BEIRUT (AP) — For the first few weeks of her job recycling garbage, Haela Kalawi often went home crying.
It wasn’t just the grungy setting – a dimly lit, airless basement where the 31-year-old refugee with a cherubic face slips on plastic gloves and digs into trash-filled containers. It was that as a traditional housewife in Syria, Kalawi grew up believing it was shameful for women to work outside the house. In those days, she wasn’t even allowed to shop for her own clothes or choose what to watch on TV.
Now, in a slum in Beirut, Lebanon, Kalawi is the breadwinner for the family’s four children. She has to be — her husband went missing in the civil war back home three years ago. While she still misses her old comfortable life, she has discovered a fortitude she didn’t know she had and discarded traditional notions of what a woman should be.
“I tell my children I’m the man of the family,” Kalawi says, sitting on one of the gray mattresses spread on the floor of the family’s small rented room. “I am the father and the mother. I’m the one who works. I’m the one who buys vegetables. I’m the one who takes them out, and brings them what they need.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series of profiles of Arab women who are agents of change in different countries and areas of life.
Across the world, women often bear the brunt of wars, especially those fought in populated areas with high rates of civilian casualties and displacement – as has been the case in the Middle East.
Syria’s conflict has uprooted half the country’s population, including many women. In Lebanon, about one-third of 240,000 Syrian refugee households are headed by women whose husbands – traditionally the providers and protectors – are dead, missing or chose to stay behind.
In exile, some of these women feel vulnerable to harassment and violence, leaving their homes less than they did in Syria, according to a 2014 study by the U.N. refugee agency. However, others, like Kalawi, have become accidental agents of change in a region where it is still relatively rare for women to be leaders in the family.
“The great wars in Europe significantly contributed to the recognition of the woman in society,” said Killian Kleinschmidt, who used to run Jordan’s largest camp for Syrian refugees. “And so there is hope that amongst the evil, at least the society in the Middle East will gain, changing the role and importance of women.”
Kalawi grew up with a sister and three brothers in Eastern Ghouta, a densely populated, predominantly Sunni Muslim suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Girls in the conservative community tended to marry young. By the time Kalawi – pretty with pale eyes – was 15, she had already turned down several proposals. But when another stranger, 28-year-old Mohammed Dahla, asked to marry her, she agreed. They wed two months later.
“When I saw him, I liked him,” she said of her future husband.
She dropped out of the 10th grade, even though her husband, a lawyer, wanted her to continue. The following school year, he re-enrolled his young wife and bought the needed books, but she got pregnant and stayed home instead.
She loved motherhood, but soon regretted having married so young. Her husband, feeling she neglected him for the children, became distant, spending evenings watching sports and the news on TV. “We wouldn’t do many activities together. He wasn’t rude, he was very good to me, but he was not the same,” she says.
Her husband had absolute say in the family. She spent her days cooking, cleaning and going over homework with her older children. She rarely left the apartment, except on Fridays, a weekend day for Muslims, when the family would go on picnics or visit relatives.
Kalawi’s sheltered existence ended with the civil war between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebels trying to topple him. Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold, was hit by heavy shelling. In August 2013, Kalawi’s uncle, his wife and their adult son were killed in an attack with rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. Two cousins were later killed in rocket and mortar strikes. The couple decided to flee.
Kalawi and the children moved to her grandparents’ home in Damascus, and her husband was to follow once he’d sold the car and other belongings. Instead, he disappeared, a fate shared by thousands snatched from homes and streets by combatants on both sides.
The first months without him were rough.
“I would cry every day for him,” she recalls. “He was my anchor. When he was missing, I felt I have no one, I can go nowhere, I can do nothing. I felt like an intruder at my grandparents’ house.”
Kalawi stayed in Syria for another year and a half to keep the children in school. But when the fighting escalated, the family fled to Lebanon in May 2015. There, she joined her widowed mother Wujdan Ghazal, her divorced aunt Razan Ghazal, and Razan’s 20-year-old daughter Aisheh, whose husband has been missing since he was seized by Syrian intelligence four years ago.
The women, with 10 children among them, live in small rooms with three separate entrances, arranged around the dead end of an alley in Ouzai, a run-down neighborhood of Beirut.
Razan, 40, was the first of the women to move to Ouzai, after shelling destroyed her apartment in Syria four years ago. She’s the brash one, the go-getter in the family. She says that’s because she’s had more experience as the breadwinner; her husband walked out 15 years ago, leaving her to provide for four children.
Even Razan was taken aback when she first walked into Recycle Beirut, a company that collects glass, plastic and other materials from about 800 customers and stores it underground in Ouzai. But Razan needed work, and at $120 for a 36-hour week, the pay was higher than what she could make in other unskilled jobs.
Owner Kassem Kazad, a descendant of Palestinian refugees who was sympathetic to the displaced Syrians, asked her to recruit five more women. Razan says her niece was the most reluctant among her female relatives and initially refused to work, despite repeated appeals.
Back in Syria, Kalawi would criticize her mother for accepting occasional jobs sewing bridal gowns. The mother argued at the time that creating gowns was more of a hobby than a job, but her daughter felt strongly that women shouldn’t work, even for fun.
