zeitooneh offers psychological support for children, as well as an educational program. Today, according to UNICEF, less than 25 percent of Syrian refugee children are attending Lebanese public schools. Basmeh and Zeitooneh’s school provides these children access to the Lebanese educational curriculum through an accelerated learning program (ALP) that serves as an avenue to strengthen their weaknesses in languages, and to enable students to readily adapt to Lebanese public schools. The school began on January 6 this year and is currently serving 300 Syrian students. Further, the organization has a citizen and community service program, an Arts and Cultural club and an agricultural project in which 50 women are currently employed in planting, cultivating and harvesting crops—more significantly, the project also serves as a symbolic gesture from the Syrian people to the Lebanese host community in order to signify that Syrians present in Lebanon are more than just mere consumers, but that they are also working to contribute to the economic production of Lebanon while present in the country as refugees.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Minkara said of her job. “The saddest part is when you know you don’t have the resources or the means to help someone that you know is really in need…there are a lot of times where I come across cases where I’d love to help the family or the people, but you can’t; you have to refer them to an INGO, and a lot of the times, INGOs are highly bureaucratic so you know that they’re not going to get help anytime soon,” she said. “That is the hardest part about this job—you are exposed; you are on the ground; you are in the camp; you see the needs, but there are constraints that stop you from helping everyone you’d love to help. But you do the best you can…That’s also the most rewarding part of the job—you are on the ground; you are interacting with these people and you’re helping them in the best way you can…I find the most rewarding part of my job here is that I can relate, and as an organization we can relate.”

Support Basmeh and Zeitooneh here. Your donations to the campaign will be utilized to achieve the self-sustainability of the workshop, by increasing the number of participants in the Women’s Workshop, buying the materials necessary for the participants to produce their products, designing and implementing a branding and a marketing strategy to sell the products worldwide, and designing and launching a website for the organization, as well as an E-shop to make worldwide purchasing access more readily available.

You can also follow Basmeh and Zeitooneh on Twitter @basmehzeitooneh, or Facebook.

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