Celia Peterson

Lebanon, with a population of 4.4 million is currently hosting 1.1 million Syrian refugees. 75% of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are women and children. With the proliferation of female-only families, these female refugees are taking on traditionally male roles to survive and are supporting families alone for the first time in their lives.

The mass influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has put a severe strain on the host country’s infrastructure including their schools, hospitals and water supply. Refugees have exhausted their limited savings, and in some cases have been working informally to provide food for their families. Syrians have been exploited with low wages, poor working conditions and are at constant threat of being deported back to Syria. In Lebanon, the authorities require non-registered refugee Syrians to pay an annual fee of $200 for a residency visa and to acquire a sponsor to allow them to stay in the country.

Time is running out for many Syrians who have exhausted their savings and are living in constant fear of deportation for undertaking informal, yet essential work to feed their families. A donor conference – Supporting Syria 2016 – in February of this year laid out plans for neighbouring countries to allow Syrians the right to work and to scrap the complex visa renewal process in Lebanon.  Amira Hassan of ActionAid says “We welcome this much needed change of legislation, but words alone are not enough. Until world leader’s words become reality, many more Syrians will continue to suffer in exile.”

Al Jazeera meets 5 women struggling to survive in Lebanon.

Khuloud Kerbaj is a 32 year old refugee who’s husband has skin cancer and is unable to work or pay for his long-term cancer treatment. Khuloud, who holds an accounting qualification, currently earns 20 us/day painting and decorating, and has become the main breadwinner of her family: “The crisis had a great impact on us, both men and women. Firstly, we lost a lot of our country’s men, and many women were widowed. I don’t think anyone in the whole world faced what we women did in Syria. We were the ones most affected. We are alone, some have lost their father, brother or husband. Her Husband, the house’s backbone is gone.”

Amira Hassan Al Bdroun, 31 year’s old, is from Daraa, Syria and has been living in Baalbeck for the last 4 years. She is now divorced. With no official right to work, she has become active helping others and works at the local gas station giving fuel to refugees: “the men smile and laugh when they see me working at the gas station. When you practice this kind of job, you have the feeling you are empowered. When I left Syria, I was so scared about how I would live alone, sleep alone in the garage at night with my kids, now I don’t care, I can work and walk around and I don’t worry.”

Ghroub Edriss, born with a ‘gold spoon’ in her mouth, now finds herself delivering water to her small community in a tractor. After arriving in Baalbeck, she started working on the farm. “As my husband was away some of the time, I ended up driving the truck and selling the water in the neighbourhood. The men are surprised to see me driving the truck. Women are equal to men, we are sisters of men. In my family we are all equal.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: “The crisis, had a great impact on us, both men and women. Firstly, we lost a lot of our country’s men, and many women were widowed. I don’t think anyone in the whole world faced what we women did in Syria. We were the ones most affected. We are alone, some have lost their father, brother or husband. Her Husband, the house’s backbone is gone.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: “The crisis, had a great impact on us, both men and women. Firstly, we lost a lot of our country’s men, and many women were widowed. I don’t think anyone in the whole world faced what we women did in Syria. We were the ones most affected. We are alone, some have lost their father, brother or husband. Her Husband, the house’s backbone is gone.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: Khuloud Kerbash is a 32 year old refugee from Sweida, Syria. She studied accounting at university but now works as a painter in Baalbeck, Lebanon.

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: “I feel that I have left my soul in Syria. I guess that I have adapted to exile here, I have friends who are like sisters, and I feel that the Centre is my family home. It has compensated me [for the loss] of my family and country. Here, we are brothers and sisters, we are one hand and one heart.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 17/02/2016: Khuloud with her friends at the Action Aid centre in Baalbek. "I am very happy at the centre because it compensated me for the loss of my family and country. Here, at the centre we are brothers and sisters, we are one hand and one heart.

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: Bushra keeps herself busy fixing electronic products for her family. “I like to discover what is inside electric devices and so on. I find myself with free time and nothing to do, so when things break at home, I immediately begin working. I love to work in it, but only as a hobby, I do not need to work in it. To work later and open a workshop, I’ll think about it. Why not? The role of an electrician is mostly for men. But it shouldn’t be exclusively to men. Why should it be them only? We can work even better than them. A woman can concentrate more in such matters, paying attention to fine points.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: Bushra, 34 year’s old, from Syria is currently living in Baalbeck with her mother, brother and his family. “When I first arrived here, there was a big void. I had no job, I roamed the streets not knowing what to do.” Here she is pictured at her temporary home in Baalbeck with her niece.

