Proposals were a part of my Syrian refugee experience

Being a refugee is bad enough, but Rym Ghazal's experience as a refugee showed women are finding it even more difficult.

Syrian children at a refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. Photo: AFP / Joseph Eid

I begin my first column after a long break with a confession: the number of marriage proposals I got pretending to be a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a week surpassed the number of proposals I’ve received in my whole life.

I wanted to see what it was like to be viewed as vulnerable and in need, so I went “undercover” to try to have the experience of a Syrian refugee. Sure enough, there were proposals almost daily from every nationality – and not just from older men. I received them from younger men who had nothing to offer but believed that since I was a refugee and “desperate”, I would accept anything and, well, nothing.

Though I have interviewed many women in conflict zones, it is quite another thing when you experience first-hand how violent and threatening the men you encounter can be.

A vulnerable woman in times of crisis becomes an easy target and everyone wants to take advantage of her. In short, it was horrible. We should do everything possible to protect women and children from these opportunistic vultures. This is why organisations such as the Kafa group, which works in Lebanon against exploitation and violence against women and children, are doing remarkable work.

No trip to Lebanon is ever uneventful. The country should think about adopting a motto along the lines of, “there is always something happening in Lebanon”.

Given the amount of pressure on the tiny country from the massive refugee influx, the dire state of infrastructure, the unstable government and the security breaches that happen from time to time, it is commendable that a fully-fledged war didn’t break out ages ago.

Somehow in the madness and disorganisation, Lebanon works – and that is mostly due to the adaptability and attitude of so many Lebanese people who simply take things as they come.

I decided to spend my birthday this year giving, instead of taking. So, I went to Lebanon and I gave Eid gifts to Syrian refugee children who had seen so much misery over the past few years and have lost so much.

I got hundreds of smiles and hugs this birthday, which is, of course, priceless and will never be forgotten.

Every child deserves to feel like a child for a moment, regardless of their background and story. I will make it a tradition to spend my birthday with children in need; to share my cake and toys with them.

In this short span I was there, almost every refugee child I met had some kind of illness. I caught lice from playing with some of them, and just one day struggling with the critters in my hair drove me nuts. I will never again take my water and my Dettol soap for granted.

Beside health and nutritional needs, I met several victims of domestic violence. The parents or, more often, the single parent had released their frustrations on the child, resulting in black eyes and bruises along their bodies.

A close friend of mine saw a mother of three leave her children with an aid organisation, then run away to throw herself off a cliff.

“I just can’t feed my children. I can’t see them suffer and beg me for help and I can’t do anything,” she wrote in a note she left with one of the children.

I saw a Lebanese mother at a government entity begging for help to get her son across the border.

“My husband is Syrian. They already took him. Please, now my son is at risk!” I heard her pleading with a high-level official. They all tried to help her, but it was too late. Her teenage son was taken by Syrian authorities at the border.

As she completely broke down, and sat on the floor weeping, we all felt so helpless and angry.

One small way to help refugees is to give them the things that you are not using. I packed up my house in Beirut and gave everything – clothes, furniture, kitchen stuff and toiletries – to the SAWA charity.

With all the crises across the Arab world, no one can keep up with the tragedies occurring daily. But even if we are suffering “donor fatigue”, we should do what we can to help.

On Twitter:@arabianmau