The Stories We Don’t Hear

The Stories We Don't Hear - Syrian Refugee Crisis

“All I could think was, this could be my mom, my grandmother,” says Bel Angeles, The MATCH Fund’s Director of Operations, reflecting upon her 2015 conversations with Syrian refugees in Jordan. “These are university students or graduates, small business owners, farmers–so often we don’t think of refugees as individuals.”

And she’s right. In her previous role as a gender in emergencies expert, Bel had the opportunity to meet with many women who were immediately affected by the five-year war in Syria. Bel talks about how she and her translator were often moved to tears by the stories they heard. She describes the mother who fled Syria with her children, dodging snipers and bombs only to suffer repeated sexual assaults, exploitation at the border, and a life of poverty in Jordan. “She used all of her savings to pay for rent in Jordan,” Bel explains. “At the time, she was selling tissues on the streets to provide for her children.”

This is not unlike other stories Canadians have heard this fall. We have seen the arresting images of a drowned toddler on a beach and of women packed in a Hungarian train headed for nowhere. But for Bel, the stories we don’t hear are just as arresting. “What we don’t realize is that the refugees we see in Hungary have been displaced for years. This is just one more exodus. The repeated trauma of a life of displacement–and the impact this will have on entire generations–is immense.”

This is especially true for women. In Syria, most women are expected to stay at home, so the vast majority have limited income-earning skills. But as refugees, one in four Syrian women is the head of her household, as men and boys become casualties, are stopped at the border and separated from their families, or when they decide not to leave the country. Women must, suddenly, learn to navigate systems and to acquire skills that many people take a lifetime to build. Women in refugee situations who do not live under the protection of a man can be viewed unfavourably within their communities. This leaves them even more vulnerable to cycles of trafficking, harassment, and extortion. To say that Syrian women are at an increased risk of depression is an understatement.

And there is no end in sight. “This crisis has affected millions of people who were just living their lives in Syria,” Bel says. Neighbouring countries like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon where millions have fled since the start of the war, have mostly shouldered the burden of hosting refugees. Now these countries are more and more concerned about finite social services and less and less friendly to refugees; all the while, many richer countries are quite unwilling to share the responsibility to respond.

Hope does lie in the resilience and in the pockets of kindness that Bel witnessed in Jordan, which is now home to 600,000 Syrian refugees. Within refugee communities, people–especially the women–take care of each other, providing help when it is needed.

But what is most needed is a global shift–a willingness to understand refugees’ experiences and to step up. “We have already seen this in terms of the language being used to talk about this crisis,” Bel says. “Al-Jazeera was one of the first media outlets to insist that we call these individuals ‘refugees’ instead of ‘migrants.’ The politics and rights around those two words are very different. Then CBC followed suit.”

But what about the everyday Canadian–those of us who are just living our lives? “Give money,” Bel says. “Foster a family, open your mind, write a blog, advocate for a shared responsibility to respond.” For Bel, it’s an opportunity for action, which is especially urgent now as the world’s entire population of displaced people is almost double the population of Canada. “We must understand the human side the refugee crisis, and then we must treat others with dignity and respect. Anybody could be a refugee.”

Bel Angeles recently joined The MATCH Fund as the Director of Operations. She has worked as a gender, emergencies, and humanitarian expert with the Karen refugees in Thailand, Kachin internally displaced in Burma, Congolese and internally displaced people in Uganda, Syrian refugees in Jordan, and with flood and tsunami-affected people in Indonesia and the Philippines.