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Lebanon: the “Cedar” and the “Olive tree”, two homes for female refugees and abused migrant workers

The cedar and the olive tree: these trees linked to the biblical tradition give the name to two centres, "Cedar" and "Olive safe", promoted by Caritas Lebanon with the support of Caritas Italy, to assist and protect Syrian women refugees and young female migrant workers victims of ill-treatment, abuse and rape, in many cases committed by the same family members and employers. Lebanon, in addition to hosting about 1.5 million Syrian refugees, also counts 250 thousand foreign workers, in most cases exploited and ill-treated. The dramatic testimonies of Lina, a young Syrian refugee, mother of Jasmine, and Karine from Cameroon, who is only sixteen years old

"Olive safe", centro Caritas Libano per giovani migranti maltrattate

Who knows if Caritas Lebanon workers thought of the biblical passages where the prophets sing the strength and beauty of the olive tree and the deep roots of the cedar, when they chose the names of the houses where women refugees from Syria and migrant young women from African and Asian countries are now sheltered, treated and protected. They all share the same tragic fate: they were either victims of the violence of war, or mistreated and abused by their own employers after arriving in Lebanon through an agency, in search of dignified work.

Some 250.000 migrant domestic workers according to estimates, in a Country with 6 million inhabitants, 30% of whom are Syrian refugees.

“Cedar” and “Olive safe” are the significant names of 2 of the 6 “shelters” organized by Caritas Lebanon nationwide to address this emergency situation. Here migrant women and refugees are welcomed, protected and supported in their rights thanks to volunteers and specialized workers.

“Cedar” was opened in Rayfoun in 2007, some 40 km north of Beirut, in a mountainous area, behind an ancient convent of the Daughters of Charity, with the help of Caritas Italy.

It owes its name to the large cedar tree, approximately 25 meters high, that screens from the sun in the summer and provides shelter in the winter, located in the garden of the house. “Between 500 to 700 women come to us for help every year” said Nancy, the Center’s coordinator, to the group of Italian diocesan Caritas members that were recently in Lebanon to plan solidarity interventions. “These women were abused, beaten, raped. Many of them have children. The majority, about 80%, are refugees and asylum seekers, 20% are women migrant workers. Among them there are also women persecuted for political reasons and consecrated women.” Almost all of them were sent to Caritas Lebanon by Lebanese Institutions, by their respective embassies and consulates, other NGOs and by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). “Cedar” has currently 33 female guests, all of them alone, from 2 to 82 years of age, and 39 children. Their stay in the Centre could range from a week to a year, except for special cases. “At Cedar – added the coordinator – we offer humanitarian, social, medical, educational, legal and psychological assistance in three stages: protection, integration and leave. Children go to school at the Sisters of Charity.

The Centre offers several activities: courses for self-defence, computer, cooking and cultural visits.” However, the final goal is for those who decide to remain in Lebanon: “a new, safer job placement or voluntary repatriation.” These goals were reached in 80% of the cases. Finding a solution for asylum-seekers is much harder. The present situation in Lebanon, that gives hospitality to 1.5 million Syrians on its territory, is not one of the best, and the Government’s policy is to support their return. The same goes for Iraqis, Ethiopians and Sudanese women. During their stay “Cedar” becomes their home and the other guests become their family.”

Lina, a Syrian woman from Tartus, who lives at the Centre with her daughter Jasmine, 5, went through a tragic experience. When the war broke out her family sent her to live with relatives in Homs. Here, at 16, she was given in marriage to a man affected by schizophrenia and with hearing problems that eventually became her tormentor:

“He hit me even while I was pregnant

– she recalled -. When the clashes broke out in Homs he left me alone with my daughter to leave for Beirut with his parents. Only later did I manage to join him here in Lebanon, where the violence continued. He treated me as his slave and wanted to have intercourse even in front of my daughter, threatening to sexually abuse her too if I refused. One day he hit me with a stick which he stabbed in my thigh.” Lina and her daughter Jasmine were finally safe on the day that UNHCR called her to renew her papers for her stay in Lebanon. “I told everything to the UN workers. They had me contact Cedar. Here – she added in tears– I found serenity and peace.

Now I am happy for my daughter

who can go to school and build a future full of hope. On my part I would like to continue living here to help those with my same experience and return the warm hospitality I am being offered.”

Karine is 16, she comes from Cameroon. She has been living at “Olive safe”, located in the Armenian area of Beirut, “Geitaoui”, for several months. Here Caritas Lebanon gives hospitality to 40 young women from Africa and Asia, all of them exploited, abused and raped by their employers. She too, like Lina, told her story to the diocesan Caritas delegation. “I was a domestic worker in a home whose owner worked in the fashion business. She gave me very little water and food.

I had to hide in the bathroom to drink.

If a friend gave me some food she would take it from me. She even reached the point of beating me. I reported her to the Police and also there I was mistreated and sent away. So I went to my Consulate that suggested me to contact Caritas.

Here I feel safe.”

Karine’s future, just as that of many young women hosted in the Centres, is yet to be written. But they will no longer write it alone: with them in Lebanon there is Caritas, its workers, the male and female volunteers.

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