What happened to refugee women after fleeing ISIS

She survived an army siege, and fled mass executions and gang rapes in Syria. But it was only after she reached a safe haven in neighboring Lebanon that 13-year-old Fatima tried to slit her wrists.

It is not an isolated case. After three years living in refugee tents, depression, self-harm, suicide attempts and other mental health problems are on the rise for Syrian girls. Fatima’s name has been changed for her safety and her mother shared their story to show how even after fleeing Syria’s war, countless girls are still at risk of rape, domestic abuse and forced marriage.

Eleven million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes — and there is no sign that Syria’s almost four-year uprising-turned-civil war is going to end soon. The immediate priorities in a refugee crisis are relatively straightforward: people need shelter and food. But when it becomes a long-term crisis — growing at a rate of 5,000 people a day — the effort can be overwhelming.

Fatima and her mother found hope in a women’s support centre run by the International Rescue Committee, the humanitarian organisation. Founded by Albert Einstein in 1933 to rescue German families facing Nazi persecution, the charity now works in more than 30 countries, from Myanmar to Zimbabwe, providing relief after tsunamis or building long-term health clinics.

In 2014 the IRC provided aid to 14.8m people, including 4m Syrian refugees.

With aid groups struggling to provide food, medicine and education, young women are often overlooked, though they are among the most at-risk members of the Syrian refugee population.

“Refugee girls are in a prison . . . At night in the camp, you hear women crying, men beating wives. Half of those wives are under 14,” says Fatima’s mother — the dark rings under her eyes a sign of troubled days.

With limited access to education, girls can lose their future. Parents who once protected their daughters are often traumatised themselves and can become abusive or so impoverished that they agree to early marriage — a practice aid workers say increases the chance of a girl being forced into prostitution.

In muddy settlements that house thousands of refugees, the fear of assault means that many girls rarely leave the worn tarpaulin tents that flood during winter and bake in the summer heat.

“The centre encourages us to live, to find our strengths,” says Fatima’s mother, who stays hopeful despite an ongoing struggle with family abuse. “If it wasn’t for this, my daughter might be gone — maybe I would have committed suicide, too.”


IRC on the ground

The IRC has more than 30 women’s centres spread across refugee camps in northern Syria and neighbouring countries. Women’s protection and empowerment is one of dozens of programmes the charity manages as part of its Syria response, which deals with a range of needs from healthcare to job training.

The IRC, which had income of $456m last year, focuses on emergency and development work around the world. In addition to the Syria crisis response that spans five countries, it has set up clinics to treat Ebola patients in west Africa and distributed aid to Iraqis fleeing the advance of jihadi militants. It also works in the US to resettle refugees who get a chance to start a new life.

Finding long-term solutions for refugees is crucial to regional stability. The camps are fertile recruitment grounds for radical groups. Mass movements of people create economic strains that can spark unrest in the areas they flee to. But as the world’s largest refugee crisis deepens, funds are drying up. Last week the UN announced it was cutting vital food vouchers to 1.7m Syrian refugees due to a funding shortfall.

The IRC has also been forced to divert funds from Syria. To multiply the impact of reader contributions to this year’s appeal, the British government will double their value by matching each donation. Those funds will go directly to the IRC’s Syria projects.

“The Syrian crisis is the defining humanitarian catastrophe of this century so far,” says David Miliband, the president and chief executive of the IRC. “The scale of displacement, with half the country’s 22m population forced to flee their homes, is too big for most people to grasp.”

War, disease and environmental disasters have contributed to what is now the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. The UN says more than 51m people globally have fled their homes. Mr Miliband, former UK foreign secretary, says he wants the IRC to help change the aid business to better meet the needs of today’s refugees, especially women.

The IRC has been at the forefront of experimenting with more effective ways to provide support, in particular, “cash-aid” projects that give money instead of basic staples. Proponents say this lets aid groups help both the displaced and their hosts: refugees buy their necessities from locals whose economies are otherwise drained by rapid population influxes. Psychological counsellors also attend training courses to support victims of abuse or depression.

Sara Abu Assali, head of the IRC’s women’s programs in Turkey, says rehabilitation is critical: “Think about it this way: who else will rebuild Syria?”

Just reaching camps in Syria can be a challenge, as roads, checkpoints and towns constantly swap hands between different armed groups. Convincing conservative families, who often forbid women to leave home, is another hurdle. In spite of that, some 2,000 women make almost daily visits to the IRC’s eight makeshift women’s centres in northern Syria.

The IRC sends “mobile teams” to try to reach more camps but these efforts are a drop in the ocean. Displaced Syrians scattered along the northern border have built about 500 different settlements — some house tens of thousands of inhabitants. The IRC says its work is critical because many camp-based youth programmes unintentionally omit girls; gender mixing is not socially acceptable after adolescence.


Desperate measures

The IRC women’s programs worked regularly with at least 32,000 refugee women this year. But even success stories can be overtaken by fresh abuse. Fatima was one such case. The scars down her arms healed as IRC counsellors treated her depression. But shortly afterwards her father sent her away to marry a cousin twice her age.

While there are no reliable statistics on abuse or self-harm, Fatima’s mother says many girls now experiment with cutting. Other young women went further. “One set herself on fire. They buried her outside the camp. Another tried to kill herself drinking chlorine but they took her to the hospital and pumped her stomach,” she sighs. “I knew another girl who was only 15 and had already been married off by her family three times. She tried to run away.”

Stopping all early marriages is impossible. In some rural parts of Syria it was common. But most Syrians waited until their daughters finished university. Now there is no school and as the crisis drags on, families are tempted by foreign suitors offering dowries for brides.

Heba, a bubbly 26-year-old dressed in a leather jacket and white headscarf, is not discouraged. The areas in northern Syria where she runs IRC women’s centres were too dangerous to visit, so she crossed the border to meet the FT in Turkey. For her own safety, we have withheld her full name.

Heba fears the worst for the girls she could not help. “It’s hard to know what happens beyond the rumours that come back. We rarely ever hear from them again.” Some women, she says, are unwittingly “married” to men in Turkey or the Gulf, without realising their status is not official or legal. Many are believed to be forced into prostitution.

Even a girl’s tent can be unsafe. The brutality of war affects behaviour, especially among boys who come of age during the conflict. “It has got to the point where you have cases of girls molested by brothers or uncles,” says Heba. Navigating these environments is complicated. Many women feel too ashamed to admit they have been abused.

In Lebanon, female refugees can perhaps seek out secret shelters. But in lawless northern Syria there are no safe houses, no legal recourse. Instead, Heba and her peers teach coping strategies.

At a refugee youth centre in Turkey, a counsellor called Manal sits with a group of giggling girls who shout suggestions as she writes on a board, “Ways to say no”, at a friend’s request.

The girls practise sentences together to see what works best. Later, Manal suggests adapting the idea for parents who do not want to let them leave the house or go to school.

“We start with little things,” says Heba. “If she can’t do that, how can she argue about bigger issues like marriage?” Once the girls and women start talking, confidence grows quickly, she says. “Sometimes we don’t have to say much ourselves, we just create an opportunity . . . they will start trading advice,” she says. “Older women who married early, for example, will tell younger mothers, ‘I suffered a lot. Try to do better for your daughter’.”

With more funding, the IRC hopes that the women’s tents could even offer a base to help them organise small business ventures to support their families.

Fatima’s mother is learning to speak up too, before her younger daughter faces the same fate as her sister. “I thought I had no friends, I was afraid of the world . . . Now I’m responding to my husband. The last time he tried to beat her, I spoke up.”

She smiles and adds, almost in disbelief: “He actually listened. I got a result.”