Syrian men refugees confront feelings of powerlessness in innovative program to fight gender-based violence

June 11, 2015

Syrian refugees in Lebanon face the tough reality of having to start over from scratch. For the men in these situations, not being able to provide and lead their families like before can create a rift in identity. Men’s Protection Groups have sprouted up in camps to instill a sense of normalcy and create a safe space of coping.

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Editors’ note: names have been changed for security reasons.

Ibrahim, a large man with an expressive face, was a gentle poetry-loving teacher when he married Khadija and they began a family. But after the Syrian war left him a refugee with no job, a sense of worthlessness, and responsibility for his wife, their seven children and his mother, the gentleness fled.

“He began to beat me,” Khadija, 42, says without any hesitation or shyness, sitting in her small home in a camp refugees built on a former garbage heap in northern Lebanon. “I remember him as so nice before, so affectionate. I know life has been hard and he’s under a lot of pressure. But this became too much.”

Ibrahim in his home.

Ibrahim seated in his home, recounting the stresses of being a refugee.

Still in easy touch with his emotions, Ibrahim, 52, cries when he talks about war atrocities he witnessed in his home of Qusayr, Syria, and speaks tenderly of the children he taught, with a special fondness for fourth graders. But he acknowledges: “The war changed our life from — I don’t want to say heaven, but it definitely became hell. We used to argue, my wife and I, but we could make things work. After we left Syria, it wasn’t working any more.”

Recognizing men’s traumatization: a key to change

The couple credits an unusual program that targets men’s attitudes to create changes in the lives of families and communities — the first of its kind for Syrian refugees in Lebanon — with spurring a transformation.

The mechanism is community-developed “men’s committees,” which meet weekly over three months to consider how to apply methods of non-violent conflict resolution developed by Marshall Rosenberg, focusing on self-empathy, empathy for others, and honest self-expression.

The war changed our life from — I don’t want to say heaven, but it definitely became hell. We used to argue, my wife and I, but we could make things work.

“I won’t say he never gets angry,” Khadija says, “but now he counts to ten aloud, or he simply walks away. Sometimes he manages to laugh.”

Of the nearly 4 million people who have fled Syria to live in neighboring countries, four out of five are women and children. Refugee men, who feel it is their duty to support their families, but can’t find the means, often resort to gender-based violence, surveys show. The program developed by Concern Worldwide in Lebanon is based on the belief that helping men recognize their own traumatization is key to improving the lives of women and children refugees.

“Perpetrators are largely victims of their circumstances and they need support to change,” said Protection Program Director Samantha Hutt, who designed the project. “The other aspect of protection programming I am really passionate about is empowering people to be the authors of their own life, whether they be children, people with disabilities, or people living in tents.”

“These sessions made us feel someone cared…”

The project is definitely accomplishing that: the men interviewed from among the 45 men’s groups in northern Lebanon invariably felt the project gave them critically needed help to change their own lives in a way that none of the other refugee services had.

“These sessions made us feel that someone cared for us on an emotional level. This doesn’t happen often in our masculine society, where we are driven by the idea that we must be machines and provide for our families,” says Hassan, a father of three and originally from Yarmouk Camp in Syria.

A men's protection group meeting.

A view inside a Men’s Protection Group meeting. These men have gathered to talk though their experiences and collectively work on building a community.

Hassan, educated as most of the Syrian refugees are, and the former owner of a clothing shop, used to write in his free time — poetry, stories, and he had begun work on a novel. After becoming a refugee, he says, he stopped writing. “I felt as if my arm had been cut off.”

He lost nearly 50 pounds in the first two months of being a refugee, and his feeling of worthlessness was not lessened when he began to get day jobs as a tiler.

In December of 2014, he had a heart attack. He credits the men’s program with returning him to himself. His conversations with his wife improved, and he began to write again, as well as draw. “Almost 90 percent of solving these problems is simply understanding ourselves and the pressures we face,” he said.

Refugee participants become part of a community

The program includes videos, guest speakers, worksheets, references to the Quran and more to help spur discussion. Men also consider issues of early marriage, weigh refugee community priorities, talk about strategies to deal with exploitative employers and other concerns. Very quickly the men, who often reported feeling isolated, now find themselves part of a trusted community.

Of the nearly 4 million people who have fled Syria to live in neighboring countries, four out of five are women and children.

Equally as critically, they recapture a sense of having some control over their own lives in a midst of a civil war that sent them fleeing from their homes and robbed them of a feeling of self-determination.

“This program gave us the fishing rod, which is much better than giving us the fish,” says Rashad, a father of two originally from Homs Province, who spent weeks in prison in Damascus before escaping across the border into Lebanon. “Being a refugee is something very hard. I had lost my identity. This gave us the chance to take control of our own lives.”

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