BEQAA VALLEY — In the bucolic fields of the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, an unpaved path between two buildings leads to a discreet entrance of a 1,200 square meter plot of land. In this informal refugee settlement with 30 prefabricated trailers, men are not allowed: it is the “Widows’ Camp,” where Syrian women uprooted by war and trapped in a patriarchal society embark on a quest to claim their own space.
This fenced settlement, located between the towns Bar Elias and Haouch El-Oumaraa, was funded by a Kuwaiti association in the early years of the Syrian conflict to host widowed women and orphaned children. Colorful clothes hanging between the trailers break the monotony of the grey walls and unpaved soil.
In trailer number 21 lives Nasra Swydan, a 42-year-old woman who lost her husband in a rocket attack in Syria’s central city of Homs in 2016. In her tiny kitchen, all her spices are meticulously arranged next to the coffee pot. After fleeing Homs in 2014, she and her eight-year-old son spent three years in the house of relatives in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, but they did not find solace. “I was psychologically tired; I was depressed. Neither I nor my son could rest in that house,” she told Syria Direct. Someone mentioned to her the existence of the Widows’ Camp, and the next day she packed her suitcase and turned up at the door of the settlement.
Her “trailer neighbor,” Amenah Yaser al-Rabi’a, lost her husband in 2013 in the city of al-Qusayr in Homs province. Shortly after, she and her seven children escaped from Syria “just with their clothes” and sought refuge in the nearby Lebanese town of Arsal. But they saw themselves engulfed by the violent clashes between the Lebanese Army and armed Islamists factions in that area, so the family moved to the Widows’ Camp in 2014.
One year later, Labebah Nayef al-Nemah and her three children arrived in the camp directly from Syria. She was widowed eight years ago, while four months pregnant, when a rocket fell on their home in al-Qusayr, killing her husband.
United by the loss of their husbands, these women have become a sort of family.
“The widow always has an eye watching her”
In a patriarchal society, navigating daily life without a man can be an arduous task for women. First, they deal with the stigma surrounding widows. “They see the Widows' Camp as [a place for] loose women, that’s the talk outside. I don’t handle it well what they say; it is difficult,” Amenah explained. “In our society, even if the widow was like an angel, people will still gossip about her,” Nasra said, adding that people will comment on her visits to friends just because she has no husband. “In our society, the widow always has eyes watching on her,” she said.
Women also face structural discrimination when it comes to social norms regarding inheritance. For instance, when Nasra’s husband died, his house in Homs was inherited by her son and the sons of a previous marriage, not by her.
After her husband’s death, Nasra suddenly had to take up the role of both mother and father. “In our society, men have the control and the strength, but what happened to us [widowing] made us stronger than men; you are forced to toughen up when you are on your own,” she said.
“When he died, it was very difficult; I wasn’t used to going out of the house; he was the one providing. Then I had to provide for my kids,” said 30-year-old Labebah. After widowing, she worked as a farmer in Syria, and recently she started working in a sewing shop.
Nasra, too, started a job in a nearby butcher for 7,000 LBP per day [$4.6 at the official exchange rate, $1 at the black market rate]. “I am responsible for myself; I provide for my family,” she said.
In 2019, 66% of Syrian male refugees were working, but that rate was 11% among female refugees. According to UN data, women-headed households had an average income of $47, while the men-headed ones had an income of $69.
All three women are registered with UNHCR and receive a monthly cash allowance, but they complain that with the devaluation of the Lebanese lira the amount they receive is not enough. Until last year, widows at the camp did not pay rent nor electricity or water, but as of this year, they are paying a yearly rent of 1,200,000 LBP ($793 at the official exchange rate) plus utilities.
A safe space
Sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and assault are a reality for female refugees in Lebanon. Aware of the gender-based violence risks, the three women converged on why they chose this camp: security.
“Here, we are among women. When I close our door at night, it is just me and my son, and we feel safe. Men are forbidden to enter,” Nasra explained.
The camp has also become a support space. “We understand each other. Here, we live in sisterhood,” according to Nasra, who explained that she walks into the house of her friends in the camp as if it was her, and vice versa. They also help each other financially if needed. “Our relationship is stronger than with our friends outside the camp,” Labebah said. “The rest of the widows are like my family now,” Amenah added.
Their homes in al-Qusayr and Homs are a two-hour drive from the camp, but the return seems far, given that Nasra’s home was burned and Labebah and Amenah’s houses were destroyed, plus they say they can not return for security reasons.
While awaiting a possible return, women in this oasis - albeit fenced - have crafted a space of safety, understanding and even joy. “We do some dancing sometimes,” Nasra said with a smile.