Syrian refugee transitions from child bride to sole provider

Sunday 18/12/2016
Syrian refugee Haela Kalawi, 31, (L) and her aunt, Razan Ghazal, 40, walk in the street of Ouzai, a poor neighbourhood in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, as they head to work at Recycle Beirut. (AP)

Beirut - For the first few weeks of her job recycling garbage, Haela Kalawi often went home crying.

It wasn’t just the grungy setting — a dimly lit, airless base­ment where the 31-year-old refugee slips on plastic gloves and digs into trash-filled containers. It was that as a traditional housewife in Syria, Kalawi grew up believing it was shameful for women to work out­side the house.

Now, in a slum in Beirut, Kalawi is the breadwinner for the fam­ily’s four children. Her husband went missing in the civil war back home three years ago. While she still misses her old comfortable life, she has discovered a fortitude she didn’t know she had and discarded traditional notions of what a wom­an should be.

“I tell my children I’m the man of the family,” Kalawi said. “I am the father and the mother. I’m the one who works. I’m the one who buys vegetables. I’m the one who takes them out and brings them what they need.”

Across the world, women often bear the brunt of wars, especially those fought in populated areas with high rates of civilian casualties and displacement — as has been the case in the Middle East.

Syria’s conflict has uprooted half the country’s population, including many women. In Lebanon, about one-third of 240,000 Syrian refugee households are headed by women whose husbands — traditionally the providers and protectors — are dead, missing or chose to stay be­hind.

In exile, some of these women feel vulnerable to harassment and violence, leaving their homes less than they did in Syria, according to a 2014 study by the United Nations’ refugee agency. However, others, such as Kalawi, have become acci­dental agents of change in a region where it is still relatively rare for women to be leaders in the family.

“The great wars in Europe signifi­cantly contributed to the recogni­tion of the woman in society,” said Killian Kleinschmidt, who used to run Jordan’s largest camp for Syr­ian refugees. “And so there is hope that among the evil, at least the so­ciety in the Middle East will gain, changing the role and importance of women.”

Kalawi grew up with a sister and three brothers in Eastern Ghouta, a densely populated, predominantly Sunni Muslim suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Girls in the conservative commu­nity tended to marry young. By the time Kalawi was 15, she had already turned down several marriage pro­posals. But when another stranger, 28-year-old Mohammed Dahla, asked to marry her, she agreed. They wed two months later.

She dropped out of the 10th grade, even though her husband, a lawyer, wanted her to continue. The following school year, he re-enrolled his young wife and bought the needed books, but she got preg­nant and stayed at home instead.

Her husband had absolute say in the family. She spent her days cooking, cleaning and going over homework with her older children. Kalawi’s sheltered existence ended with the civil war.

“I would cry every day for him. He was my anchor,” she said of her missing husband.

Kalawi and her children fled to Lebanon in May 2015, where she joined her widowed mother, Wu­jdan Ghazal, her divorced aunt Razan Ghazal, and Razan’s 20-year-old daughter, Aisheh, whose hus­band has been missing since he was seized by Syrian intelligence four years ago.

The women, with ten children among them, live in small rooms in Ouzai, a run-down neighbourhood of Beirut.

Razan, 40, was the brash one, the go-getter in the family because she’s had more experience as the breadwinner; her husband walked out 15 years ago, leaving her to pro­vide for four children.

She was the first to work at Recy­cle Beirut, a company that collects glass, plastic and other materials in Ouzai. Owner Kassem Kazad, a descendant of Palestinian refugees who was sympathetic to the dis­placed Syrians, asked her to recruit five more women, Kalawi was one of them.

“I was surprised that my daugh­ter accepted to work,” said Wujdan, who makes $400 a month sewing mattress covers in a nearby shop.

For Kalawi the reason was sim­ple. “I needed money and I hated to ask my mother for it.”

Kalawi shares a single room with a daughter and three sons, rang­ing in age from four to 14. She pays $100 a month for the no-frills space. The family gets $27 per person in monthly UN food vouchers

Kazad organised separate English classes for his male and female em­ployees. Once a week, the women stay behind after work for a lesson taught by a volunteer from Hol­land. Sixteen years after dropping out of school, Kalawi seemed eager to soak up new information and caught on faster than the others.

Like millions in the region who have been uprooted by fighting, Ka­lawi dreams of returning home one day. But she prizes her independ­ence and wouldn’t want to remarry. “I married when I was 15 and I was suppressed,” she said. “Now, I have a personality, I rely on myself. The ones who knew me in my old days would be surprised if they see me today.”

(The Associated Press)