Scientists at work: meeting the Syrian refugee women of Beirut

Hassan Ammar/Press Association Images

I crawled into my bed at my flat-share in Beirut, shattered from a day of intense focus groups with women who had left their homes in war-torn Syria to seek refuge in the city. For ease of organisation, we had arranged three over the course of one day. The difficulty was that once a group ended, the women didn’t want to stop sharing. The air was thick with stories of harassment, abuse, neglect and fear. Our three focus groups knitted themselves into a single, six-hour long, intense conversation, as refugee women shared their experiences of public space in their host city.

I’ve been in Beirut for two months conducting fieldwork for my PhD, and it has been a roller coaster of learning. My research involves comparing the experiences of Syrian refugee women as they navigate public spaces in the cities of Beirut, Lebanon, and Amman, Jordan. I am examining how these women are affected by encounters with the security and justice systems in their host cities: in other words, how they resolve day-to-day issues within their neighbourhoods, and who they can talk to if there is a problem.

Settling in cities

There are more than 1.5m Syrian refugees living throughout Lebanon and Jordan, and services and funding are under significant strain. Neither of these countries are signatories of the 1951 UN declaration on refugees or its 1967 protocol, which together form the global basis for refugee protection. Both governments have different policies on refugee rights, which have a big impact on their safety and security.

A new home in Lebanon. Hassan Ammar/Press Association Images

We know that the majority of refugees eschew border camps in favour of cities, where they have greater access to jobs and education – and homes that aren’t made of tarpaulin. Yet very little is known about refugees who “self-settle” in cities, independently of governments and aid organisations. They are often difficult for researchers to find and speak with. Many live anonymously alongside the city’s urban poor and avoid humanitarian agencies, as they lack the legal rights to live and work outside of government-sanctioned camps.

In Lebanon, the government promotes self-settlement, so agencies that are working there to support urban refugees and can provide some assistance and contacts. Working in Jordan next year will come with a whole new set of challenges, as self-settlement is discouraged, and refugees attempt to keep an even lower profile.

Frustration and distress

To understand what life is like for these refugees, I use a range of “qualitative” research methods, such as one-to-one interviews, focus groups and diary keeping. I work primarily with refugee women, but also with security providers and political parties, to understand how they interact in the local neighbourhoods.

I had wanted to allow the women to physically map out their experiences in their neighbourhoods – retracing their steps while narrating their experiences – but I realised early on that this wasn’t going to be effective. The interviews are often too intense – and the topics too personal – for us to break off and map out the spaces they inhabit.

The interviews and focus groups are often accompanied by tears of frustration and distress, but the women also tell me how cathartic it is to voice their stories. The result is a collection of rich and detailed narratives from the women who I speak with. Here are three snapshots of the stories they told me.

Wadiya’s story

Wadiya talked about how Hezbollah – the political, military and social organisation for Shia Islamists based in Lebanon – has been her main source of support in her neighbourhood since she arrived in Beirut.

Nerve wracking walks. Sarah Linn, Author provided

She is a single mother with three boys, living in a one room dwelling in the West of the city. At night, she and her boys lay out thin mattresses on the floor and sleep side by side. She will often tell others in the neighbourhood that she is widowed, to avoid the stigma that divorce carries with it. She feels fearful and vulnerable and she is very cautious about the neighbourhood – Wadiya rarely goes out and interacts with others.

She explains that Hezbollah have great influence in the neighbourhood, and that they assist both incoming Syrian refugees and Lebanese residents with day-to-day issues, such as resolving conflicts between neighbours or providing emergency food aid. She tells us that if she had a problem, that is the first place she would go.

She is one of the few that identify an option for safety and assistance, in contrast to others who tell me that “only God” would help if they faced a conflict or issue in the neighbourhood.

Yaminah’s story

Yaminah’s predicament is similar to Wadiya’s. She is also a single mother: her husband abandoned her and her 11 children shortly after the family arrived in Lebanon. Yaminah regularly sorts through the neighbourhood trash to find disposed food that her family might be able to eat.

Negotiating the neighbourhood is a precarious exercise. Men have propositioned her and her young daughters for sex. A man once tried to kidnap one of her sons as they crossed the road to the local market, while others have tried to break into the house when her daughters were home alone.

Because of the amount of negative experiences, Yaminah is less and less inclined to leave her house, and especially to leave her young children. But she also shares positive accounts of how others in the neighbourhood stepped in to help her. This includes people from Hezbollah, who told her to report any man that tried to proposition her, so that they could “deal with him”.

Zada’s story

Zada works with her husband at a tailor shop. She is one of the few women that I spoke with who is working in the neighbourhood. Most women describe difficulties with getting work alongside caring for children who cannot attend school, or being asked to remove their veil to serve customers.

Tools of the trade. Sarah Linn, Author provided

She explains that she is also very conscious of how she conducts herself in public, being quiet, dignified, “invisible”, to avoid attracting attention. She feels very insecure in the neighbourhood. Even though her family have been victims of multiple thefts and scams, they would never go to the police or anyone else for assistance.

They fear the police and feel that they wouldn’t be believed. And they are convinced that if they asked for assistance in the neighbourhood, things would only get worse. She voices what a lot of the other women have shared. In public: keep quiet, avoid conflict, ignore insults – this is how to get by and survive.

It is a privilege to speak with these women, even if what they share is difficult to hear. Their vulnerability and fear is palpable, and they all share a range of coping mechanisms for negotiating public spaces in their daily lives. Their access to support and assistance is completely inconsistent, and most live in dire conditions. Their fear of the police and army make them vulnerable to exploitation and aggression.

With the vast majority of Syrian refugees seeking shelter in urban areas, it’s crucial to understand their struggles, in order to find ways to accommodate them in their new neighbourhoods. Throughout my research, I’ve also realised how important it is to these women that their stories are being told. While they’re anxious to seem invisible within the city, they’re desperate for their plight to be noticed by humanitarian agencies and government officials.

I want to tell them that hope is coming and they are not forgotten – but as a researcher, I can’t. There are limitations to what I can do for them, but I hope by sharing their experiences I will raise awareness of their situation.