Layal and her family are among many in an already impoverished society of Syrian and Palestinian refugees now facing extraordinary hardships daily.
She is one of thousands of young women sharing the same story. Living in war-torn nations, these Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians — and many others living in devastating conditions — still find ways to be responsible members of their communities.
On International Women’s Day, females from all walks of life are celebrated for their resilience, endurance, patience and love through giving back to their communities.
Lebanon’s economy continues its freefall into steep decline. The currency has lost more than 95 percent of its value since 2019, with the dollar currently trading at 98,000 Lebanese lira and 80 percent of people living beneath the poverty line.
Refugees struggle to find adequate work due to their status, and many lack official papers and legal residency, which restricts their choices and, at times, their movement.
“Our men are getting restless and angry. They feel less than for not being able to provide food on the table. Kids are going hungry to bed,” Layal told Arab News.
“I often go to have coffee at my neighbor’s who is a dear friend. We have been feeling powerless and restless ourselves; we ended up coming up with the idea of cooking and distributing meals to the community.”
Layal and two female friends meet three times a week to cook meals for more than 12 families. Each woman brings what she can spare from her household; sometimes, they receive food or donations from people.
Although living in an impoverished area, Layal and her friends provide meals to those less fortunate, an example of female resilience that is celebrated on International Women’s Day.
“We feel empowered that we’re feeding our community, that kids aren’t going to bed hungry every night. Fathers and mothers have a little less to worry about in the doom and gloom that is Lebanon right now,” Layal said.
It is a tale as old as time, women rising to the challenge of caring for their communities, and even those far away from them.
Less than an hour away, in Ghazir, Jeanne Azar, a 50-year-old Lebanese woman, has turned her home into a school for children between the ages of 8-11.
Azar says she feels blessed that her children are studying abroad in France, but she sees the misery of struggling parents around her, some of whom had to take their children out of school due to financial struggles.
“I live in a large house, my husband travels often. I decided to have children come to my house four times a week to teach them basic maths, basic French and some history,” she said.
The children visit five times a week for up to four hours daily.
Some are children of blue-collar workers and janitors, while some parents have lost their jobs and been forced to remove their offspring from school.
Women and girls continue to bear the brunt of gender inequality and gender-based violence. Girls are married off at an early age in some cases due to economic hardship. The parents see no other choice and find marriage a solution. This often leaves girls susceptible to abuse and health complications.
For years, women have been the driving force behind the widespread protests in Lebanon, fighting for the rights of children and women.
For struggling families, women such as Layal and her friends and Jeanne Azar are godsends for their communities.
With neither meals nor education politicized, Layal and Azar offer services to those in need, regardless of creed or affiliations.
“I see it in my community a lot, girls in their early teens married off because the parents now have one less mouth to feed. The fact that something so simple as providing a meal can end up saving a girl’s future is surreal to me,” Layal said.
Jeanne Azar also provides tea, cookies, and snacks to the children she teaches.
“I have a few boys in my classes; it has been a pleasure to teach them about the importance of respect toward women, be it their sister, mother or friend. That girls are equal to them. I only hope they keep those lessons to heart and enlighten the boys around them, be it their families or friends who might have a dark view on females which is passed on by their surroundings or from the Internet by the likes of Andrew Tate.”
International Women’s Day is the result of hundreds of years of women campaigning to assert themselves and secure their rights: From the suffragettes who marched for their political rights in 1913 America to Jordanian women obtaining their right to run for elections in 1974, to the Syrian women who called for freedom from oppression in 2011, to the likes of Layal and Jeanne Azar today who are seen as heroes by their communities for the services they provide.
Affected by war for more than a decade, many Syrian women living in impoverished areas find ways to survive difficult circumstances. Only the so-called “lucky ones” find their way out.
Waad Al-Kateab, the creator of the Emmy-winning documentary “For Sama,” chronicled her time in Aleppo during fierce bombardment by the Assad regime.
Al-Kateab was pregnant with her first daughter Sama at the time. Her story resonated worldwide with mothers and shed light on what Syrian women were going through — and continue to go through.
She has since founded “Action for Sama,” a campaign to spread awareness of civilian hardship during the war and to stop the attacks on health care facilities in an already fragile country.
The campaign also seeks accountability for war crimes.
Al-Kateab, an established journalist for many years, now lives in the UK with her family and mentors young female journalists via the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network. She continues to work on projects that shed light on the horrors of the Syrian war.
Aliyah Khalaf Saleh, an Iraqi woman honored by Melania Trump in 2018, saved 58 young men from the terrorist militant group Daesh.
Known as Um Qusay, she hid Christian, Kurdish and Yazidi men from certain death if the militia caught them. For Shiite Iraqi men, she taught them how to recite prayers in the Sunni way, and for those at risk of recruitment, she obtained university cards.
Um Qusay often hid the men on her farm and smuggled them to safety whenever possible.
In honor of her bravery, she was granted the International Women of Courage award by the US State Department and was even awarded a high religious Shiite honor despite being a Sunni.
Um Qusay remains in touch with the men that she saved.
On International Women’s day, we honor those who continue to fight for themselves and the lives of their communities. As the late writer Maya Angelou said: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women.”