Syrian Voices: Customs and Traditions in Humanitarian Crises

Monday, March 6, 2017 – As conflict wages on in Syria, nearby countries have opened their doors to millions of new people seeking refuge. In Lebanon, one in four people is a Syrian refugee. While Lebanon is the biggest host of the five million Syrian refugees globally, truly integrating their neighbors into society has proved challenging for the small country where economic strains and competition for scarce resources is ever increasing.

House of Peace (HOPe) in Syria is striving to understand and address the evolving relationships of displaced persons within refugee populations, amongst their host communities and with non-governmental organizations.

Their new report, Syrian Voices, aims to raise voices, analyze opinions and propose positive recommendations for advancing integration and social peacebuilding. HOPe conducted workshops with around 300 participants, most of whom were Syrian refugees living in Lebanon but also Palestinians and Lebanese host community members.

“The main impetus behind this paper is helping people concerned with the Syrian crisis to see things from the eyes of those who are suffering the most; to contribute in bringing people from different points of views closer by helping them overcoming their prejudices and self-evident beliefs,” said Elias Sadkni, Director of HOPe and International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance 39 alumnus.

Restrictions to integration. A major finding of the report was the ways in which government policy and NGO modus-operandi surrounding refugee response in Lebanon have changed the ways in which Syrian communities relate each other and their hosts.

Strict residency and labor laws for Syrians in Lebanon have made securing employment particularly difficult for men. Women, however, are more easily able to find work opportunities in the informal labor market and through the support of vocational trainings and services provided by organizations.

Perhaps even more disconcerting was the effect that strict work restrictions had on fueling forced marriage or labor on children in the country. In 2016, some NGOs estimated between 60 and 70 percent of refugee children are working and Human Rights Watch reported that more than 250,000 Syrian children were out of school in Lebanon.

“Harsh regulations that prevent most refugees from maintaining legal residency or working are undermining Lebanon’s generous school enrollment policies…With 70 percent of Syrian families living below the poverty line in 2015, many cannot afford school-related costs like transportation and school supplies, or rely on their children to work,” said Human Rights Watch.

The Syrian Voices report reiterated this point adding that “participants felt Humanitarian and UN efforts are not prioritizing educational establishments for Syrian refugees; in addition to this issue, the majority of educational establishments in Lebanon refuse to accept Syrians.”

Blurring cultures. Despite the challenges that come with displacement, Syrian participants also expressed that social solidarity amongst their communities remained strong in exile. This solidarity at times extended into their relationships with their host communities, and in turn caused the lines between Syrian and Lebanese cultures to blur.

“Many participants felt that adapting to Lebanese culture is causing changes in the customs and traditions of Syrian refugees. Some expressed dismay at these changes, fear their permanency, and believe they have been a source of intra-communal tension, whilst others embrace them,” said the report.

Improved humanitarian intervention. Other focus groups with NGO representatives examined the complex role NGOs play in the Syrian crisis.

Representatives voiced concerns that “their presence at times has contributed to existing tensions or created new ones”, because they failed to partake in adequate contextual and cultural analyses before implementing projects. Others noted a lack of transparency between donors and the community.

Syria Voices ultimately concludes in a list of recommendations for the humanitarian community to improve their continuing intervention, suggesting that humanitarian organizations begin to truly address the root causes of suffering amongst Syrians in Lebanon by:

  • Ensuring and advocating for equal access to adult education, vocational training and employment opportunities for Syrian adults of both genders;
  • Developing mechanisms for effective child protection from exploitation;
  • Enhancing educational opportunities for children;
  • Truly engaging with Syrian and Lebanese communities to better understand conflict
  • Improving communication methods between agencies in order to learn from each other’s experiences and best practices; and
  • Promoting more positive and less stereotypically harmful narratives about Syrian refugees in Lebanese media.

Ultimately, HOPe believes this report can be a guiding resource for the humanitarian sector, one that encourages agencies to question and improve their increasingly important response to the Syrian crisis.

Syrian Voices is a research-initiated project aimed at spreading Syrian perspectives on issues of social peace. The goal of the paper is to inform the humanitarian community, allowing stakeholders to implement recommendations and best practices to help resolve conflict in Syria and surrounding areas.

Andrew Seger, IIHA Communications Intern

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