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Refugee Women in Beirut’s ‘Little Armenia’ Battle for Family Survival

Female refugees face particular challenges in health and childcare, and need extraordinary strength to cope. Sarine Karajerjian of the Issam Fares Institute tells the story of two women in Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud neighborhood.

Written by Sarine Karajerjian Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A Syrian refugee woman holds her child as she begs for money on a sidewalk in Beirut. AP/Hassan Ammar

Waking up in the morning these days, I don’t know which war to catch up on first – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen. The fallout of these wars is present everywhere around me in Beirut.

For International Women’s Week, I visited the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation, a community and health center in the predominantly Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud, as I did one year ago, to meet with refugee women who live there – including Armenians, Iraqis and Syrians.

When I arrived at the Karagheusian Center, I found Syrian women waiting in line for a routine vaccination with their children. Some had been there since 7 a.m., waiting for the center to open its doors and let the women in, one by one. Some women were standing up, carrying two children in their arms. Others were sitting, a blanket covering their newborn children.

There were more than 120 women in the center. As every week, they had come here to attend a session on women’s issues. The women come together every Tuesday to share their stories and talk about issues like women’s work, stress and education.

Many of the women are in desperate situations. One social worker at the center told me a haunting anecdote: Once they had given a Syrian woman a blanket on a cold day. The following day the road leading to the center was blocked by a crowd of women who had also come to ask for a blanket. “They were waiting in line and we could not enter the center,” said the social worker.

Two of the women I met at Karagheusian health center, Angie from Syria and Rita from Iraq, shared their stories with me.

Angie, originally from Lebanon and married to a Syrian, fled Aleppo and arrived in Bourj Hammoud in 2015. Since she is Lebanese, she was able to get a residency permit for her husband, for a fee of $200.

But still these are hard times. “There are days where I don’t want to see anyone, and only my faith helps me,” she says.

She shares one room in Bourj Hammoud with her mother, her husband and her two children. Money is scarce: “I had to ask the school director not to charge us the school tuition,” she says.

Angie, like other refugees, cannot escape the multifaceted and lasting legacy of war. She is crying as she talks to me. Life here in Lebanon is very difficult, she says. “What future will my children have? We need more help,” she says. “My husband does not want to stay in Lebanon, but we cannot return to Aleppo.”

When people ask Angie if she is happy, she answers: “I am happy whenever my son is happy and he is learning.”

“The Karagheusian health center is helping my son who has special needs and goes to the special education center,” she explains.

Angie is strong: “As a woman, I am more vocal than my husband. I ask for our rights as a family. I come from a family where we all worked hard,” she says. “Here, the woman has to manage everything in the household and I am unable to work, though I used to work before.”

Her life since being displaced is taking a toll on her health: “I am going through a very stressful time,” she says. “I had my period four times in one month. And I’m losing my hair. My mental well-being is tired. I am tired. But we had to restart our lives.”

I also met Rita, who is Iraqi, at the Karagheusian Center. She used to live in Baghdad, but moved to Mosul where she hid in churches during the conflict following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with her husband, who is Assyrian. She came to Lebanon in 2014. She rents a house with her parents in Beirut. Her in-laws stayed in Iraq.

Rita says life in Lebanon is expensive, especially as her son is sick and needs special treatment.

“Hospitals and education were free in Iraq. In Lebanon we have to pay for everything. We are shocked that we have to pay for everything,” she says.

She gets visibly upset as she talks about her son, his medical condition and the attention she needs to give to him.

She hopes to make a new life in another country. “We are waiting for papers to leave Lebanon,” she says.

In the meantime, the Karagheusian health center is helping fill the gaps in her son’s medical needs. “Allah yisaadna,” she says. “Let God help us!”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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