A safe space for refugee girls and young women in Lebanon
"The most valuable lesson I have learned here is that, although life is hard and it's scary, I can’t give up. I have to take ownership of my own life — it is mine and it will be full.”—Alaa
A community center provides social and educational support to Syrian refugees
Bhannine is a small coastal village outside of Tripoli in the north of Lebanon. Because it is near the Syrian border, it is home to a few hundred Syrian refugee families, mainly from Homs.
The Bhannine Social Skills Centre (BSSC), one of Anera’s local partners, is an educational safe space for girls and women between the ages of 10 and 30. They get together almost daily at the center to take literacy, math, writing and life skills classes that help them cope with their traumas and hardships. Social support centers are novel and rare in most rural villages in Lebanon. Yet BSSC is here, operating an excellent social development program.
“This is not a school or an institute, and we can’t really call it a public house, but it is most definitely a home,'' says Fatimah, one of the center’s staff.
Many of the girls and women at the BSSC suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Some are the victims of forced child marriages. Others have lost family members during the violent clashes in Homs in the early years of the Syrian civil war.
A Refuge for Refugees
“This place is my only escape,” says Alaa, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee.
“The only kind of fun I have in my life is here with my friends. I can’t even remember when I left Syria, but I remember that I came [to Lebanon] with hope and goals that I wanted to achieve. Little by little, those dreams started to fade away. By the time I was 17, my family forced me to marry my second cousin. They crushed me.”
“I knew this was not marriage,” Alaa says with emotion. “I got beaten and treated like an animal for almost a year. I was forced to get pregnant. Even when I was pregnant, the beatings didn’t stop.”
With the help of some extended family, Alaa got a divorce and left her husband's house. But her husband took her son and has prevented her from seeing him. She does not have money to hire a lawyer.
Alaa looks at the ground for a long pause before taking a deep breath and smiling. She says,
“This place, the courses I’m taking, my teachers and my friends have changed me so much. Every time I come here, I promise myself to become the best version of Alaa that I can possibly be...I have learned how to write and read. But really the most valuable lesson I have learned here is that, although life is hard and it's scary, I can’t give up. I have to take ownership of my own life — it is mine and it will be full.”
Seizing Opportunity in Tragedy
A friend comforts Alaa as she tells her story. Widad, 23, is also from Syria. She says,
“Maybe the war was for a reason, you know? Maybe we were meant to meet one another in Bhannine. I sometimes think, I’m here to learn, because in Syria, I couldn't even read or write. My father did not see a woman’s education as a priority. But here I am today, reading books from the Centre’s library and learning about worlds I never knew existed.”
Widad, like Alaa, and thousands of other Syrian refugee girls, are victims of social customs which view marriage as a woman’s ultimate life event and birthing children as the highest accomplishment. “Last year, I got married, and I was naive enough to think that this might actually be a good thing — that I am finally leaving my parents' home and my life is going to change for the better. Boy was I wrong,” Widad exclaims.
Unlike her friend Alaa, Widad was lucky enough not to have been forced into pregnancy. She got a divorce after eight months, something which her family viewed as a mistake and even shameful. Needing to escape the constant judgment of her family at home, Widad found refuge at BSSC. She says,
“When I get to the center, it's like I step into another reality. When I leave my shoes by the door, I leave my worries and all my negative thoughts with them and I begin to feel happy — like I’m worthy of happiness.”
Overcoming Pain to Support Others
Ahlam, 24, is another young Syrian refugee at the center with a heartbreaking yet inspiring story. She says,
“The two most important people in my life — my father and brother — were taken from me. They both died in Syria during the peak of the war. Of course I am devastated, but it is amazing how the human heart can overcome pain and continue pumping life.
“My brother was a single father. When he passed away, he left his little son behind. I could not watch him be taken by social workers to some horrible orphanage, so I adopted the boy.”
Hardship has created a sense of maturity in these youth far beyond their years. Anera partners with local initiatives and safe spaces like this center to provide young women with the support and stability they need to thrive.
Anera’s support for the Bhannine Social Skills Centre is made possible through a UNICEF project, “Supporting youth affected by the Syrian crisis in Lebanon,” funded by the Embassies of the Netherlands and Germany in Beirut and UK AID.