Aaref fled to Lebanon from Syria five years ago to escape the war raging in his homeland. But here, he found another kind of conflict – in his home.
Life as a refugee in Lebanon is grueling. He’s under constant pressure to find enough money to pay the rent, feed his family, and take care of their medical needs.
The stress soon led to conflicts between Aaref and his wife, of the type they hadn’t experienced since they were young newlyweds learning to navigate life together.
“We fought about spending and finances. I would ask her not to spend too much money. Sometimes she would buy things that weren’t necessary,” he says. The disagreements often escalated to shouting and even violence.
“In principle, I’m against hitting the wife or the children. But because of the stress, sometimes it gets out of hand,” he admits. “Sometimes I was hitting her.”
Domestic violence was a problem in Syria before the war, as it is in most societies. A 2005 study found that 21.8 percent of women surveyed reported being subjected to some sort of violence, and 13.8 percent of the husbands surveyed admitted they beat their wives.
Yet refugees themselves, and organizations working on gender-based violence, report overwhelmingly that the rate of intimate partner violence appears to have risen sharply among Syrians who were forced to flee their homeland. Many describe it as a result of the heavy pressures refugees endure, including hurdles to obtaining legal status, financial strain, and the stress of large families living cooped up in small dwellings.
While many aid programs have long targeted women with support programs, some organizations are now putting new focus on reaching men, hoping to address the problem at the source.
“Working on gender-based violence without involving the whole community will not work. If you empower the women but the perpetrator is still thinking the same way and acting the same way, you may worsen the problem,” says Lara Chlela, manager of the International Medical Corps’ gender-based violence program in Lebanon. IMC has partnered with a local organization, Abaad, to open a center for men in Beirut to raise awareness of gender-based violence, engage men on gender equality, and provide support. It also runs two other men's centers outside the capital.
Aaref, a 53-year-old from Deraa who asked to be identified by his first name, and whose paint-splattered clothes attest to his work as a laborer, attended new sessions for men organized by Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an organization serving Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He says the meetings helped him find ways to manage stress.
“They were good in terms of awareness and educating us, because at our age, we’re a little bit old-fashioned,” he says. “So we learned new things and got new approaches. We discussed problems and how to handle them.”
One solution the men discussed, he said, was to leave home and take a walk if a man gets so upset that he feels the urge to use violence. It’s a method he has used himself, and he says he’s better able to handle stress now. At the time of his interview, however, his wife was back in Syria to receive medical treatment they couldn’t afford in Lebanon.
Gaining men's trust
One of the main challenges for those trying to work with men on gender-based violence is approaching them in the first place, and getting them to listen, says Ms. Chlela of IMC.
“To approach a group of men saying, ‘OK, now we’re going to talk about why you beat your wives’ – no, no, no,” she says. “You start with other issues,” like talking about sports, she says. “When you gain their trust you can address any issue.”
This is something Hamoud Selman Mujadel knows well. A social worker at Basmeh & Zeitooneh, he leads the mens’ sessions, including the ones Aaref attended. They are not lectures. Instead he facilitates discussions and group activities to help the men comfortably address issues they’re dealing with, including violence.
In one exercise, Mr. Mujadel presents a scenario: A man has been working all day, he’s tired, and he comes home and finds his wife is on the phone and hasn’t prepared dinner. He asks the men what they would do. “Some say, send her back to her parents. Others say, discuss together. Others say, hit her.”
When men discuss ways to express their frustration without resorting to violence, “it gives a positive impulse and positive point, it helps other guys maybe change their minds, not to hit their wives,” he says. Were he to simply instruct them not to beat their wives, they would be less likely to listen, he says, and might even stop attending the sessions.
The aim of the sessions, he says, is to “minimize the psychological pressure on men.” That’s a major factor in violence – Mujadel says a minority of men believe it’s their right to beat their wives and children, but most resort to violence out of stress and frustration, and aren’t proud of it. Helping them find ways to manage their stress can reduce the violence.
Men are not alone in using violence. Social workers say women beating their children is a problem as well. It’s often a cycle of violence, with women who are exposed to beatings passing them on to their children, they say.
“This is how we know, often, that the husband is beating the wife, because she’s beating the kids and we follow up” and find the wife is also being abused, says Manar Karout, a social worker at a center in Beirut’s Ain al Remmenah neighborhood run by the Amel Association.
Even the request for help is a success
When she finds such cases, she tries to talk privately with the men. They often blame their children, saying they can’t handle the noise or the annoyance of being cooped up in small apartments or tents, when they were used to larger homes and busier lives back in Syria.
“I realized recently that they’re aware, they admit this is wrong, and they blame it on the social pressure on them,” she says. “Women can also be demanding, wanting money they don’t have. We put them together, to discuss money and get finances in order, to try to solve the reasons this is happening.” She says such sessions are often helpful.
In one Beirut neighborhood, a small, nondescript apartment with green doors houses Abaad’s Men’s Center, where men can come to receive counseling. Most don’t come because of a problem with violence, but for other issues, like depression.
Yet violence and aggression – whether they realize it or not – is common, says Gisele Abichahine, a pscyhotherapist who works at the center, which works with all men, whether refugees or not. One cause of violence among refugee men she has worked with is their feeling of being emasculated, as the demands of refugee life lead their wives to take on roles traditionally filled by men.
It’s usually difficult for men to admit they have a problem and need help, she says, so simply coming to the center is a big step. It’s a rare place where they can discuss feelings that might be taboo elsewhere.
“All the men I worked with, they’ve all been told you can’t cry, you’re a boy,” she says. “Boys grow up suppressed. It’s forbidden for them to express frustration, sadness, fear, insecurity, stress, even happiness. All the emotions are blocked, and the only emotion that is encouraged is violence.”
In this environment, she adds, “even the fact they come here and seek help is a success for me.”
Suzan Haidamous contributed reporting.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation's Reporting Grants for Women’s Stories Initiative.