Through the bars across the open window, a complex of unpainted cinder block buildings crowd each other uncomfortably on the horizon. With so little space available, even the rooftops are used – one holds a collection of tyres, others piles of old clothes and unused furniture and construction supplies for when the next floor can be built using the rusting steel poles which jut out above the corners. Sun-faded signs commemorating slain Palestinian fighters throw some shade onto the street. Wherever one looks, there are electrical wires hanging, coiling and snaking their way around each other and weaving over the buildings, signs and streets haphazardly.
Inside the room, the atmosphere is equally chaotic but much more affable. The entire workshop space fits snugly but easily into this one small space. Over the whirr of a sewing machine and children’s shrieks, women chat in distinctive accents hinting at their diverse origins in Syria – Daraa, Damascus, Homs’. They sit on comfortable cushions lining the perimeter of the room, each one engrossed in her own sewing project, with scattered threads and linens in the center.
This small embroidery workshop overlooks Shatila camp, the site of the infamous massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli-backed Lebanese Kataeb party in 1982, which houses 9,842 Palestinian refugees. Located in a suburb of southern Beirut and measuring just one square kilometer, the camp has a population density roughly comparable to that of New York City, but with exceptionally poor infrastructural development coordinated by a web of NGOs and agencies.
Over 1 million Syrians have registered as refugees in Lebanon over the past three years – no small sum – which is enormous when one takes into consideration that the population of Lebanon stood at just under 4.5 million in 2011, prior to the onset of the Syrian crisis. Furthermore, this number only accounts for those Syrians who have registered as refugees with UNHCR; many more hundreds of thousands reside in the country informally. Nevertheless, the Lebanese government has proven its reluctance to build camps to ease the tiny country’s enormous housing crisis, which has led to growing numbers of Syrians seeking refuge in the Palestinian camps.
In particular, many of the Syrians reluctant to register are young and educated middle-class Syrians, whose skill sets often allow them to support themselves in some capacity, although they still suffer from poor, overcrowded living conditions and discrimination in the Lebanese job market. Many of these Syrians were also involved in civil society and political organising back home and find themselves frustrated by the sudden lack of developed political outlets in exile.
This frustration, coupled with the dire need of Syrian refugees, has been at the genesis of several projects supporting the needs of Syrian communities across the region, which are run by Syrian refugees themselves. Reem, a coordinator for one such project operating in Beirut’s Shatila camp, Basmeh and Zeitouneh, points out that these local projects are often able to fill in the need gaps within the community that larger international NGOs are unable to see.
A young architect from a village near the Lebanese border, Reem arrived in Lebanon just over a year ago. After months of living in secrecy in Syria knowing that she was wanted by the government, she moved to Beirut. Before leaving the country, she had been actively involved in organising protests, discussion groups, and an underground newspaper which discussed the events of the uprising across the country. Together with other young Syrian refugees in similar situations, she decided to begin going house to house to check on underserved Syrians living in the camps. “Originally, it was nothing organised, we just filled up bags with some supplies, for example 50 full bags and went around Shatila distributing them.” Soon they established a small medical and funding office, which helped pay for emergency medical operations. “UNHCR already pays about 70% of the cost of operations people need. But sometimes, just that 30% is extremely expensive for those living in the camps.” Many people had not had proper medical exams for years.
Another friend, a young Syrian doctor living in the UK, agreed to come to the camps for ten days to provide at-home checkups around the camps. “The thing we realised most from doing home visits was that women in the camps were really suffering, and no one really had realised, because it wasn’t visible.” They found house after house of recently widowed women, holding together new households established in Shatila camp, with many small children. Quite commonly, these women had lived their whole lives in the Syrian towns they were born in, but had found themselves within the course of just a few months living in treacherous dwellings in the middle of a refugee camp in Beirut. Many were so terrified that they refused to leave their homes for weeks at a time, only slipping outside for necessities. After hearing their stories, it’s often hard to not feel the attitude is justified. Pointing at the scene outside, one woman told me that after fleeing Syria and arriving in the camp, her son had been killed from electrocution by one of the hanging wires that criss-cross erratically over the streets.
