This blog by a 17-year-old Syrian refugee girl living in a tented settlement in Lebanon is the first in a series of blogs written by adolescents involved in the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) participatory research groups in the MENA region. Young people aged 15-19 from diverse nationality and geographic backgrounds have been engaging in participatory research activities, including participatory photography, peer-to-peer research and diary writing since early 2019. The GAGE blog series reflects the 2020 International Youth Day theme of Youth Engagement for Global Action, focusing on adolescent voices and young people’s experiences in forging spaces to share their perspectives and priorities for change.
Zeina Ghannoush’s* story as told to Sally Youssef
Zeina is a 17-year-old Syrian girl from Raqqa who got married when she was 15 and has an infant child. She lives in an informal tented settlement near the city of Baalbek, Lebanon. Zeina came to Lebanon when she was 9 years old. Since she arrived, Zeina started working in the fields. Zeina’s older sisters completed their higher education in Syria while she lost her chance to graduate since she came to Lebanon.
When the problems started in my country, Syria, I was seven years old. I did not imagine what would happen to us at the time, and I did not know that a war had broken out and that we would be uprooted from our lives and become refugees in another country. I did not know at the time, that I would lose my education and that I would marry while I was still a child.
My family fled the war to Lebanon, we left our homes and lived as refugees in tents. When I left my school in Syria, I did not know that it would be final and that I would never return to school. My older sisters are educated and married only after they finished their college studies, but my life turned out to be the opposite of theirs. In Lebanon, I started working in agriculture as soon as I arrived, and I no longer had any hope or ambition to seek. Getting married seemed to be the only opportunity I had at the time and my parents were encouraging it because they thought this would protect me. I submitted to all what came to my life and was always silent about it. I did not even think about challenging anything.
I have always been a shy girl. I was embarrassed to go out of my house and meet people I didn’t know. I was embarrassed to speak and did not know how to express my opinion. No one asked me about my feelings or opinion on anything, not my family, friends, relatives, my husband or in-laws, not even the associations that I was participating in. It was as if I was a shadow and not a complete being.
My story began about a year ago when I first started participating in the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) research programme. When I first joined, it was an intimidating experience because it was the first time someone asked me about anything I was experiencing, listening or caring about what I say. This opportunity changed me a lot. At first, I struggled to share my story, feelings and experiences. I was nervous about talking about myself and sharing my opinions with others. But, with time, I became daring and comfortable talking about myself, my community, and even my feelings, which I had always suppressed. I started to participate in conversations that I never imagined contributing to, such as talking about our problems and finding solutions to these challenges, or talking about services and their quality, and even about early marriage and its effect on girls. I discovered that I have a strong voice that can reach other people and local organisations, but it was silenced due to a lack of opportunities for it to be heard. I became part of a group seeking change to help all girls like me, I began to feel that I was proving my existence by being part of this project to tell the whole world that I am here, I exist, hear me!
I even participated in online sessions with Syrian girls living in Jordan during the corona virus lockdown. I was surprised that I had no problem talking to girls whom I did not know about my situation and feelings, and about the situation of the Syrian refugees and the challenges they face in Lebanon. The conversation was interesting, but most importantly, I knew at the time that I could express myself and speak on behalf of the Syrian refugees and their situation in Lebanon with anyone. During my participation, I learned that I can express my challenges and the challenges of all refugees in the informal settlements and devise solutions and communicate these to those responsible for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. I learned that my voice has power and value and that it can reach the whole world. My personality became different, I became more confident and stronger.
I would not have realised it without this experience with GAGE. I want my voice to reach local and international organisations, especially the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which is directly concerned with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and to invite them to hear us and listen to our problems and the solutions that we think might improve our lives. We are often silent because no one offers to listen to us. I also want my voice to reach all the Syrian girls and ask them to share their voices whenever they can. For all the girls who are hiding in the shadows, participate in similar volunteer activities and do not be afraid to speak and participate because you will feel empowered as you will discover the important role you have in your society and in the world. Change might seem difficult, but you should know that it is not impossible. Change takes time and needs a lot of efforts and without our participation it might never happen. So join me and let us be the power of change for us, for our children and for girls who need us to make changes so that they would not face our fate and live in silence.
* Name is a pseudonym chosen by the blog author