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Local pair travels to Lebanon to document misogynist conditions faced by Syrian refugees

  • Janice Raymond shares a tangerine with Syrian children living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Contributed Photo

  • A school for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Contributed Photo

  • The Bar-al-Elias Refugee Camp in Lebanon. Patricia Hynes, along with Janice Raymond, traveled to Lebanon in October to visit Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley near the border of Syria to document firsthand the situation of women and girls living in the camps. Contributed Photo



Recorder Staff
Friday, December 15, 2017

GREENFIELD — Rima fled the civil war in Syria 1½ years ago, making her way to the Lebanese border with her handicapped sister.

En route, she was approached by a man who offered to help transport the pair to Lebanon, where Syrian refugees have been seeking refuge by the hundreds of thousands. But Rima — a pseudonym used to protect her identity — and her sister were kidnapped by the man. Ultimately, Rima chose to marry him to protect her sister from being violated.

“Once in Lebanon and in his place of residence, she found that he intended to bring men in for sex with her — he’d make the money from it — he pimped her,” said Patricia Hynes, director of Greenfield’s Traprock Center for Peace and Justice, who met Rima, along with other Syrian refugees, during a recent trip to Lebanon.

Seven months pregnant, Rima fled from her captor. She is now living safely in a women’s house with fellow refugees and is in the process of trying to divorce her husband through the legal services of  a feminist, secular, Lebanese, non-governmental civil society organization seeking to end violence and discrimination against women.

Hynes, along with Janice Raymond, former co-director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and professor emerita of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts, traveled to Lebanon in October to visit Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley near the border of Syria. With them was Esohe Aghatise, a Nigerian colleague from Association IROKO, based in Italy.

The purpose of their trip was to document firsthand the situation of women and girls living in the camps, and to shine a light on the significant role that Lebanese and Syrian women have taken to combat all forms of violence against women, creating programs that give them a future.

“Our goals really were to document the situation of women in the refugee process and particularly, to spotlight the kind of sexual exploitation and trafficking that goes on, but also to see that even though you may be a refugee or a victim, you can still act on behalf of your own interests,” Raymond said. “We wanted to see some of those programs, also, and the women we were interviewing were creating those programs.”

Raymond said that both she and Hynes have worked extensively on women’s rights, and are keenly conscious of the way the subject is often left out of reporting on the refugee crisis.

Both women plan to publish articles on what they observed, and Hynes also plans to give local talks about their trip.

“With respect to what we were there for, we learned that refugee women in Lebanon are becoming a form of currency, they’re being traded really for purposes within the war for all forms of sexual exploitation. This is very common where women are used as spoils of war in all types of transactions,” Raymond said.

Lebanon hosts around 1.1 million Syrian refugees registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, according to the Union of Relief and Development Associations. With a total population of 4.4 million, the percentage of refugees in Lebanon is significant.

“I call it the rabbit hole into which Syrian refugees have fallen once they get into Lebanon,” Raymond said. “They’re not recognized, they’re left to fend for themselves, there are no official camps, they can’t obtain residency or work permits, they’re forced often to depend on landlords who extort them,” Raymond said. “Their kids also cannot be educated in Lebanese public schools.”

Although many children are sent to work in the informal sector, such as agriculture and similar areas, efforts are being made to help provide education to young refugees.

Raymond and Hynes met with members of the Relief and Educational Assistance program, which rents space in Lebanese schools to provide education for Syrian children and teaching jobs for other refugees.

“They also provide one meal and transportation to and from school, making it safe for girls to attend,” Hynes said.

They also met with a group dedicated to creating an “ethical blueprint” for a renewed Syria.

“They want people to be informed, they want this Syrian nation that they’re talking about to not be centered on religious or sectarian or tribal relationships,” Raymond said. “Their blueprint is all about a form of community that is secular.”

She added that the league is also very concerned about women’s human rights and holds several workshops, including one on early marriage — which has increased among Syrian refugees by at least 23 percent, according to Raymond.

“Part of their work is trying to challenge this. They recognize that pressures — patriarchal pressures, family pressures — promote early marriage; they also recognize that girls themselves may see this as a way out of their situation,” she said. “They work with these myths that early marriage protects women because a lot of fathers and a lot of families are really permitting this.”

Many of the women Raymond and Hynes interviewed told them they did not want to return to Syria without justice. When asked to spell out what that meant to them, the women’s answers included finding out what happened to their relatives and friends, many of whom disappeared; not returning to a country that will enlist their sons in the army, and accountability on the part of the government for the crimes it has committed.

“They all spoke about security — the knowledge that in returning, they would be safe,” Raymond said. “The political situation right now in Syria is controlled by proxies — most assuredly Russia, the U.S. is in there, Iran is in there, Saudi Arabia is in there, and Turkey. They’re spinning a web, almost, in which millions of refugees are caught.”

Donations for the organizations providing services and education for the Syrian refugees may be sent to the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice, P.O. Box 1201, Greenfield MA 01302, or via Paypal at traprock.org/donate