Syrian refugees in Egypt: “We meet refugee women where they are”


Heba Al Azzazy, Case Manager at CARE Egypt, talks about the situation of Syrian refugee women in Egypt, gender-based violence and why it is so important to constantly reach out to refugees.

What is life like for a Syrian refugee woman in Egypt?

In general, the situation of Syrian refugees is not easy. Since the beginning of the Syria Crisis, more than 140,000 Syrians have registered with the United Nations, but the government estimates that the actual number of Syrian refugees in Egypt is at least double that number. Initially, Syrians who came to Egypt had family here or work. A lot of the Syrians were rather well-off before and could rely on personal savings and work wages. We deal with refugees who have previously worked as lawyers, sales men or owned small businesses. After the crisis has been going on for almost four years, their resources are depleted and most of them are struggling to survive. They live in run-down, crowded apartments, cannot find jobs and struggle to pay for rent and food. A major concern for a lot of families is also their psychological well-being. Especially women experience harassment and say that they and their children do not feel safe or welcomed.

What kind of support can Syrian refugee women receive from CARE in Egypt?

CARE Egypt has extensive experience in working with women and raising awareness about sexual exploitation and other forms of gender-based violence. Our goal is to protect refugee women and their families from any form of abuse. When you live in a country that is not your home it is difficult to know about legal regulations and the rights you actually have – as a non-citizen, as a refugee.

Through our psychosocial programs, we are assisting Syrian refugee women, men and children in coping with their experiences of war, violence, flight and the loss of family and friends. Syrian refugee women do not separate domestic and gender-based violence from the experiences of flight. Having lost family members and their homes, and now struggling to afford  rent and food, many women do not realise that they are facing domestic violence, but see it as a part of their “new life”. Oftentimes, men suffer from the consequences of the experience of war and flight and sometimes even from depression or trauma and take out their frustration on their wives; and in turn mothers start being violent against their children. The family as a whole suffers, which is why we include mothers, fathers and children in activities and events. We try to improve the psychological wellbeing of entire refugee families and thereby change the root causes leading to the violence. We have to create an atmosphere of trust first to really address sexual and gender-based violence.

How difficult is it to address issues around gender based violence?

Syrian women, who have experienced gender based violence, usually keep quiet about what has happened to them – either in Syria or once they reached Egypt. They are afraid that they will not be accepted by their community anymore or that their husband will divorce them. There is an immense stigma around women who have been raped, for example. In our psychosocial sessions we are not going like a bull at a gate. We offer support groups and recreational activities. We talk about health issues, trauma, child abuse, stress management or parenting. Our approach is creative: Women are taking part in arts therapy sessions and young men and women are engaging in theatre clubs and sports activities. Throughout all the support groups, arts sessions and lectures we always address the issue of gender based violence. We make sure that we let the participants know what gender based violence is and that it is nothing that they should keep quiet about. We tell them that they should contact us if something happened and we also promote our helpline that women and men who have faced violence can call anonymously. Our goal is to create an atmosphere where refugee women can talk freely in a confined, safe space. We are also distributing brochures about our services and the help line in local organisations, UN registration offices and other places Syrian refugees go to. What is most important to me is that we do not wait until refugee women come to us for support. We reach out to them and meet them where they are. After the sessions, some women then come up to us and ask for further support or call us through our telephone hotline. One woman, for example, had been sexually harassed and was now afraid to leave her house. However, this meant that she did not even leave the house to receive her cash assistance and could not feed her children anymore. She called our hotline and we arranged for her to live in a shelter for women with children and helped her to access legal aid as well.

How do refugees respond to CARE’s psychosocial assistance in Egypt?
“Thank you for listening” is one of the most common responses we receive after our activities. Refugees do not only worry about paying for rent, food or medication; they are also worried about the state of their hearts and souls.  They have trouble dealing with the memories of war, loss and displacement and constantly worry about how they can make ends meet in a country where they are strangers. At the same time, they are in constant fear for loved ones who are still in Syria. During our events and activities we usually see how people’s faces are lightening up, we see happier faces and people tell us that they could finally experience “happy moments” again. For me, the most rewarding part of my work is that refugees tell us how much they appreciate to have a space to talk and share their stories. They consider us their families and find new friends in the other refugees who are attending the activities. One woman told me that she could finally say “I love you” to her children again and smile at them. For months she had beaten them to get out her own frustrations. In the sessions she learnt different techniques in regards to how to deal and manage her stress and anger. More and more refugees are also now volunteering for us. We train them to become trainers themselves. We reach out to young men and women who lead theatre sessions, where we address sexual harassment. They come up with the scripts and topics themselves and direct the plays. This way our work is not only more cost effective, but refugees themselves really “own” the process and reach out to their peers. They are our most important multipliers.