Primary Health Care Centre, Fanar, Beirut (Parenting session)
“My daughter is so helpful around the house – but my son…he’s so lazy. When he comes home from school, he just sits and plays with the phone all day.”
“When children become teenagers, they get so stubborn! They do exactly what they want, when they want.”
“My son’s not very good at school, but he loves cars and is great with tools. We shouldn’t measure a child’s success purely their school grades – some have other talents.”
I could have been at a parenting class anywhere in the world. Here, sat 15 women in a circle, discussing the highs and lows of parenting. They shared stories, advice, and tips for one another. Occasionally, the group would erupt into laughter – usually after someone recalled an anecdote about their kid. No sense of pain from a brutal war. No sense of hardship faced as a refugee. No fallout from severe depression. Just a bunch of mums chit-chatting about being mums.
It’s not until the end of the session when you start to realise this group is different. One woman speaks up. “When we arrived here from Syria, we didn’t leave the house for three months. It was too hard for us to go out. For the kids, it was school, home, school, home. They were sad and depressed. Finally I convinced my husband to go out, and we went to the sea. We had so much fun – the kids were so happy. Now, they ask us every day to go to the sea. For me, I felt more at ease. And I felt like I had more energy.”
Parenting sessions like these run regularly through International Medical Corps, with support from Plan International Australia. The sessions are designed for women who have experienced gender-based violence. Here, women learn different parenting techniques, and happily share tips on motherhood. The sessions also provide comfort, and help them escape the mundanity of their lives. They share stories, they help one another, they laugh together, they cry. It was wonderful to watch.
“Every day feels like a year here,” says Halima. She has two young daughters. Her husband suffers all sorts of health problems so he’s often without work. She too has her own ailments, largely stress-related. Her girls want to be healthcare workers when they grow up. “They’ve seen us suffer, so one wants to be a physicist, and the other a pharmacist. At home, they role-play. They use my husband as their patient. ‘Now it’s time for your medicine, dad’ they’ll say. My eldest daughter said to me ‘When I grow up, I want to help poor people like us, mum.’”
Halima’s house was totally destroyed in the war. We ask her if she’ll ever return to Syria. Her eyes light up. “Of course,” she says without hesitation. “And when I walk back in, the smell of home will make me live again.”
Amina (The Resilient one)
“It was dangerous, and we were scared,” says Amina, as she recalls running through the fields, away from the air strikes. She has seven children, and one grandchild. Here in Lebanon, they all live in the same house. Life here has not been easy. One day her son-in-law went to the Lebanese/Syrian border to renew his permit. He never returned – and that was nearly two years ago. He had a 10-month-old son at the time. As a result, Amina’s daughter suffers from deep depression and anxiety. Night after night, her daughter sits in her bedroom and refuses to talk to anyone. Her grandson often picks up photos of his dad and cries, asking where he is, and when he’ll be back.
The centre offers her some reprieve. “When I come here, I feel very comfortable. We’re all friends, and we help each other. Sometimes when money’s tight, I ask one of my friends here for money, and they help me.”
“When they ask me to get 15 people, I get 20.”
As a Syrian refugee herself, Dima works as a volunteer at the healthcare centre, recruiting more women to the centre. She’s well connected, and well respected in the Syrian refugee community. She’s energetic, full of life and thrives on spruiking the benefits of the centre to other women. “It’s a lot of fun here,” she says. “People are so happy when they come.” But her joviality is marred with pain. She lost three brothers and her father in the war – and she holds back tears as she tells us. “It’s hard to communicate with my family back in Syria. We have to send voice recordings back and forth, because our phones are wired.”
Lara is confident, forthright, and a bit of a joker. She was never interested in marriage, and was forced to do it to make her journey from Syria to Lebanon much easier. After all, she was unmarried at 35 years old. She had four suitors to choose from – and purposely chose the least-appealing out of the four: a divorced man with 4 kids. “If you’re forcing me to do this, I’m going to make it difficult,” was her reasoning back to the world. She loves writing, and her one regret in life was leaving school in grade 6. Out of her bag she pulls out a little notebook full of poems, written in perfect Arabic. Some of them she wrote as a teenager. She asks us if she can read one to us and picks one she wrote when she was 22 years old, about her struggles in life. There was not a dry eye in the house.
After the interview, Lara doesn’t want to leave. In fact, she launches into her own set of questions for us – the first and only woman of the group to do so. “I like sitting here with important people like you. It makes me feel important too,” she says. We try at length to convince her to have her hands and poetry photographed, but she doesn’t oblige. As a compromise, she has promised to write us a poem that we can publish. It’s our small way of getting her beautiful words out into the world:
[an excerpt from Lara’s poem:]
I have become lost in the brutality of life
Where can I go – what is my resort?
Oh God, until when will destiny be against me and push me to the edge of life?
I’m tired, I’m exhausted and I’m totally broken
And I’m in a continuous struggle between my mind and heart
Oh God, my wounds are sore and you are the only one who can heal them.
Lara. She’s the glue that holds these women together. Despite only being 25 years old, they call her the “older sister.” She loves her job – she runs the parenting sessions here. She doesn’t really fit the norm – softly spoken with her hair cut short. “The women couldn’t understand why I would choose to have my hair short,” she laughs. They love her because she is patient and kind. She respects them and she listens. And she doesn’t judge. “They say things to me that they may be judged on outside. I listen to them – it’s what they need. And we laugh together – they really need that too.”