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: Bushra with her mother at their home in Baalbeck. They both travelled together from Damascus to Lebanon 4 month’s ago when Bushra’s father passed away. Bushra worked in the field of autism in Syria. In Lebanon, she is not registered as a refugee and has no right to work. “Even if I was registered with the UNHCR, I still do not have the right work. This point had surprised me, not being able to work and make a living! My brother is the one who works day and night. Salaries for the Syrians are less than the Lebanese.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 17/02/2016: Ghroub Edriss is 40 year’s old, from Homs and has been in Lebanon for almost 4 years. She lives in Baalbeck on a small farm with her husband and 3 children. In Syria, her husband was a lawyer and she was a manager for a research centre, living well and from a wealthy family: “I was born with a ‘gold spoon’ in my mouth”. Her husband’s friend, a Lebanese doctor, asked them to live on his small farm, look after the property and sell water to the neighbours. For each truckload, they receive 5,000 lebanese pounds. Ghroub has transitioned to working in more ‘male’ roles to survive. “Because of the war, Syrian women need to cope with the new situation. For me, maybe this was easy but for others they are doing harder jobs.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 17/02/2016: “When we came to Baalbeck, I isolated myself with my kids for almost 6 months, I was really depressed. After a while, I started working on the farm. As my husband was away some of the time, I ended up driving the truck and selling the water in the neighbourhood. The men in the neighbourhood are surprised seeing me drive the truck. Women are equal to men, we are sisters of men. In my family we are all equal.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 17/02/2016: Ghroub and her family are registered with the UNHCR but they now do not receive food or fuel vouchers. “As we are refugees here, we have no right to work. I worry when I travel to visit family in other areas of Lebanon that I will be stopped at a check point and expelled from the country.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 17/02/2016: Fatma Yahya from Damascus is 30 year’s old and is a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. She left Syria when the conflict started and is working as a hairdresser to support her husband and kids. Her husband is a refugee in Germany and she is hoping to join him with their family. Fatma stands outside her salon in Baalbeck. Fatma did various gender empowerment and leadership training with Action Aid: “the most important thing with the gender training is that I felt empowered, I am self-confident and at the same time I feel I can now support others. It’s important to have your own career and business, and not to wait for others to support you or give you aid. If I didn’t have this salon, my kids and I would be in a bad situation. I want to improve my skills and career, perhaps progress to a bigger salon.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 17/02/2016: Fatma Yahya has 2 daughters and a son. She has had her salon for 1 year cutting hair for both men and women. She worked as a hairdresser back in Syria but never used to cut men’s hair. Now she needs to make as much money as she can to support her 4 children and her husband. “Because of the situation, I see more women doing traditionally male roles, for sure we are doing it because we need the money, instead of asking people to support us. We have the power to do this.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 17/02/2016: Fatma Yahya lives in Baalbeck, a conservative area in Lebanon. She finds men are not accepting of the new trend of Syrian women taking on more traditionally male roles but finds some of the more open minded men do accept it. “To be a successful woman is hard, I miss the time with my kids and my husband, I miss what they are doing at school and tracking their school work but I have to do this to survive.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: Amira Hassan Al Bdroun, 31 year’s old is from Daraa, Syria. She is currently living in Baalbeck, Lebanon and fled Syria 4 year’s ago due to the fighting and fearing the safety of her 5 young children. She is now divorced and feels she has to take on a man’s role in the absence of her husband: “For sure women are now taking on traditionally male roles. For me, I never imagined myself working in a gas station, now I am selling it and supporting refugees with their fuel allocations. This humanitarian work gives me the feeling I am an active agent in the community, drawing a smile on the refugees’ faces makes me feel better, and all the time, I am saying, as long as I am safe and my kids are safe, I have everything.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: Amira Hassan Al Bdroun’s husband could not take care of her and their 5 young children. He left them all in a garage where they were living and went back to Syria. Amira favours her divorced status: “I prefer this as my husband was so aggressive and stressed. Last year, he tried to throw boiling water on me. “I can take care of my kids. I try to make my kids proud of what I do, and to be a positive role model.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: Amira Hassan Al Bdroun was a teacher in Syria. When the bombing started, she taught her students at her home. In Lebanon, she is registered at the UNHCR who have given her food vouchers and pay her rent. With no official right to work, whenever she has done a few jobs, she has not been paid: “I am depressed due to this. I hate that somebody is violating my rights, I just asked for my money and they will not pay me.”

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BAALBECK, Lebanon: 16/02/2016: Amira Hassan Al Bdroun has no official right to work in Lebanon, and so she has become active helping others. She works at the local gas station giving out fuel to refugees. “The men smile and laugh when they see me working at the gas station. When you practice this kind of job, you have the feeling you are empowered. When I left Syria, I was so scared about how I would live alone, sleep alone in the garage at night with my kids, now I don’t care, I can work and walk around and I don’t worry.”