“I was surprised that my daughter accepted to work,” says Wujdan, 50, who makes $400 a month sewing mattress covers in a nearby shop.
Kalawi says the reason for her change of heart was simple.
“I needed money,” she says. “I hated to ask my mother for money.”
She works six days a week. Her first paycheck was a cause for celebration, and she took her children to a seaside restaurant and an amusement park to mark the occasion.
In Ouzai, Kalawi shares a single room with a daughter and three sons, ranging in age from four to 14. They sleep on mattresses on the floor that convert to sitting cushions during the day.
Clothes are stacked behind the weather-beaten dark red entrance door, with tissue stuffed into cracks in the splintered wood. A tiny window near the ceiling hardly lets in any light, and a bare light bulb stays on even during the day.
Kalawi pays $100 a month, steep for the no-frills space, but fairly typical in a market where demand by refugees has sharply driven up rents.
Money is always on her mind. The family gets $27 per person in monthly U.N. food vouchers. Muayyad, her oldest son at 14, earns $50 a week working with his grandmother in the mattress store.
Kalawi has sold her gold dowry over the past three years. Two months ago, she sold her husband’s wedding band, leaving her only with a gold pendant worn by her 11-year-old daughter that spells Marwa’s name in English. Kalawi says she’ll never sell it because it’s the last link to Syria.
On a typical day, Kalawi wakes up around 7 a.m. to get her 4-year-old son Izzedine ready. Kalawi’s half-brother, 11-year-old Hussein, who lives with her mother next door, walks him to school.
Marwa and 7-year-old Mohannad get to sleep a little longer because Lebanon schools operate second shifts to try to accommodate tens of thousands of refugee children. On a recent morning, Kalawi shook them awake in between taking sips of coffee.
Marwa, a bright, gangly girl with thick glasses and unruly ash blonde hair, is supposed to go over homework with her younger brother and tidy up while her mother is at work. Marwa says her chores are manageable, even if her brother doesn’t always listen to her. She doesn’t like her mother working, saying she wishes there was always someone at home.
Kalawi and her aunt leave their homes at 8:45 a.m., for a short walk to the recycling center.
There, they are joined by four of Kalawi’s cousins. The women change from their floor-length coats into black smocks, put on plastic gloves and start sorting refuse. Glass bottles go in one bin, plastic in another, paper in a third.
Kalawi says the banter between the women makes the work more bearable, though she worries about leaving two of her children alone for much of the day.
Kazad, the owner, says Kalawi and the other women have become more receptive to their new surroundings.
“They were thinking in a very conservative way,” he says. “Now they are communicating more with Europeans who come and volunteer with us.”
He’s trying to keep the company afloat after a Red Cross grant runs out at the end of the year, but fears he may have to lay off some of his 17 workers – 15 of them Syrian refugees.
Kazad has organized separate English classes for his male and female employees, who are accustomed to separate worlds back home. Once a week, the women stay behind after work for a lesson taught by a volunteer from Holland.
On a recent Friday afternoon, they sat on a tattered sofa and broken chairs in the back of the basement, surrounded by bags of empty glass and plastic bottles stacked to the ceiling. Kalawi bent over a coffee table and copied English verbs into a notebook, then looked to her teacher as she tried to pronounce the unfamiliar words.
Sixteen years after dropping out of school, she seemed eager to soak up new information. She caught on faster than the others, at one point impatiently correcting a cousin’s pronunciation. Kalawi looked pleased when the teacher praised her for memorizing the names for body parts they had learned in the previous lesson.
Much of the hour was spent in merriment and pantomime; the teacher barely spoke Arabic and the refugees didn’t know much English yet. Even Kalawi, typically somber and withdrawn, was infected by the giggles. The women barely took notice when a male American volunteer briefly sat in on the session.
Kalawi says that in Syria, she would have been very uncomfortable talking to a man she didn’t know.
She feels she needs to learn English to survive in exile and help her children with homework. She also wants to keep the respect of the precocious Marwa, who is in her second year of English at school.
After work, Kalawi walks home with her aunt, stopping along the way to buy food from street vendors.
At home, she briefly prays, prostrating herself in the Muslim ritual of worship. Little Izzedine clings to his mother as she moves around the room and starts to cook and the rest of the family returns home.
The family gathers for a warm meal in the evening. Kalawi is proud of her cooking skills, as are the other women in the family. Led by her aunt Razan, the women have started talking about setting up a home catering business, but need an investor.
In the evenings, after the children are asleep, Kalawi watches movies on her small TV, something she couldn’t always do in Syria because her husband controlled the viewing choices.
Like millions in the region who have been uprooted by fighting, Kalawi dreams of returning home one day. She misses her spacious apartment and worries her children will not get a proper education in Lebanon.
But she prizes her independence and wouldn’t want to remarry. “I married when I was 15 and I was suppressed,” she says. “I had no personality, no point of view, I had to say ‘yes, yes, yes’.”
“Now, I have a personality, I rely on myself,” she adds. “I used to feel shy about everything. Now I talk freely. I participate. The ones who knew me in my old days would be surprised if they see me today.”