'Men on Hold': Syrian men share their stories beyond the documentary

We head out on the streets of Lebanon to speak to the Syrian men who deal with harrassment on a daily basis, and the authorities working with them

Refugees' laundry strung over a fence, in the documentary Men on Hold. Courtesy Forward Film Productions/Muna Khalidi
Powered by automated translation

"The complaint I get from men is, 'I just can't cope with my life,'" says Dr Raiza Kolia, who runs the Syrian American Medical Society's mental health and psychosocial services programme in Lebanon.

“They’re in fear of their jobs all the time, in fear of their status because they all work illegally, they’re in fear of how they are going to provide for their family, and they really want to give their kids a good education.”

It's the very real situation for Syrian men in Lebanon, a group whose plight is documented in Men On Hold.

The National found a similar situation for many male refugees across the country.

A 2016 International Rescue Committee vulnerability assessment of Syrian men in Lebanon found that two thirds of respondents experienced threats to their personal safety.

Their struggles

Men The National spoke to had been harassed by security services – some interrogated by officials and detained for days, or years, for being of fighting age and from a particular Syrian town. They were hesitant to travel domestically for fear of security checkpoints.

This harassment "gets emotional for me", Mohammed Al Saghir, 28, says in the Bekaa Valley town of ­Majdal Anjar. "It puts a kind of pressure on me."

While stereotypes about refugee men contribute to the discrimination they face, their own internalised ideas about masculinity can reinforce their sense of failure.

"When we tie men's self-esteem to their ability to play the role of provider and protector – the same way we tie women's self-esteem to their beauty and their ability to eventually become homemakers and mothers – the inability to play those roles has a dramatic effect on their self-esteem," says Anthony Keedi, Masculinities Programme manager at Abaad, a Beirut NGO that works on gender issues in Lebanese and Syrian refugee communities. This humiliation is particularly acute if women and children in the family are able to find work, which is not uncommon.

When we tie men's self-esteem to their ability to play the role of provider and protector – the inability to play those roles has a dramatic effect on their self-esteem

“It’s a shame for us men to stay in the house and the women to work,” Saghir says.

“It creates depression in us, it gives us diseases,” Abdullah, 25, from Raqqa, says.

He says a man in such a position "starts to feel that he's not acceptable in the family".

Dr Ahmad Al Shami, a psychiatrist, says his male patients' "main complaint is their sense of emasculation or disability. They're used to providing for their families and in exchange they are used to authority."

The stigma around mental health

Having lost their role and their authority, they suffer from “extreme anguish”, often displacing this psychic pain on to body parts – making their mental trauma physical.

This transference, Dr Shami thinks, might be due to the stigma around mental health. For men, in particular, seeking help is taboo.

Saghir recalls thinking, in a crisis, “I was alone, and I have to face this alone.”

Another man, Mohammed, 33, says: “It’s not good to talk to the family about these problems, because they also have problems.”

For those without the means to move elsewhere, or the possibility of returning to Syria (which is not yet a safe environment, despite the refugee returns taking place from Lebanon), a mindset change – however flimsy it might sound – could be the only immediate option.

Keedi is convinced that helping men to “diversify the portfolio of [their] self-esteem” could go some way towards alleviating the psychological devastation displacement has wrought.

Some names have been changed because of people’s fears over their residency status in Lebanon