Female Syrian refugees caught between the Covid-19 lockdown and Lebanon’s financial collapse
Marwa Ahmad - Lebanon
Born in 1987, in Zahle, Lebanon, Marwa Ahmad has just obtained her Ph.D in Global Society Studies at the Doshisha University in Kyoto. She has worked as a translator and research assistant in two influential think tanks in the field of politics, research and development in the Arab world: the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, based in Qatar and the Center studies on Arab unity, in Beirut.
Since the start of anticorruption protests on October 17, 2019, and following the Coronavirus shut-down, thousands of people in Lebanon lost their jobs with the closing of businesses, skyrocketing prices, and the devaluation of the currency by 85% due to the collapse of the financial market.  Regardless of nationality, a triple crisis brought already strained families to the brink, with a downward spiral of famine and violence looming in the country. However, confinement and self-isolation have impacted populations differently, most significantly among underserved and marginalized communities like refugees, vulnerable Lebanese families (22%) and residents living under extreme poverty (45%).  These overwhelming circumstances have severely exacerbated existing challenges facing Syrian refugees at the level of their employment, housing, food security and access to health care and schooling, leaving 69% of them living under the poverty line.  Particularly among females, who constitute more than half of the one million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, given soaring reports of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence perpetrated against them as one of the gendered social by-products of lockdown. Add to this, an increase in child marriage and child-beggars phenomenon, among other serious problems.
Considering these reports, this article draws on interviews with Syrian refugee women and girls to describe the impact of the quarantine on females’ psychological, emotional, and physiological well-being. It examines the dynamic of family relations along patriarchal norms, of which the gender-specific aspect prevails and dictates members’ responsibilities domestically and outside. These highlight the key mechanisms that help refugee females deal better with their anxieties and insecurities generated by confinement, given the limited size of their shelters.
Method, methodology and sampling
Two months after the state-imposed nationwide lockdown, beginning mid-March to end-May 2020, I interviewed 13 female Syrian refugees, aged from 15 to 54, through video calls using WhatsApp and Messenger. The objective of my interview was clearly stated out-front: to inquire about their key concerns during the lockdown; to ask about their affective well-being; and to infer data of their coping techniques in overcoming the confinement-born domestic adversities.
Multilayered challenges facing Syrian refugees
The difference between Palestinian, Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts of low-household income, who also lived hand to mouth from daily wages prior to lockdown, lies in that refugees are part of UNHCR database for cash assistance programs. For years, they have been the recipient of in-kind and in-cash support programs to their livelihood, while no social protection system has been put in place to assist the Lebanese citizens in extreme poverty.
Compared to their more established Palestinian counterparts, estimated at around 500,000 refugees entering Lebanon following major upheavals produced by the Arab-Israeli conflict front since 1948,  75% of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack legal residency status, which incites fear of imprisonment and deportation.  They live in mostly overcrowded, and substandard shelters that range from formal residential buildings to informal settlements, such as unfinished construction-sites and tented spaces.  Besides the state-imposed curfews announced nationwide by the Lebanese government, certain municipalities implemented further restrictive mobility measures on their Syrian residents, including completely prohibiting them from receiving visitors or just allowing one appointed person per tent to acquire household purchases.  Moreover, the Norwegian Council reported 81% of the Syrian refugees were not informed that they were required to call the Ministry of Health if ever a member of their families or their neighbourhood became sick.  Such informal local responses made them feel further stigmatized and discriminated against.
Therefore, the Syrian refugees took negative coping measures that jeopardized their communities, risking the spread of the virus rather than its containment. While their underreporting happened out of fear of undergoing further discriminatory treatment and risking losing their housing, their restricted mobility weakened their access to health care when they felt symptoms of the virus.
Inside the home of a Syrian refugee family
In the light of the above, to understand the gendered dimension of female refugees’ adaptation during confinement, one must examine the nature of a Syrian refugee family dynamic prior lockdown: the parents-siblings relation, the status of mothers, and the position of girl refugees vis-à-vis their parents and male siblings.
