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Arts + Culture: Documenting Syrian Women as They Flee to Lebanon

An aspiring musician, sisters-in-law from Damascus and a Syrian-Palestinian aid worker from Yarmouk make their way in Lebanon.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

In April the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon surpassed the 1 million mark, giving Lebanon the highest per-capita concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.

“When you think of this number, you forget the individuals with their lives and integrity,” says Carol Mansour, director of “Not Who We Are,” a documentary film released in 2013.

The documentary follows a tapestry of Syrian refugee women. There’s Afraa, a 27-year-old aspiring musician from Aleppo now living in Beirut; Umm Omar and Umm Raed, sisters in law from Damascus now living in a tent in the Bekaa Valley; Samar, a mother living in Baalbeck with her husband and five children; and Siham, a Syrian-Palestinian aid worker from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, now making her way through Beirut.

“Women are at the forefront of the film because they bear the highest costs of war. They are displaced from their homes, separated from their loved one and social networks, and are often abused. They face discrimination, disempowerment and violence,” Mansour says.

“One day before we fled I’d bought a big TV set, but we couldn’t take anything out of the house,” says Umm Omar, now living in a tent in the Bekaa. “I was seven months pregnant. We came [to Lebanon] with only our clothes.”

Here, Mansour discusses why they chose to highlight women in their film, and the importance of telling stories of individual female struggle.

Syria Deeply: How did you choose the name of the film? Why did you think it was important to only feature women’s stories?

Mansour: At one point in the film Samar says: “People here have a condescending view of us. that we as Syrians will accept very little … but we are not like that. Here they treat you as if the abaya is hiding a prostitute. If a man is arguing with his wife, he tells her: ‘I don’t care about you, I can go marry a Syrian woman for $7.’

It took us a long time to decide on a name, but we eventually chose it because most women at some point throughout the film say the same thing as Samar: ‘This is not who we are.’

Being a refugee doesn’t stop you from being a human being. There is a huge refugee problem, but they are individuals and have individual struggles to survive. We wanted to bring across that these are people with daily lives with family, that their lives have become destroyed, and what becoming a refugee means in terms of that experience. They have special needs, but they aren’t lesser human beings.

We didn’t have a problem speaking to any of the women. They all wanted to talk. They wanted to be heard. We chose the ones that were most articulate, and ones from totally different backgrounds so we could show the diversity of their experiences.

All of the women we spoke to said they wanted people to know they hadn’t lost their dignity and that they resent being seen as one entity, as not being acknowledged as people, as being seen only as refugees.

All of them eventually said, “Thank you for listening. That is all we care about.”

Syria Deeply: How are Syrian women currently being received in Lebanon?

Mansour: To date, the Lebanese government has resisted establishing camps to host refugee families. The less fortunate are living on the street, without a permanent place to stay and steady income or access to education.

Host families house some refugees, others are renting small dilapidated apartments, and others are finding shelter out in the open in fields, basements and abounded structures lacking basic amenities and not reached by aid agencies.

At the same time, you have to understand the background of the Syrian-Lebanon situation. The Syrian army was in Lebanon for a long time, so Lebanese mix up Syrians with the Syrian regime. It is very difficult. Palestinian Syrians are not very welcome by Palestinian Lebanese, because many of them have been living in camps since 1948. They see that the Palestinians in the camps have help from the U.N.Relief and Works Agency, so it creates a lot of animosity and adversity. But when you speak to Syrian Palestinians, a lot of them say nothing compares to what the Lebanese Palestinians have been through.

Although there is tension, there are lots of initiatives started by the Lebanese to help the Syrians.

Syria Deeply: How has the conflict changed the life of Syrian women?

Mansour: Faced with loss and extreme deprivation, compounded by racism and a condescending attitude by some Lebanese, refugee women are finding themselves having to resort to extreme actions that they otherwise would not have considered back at home.

Before she fled for Lebanon, Samar had a middle class life. She said that she had the freedom to make her own decisions and had her own job.

“Here, in Lebanon, this is not the case. I suffered a lot when we first arrived here. No money to buy milk or diapers. My husband is sick and needs medication.”

In one instance in the film, Samar opens up about the decision to marry off her two teenage daughters – one is 14 and the other is 16. As she talks, she clearly has very contradictory feelings about her decision, which you can see by her trembling hands throughout the interview.

When asked if she was comfortable with the decision she says, “No … I always thought I would never allow my daughter to marry before she finishes her education, finishes her studies. Before she achieve something with her life.

“But this way, they would find someone who would provide them with their basic needs because I am not able to provide for them.

“I can’t return to my country now … Where would I go? Even if I found somewhere safe in Syria, the fear would remain. To have anything happen to my daughters, like the things we hear about like rape, I would lose my mind … So no, I prefer to stay here and have them married.”

We had to film Samar in a separate place, because she didn’t want people to identify her as the woman who sold her daughters.

Syria Deeply: How does the film touch on sexuality?

Mansour: The women were very open about the impact of displacement on their sexual lives. Many couples living in tents in the Bekaa are not able to experience any intimate moments because they share their tents with other couples and families.

When Umm Omar and Umm Raed arrived in Lebanon, they were both pregnant and took shelter at an abandoned bakery warehouse until, 10 days before Umm Omar gave birth, the landlord evicted them. She lived with 15 other families, separated by curtains, with only three mattresses and three blankets each, provided by the Danish Refugee Council.

Commenting on how living in a tent has affected her intimate life with her husband, she says: “A woman needs to stay very formal with her husband, because there are other people around, so it results in problems between the husband and wife. We have no private moments with our husbands. We used to take care of our appearances, dress up and cook for our husbands … Now we don’t have the heart for it.”

Samar, on the other hand, complains about her husband’s sexual needs and how much he has changed since moving to Lebanon, and her lack of desire for an intimate relationship:

“My husband is very aggressive and angry. After we came here, he has really gotten much, much, much worse. He says he would rather die in his country than be humiliated here. I force myself to give him what he wants, but I am emotionally very uncomfortable. Sometimes I turn to medication. I go to the pharmacy, and the pharmacist says: “You people have time for this?” How could we be asking for such pills or aids to increase desire or libido?

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