Nahed is 30 years old, the same age as me. She’s married with two daughters, whereas I’m single. I go home to my parents’ house on the Gold Coast when I’m not working overseas. She’s also living with her parents again. But that’s only because they fled the civil war in Syria together and came to Lebanon.
I met Nahed in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. She works as a cleaner now, earning just enough to put food on the table for her family. In Syria, she used to be a lifeguard. I was really surprised when I found this out. My first thought was “I wonder what she wore?” Nahed wears really funky colourful head scarves and her jeans are pretty tight, so I knew she wasn’t extremely conservative. But I was still very interested to find out what being a woman and a lifeguard in Syria was like.
I grew up in the water. At our home on the Gold Coast it was usually warm enough to swim in the backyard pool most of the year. But Nahed didn’t learn to swim until she was 22. Her husband encouraged her to go for a job at the biggest swimming complex in Damascus – Syria’s capital city – saying she shouldn’t let a little fact like not knowing how to swim stand in her way. So she learned how to swim, starting in a very shallow pool and moving on to a slightly deeper pool, and ended up being a lifeguard for six years. Nahed says it was a great job: “I loved the friends I made, the patrons were always nice, and the summer atmosphere always put me in a good mood.”
I showed her a picture of an Australian lifesaver wearing a ‘burqini’- the full-length swimsuit designed for Muslim women – and asked whether she’d worn something similar. She actually looked surprised that the burqini covers to the wrist and ankle. She said her swimming costume covered her shoulders and went to the knee, and that she didn’t need to cover her hair at the pool. In Damascus, women were free to wear whatever they liked at the pool, from bikinis to street clothes, nobody minded. Granted, there were different pool areas for men and women.
Now, of course, life is very different for Nahed and her family. She brought her daughters and her parents to Lebanon about a year ago, when the fighting got too close for comfort. At the time, her husband – a baker – took the risk of staying behind to keep on working to provide money for the family. He has recently joined her in Beirut, but can only stay if he finds work as her salary is not enough to afford the rent.
Truth be told, Nahed is luckier than most. She’s not relying on the support of any aid agency, she and her family are finding a way to scrape together enough money for rent and food.
But life is hard. As there are no refugee camps in Lebanon for Syrian refugees, the majority of people are in crowded rented accommodation, worrying that their money will run out. Others have resorted to living in tented settlements and disused shopping centres with poor sanitation facilities. I’ve seen horrible dark, damp places, places that shouldn’t be inhabited by humans, where more than 15 people share one room. They have no other options.
Most men and women I’ve spoken to, both here in Lebanon and in the massive Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, haven’t been able to find any work, and have to make do with the meagre items they were able to bring with them, sometimes only a blanket to wrap a baby in, some cooking utensils, or many times, just the clothes they were wearing. When I’ve asked people why they didn’t bring more with them, or why they didn’t leave earlier, I’ve been met with the same reply: “We never expected this to happen to us.”
More than 100,000 people now live in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, staying in tents or small prefabricated demountables, sharing bathrooms with 50 other people, waiting for hours in line to receive food. They are totally reliant on aid agencies to support them.
For many Australians this might seem familiar – with bushfires and floods, we’ve heard such stories before. But when the reason people flee is because they fear a bomb falling on their house, or their children being shot, it becomes a very different story.
Back in Damascus, Nahed’s home lies damaged, as do those of some of her closest family members, including her mum and dad, and her brother. But Nahed still dreams of a return to Syria, one day. “I just want stability for my family, we want to go home.”
I don’t know what will happen to Nahed. I just hope that her family can stay together and they find a way to keep their heads above the water.
By Carly Sheehan, Oxfam
This opinion was first published by mamamia on 2 June 2013.