“They made me feel like being overweight is worse than lying or stealing. I was always judged before speaking. I was being shamed for having a disease which I have been fighting for almost 15 years. Of course I was depressed! Who wouldn't be?”
Employment opportunities and health
Alaa, a 26-year-old Syrian woman, was studying early childhood education at the University of Damascus. She was bullied on a daily basis because of her weight — mocked, called names and even subjected to cruel pranks. As if that was not enough to break someone’s spirit, there were also the miseries brought by the Syrian civil war.
“I felt stuck! Stuck in a body that is slowing me down. Stuck in a country that is offering no hope for change. Stuck in my crippling thoughts of self-hate. I was tired. But one day I realized that I can’t keep doing this anymore. I felt like I was living the same day over and over. I had to do something.”
Meanwhile, their living circumstances were growing more precarious.
“Our pre-war savings could no longer sustain our large family and things were getting harder with each passing day. I tried to look for better work but eventually I gave up. I packed my things, said goodbye to my family and headed to Lebanon.”
Almost a year after arriving in Lebanon and a prolonged search for employment, Alaa saw an ad on Facebook for free vocational courses at CIS College in the Bekaa. Anera partners with CIS to offer vocational courses as part of a program funded by UNICEF.
Alaa decided to use her love of food to her advantage, learning to cook healthy meals and sharing this love with others.
“As I was in the bus heading to CIS College, I realized that this was the first time I was making a decision solely on my own, with no influence from my family and no pressure from society. I was a young woman determined to make something of herself.”
She signed up for the hospitality and cooking course, which prepares students to enter the workforce as assistant chefs. Alaa and her classmates recently completed the theoretical part of the coursework and are applying what they have learned in a fully equipped kitchen with a professional chef.
Alaa has started losing weight naturally, thanks to her healthy diet and constant activity. “I just needed to find my purpose,” Alaa says. “Now that I have, it’s really helped me overcome my depression.”
“I needed a safety net, like Anera provides, because had these courses not been free, I wouldn't have had money to enroll.
"Had Anera not provided all the students with transportation stipends, I wouldn't have been able to afford the long bus ride to campus.”
Liking the first course and finding that she still had time free, Alaa enrolled in another of Anera’s vocational courses, in early childhood education, to build upon her studies in Damascus.
While stirring her signature vegetable soup, savored by her classmates and teachers, Alaa talks about her plans for the future.
“I’ve realized that I can actually combine my love for children with my love for cooking! I can specialize in cooking healthy but delicious meals for children who are suffering from obesity. This is what I plan to pursue after I graduate. I want to go back to a peaceful Syria and open my own healthy cooking academy.”
Alaa has since returned to Syria. Anera’s vocational courses, which have reached thousands of youth in Lebanon, are part of a UNICEF project funded by the Embassies of the Netherlands and Germany in Beirut and UK AID.