Raised in a small town near Damascus, 27-year-old Reem Alhaswani left Syria when war arrived. Now living as a refugee in Lebanon, she decided to take action after seeing the dire situation of women in Shatila refugee camp outside Beirut. Reem and a small group of community leaders set up a women’s workshop in Shatila to teach embroidery, computers, and English to Syrian and Palestinian women. Called “Basmeh and Zeitooneh”, their organisation is one of the winners of a “Women, Sowers of Development” prize awarded by Caritas Internationalis and Voices of Faith. Reem spoke to us about the group’s work.
What did you do after you escaped the war to Lebanon?
When I arrived here, I met people I’d known in Syria. I met Fadi, who’s now the general manager of Basmeh and Zeitooneh. We were gathering clothes and small donations for food for people in Shatila camp, a refugee camp near Beirut that was originally for Palestinians.
What’s the situation of these families in terms of food and money?
It’s devastating here in Lebanon. First of all, it’s very expensive. There are people who are hungry.
We were shocked by the really bad situation in Shatila. Women are very afraid to go out. Many of these women were married in Syria at the age of 14 or 15, before the war. Most are from rural areas, they’re not used to a place like Shatila.
The men are not working. There’s domestic violence everywhere. Shatila isn’t under the control of the regular police. The host community of Palestinians is in a bad situation.
We started thinking, let’s do something for the women. Women are in the worst state. They’re always inside. They’re afraid.
So what did you do?
I said, “I have to help.” I have the tools to help.
We knew a man who could market embroidery items if we produced them. We got a small donation. We rented a place and bought some fabric and thread.
I started looking for women. It took me a month to convince 10 women to come. They were afraid, they didn’t know us. They thought maybe we’d take advantage of them. They had just arrived and they were afraid of anything and everything.
We started with embroidery. The women didn’t know how to do it. We brought a Palestinian woman who’s done this since she was 14. She taught everyone how to do it. Many of the women became very experienced, very professional.
We slowly started to produce pieces. And we put them on the internet. We paid them by piece. At first they weren’t making enough money. After a few months they’d generate more and more.
Many families are depending just from the money from the workshop. The women come to our centre, it’s not just a sewing workshop, we have also vocational training for the adults.
Can you talk about a woman whose life is different because of the programme?
There’s a woman I really like. She has 8 children. She’s from a really rural area—she used to work on farm, feeding the goats, back in Syria.
When she first came to us, she was very shy and didn’t know how to work, how to embroider. It took her time. Now she’s one of the highest-paid women. She’s really good at what she does.
We have another programme, micro funding. She applied for her project. She’s also learning to read and write. She’s acting a mother to many of the women, if they need advice or someone to listen. She has really big heart.
What’s a hard part of your job?
Whatever you do, you feel like you’re not solving the problem, because the problem is bigger than us. Just yesterday a woman said she is marrying her 14-year-old daughter to a man who’s also from the camp. We were talking to her and she was saying, “I have a lot of children and this place is very expensive. This man is providing a home and security.”
How has the programme grown?
In May 2013, we didn’t have any employees. We were 6 people. Now we have 100 employees.
We have a school for 400 kids. We have 3 community centres in Lebanon. Now we have 140 women working, about 70 percent Syrian, 30 percent Palestinian. We recently started a women’s workshop in Bekaa.
In the community centre, we also have psychosocial support for children through interactive activities. And there’s a protection department holding awareness sections for women regarding human rights and domestic violence and also referring protection cases to the specialized associations.
We’re also rehabilitating shelters in the camp. Three months ago, a woman in a workshop lost her 11-year-old son from electric shock. The wires are everywhere and not covered.
Our rehabilitation programme helps with windows, doors, hot water, repairing the electrical wiring. Our workers are from inside the camp. This project is not just for Syrians but also Palestinians, to support the host community too.
I’m very proud of the women in our group. They are really brave. We were able through Basmeh and Zeitooneh activities to turn this tragic situation into a fresh start for the women.