Damaris, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee, still waits for her father to come home.
More than five months ago, she quit school when fighting between government and opposition forces began in her family’s Aleppo neighborhood. She and her family hid in the basement as the bombs fell. One day her father, a builder, went out to get some bread and never came home.
“To this day, we have no news of him,” said Damaris, who fled to Lebanon with her mother, aunt, grandfather (who has a heart condition) and four siblings. She is too young to work, so her family survives on the money her mom and aunt make as seamstresses. (Damaris’ real name is being withheld for security reasons.)
“We can hardly afford to pay the rent for the room we live in together,” she said. “We pray daily for our dad to come back.”
In the midst of these hard times, Damaris has found a safe place at the House of Light and Hope center, where 120 refugee girls affected by the Syrian crisis are getting emotional and social help to deal with the trauma they have experienced and the difficult circumstances in which they live.
Girls at risk
Mennonite Central Committee supports House of Light and Hope, including its educational programs for the girls. House of Light and Hope is a ministry of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The center is located in Nabaa, a very poor neighborhood in the Beirut suburbs, where many Syrian and Iraqi refugees have settled. Damaris and her family are part of an influx of 30,000 refugees who cross from Syria to Lebanon each week, according to recent reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
As rent and food prices increase and concerns about water supply and refugee status grow, girls are more at risk because families sometimes cope by forcing the girls to beg, to become sex workers or to marry young, said Naomi Enns, an MCC representative for Lebanon and Syria with her spouse, Doug. They are from Winnipeg, Man.
“MCC is thankful that the team at House of Light and Hope offers a multidisciplinary approach,” Naomi Enns said. Social workers, special needs teachers, psychologists and activity leaders offer care and make referrals to doctors. Trauma care helps the girls to share their struggles with the team at the center and learn positive coping skills. A weekly support group for mothers allows family life to improve or remain more stable.
The right to smile
The majority of the children at House of Light and Hope have partially or totally missed their school year. There is little or no room in the Lebanese public school, which uses a very different curriculum than Syria. The center has not been able to get many of the girls into school even if they are good students.
“I have witnessed the smiles on the girls’ faces as they listened to a teacher,” Enns said. “MCC is helping to offer at least these 120 children the right to smile and learn in peace and security. And we pray that the violence will stop. Most of these children simply miss their homes in Syria and the life they once had.”
Since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, MCC has allocated $16 million in emergency food, shelter, household items, trauma healing and education support as well as peacebuilding and disaster response training in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.