Beirut: For about four years, Sarah has gone around her community in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon speaking with fellow female Syrian refugees who have been victims of sexual violence, comforting them and telling them about local services.
Her advice comes from the heart – having being raped twice herself – but Sarah, like many other women, has kept these attacks secret.
Although aid agencies have warned thousands of female refugees in camps or on the move live in fear of violence, including rape, many victims are too traumatised to speak out so women like Sarah are being trained to step in and give support.
Sarah, 34, described a day in the first year of the Syrian civil war when she had to leave the Homs apartment she shared with her four children and husband to seek shelter in a basement with her daughters, then aged 11 and three, and 20 other women.
But at first light, after a night of intense gunfire, a group of about a dozen armed men stormed the basement, ordering the women to take off their clothes and line up.
“My daughter was telling me ‘Please mom, for God’s sake please take off your clothes,'” Sarah said her 11-year-old daughter begged her, fearing the men would kill them.
Her daughter started to undress but Sarah stopped her.
“I took off my clothes, then came my turn,” said Sarah, her eyes welling up as she described the first time she was raped.
Homs, then Syria’s third largest city, was an early centre of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 that turned into a civil war, killing an estimated 465,000 people and forcing more than 11 million from their homes.
Sarah – whose name has been changed for security reasons – said that in the middle of the attack, a loud noise distracted the men and they ran out, allowing the women to escape.
Sarah found her husband and two sons and her family fled but, with gunfire surrounding them, a bullet struck one of her sons in the head, killing him immediately.
“I held his hand. My husband was saying ‘leave him’ … I left him there on the ground and ran. I kept looking back, but I had to flee,” she said, and her family left Syria a month later.
An unexpected life in Lebanon
The former clothing store owner arrived in Lebanon hoping for a safer life, but shortly after moving to the Bekaa Valley, Sarah was raped again.
This time the attacker was a Lebanese man who came to the door offering financial services when she was alone at home – a warehouse shared with other families – and he forced his way in.
“When he was done he started to spit on me. He told me ‘You Syrians are cheap,'” Sarah said, who was distraught at having been raped twice.
“I wanted to kill myself at first. Drink chlorine, cut my veins,” she said, but knew she had to be strong for her children.
Sarah didn’t tell anyone about the rape, not even her husband, fearing he would blame her and maybe even kill her to clean their family name – a so-called “honour killing”.
She lived in silence for about three months but then sought help from an international non-government organisation in her community that gave her counselling and eventually trained her on how to talk to survivors like herself.
Roula Masri, a senior programme manager at Abaad, a Beirut-based resource centre for gender equality, said there were many reasons why women did not report sexual violence or rape, ranging from honour killings to cultural shame.
Abaad last year recorded 861 reports of sexual violence in Lebanon based on security force figures, but campaigners fear the number is much higher, with thousands of vulnerable female refugees living in Lebanon.
Masri said Abaad now has around a dozen women like Sarah who volunteer with them and believe it creates a greater impact when the support comes from a peer who has faced a similar struggle.
Making a difference
Sarah said she found other female refugees struggling to deal with sexual assault really listened to her as she encouraged them to be strong and not feel guilty.
As well as giving one-on-one support, Sarah passes on information to them about groups like Abaad that provide services such as additional counselling and safe shelters.
“Our ultimate goal is to have women not only survive violence and then continue their lives as individuals, but have them mobilised in this driving force to really address violence against women,” said Masri.
Sarah said she has kept in touch with many of the women she has helped, saying they call her a role model and tell her they would have killed themselves if it wasn’t for her strength.
Personally she finds it hard to believe she’s moved past her pain by counselling others but has no plans to stop.
“I feel like I did something good and I have to spread this message to every woman that is in need of this,” said Sarah.
“These words give me power. I really live by these words.”