- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
A refugee of the Syrian civil war, Lina, lives alone with her seven children in a tent she made from salvaged pieces of fabric in an unofficial settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. She has been there for a year, and hasn’t heard from her husband in two — ever since he was detained in Syria. Three of her children suffer from psoriasis, a skin disease, and she can’t afford the medicine to treat it. She is barely scraping together enough money to feed her family. “Our situation is very difficult, helpless, what can I tell you,” Lina told interviewers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Lina is one of 2.8 million Syrian refugees who have fled the country since fighting broke out in 2011. Hers is one of 145,000 refugee households — a quarter of the total — headed by a lone woman. A UNHCR report released Tuesday details the litany of miseries that have befallen these women (the report only provides first names of the women interviewed).
With their husbands, fathers, and brothers dead, missing, or still in Syria — many of them denied entry to the neighboring countries — these women compose a particularly vulnerable segment of a population caught in a humanitarian catastrophe that the United Nations has described as the worst since the genocide in Rwanda. Tuesday’s report, which is based on interviews with 135 women between February and April, paints a desperate picture of their lives as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt.
Nonetheless, Lina is resilient — for her children. “I have no choice but to be strong. If I get weak the children will be affected,” she said in the report. “When left alone, you have to push boundaries and make things happen.”
Many of the women, like Lina, are haunted by their previous, often comfortable, lives in Syria. “My biggest problem in life is that I spend a lot of time comparing what my life was like, how we were, and how we are now,” said Dina, who is living in Damietta, Egypt.
Living in the Bekaa Valley, Lina tries to turn their makeshift shelter into a home. She hangs her children’s drawings and a broken mirror on the “walls.” But in the end, it’s still just a tent, which she worries will catch fire when she cooks a meal on the stove in its center. According to UNHCR, 40 percent of refugees in Lebanon live in substandard dwellings, which include both unfinished buildings and makeshift settlements.
And female-headed refugee families — which in Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt include on average 5.6 members — are particularly vulnerable to life in an inadequate shelter. When Suraya, a mother of seven, arrived at Jordan’s Zaatari camp, she stood guard outside her tent. “I would dress and act like a man so that my children could sleep in peace and feel safe,” she told the UNHCR. Another woman, Zaina, who also lives in Bekaa, said: “When there is no man, people are like animals.” Their children aren’t the only ones vulnerable to predators. The women must also defend themselves from sexual harassment and gender-based violence, often perpetrated by their landlords.
Housing takes precedence over everything else. “Rent is more important than food,” said Shireen, a mother of seven, who lives in Amman, Jordan. According to the UNHCR, a majority of these households receive food vouchers from the World Food Program, which they are sometimes forced to sell to pay rent. One-third of the women said they did not have enough to eat. Many emphasized that they first feed their children, putting their own needs last. These families rarely see meat or fruit. They’re sustained by unvaried diets lacking the nutrition that healthy children need.
Many of the women also care for family members with chronic illnesses or disabilities. According to the report, 16,000 such family members have “serious medical conditions”; 1,800 are disabled. In one household, an 11-year-old boy, Wassim, takes care of his mother and aunt, both of whom are confined to wheelchairs by polio.
Children often have to take on adult responsibilities, no matter how much their mothers try to avoid it. In 13 percent of these households, one or more child works, sometimes providing the only source of income. The report describes one woman’s difficult decision:
“Noor, 42, from Homs who lives in Akkar, Lebanon, could only afford to send one of her two children to school — forcing her to decide between her son and daughter. She chose the girl. ‘A girl needs her education,’ says Noor. ‘If I had been educated, I’d be able to provide for my family in this situation. A boy can find work in places a girl can’t.'”
The mothers must also fend off would-be suitors proposing marriage to their young daughters — sometimes as young as 12. Despite the prospect of financial relief, they all refused.
Some of the women seek employment but encounter myriad obstacles. Many have never worked before, while the highly skilled professionals cannot find jobs commensurate with their experience. Some participate in aid agency-run training programs. One woman, Lara, underlined that it is crucial for women to receive training — not only to alleviate the struggles of daily life today, but for a future role in rebuilding Syria. “They are the ones who will have to go back and rebuild our country from zero,” she said.
For now, the women focus on family unity. However, achieving that has forced them to take on roles typically assumed by Syrian men, sometimes changing their relationship with their children. As one woman explained, she used to be “the one they turned to for comfort and affection.” Today, she still has to do that — and be the father, “who was stricter and disciplined them.
“It’s a huge contradiction for them to deal with. I can tell they don’t see me the same way anymore,” she said.
Dina, who takes care of her six children alone in Egypt, says filling the role of mother and father is exhausting — worrying about finances, school, security, while giving them “a mother’s love all at the same time.”
When they are not concerned about providing for their children, they try to cope with extreme loneliness, sometimes unaware there are many others who share their daily battles. “Are there other women like me?” asked Hannah, who lives in Beirut with her three children and her mother.
The answer is “yes,” by the thousands.