Since their forced displacement in March 2011, 66% of the male members of a Syrian household work to provide for the family, which is in line with a patriarchal structure where fathers are the main breadwinners assisted by unschooled male offspring capable of working, even as young as 8 years old (Habib et al., 2019). With only 11% of female refugees joining the Lebanese labour market, particularly in the absence of male providers, the low -to semi-skilled refugee task-force worked long hours outside, leaving the domestic space called “home” almost exclusive to females.  As prime caregivers, mothers’ role is of crucial importance in bridging the changing relationships between father  and children adjusting to the exceptional circumstances of refugeehood. To ultimately receive the culturally and religiously-imposed blessing of the head of the household, children communicate their will to their mothers, who package their thoughts delicately and deliver them at strategic moments, thereby reducing family feuds and intergenerational tension.Bearing the heaviest cost of their family’s forced displacement, informal housing and financial hardships, refugee girls can be forced out of school, pushed into marriage at an early age, objectified to raise an expensive dowry, subjected to short-term marriage arrangements with old men from the Gulf and other forms of human rights violations. Their capacity to work is also undermined by the cultural assignation of heavy concepts of honour and shame, which makes child-marriage seem an acceptable solution to the potential sexual abuse and violence facing them. The relationship between girls and their male siblings is that of a patriarchal protector-protected dynamic of subordination, where females are considered weaker members in need of "protection" so as to preserve family honour.  Although similar trends have been reported among low-income Palestinian refugees and traditional Lebanese families living in remote areas, yet a far more permissive style of upbringing is registered in these families compared to the Syrian refugees.
The Impact of confinement on female Syrian refugees
From the beginning of the lockdown on March 15, 2020, refugee women and girls were locked up with their husbands and male siblings for more than two months until the gradual easing of the nationwide statutory closure (officially ending on May 24). On top of their pre-confinement hardships, additional challenges flared up, threatening their families’ survival. Unable to take refuge elsewhere this time, the impeding virus made them feel “stuck within four-walls,” fearing for their lives because of a new threat that they are unable to see or protect themselves against.  The lockdown occurred almost immediately, leaving all members of the family confused. The first two to three days were most horrific, especially over the scenes broadcasted on local TV of once vibrant streets, turning empty “like a ghost town.”  The overwhelming atmosphere at home was that of fear: fear for one’s health, fear of tomorrow, fear for the health of family members who had to temporarily leave home to buy necessary grocery items, fear of the underlying possibility of losing their loved ones.During the first week, families' anxiety level sharply increased as refugees’ social networks living in Europe shared the death-toll figures in Italy and Iran, countries blamed for not taking the matter seriously enough. At this point, mothers started praying God and questioning if they were “ever going back to Syria.”  Girls felt most worried for their eldest brother selected to purchase basic groceries, therefore taking risks in lieu of their supposedly less-immune fathers as reported on TV. What made matters worse were the long hours of electricity cuts that forced low-income refugees, migrant workers, and local residents to commute daily to buy perishable basic goods, because they couldn’t afford to pay for private generators (for refrigerators).  Within one week, fathers had already started losing patience: several women reported that despite the risks, heads-of-household called to plead with their employers to return to work given the heavy weight of responsibility on their shoulders, but to no avail. Mothers shared these troubles with their offspring to stimulate their empathy and highlight the underlying stressors hidden behind the father’s bad temper, in reference to which Leila stated: “We are not blind, we can hear, see and feel how hard it is for anyone to make it here.” 
Confined within limited space, with school suspension, business closure and halted recruiting, tensions rose. In two to three weeks, the Syrian family’s resilience against much greater hardships was compromised by the overall anxiety about the family’s safety, survival, and fate in the short-term, as frequently lamented by mothers. Siblings’ sharing of stories, willingness to help one another, assisting with chores, and joining in other collective family activities of support to the family unit were soon replaced with recurring domestic quarrels. Despite shared hardships, mothers were busy quietly arbitrating as paternal ill-temper was to be avoided at all costs.
Investigating deeper about the consequences of fathers’ involvement in domestic feuds, I noted the level of secrecy maintained around the subject. This confirms cultural norms that consider disclosing sensitive information a violation to the confidentiality of a conservative Syrian household where members’ upbringing dictates that they maintain silence around any form of family weakness. UNHCR reported refugee girls’ fearing abuse by male members because revealing certain information would bring disgrace and shame to their family’s reputation. This has been a critical problem faced by humanitarian agencies that address refugees’ mental health and domestic violence, as those have been massively underreported, unaddressed and therefore unresolved.  Gradually, women and girls developed mechanisms to help them cope with their surrounding stress and multiple uncertainties. Mothers reported sleeping for longer hours, distracting themselves by watching series on YouTube, reaching out to their former neighbours, and local friends via WhatsApp, or connecting to relatives abroad, using Facebook Messenger or Skype, depending on the best option available. They felt better sharing their fears with their social support network and complaining to them about the weight gained due to their new sedentary lifestyle.
