07/08/2014 08:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Syrian Refugee Women Are Not the Sum of Their Hardships

"What were you doing in there?" One of my colleagues asked once Ghada* and I rejoined her in the common area after we finished our conversation in a private room.

Roaring laughter had permeated the halls of a community center in Halba, Lebanon where I interviewed Ghada, 24, one chilly morning in March. Admittedly, we veered off-track from the topic of my research, but I could tell she was growing weary of talking about things that would spur tears: her husband, who is missing in Syria; her flight from an abusive brother-in-law in Lebanon; the sounds of the clashes in Tripoli, when living in a tent under a bridge was the only option for her and her four children. Ghada's oldest son saw death in Syria, and now he is afraid when his mother is separated from him, she might not come back - like his father.

The conversation turned to the community center she goes to four times a week, which is run by the Danish Refugee Council, one of UNHCR's partner organizations. The center offers courses in nursing and aesthetics, both of which Ghada attends. Ghada's daughter has a serious medical condition, and the nursing training she receives makes Ghada feel much more comfortable dealing with her situation. As for the aesthetics class, she said, "I have fun."

Fouzia*, 24, is originally from Da'ara, Syria. She works as a henna artist and beautician at the UN Women's Oasis, located inside Za'atari refugee camp. PHOTO CREDIT: UNHCR/E. Dorfman

"They have all kinds of make-up..." she began, her eyes lighting up for the first time since we met, as if to say, in a manner that did not require translation: I am not the sum of my hardships.

I put my pen down.

We chatted on like old friends about make-up: Ghada was the girl everyone went to for weddings and special occasions in Syria - she even did her own make-up for her wedding years ago, "I wouldn't trust anyone else with my face," she told me. Our wrists became more elastic as we spoke about glosses and shadows; we batted our eyelashes and mimed putting on lipstick - gestures women make in those universal moments of unabashed femininity. It was a conversation I've had dozens of times with my best friend, who I would describe in the same way Ghada told me about her own, "When I feel like I'm suffocating she makes me feel better."

And so our laughter reached wall-penetrating decibels - with girlish squawks and giggles about such important things, which sometimes are indeed those frivolous things that make us feel human in otherwise grim circumstances.

I interviewed close to forty Syrian refugee women throughout Lebanon and Jordan in a span of five weeks, as a member of the UNHCR regional research team. In total, our four-person team interviewed 135 women in Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt for the Woman Alone report, which gives an in-depth view into the experience of a Syrian refugee female head of household. In those conversations, laughter was almost as present as were tears and uncomfortable silences that came when the women recalled the horrors they had witnessed in Syria and the difficulties they face in their host country. For many of the women I met with, it was the first time anyone had asked them about how they felt since they left Syria.

I found a sisterhood with these women, which was defined by what I knew Ghada was trying to express before our fit of mimicked preening: I am not the sum of my hardships. That is not to say suffering is not a cornerstone of what these women have experienced since they fled a war-torn Syria. On the contrary: fear of sexual harassment, not being able to pay the rent, or navigating their new city were all major concerns expressed throughout the 135 interviews the UNHCR research team conducted. Female refugees who are heading their households in host countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan face particular vulnerabilities without the emotional and physical support of their husband, father, or brother. They imparted their strength in the face of isolation, sustained by their hopes for the future. The women have gone through extraordinary lengths to simply survive.


Maryam*, 33, is from Da'ara, Syria. She stands in the wedding dress shop at Za'atari refugee camp where she works for $7 per week. PHOTO CREDIT: UNHCR/E. Dorfman

Ghada advised other refugee women who are on their own in a new country: "Stay serious, stay focused, stay strong."

"The most important thing is don't be scared," she said. "But don't get rid of your fears."

The refugee experience is so alien to most of us that it almost seems like a riddle: what would you do if you lost everything after a bomb destroyed your home? How would you cope if a war took the one person you relied on the most? What if you had to choose between food and medicine for your children, or food for your family and a roof over their heads? And what if you start to lose a sense of yourself the process?

It is a truism to note that there are commonalities that unite us all, in one way or another - but reconcile that truism with the unimaginable: having to uproot your family to a strange place, on your own, only to find even more hardship waiting on the other side of a war zone.

Ghada and I said goodbye as we looked at each other with sheepish grins, like schoolgirls after a principal's rebuke. What were we doing in there? "Just some girl-talk," I said, which, while partly true, was so much more than just that. Her resilience left a mark on me, as did the sound both our laughs made in unison, when they denied her experiences as a refugee the opportunity to define her as a woman.

*Names have been changed for protection purposes.

Rose Foran reported from Beirut, Lebanon. She is a member of the UNHCR research team that produced the report Woman Alone: The Fight for Survival by Syria's Refugee Women. For more information:

Behind the scenes of Woman Alone