Netting a trade and an income in northern Lebanon
A group of women sit cross-legged in a circle, chatting and laughing, sometimes even breaking into song, all the while delicately weaving with their needles.
It may look like a traditional image of women from a bygone age, but it’s not. These Syrian refugees and Lebanese women aren’t knitting scarves or children’s clothes; they are learning how to make fishing nets, a skill which will help them find work along Lebanon’s northern coast, in an area reliant on its fishery but which suffers the highest unemployment rates in the entire country.
Learning how to knit fishing nets might not seem the most urgent priority for refugees who fled Syria’s civil war, yet the International Rescue Committee believes that providing people with the essential tools to help them find work is a vital way to help them support themselves.
The project is supported by UK aid funding, as part of Britain's response to the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon and the region caused by the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Francesca Battistin oversees the IRC’s economic support programming in Lebanon. “This particular type of work is very popular among women in this area of the country because it can be done at home,” she says.
“It allows flexibility in terms of hours. Many refugee women are heads of households; it is up to them to provide an income now, so they need to be able to work on their own schedule. This provides that freedom.”
And while many women look forward to being able to work from their homes, being together for the training is extremely popular. “Before the training we just stayed at home. We can’t afford to go outside. We can’t afford anything,” explains Rasha*, who arrived from Damascus with her seven children two months ago.
For Zeinah, a former physiotherapist from Homs, the training not only offers the chance of having an income, but also provides her something to look forward to. “We are all frustrated at not being active. It makes us depressed,” she says. “This type of training helps me a lot emotionally. I love to learn new skills and I really enjoy the opportunity to try something new. I find it very fulfilling.”
All the trainees cite the high cost of living as the most difficult challenge they face as refugees. It’s an issue that faces local Lebanese families as well. That’s one reason why the IRC is also reaching out to Lebanese women. More than a third of this first group of 27 trainees is comprised of local women.
Many Lebanese are also competing for the same jobs and services as the refugees, which leads to increased tensions between the two communities, so through helping both populations, communal understanding increases, while potential resentments are undercut.
Many of the Syrian women explain that despite having a far more comfortable life in Syria before the crisis they expect this new skill will be of use when they do finally go home. And returning home remains their main ambition.
“I want to go back to Syria, it is a wonderful country,” says Rasha. “Even if my home village is destroyed I would go back and live in a tent there.” And now, Rasha and others, will have a trade when they do.
Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID. Words: Paul Donohoe/IRC