Despite their mothers’ complaints, teenage schoolgirls admitted to growing addiction to videogames, through which they felt that they could detach themselves from their surroundings. At the age of 15, Asmaa was surprised to discover that she had spent 42 hours on average per week playing games, almost not believing a feature on her phone detecting her “active” engagement.  Concerning their online-schooling experience, having classes via WhatsApp groups, the girls couldn’t take their education seriously, and failed to adapt to the new form of knowledge-delivery. This made them question the effectiveness of this method and even undervalue its importance, thereby seriously undermining their perception about the importance of education. 
Their older, unschooled sisters reported drinking more coffee, watching more YouTube and, similarly to their mothers, they connected more with their friends and relatives abroad. Interestingly, those girls objected more than their younger sisters and mothers to having been forced to share their space with everyone else in the house. They had been accustomed before lockdown to enjoying their privacy and uninterrupted routine while their sisters were in school and their male siblings and father at work.
Towards the end of lockdown, it became clear that the male members would need to resume work to ensure their family’s survival. Just like low-income and other day-to-day labourers, refugees’ choices were limited: going hungry or exposing themselves to risk. Those who hadn’t lost their jobs readily resumed work, while the newly unemployed boys mobilized their social networks to secure any form of labour. It is then that female refugees expressed feeling more appreciative of their male household members and at that stage, grew more religious, praying for their family’s safety. As one of them explains: “We are much more connected after lockdown. We went through a lot together and [we] appreciate their putting themselves in danger for us.” 
Our research offers hindsight into the functionality of a refugee household experience during lockdown. Although other community members surrounding the Syrian refugees, including Palestinians, migrant domestic workers who faced massive lay-offs due to the drop of Lebanese pound against the US dollar,  and Lebanese citizens living under poverty-line, shared their hardships and the financial implications of the lockdown, the Syrian refugees are exclusively stigmatized and are solely subject to such lockdown discriminatory measures.
At the level of gendered adaptation, our analysis noted girls being quicker than their male counterparts in responding to their parents’ new stressors and adapting to the new norms. While male members were irritated by being stuck at home, refugee women and girls adapted faster to sharing the space that was once exclusively theirs: despite elder sisters complaining about being forced to do it, they passively conceded to the imposed realities.
One of the major recurrences reported by female respondents was the influence of the size of their housing on their resilience to hardships, which negatively affected their relationships, health, and mobility. However, this was not the case pre-confinement as each member had a role to play, now even domestic house chores have been considered a distracting routine, with health benefits.
Another significant point engulfing the relational dynamic among Syrian family members, strengthening their family unit in face of cumulated hardships under lockdown and of course prior to it, pertains to the strong family’s social capital. A reciprocal expectation drives children to develop feelings of responsibility towards their parents,  as an expression of the solidarity that has bonded different members of a family unit and kept them alive through war, uncertainty as unwelcome refugees in Lebanon and now through the pandemic. Outcomes of our analysis recurrently displayed that both refugee boys and girls, to each his/her gender-specific expectations, constantly contributed to strengthening the family bonds and extending bridging ties by connecting to their social networks to help them overcome the harsh realities faced during confinement to contribute to their family’s survival. This is especially evident among youth, as active agents connecting with their local and extended networks abroad in search for resources unavailable otherwise that could be turned into social capital.
1. The World Bank had estimated 45% of the Lebanese population to be living in poverty by end of 2019, but with the additional health crisis, 75% of the Lebanese were projected to be pushed under poverty line. See: Molana-Allen, L. and Antonios, Z. (2020). “Lebanon plunges towards mass poverty amid virus crisis.” France 24. https://www.france24.com/en/20200519-lebanon-plunges-toward-mass-poverty-amid-virus-crisis [August 29, 2020].
2. No Author. (2020). “Targeting Poor Households in Lebanon.” The World Bank – Fact sheet, [online]. See: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/factsheet/2020/04/21/targeting-poor-households-in-lebanon [August 31, 2020].
3. Inter-Agency Coordination (2018). “The Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (VASyR-2018).” United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the United Nations World Food Programme, p.98. See: https://www.unhcr.org/lb/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2018/12/VASyR-2018.pdf [September 21, 2019].
