Before she began working as a hairdresser, poverty forced Syrian Umm Mahmoud to seek donations for food and rent money to survive as a refugee in Lebanon.
Often men suggested she have sex with them to show her gratitude, the 32-year-old said.
Her experiences echo among Syrian refugee women. Across the region, they lead about a quarter of all Syrian refugee families, which number some 145,000, the United Nations estimated in a report issued Tuesday.
“If you want to eat in Lebanon, you must eat your dignity,” said Umm Mahmoud. Her husband was disabled in fighting in Syria, leaving her to care for their five children alone. “To stay honorable, it means to go hungry sometimes. She who doesn’t have a husband or protector – they are always the most vulnerable,” she said.
Syrians made refugees by the war in their country, now in its fourth year, number nearly three million across neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Most live in poverty as they hustle for food, jobs, accommodation and health care.
Women-headed households face additional burdens: they are often poorer, and many must push their children to work instead of attending school. Their husbands were either killed, captured, badly wounded or divorced.
The U.N. says they struggle particularly to pay rent and keep food on the table.
Women also say they are sexually harassed by landlords, employers and local charity workers. In the region’s conservative societies, they say, women who don’t have a male protector are viewed as easy prey and sexually promiscuous.
“The women who are widowed, or whose husbands are missing, or disabled, they face (sexual) extortion and pressure,” said Saadia Ghneim, the head of a community center in the northern Lebanese town of Halba. The center offers courses like hairdressing, sewing, computer and language training, helping Syrian and Lebanese women in an impoverished district find jobs.
Umm Mahmoud’s life turned around after a hairdressing course that allowed her work in a salon. She stopped asking local charities and Muslim sheiks for help, and only receives food aid from the U.N.
Umm Mahmoud, from the Syrian city of Homs, said that before she found work, she survived by pretending not to hear the offers of sex suggested to her as she knocked at the doors of charities.
“They would ask, why are you coming in the day? Why not come at night?”
For women who lived in poverty in Syria, becoming refugees has worsened their situation. Such is the lot of Yasmine Shreiteh, 27, who shelters with her father and four sisters in a garage they rent for $100 a month.
Her father fell from a balcony in Syria, breaking his back. One of her sisters was born disabled, and their mother abandoned them, she said.
“I am learning how to sew so I can support my family,” said Shreiteh, as she stitched a pair of trousers in the sewing course at the community center in Halba. “And also to support myself for the future and to have a profession, so I won’t need to rely on anybody later,” she said.
In other women-led households, children are pushed into work.
Zeinab Abu Salah, 16, came from an education-focused family. But her father was wounded in the war, and the family fled to Lebanon. The teenager said she watched her mother struggle as a hairdresser, trying to feed and educate her and her four brothers.
“One person can’t take care of everything,” said Abu Salah. “When I saw she needed help, I had to help.”
The teen said she was in eighth grade, having lost years of school to war. She was also taking a hairdressing course and working alongside her mother, helping pay for her siblings’ educations.
The U.N. has repeatedly pleaded for more money to help Syrian refugees, having only funded one-third of their budget for the task. They also ask governments to help protect Syrian women, and call on wealthier countries to resettle women-led households as a priority.
“Syrian refugee women are the glue holding together a broken society. Their strength is extraordinary, but they are struggling alone,” said Angelina Jolie, the U.N’s refugee agency special envoy, in a statement following the report.
For Umm Mahmoud, a conservative Muslim, she said her experiences of being vulnerable made her realize how far Syria’s communal fabric had unraveled. One experience, meeting a Syrian widow with children who worked as a prostitute in northern Lebanon, changed her.
“I used to see these women and fault them. Now I think of (the widow’s) children and the situation in Syria, and how nobody cares about her, and I can’t blame her anymore. I see now that God’s forgiveness is mighty.”