Syrian refugees: Women on top

Sabah, 45, from Homs, Syria, has been living in Tripoli, Lebanon, for the past five months. Photo: UNHCR/L.Addario

More than 145,000 Syrian refugee families in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – or one in four of all households – are headed by women facing a lone fight for survival, says a new UNHCR report.

The report lifts the veil on a daily struggle to make ends meet, as the women battle to maintain their dignity and care for their families in run-down overcrowded homes, insecure makeshift shelters and tents. Many live under the threat of violence or exploitation, and their children face mounting trauma and distress.

“Woman Alone – the Fight for Survival by Syrian Refugee Women” is based on the personal testimony of 135 of those women, given over three months of interviews in early 2014. Forced to take sole responsibility for their families after their men were killed, captured, or otherwise separated, they are caught in a spiral of hardship, isolation and anxiety.

The number one difficulty reported by the women is a lack of resources. Most of the women are struggling to pay the rent, put food on the table and buy basic household items. Many have reached the end of their savings – even selling off their wedding rings. Only one-fifth have paid work; many find it hard to get a job, or have too much else on their plate. Only one-fifth have support from other adult relatives. Some benefit from local generosity – such as landlords who let them stay rent free, or mosques. Some send their children to work. A quarter receive cash assistance from UNHCR and other aid agencies; two-thirds of those who got assistance are entirely dependent on it. A third of the women say they do not have enough to eat.

UNHCR called for urgent new action from donors, host governments and aid agencies. “For hundreds of thousands of women, escaping their ruined homeland was only the first step in a journey of grinding hardship.” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “They have run out of money, face daily threats to their safety, and are being treated as outcasts for no other crime than losing their men to a vicious war. It’s shameful. They are being humiliated for losing everything.”

“Syrian refugee women are the glue holding together a broken society. Their strength is extraordinary, but they are struggling alone. Their voices are an appeal for help and protection which cannot be ignored,” said Angelina Jolie, UNHCR Special Envoy.

 

CAREGIVER AND BREADWINNERS

Life in exile for these women has meant becoming the main breadwinner and caregiver, fending for themselves and their families, away from their communities and traditional sources of support. For most, the burden is overwhelming, and many are entirely dependent on outside assistance.

Sixty per cent of the women interviewed expressed feelings of insecurity, and one in three were too scared or overwhelmed even to leave their homes. Nuha came to Cairo with her husband, but he was shot and killed while at work. “I don’t want to leave the house because of the sadness in my heart,” she said. “We left death in Syria only to find it waiting for us here in Egypt.”

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Feryal gives water to her four-year-old son Zakaria in a shelter. Zakaria is suffering from cancer, and Feryal moved out of Syria as visits to local hospital became dangerous. Photo: UNHCR/L.Addario

Many women complained of regular verbal harassment – by taxi drivers, bus drivers, landlords, and service providers, as well as men in shops, at the market, on public transport, and even at aid distributions.

“A woman alone in Egypt is prey to all men,” said Diala, who lives in Alexandria. Zahwa, in Jordan, says she was even harassed by refugees when collecting food coupons. “I was living in dignity, but now no one respects me because I’m not with a man,” she said.

One woman reported being raped, but many were not prepared to discuss sexual and gender based violence. “I would never turn to an organization for help,” said Noor from Lebanon. “I would put salt on the wound and stay quiet, but I’d never ever say anything to anyone.”

 

IMPACT ON CHILDREN

Most of the women were concerned about the impact on their children. “I have to worry about the finances and school. I have to protect them, provide for them, and give them a mother’s love all at the same time. I feel pummeled,” said Dina, in Egypt.

Over 150 organizations are providing services or support to Syrian refugee women and their families. The research found many examples of refugee women taking the initiative, supporting each other and working to find solutions to their daily struggle. It also highlighted many acts of kindness and generosity by host countries and communities.

But it found this assistance fell short of what was needed, and called on donors to do more to help Syrian refugee women get back on their feet and earn enough money to live. With visa or other restrictions separating one in five of the women from their husbands or families, the report also asked host governments to find solutions to reunite them with their families. Host communities also need massive support. Many of these women’s difficulties – and rising tensions – reflect more general concerns in the communities around them.

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Nafat, a Syrian refugee, makes bread outside her shelter in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Photo: UNHCR/L.Addario

With 2.8 million refugees and millions more internally displaced, Syria has become the largest displacement crisis in the world. Since the start of 2014, more than 100,000 Syrian refugees have registered in neighboring countries every month. The total number of refugees is expected to reach 3.6 million by the end of the year.