4. Hamdan, H. April 23, 2020. “Domestic violence in Lebanon spikes under lockdown.” Al-Monitor, [online]. See:https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/04/lebanon-domestic-violence-abuse-lockdown-coronavirus.html [Accessed May 22, 2020]; & Nassar, A. May 3, 2020. “‘Home is no longer safe’, Syrian refugee women in Jordan fear domestic violence more than COVID-19.” Syria Direct, [online]. See:https://syriadirect.org/news/%e2%80%98home-is-no-longer-safe%e2%80%99-syrian-refugee-women-in-jordan-fear-domestic-violence-more-than-covid-19/ [Accessed May 22, 2020]
5. Gordon, C. D. (1983). The Republic of Lebanon: Nation in Jeopardy (Abingdon: OX; New York: NY), p.29; & Hanafi. S. (no date). “Palestinians in Lebanon: Status, governance, and security.” Accord, Vol.24: 67-69. See: http://www.c-r.org/downloads/Accord24_PalestiniansinLebanon_0.pdf [July 25, 2016]
6. Grandi, F., Mansour, K., and Holloway, K. (2018). “Dignity and displaced Syrians in Lebanon.” Overseas Development Institute, p.7. See: https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/12532.pdf [August 20, 2020].
7. Op. Cit., Inter-Agency Coordination (2018). “The Vulnerability Assessment,” p.41, 49.
8. Occurrences in Bar Elias, Brital and Kfarhabou, where economy suffers majorly compared to other Lebanese towns. See: No Author (2020). “Lebanon: Refugees at Risk in COVID-19 Response.” Human Rights Watch, [online]. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/02/lebanon-refugees-risk-covid-19-response [August 29, 2020]
9. Lack of information is considered part of the Lebanese governments’ responsibility for being a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). See: Op. Cit., No Author (2020). “Lebanon: Refugees at Risk in COVID-19 Response.”
10. Habib, R.R., et al. (2019). “Survey on Child Labour in Agriculture in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon: The Case of Syrian Refugees.” American University of Beirut in collaboration with the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, p.13, 50. [Online], See:https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---arabstates/---ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_711801.pdf [October 29, 2019].
11. Traditionally, the fatherly figure was that of the sole decision-maker of the household, whose potential for negotiation was near-absent with his offspring.
12. Women’s Refugee Commission. (2016). “A Girl No More: The Changing Norms of Child Marriage in Conflict.” Relief Web, p.16. [Online] See:https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Changing-Norms-of-Child-Marriage-in-Conflict.pdf [September 22, 2019]; & Daou, A. N. (2015). “The Role of Women NGOs in Empowering Women in Lebanon: A Life-Long Partner to Gender Justice?” UNESCWA – Social Development Division, p.39. See: https://www.unescwa.org/sites/www.unescwa.org/files/page_attachments/the_role_of_women_ngos_in_empowering_women_in_lebanon.pdf [September 4, 2020].
13. Interview over WhatsApp on March 27, 2020. Um Abdo is a 52 years old mother of 8 living in Beirut.
14. Interview over Messenger with Fatima on April 6, 2020. She is a 36-year-old single female living in Beirut with her nuclear family of 7 siblings, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew.
15. Interview over WhatsApp on March 29, 2020. Um Mohamed is a 54 years old mother of 6 living in Tripoli.
16. Electricity available for less than 6 hours daily in most Lebanon except for central Beirut. See: Bulos, N. (2020) “Lonely joggers and fretful bakers: The coronavirus is hitting the Middle East hard.” Los Angeles Times, See: https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-03-17/coronavirus-middle-east-governments [September 5, 2020]
17. Interview over Messenger on April 13, 2020. She is a 19 years old mother of one child living in the South with her in-laws.
18. Inter-Agency Assessment. (2013). “Gender-based Violence and Child Protection among Syrian refugees in Jordan, with a focus on Early Marriage.” UN Women, p.24. See: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/39522 [August 23, 2020]
20. El Ghali, H., and Ghosn, E. (2019). “Toward Connected Learning in Lebanon.” The American University of Beirut and UNHCR. See: https://www.aub.edu.lb/ifi/Documents/publications/research_reports/2018-2019/20190221_towards_connected_learning_in_lebanon.pdf [ July 26, 2020]
21. Interview over WhatsApp on May 16, 2020. Participant is 24 years old and single, living in Beirut with her nuclear family.
22. El-Hage, A. (2019). “Migrant workers hit hard by the dollar crisis in Lebanon.” L’Orient-Le Jour. See: https://www.lorientlejour.com/article/1197481/migrant-workers-hit-hard-by-the-dollar-crisis-in-lebanon.html [September 5, 2020].
23. Bhandari, H. and Yasunobu K. (2009). What is Social Capital? A Comprehensive Review of the Concept. Asian Journal of Social Science, Vol. 37(3), p. 489. See : https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233546004_What_Is_Social_Capital_A_Comprehensive_Review_of_the_Concept