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Can Pop-Up Men’s Centers Help Curb Male Aggression Among Syrian Refugees?

The nonprofit Concern is trying to stop domestic violence by starting at the source: refugee men who’ve lost everything

After food, shelter and basic sanitation comes… gender studies?

For the ABAAD Resource Centre for Gender Equality in Beirut, this is a no-brainer. After research published in 2013 revealed the high levels of domestic violence among Syrian refugees resettled in Lebanon, the organization has brought its services to dozens of refugee communities throughout the country.

While ABAAD’s programs have long focused on the needs of girls and women by offering support to survivors of sexual and domestic violence, a newer ABAAD initiative, backed by international humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide, is bringing discussion groups and therapy to refugee men, in an effort to address the roots of male aggression.

“Men in refugee populations can no longer play the traditional, patriarchal masculine roles such as that of provider or that of protector,” explained Anthony Nabil Keedy, the psychologist who manages ABAAD’s Masculinities Program. “Self-esteem becomes directly tied to our ability to play those roles and an inability to play them comes with a lot of psychological trauma.”

The need for male-oriented programming was made clear by the women accessing ABAAD’s services, according to program associate Saja Michael. “Women in our centers would tell us, ‘Okay, I am aware of my rights. I know my husband does not have the right to tell me where to go and what to do. But at the end of the day I’m not the one making decisions for the household, my husband is. Why don’t you talk to him?’ And this was when the lightbulb switched on for us.”

In 2012 the organization set up a permanent men’s center in Beirut; it offers one-on-one counseling and group therapy as well as stress and anger management that men can attend anonymously. But with few refugees having the money or the paperwork to travel, ABAAD decided to take its services on the road.

So far, men’s groups have been held in 45 different Syrian refugee communities. Rather than dive straight into Gender Studies 101, they start by asking what they’re most angry about today. “Men run away from anything to do with feminism or women’s rights because that’s not our deal, that’s a women’s issue, right?” said Keedy. “So I tend to start the sessions as anger management sessions. We’ll discuss the stresses in our lives and then I’ll say ‘Well, okay, do the women have the same stresses?’ They’ll say, ‘No, they have different stresses,’ and they’ll start talking about those, and little do they know but they are already having the gender discussion.”

Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Panos Pictures for Concern Worldwide

In the meantime, said Keedy, “we help them see that taking on important domestic chores or taking a greater role in being a father can greatly increase their self-esteem and their value of themselves.”

The need to help survivors of conflict is nothing new in Lebanon. In a population of 5.9 million, around one in four people is a refugee, arriving over the years from Palestine, Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria. There are currently 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees living in Lebanon with the number of unregistered refugees estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Government policy means there are no formal refugee camps. Instead, people live in ad hoc shelters scattered across the country. The largest concentration is in the Bekaa Valley in the north, where ad hoc tented settlements are constantly appearing. Others live in collective shelters, or rent rooms in dilapidated apartment blocks, abandoned buildings, garages, warehouses and building sites across more than 1700 locations.

Until 2014 there was no law against domestic violence in Lebanon, and the new legislation is vague at best. It allows women to apply for a restraining order against an assailant or to request emergency accommodation — neither of which was previously possible — but critics have lambasted its hazy definition of domestic violence as well as the removal of a clause that criminalized marital rape.

A 2012 survey ABAAD conducted alongside the International Rescue Committee showed women were facing more domestic abuse since becoming refugees. For the men, the trauma of war, coupled with the struggle of having to start from scratch — with no status or income — was causing a masculinity crisis that ended in violence.

“Men are also socialized not to emotionally express, so we are more likely to act out risk-taking behaviours such as violence,” Keedy said.

For Tarek, a 35-year-old Syrian refugee who attended the Men’s Group in Halba, near the Syrian border, the message of how fear and hostility contributed to Syrian men being violent toward women really hit home.“There is absolutely no excuse, but we know it’s partly due to men losing their jobs, their status as providers, and because of the trauma they’ve been through witnessing terrible things in Syria,” he told an interviewer from Concern Worldwide who visited the project in December 2015.

Photo by Dalia Khamissy

Tarek himself has experienced that trauma, after fleeing Syria with his wife Zeinah and their three children after bombings destroyed their community. “We had everything we needed — a decent house, good education for our children, excellent health care and a peaceful way of life,” Tarek said. “It was a rural community and everyone knew one another.”

They walked for two days to reach Lebanon, where they now share a temporary apartment with two other families. Back home Zeinah, 28, taught primary school while Tarek supervised a dairy factory. Since arriving in Lebanon neither has been able to secure a job, and they constantly worry about losing what little they have. “Here we are always frightened. There is so much hostility towards Syrians.”

Since going through ABAAD’s program for men, Tarek feels like he’s been able to manage his stress and work on his relationship with his wife. “My friends tease me now I’ve done this course,” he said. “They call me a feminist. But men are so dominant in our culture, it’s time we let our wives make the decisions and take a far more dominant role.”

Zeinah agreed that it’s important for programming to target male trauma specifically: “Women have gone through these things too, but somehow we don’t succumb to feelings of anger in the same way as men. We don’t lash out so much. Perhaps we get depressed and say nothing. That’s not good either. I know many Syrian women who feel trapped by their situation here in Lebanon because their husbands have become more controlling.”

Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Panos Pictures for Concern Worldwide

Former shop-owner Khalid, who now lives in temporary accommodation with his wife and three children, has also taken part in the groups. “These sessions made us feel that someone cared for us on an emotional level,” Khalid told Concern’s interviewers. “This doesn’t happen often in our masculine society, where we are driven by the idea that we must be machines and provide for our families.”

For Keedy and his colleagues, this man-centered approach is the key to reducing gendered violence and improving the lives of women.

“There are initiatives to help provide shelter or safety or services for women who are survivors of the violence,” he said. “But the work also needs to be with men. It needs to be on them understanding how their violent behaviors negatively affect the family and negatively affect themselves. It’s teaching them about nonviolent communication and empathy and having them understand how empowering women and supporting women is something that’s good again for everyone concerned: for themselves, for the women, everyone.”

*Names have been changed.