With this in mind, the Basmeh and Zeitouneh workshop opened in May 2013, with just eight woman from around the camps coming to be trained in embroidery work and produce scarves, bags, and other small items, from whose sales they would receive all of the profits. “All of the other things we run now: the school, the medical funding, the checkups, come from other funding sources. But the sales from their work are to them only. Most of the woman had not worked at all before, much less in embroidery,” says Reem; Basmeh and Zeitouneh trains all newcomers from scratch. But although the project provides some income for the women who work there, this is mostly a side-effect of the more essential social goal of the project.
Reem explains, “Most of the women didn’t understand the idea of coming here to work. At the beginning, they would often ask to take the materials and leave to work at home. But more and more, they began to stay and work here, and through this, they’ve built a small community.” As I went around to interview the workers about their backgrounds and embroidery projects, various sides of the room would burst into chatter as they urged me to talk to the woman with the most compelling stories, or had the most creative embroidery work, or who was the least shy with strangers; prompting and encouraging each other to recount each others’ stories that they all clearly knew quite well.
Originally, the Syrians who put together the Basmeh and Zeitouneh project say they wanted to do something even bigger. Yet they soon realised the value of attending to the needs that had fallen through the cracks. “There are a lot of things these big international NGOs can’t do. They can provide a lot of money, a lot of basic things, but as Syrians ourselves, as refugees ourselves, we can be more in touch and on the ground in the Shatila camp.” By building a community center that attracted Syrian women scattered around the camps into one place, they found they were able to provide needs more cheaply and easily. The organisation now boasts a multi-storey school house to help Syrian children catch up with the French and English levels of their Lebanese counterparts, and has been able to expand to renovating buildings of Syrian refugees around the camps. As a result, the building prices of Palestinian landlords have risen, easing some of the growing tensions between the two communities living in the camps.
And Basmeh and Zeitouneh shows no signs of stopping. As I was there, all the workers were talking intensively about plans to expand their gardening and agricultural projects as well.
The women who work in embroidery describe their work as “work with dignity.” They talked about “regaining control” over their lives by setting their own hours and building new support networks. “Honestly, it’s not really about the money,” says Nour*, a middle-aged woman from the Homs countryside who arrived in Lebanon over a year and half ago. “It does help with living costs, because the NGOs cannot offer the same amounts as more Syrians come to the camps. But I like to come here, I like to sit with my friend Sarah and talk, I like to create something.” Sarah*, who left Idlib three years ago, after her husband and brother were killed, is working on an intricate kaleidoscopic piece which is almost completed. “When I arrived here, I had no idea how to make something like this. We learned these from Palestinian designs – the Palestinians are very famous for their embroidery work. First, we just imitated the designs, but once you’ve been here for a while you get better, and you can be more creative. Now I can figure out how to make it look exactly how I imagine it.”
The sense of regaining control is not only true for the women who work in the shop, but also for Syrians who oversee the administrative side of the project. Even with the relative safety net of a college degree, they face many of the same legal, economic, and social hurdles that have now become familiar to Syrian refugees scattered around the world.
Over three million Syrians, around one in seven of the total population, are now registered as refugees, with many more living unregistered in exile. Like the Palestinians fleeing their homes with keys in hand, or the Iraqis who came to Damascus in 2003, many imagined they were taking a temporary trip, a few months, a year maybe, until “the fighting ends.” Sarah still stays in touch with her few family members left in Idlib and finds out the news through them, but says at this point there may soon be no one left. “It’s always something. First, my husband was killed anonymously, and we left because we didn’t know if our lives were threatened. Then I heard from my cousins that the bombing began. Now there are not really bombs but everyone is being kidnapped for ransom. Only God knows when this will end.” More than three years after the beginning of the conflict in Syria, with no end in sight, many have become resigned to the idea that their exile may not be counted in months or years, but decades. Yet, there are indications that this resignation may not only be a dying ember, but a spark – a chance for Syrians to rebuild their lives from abroad, so they may one day return with more to offer than they left with.
*not her real name
Text edited by Laïla von Alvensleben and Ellie Swingewood.