TRIPOLI: Being a refugee often means leaving everything behind. For many that means their house, clothes, friends and family. For some young women, it also means leaving behind dreams of falling in love and getting married.
“When we were kids we used to dream about love, but not anymore,” said Fatima Sultan, 25, who arrived in Tripoli with her family from Idlib, northwestern Syria, a month ago.
They are now staying in a small and stuffy apartment in the impoverished and often violent Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli.
With no prospects of returning to Syria or gaining employment in Lebanon, she sees marriage as the best way out of her predicament.
For the past few weeks, a 40-year-old divorced sheikh originally from Hama has been scouting the area in search of a Syrian bride. He has approached Sultan’s family with his intentions, and she says she is considering the offer, even though she doesn’t know the man – let alone love him.
“Maybe I’ll grow to love him after we get married,” said Sultan, shrugging, as she sits with her extended family on the floor of the cramped and stuffy apartment in a building riddled with bullet holes.
She is one of many Syrian women across the region whose families are being approached for marriage by older, wealthier men. As the fighting continues across the border, many women are left without their fathers and husbands, the family breadwinners.
Destitute women considering marriage to escape poverty is nothing new. But the problem can be particularly acute among refugees, a vulnerable population with few resources or connections in their host country.
Omar, who gives only his first name, hails from Idlib. He has been helping Syrian refugees, through the local branch of a Syrian-based charity, to meet their basic humanitarian needs since the unrest began two years ago.
He says that nearly a year and a half ago, when violence in Homs first broke out, he began getting requests from men searching for Syrian brides. Not all of them are wealthy, but most do have stable jobs – something the newly arrived refugees tend to lack.
Omar says these days he gets up to 20 inquiries a day from men looking for Syrian brides – never the other way around. It is typically men who approach his charity with their requests.
He says he has seen cases of men up to 65 years old looking to marry teenagers, and others whose motives are mainly financial or sexual and have no intention of staying married for long.
He is against the practice of such arranged marriages, Omar adds, and takes his job of helping Syrian refugees very seriously.
“In the beginning, we were just helping people with food and health care,” he said. “It’s really a shame. No one is doing anything to help them.”
He believes that some of the men seeking Syrian brides genuinely want to help the women and says they do their best to vet these men.
Not everyone agrees. Head of the Tripoli-based Bashaer Charity, Ahmad Mustafa Mohammad, refuses to have anything to do with marriage requests. He said he’s seen some individual cases of people seeking to arrange marriages with young Syrian women.
In one instance, an already-married Lebanese man from the north with seven children approached the charity saying he was looking for a young Syrian girl. Another time, a Syrian mother told Mohammad that she wanted to find a husband for her two teenage daughters.
“I tell them I don’t do this kind of work. We try to stay away from this,” he says. Otherwise, “If we involved ourselves, people would think we were peddling women.”
In the end, he adds, “It’s their choice. I can’t stop them.”
Dana Sleiman, communications officer at the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees, says they are doing as much as they can to raise awareness about the issue, although it can be difficult for them to reach young women or gauge the scope of the practice due to its sensitive nature.
“On our end, we’re doing as much as we can to discourage women from marrying early,” Sleiman says. “We’ve done awareness sessions with women and girls so they don’t feel like they need to resort to this.”
She adds, “It all comes down to economics. It’s not new to the environment, especially in a displacement setting.”
Omar says they do what they can to screen these men, some of whom he believes genuinely want to care for Syrian refugee women. He doesn’t think that the sheikh who wants to marry Sultan, for example, has good intentions, and has told her family so.
But some refugee families, despite their desperate situations, are still holding onto the hope that their daughters will find a real relationship rather than one based purely on practicality.
“I’ve heard about this a lot,” says Amni Mohammad, referring to the trend of men looking for Syrian brides.
With her 16-year-old daughter, Walaa, sitting by her side on the floor, she says: “I don’t want that for my daughter. I want her to marry someone she loves. His nationality isn’t important. What’s important is that he’s working or studying, doing something with his life and that he’s a real partner.”