A refugee ‘tran­si­tions’ from child bride to sole provider

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

For the first few weeks of her job re­cy­cling garbage, Haela Kalawi of­ten went home cry­ing. It wasn’t just the grungy set­ting - a dimly lit, air­less base­ment where the 31-year-old refugee with a cheru­bic face slips on plas­tic gloves and digs into trash-filled con­tain­ers. It was that as a tra­di­tional house­wife in Syria, Kalawi grew up be­liev­ing it was shame­ful for women to work out­side the house. In those days, she wasn’t even al­lowed to shop for her own clothes or choose what to watch on TV.

Now, in a slum in Beirut, Le­banon, Kalawi is the bread­win­ner for the fam­ily’s four chil­dren. She has to be - her hus­band went miss­ing in the civil war back home three years ago. While she still misses her old com­fort­able life, she has dis­cov­ered a for­ti­tude she didn’t know she had and dis­carded tra­di­tional no­tions of what a woman should be. “I tell my chil­dren I’m the man of the fam­ily,” Kalawi says, sit­ting on one of the gray mat­tresses spread on the floor of the fam­ily’s small rented room. “I am the fa­ther and the mother. I’m the one who works. I’m the one who buys veg­eta­bles. I’m the one who takes them out, and brings them what they need.”

Brunt of wars

Across the world, women of­ten bear the brunt of wars, such as the con­flict in Syria. In Le­banon, about one-third of 240,000 Syr­ian refugee house­holds are headed by women whose hus­bands - tra­di­tion­ally the providers and pro­tec­tors - are dead, miss­ing or chose to stay be­hind. In ex­ile, some of these women feel vul­ner­a­ble to ha­rass­ment and vi­o­lence. How­ever, oth­ers, like Kalawi, have be­come ac­ci­den­tal agents of change in a re­gion where it is still rel­a­tively rare for women to be lead­ers in the fam­ily.

Kalawi grew up in a con­ser­va­tive com­mu­nity where girls tended to marry young. By the time she was 15, she had al­ready turned down sev­eral pro­pos­als. But when another stranger, 28-year-old Mo­hammed Dahla, asked to marry her, she agreed. They wed two months later. “When I saw him, I liked him,” she said of her fu­ture hus­band. She dropped out of the 10th grade, even though her hus­band wanted her to con­tinue, and got preg­nant. She loved moth­er­hood, but soon re­gret­ted hav­ing mar­ried so young. Her hus­band, feel­ing she ne­glected him for the chil­dren, be­came dis­tant, spend­ing evenings watch­ing sports and the news on TV.

He had ab­so­lute say in the fam­ily. She spent her days cook­ing, clean­ing and go­ing over home­work with her older chil­dren. Kalawi’s shel­tered ex­is­tence ended with the civil war. In Au­gust 2013, her un­cle, his wife and their adult son were killed in a rocket at­tack. Two cousins later died in rocket and mor­tar strikes. The cou­ple de­cided to flee. Kalawi and the chil­dren moved to her grand­par­ents’ home in Da­m­as­cus, and her hus­band was to fol­low once he’d sold the car and other be­long­ings. In­stead, he dis­ap­peared, a fate shared by thou­sands snatched from homes and streets by com­bat­ants on both sides.

I would cry every day

The first months with­out him were rough. “I would cry every day for him,” she re­calls. “He was my an­chor. When he was miss­ing, I felt I have no one, I can go nowhere, I can do noth­ing.” When the fight­ing es­ca­lated, the fam­ily fled to Le­banon in May 2015. There, Kalawi joined her wid­owed mother, her di­vorced aunt and her 20-year-old cousin, whose hus­band has been miss­ing since he was seized by Syr­ian in­tel­li­gence four years ago. The women, with 10 chil­dren among them, live in small rooms ar­ranged around the dead end of an al­ley in a run-down neigh­bor­hood of Beirut.

Kalawi was the most re­luc­tant to work. Back home in Syria, she would crit­i­cize her mother for ac­cept­ing even oc­ca­sional jobs sew­ing bridal gowns. “I was sur­prised that my daugh­ter ac­cepted to work,” says her mother, Wu­j­dan Ghazal, 50, who makes $400 a month sew­ing mat­tress cov­ers in a nearby shop. Kalawi says the rea­son for her change of heart was sim­ple. “I needed money,” she says. “I hated to ask my mother for money.” Now Kalawi works six days a week at Re­cy­cle Beirut, a com­pany that col­lects glass, plas­tic and other ma­te­ri­als from about 800 cus­tomers and stores it un­der­ground. She took her chil­dren to a sea­side restau­rant and an amuse­ment park to cel­e­brate her first pay­check.—AP

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