Tracy Holland is a Philanthropy Advisor with Medical Teams International. She recently visited Lebanon to meet Syrian refugees. She felt inspired by the confidence of the Refugee Outreach Volunteers — refugees trained by Medical Teams International to share health messages with their peers. She cried as they told their stories of hardship. And she smiled when they brought her their babies for a picture. Over the course of her visit, here’s what touched her the most.
I slipped off my shoes and entered the tent at the invitation of the host. She produced a cushion and gestured for me to sit, giving me a place of honor in the circle of women, each crossing her legs in search of a comfortable position on the floor. Small children bounced in their mamas’ arms, and slightly older ones curiously peered in the door of the tent and giggled when I caught their eye and waved. This was the first session of a support group in this settlement camp — and an important day.
It takes courage for these mothers to leave their tents and agree to spend an hour with Christina, the mental health worker from Medical Teams International. For 6 weeks, these ladies will speak candidly about their experiences fleeing from Syria to Lebanon, caring for multiple children, wondering where their husbands were, and worrying for their children’s future. All the while, living in close vicinity to neighbors without privacy.
A fan blew stale air around the tent until it was turned off so we could better hear one another. A drop of sweat trickled down my neck, and my knees cramped in the unfamiliar position on the floor. My respect for these women grew with each introduction.
“My name is Selda,” one woman started, “and I want to be a good mother and not get frustrated with my children.”
“I’m called Malva,” another continued, “and I want to not be so angry all the time.”
“I feel like everyone is watching me,” said Ronia, “and if I smile too much people wonder why. And if I don’t smile enough, my neighbors want to know what’s wrong. I want to just be me and not worry so much. I miss my home.”
Around the circle the introductions continued, and all 15 women shared what they hoped to gain from joining this group. I realized the answers were the same as what would be spoken if the session occurred in the United States. A mother myself, it’s common to sit with the parents of my children’s friends and talk about our experiences as moms. We share worries about our kids’ progress in school. Boasts when they’re a good friend or helper. Anxiety about if they’re showing their manners. Exhaustion when they don’t sleep through the night. Fear when their cough seems to not go away.
It is the same for these women. Only the circumstances are so much harder. Tents made of wood supports and tarps. Rough concrete smoothed by hand, with pebbles and holes where the winter floods eroded their floors. Rugs to make to feel it like home, impossible to clean without a proper vacuum and with paths of dust and rocks through the camp. Walls of their home just inches from their neighbor, with the nearby sounds of tired children crying and whispered conversations.
I’m not sure what I expected to feel when I sat down for this session. The feeling of kinship surprised me. I realized that we were more alike than different, and it made me all the more committed to the work of offering mental health support in the settlement camps. Each mother had witnessed the trauma of seeing violence in her neighborhood — destroyed buildings, family members who didn’t make it home. They made the impossible decision to flee to the unknown because it was safer than sitting in the rubble and wondering what to do next. My heart hurt for the complexity of their situation.
Shaking my head and bringing my thoughts back to the session, Christina introduced the closing activity. Handing out paper and pens and sorting the women into small groups, she asked each to draw three circles. Christina reminded the women they are never alone. That it’s okay to talk about their lives and feelings with one another. She told each group member they had a choice for who they allowed to influence their life. In the middle circle, they were to identify one person they could talk with when they felt overwhelmed. In the next circle went the names of their family or others who could also provide support. The final circle was to have the names of the larger group of people who they knew and interacted with but didn’t need to confide in at the deepest level.
Malva said it was the first time she realized it was okay to talk and get support from others. Another woman looked down and said she thought she only could talk with her sister or mother. The idea of supportive neighbors and friends was completely new to her. She smiled as she wrote down a brand new name in the inner circle. Christina, the group leader, validated the woman’s need to talk with someone outside her family, and the rest of the women chimed in that they would listen.
As we got up to leave, I asked permission to take a photo of this courageous group. In my circle of friends, we might pat our hair, freshen our lipstick, and put our hand on our hip to show our best angle. These women patted their hijabs, pulling them into the perfect place after their kids had tugged on them during the group.
They assembled in front of the door, jostling to get the tallest in back, shortest in front, and to angle themselves just right for a flattering photo. Then they asked to see it and told us to take another. More alike than different. We gave hugs and waved goodbye, and the kids followed us out, getting one last glimpse as we waved and brought back their giggles.
I will not forget this day. To be thanked for “coming on an airplane to hear my story” and to help a woman “feel like her story isn’t forgotten” is humbling. The experience of being welcomed into the tent of a refugee mother will stay with me forever. I feel incredibly grateful to be part of the work that supports these amazing families who need a little help healing and accessing care.
Medical Teams is committed to helping care for Syrian refugees. You can provide physical, mental, and emotional care for refugees living in Lebanon by giving today.