At first glance, she looks like an ordinary middle class successful Arab woman with a quirky sense of humor. Lubna*, 26, is a refugee from Syria. She is an International Medical Corps mental health worker. She meets with around 20 people in need of care every day in the Bekaa Valley. After office hours, her phone keeps ringing off the hook. She answers her patients with genuine care and dedication.
Lubna embraced dissent from the age of 18. She was an anomaly in her community, refusing to be financially dependent on her parents and deciding to work as a first responder in a local nongovernmental organization. She earned her own living while pursuing her university studies in psychology. Encouraged by her mother and inspired by the writings of two Arab feminists; Nawal Sadaoui and Ahlam Mousteghanemi, Lubna resisted the oppressive patriarchal society she lived in. “On weekends, I would go on a trip with male friends. Some people found my behavior provocative,” she notes.
But the young woman was also a rising star in Syria. Known as a “guardian angel” among her community in Yarmouk, a district of Damascus, she volunteered her time to humanitarian work by treating people with mental health issues and raising awareness regarding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). When she was eight, her younger sister was diagnosed with ASD.
“Living with an autistic sister is hard enough, especially in a culture in which the stigma surrounding autism still runs high,” she says. Traditional values that lead her parents to a feeling of shame triggered her interest in ASD and determination to help people affected by this disorder.
“I decided that I should make a change and bring my community to the idea that if there is something unusual about its child, they should not conceal it or be ashamed or even avoid helping them,” she admits. “Seeing my sister suffer without help available prompted my interest in helping other people with autism. If we had awareness and a better understanding of autism, I am sure my sister Hanan* could have been successful in life,” she continues. As she took care of Hanan, she felt that she was well-equipped to deal with ASD-affected people. “It is not fair for Hanan because she lived in a country that lacked experts in the field,” she regrets. With her rebellious spirit and active engagement, she believes she has won the fight against the existing cultural taboo to get mental health care, at least in her surroundings. “Today I am proud of myself because I succeeded in changing mindsets,” she says.
In the spring of 2012, Lubna gradually started to bear the brunt of the war. She was in her last year of a Master’s program in psychology. In May 2012, a student demonstration erupted while she was at school. She did not take part in the protest, but the brutal crackdown on students she witnessed made her flee the scene out of fear of being targeted.
“I found shelter in a room and a teacher there thought I was actively taking part in the march. He blackmailed me to either accept sex or have him contact the police.” She fled the scene and decided to leave university to avoid problems. In September 2012, she traveled to Beirut to register at a university. “I decided to finish my Master’s degree on psychology by attending an online degree program at a Lebanese university. I didn’t want to leave my country so I thought I could do it remotely.”
However, the unrest intensified in Syria. Lubna’s neighborhood fell under siege and she lost her job as a mental health worker with an international organization. “I could no longer reach my patients because of the checkpoints. We were totally forbidden from going out of Yarmouk. No food was coming in. Chronic food shortages lead to widespread malnutrition and hunger. My brother Tarek* lost 140 pounds.”
Lubna also witnessed clashes and bombing. “In December 2012, I was close to Abdel Qader Husseini mosque when a rocket hit it. Many people were killed. I ran to find survivors and heal their injuries.” Despite the horror, the young woman refused to attempt to leave Syria. “It was very tough. Yarmouk was completely sealed off. We were living without water, electricity, communication with the outside world, and food. If you ever tried to leave to buy badly needed food, your life would be endangered. Snipers were everywhere. But despite the warning signs, I didn’t want to leave. I love Yarmouk and I could not live somewhere else.”
In March 2013, Lubna got a special permit to leave Yarmouk to take her mid-term exams in Beirut. During her stay there, the security situation worsened in Syria, and she could not return. “It was the most difficult time of my life. I had no news of my family. I only followed the news of Syria on a Facebook page created by Yarmouk activists who covered events from outside the neighborhood.” Lubna stayed with friends for a few days but quickly wanted to be alone. “I spent a night on the beach, another night in an abandoned building. I felt I had to be strong. It was a matter of survival.”
After a few weeks, with no news from her family in Yarmouk, which was now under siege, Lubna started to look for a job in Beirut. It was her “temporary center of life” she thought. She worked for an international organization as a mental health worker. After work hours, she participated in fundraising activities for her fellow refugees and Yarmouk residents. “Our predicament is extremely severe. Many people are displaced without aid and in Yarmouk people are starving. I had to do something. With some friends, we created a Facebook page to raise funds for Yarmouk. I contacted my friends in the Gulf who put me in touch with potential donors. We were able to raise some money, and it’s continuing.”
In June 2013, Lubna got the news that Yarmouk is open. “It was a heart-stopping moment. I ran joyfully and took the first bus to the Lebanese-Syrian border,” she recalls. “I arrived home and found out that Tarek was arrested four months ago with no news about him. My father was in a bad shape, and my mother, concerned about my autistic sister, left to another neighborhood.” Lubna’s father did not want to leave. “He was afraid that thugs would barge into his supermarket and take it. He was also hopeful to hear from Tarek and wanted to be reached in case there is news about him.”
Lubna decided to return back to Beirut, get back to her previous job, make a living, and support her parents financially who are no longer working. “I took the most valuable things with me: my books and our plates to remember precious family moments and our meals together.” In the fall of 2013, while she was attending a meeting for Syrian refugees, an International Medical Corps representative notified her of a vacant position in the Bekaa Valley. She applied and was offered the position.
Today, Lubna’s family is split up. In September 2014, her parents received the news that her brother was killed by his unknown kidnappers. They could no longer stay in Syria. Her father took a fishing boat with a group of other Syrians to flee. “He almost fell off the boat but he finally made it to Europe,” she says. Her mother and sister with ASD visited her in Beirut and flew to Europe to join her father. “Last October, I took them to the airport. It was a heartbreaking moment. I felt that our tragedy started the moment I waved goodbye to my mother and sister at the airport. It meant we will not return to Syria any time soon.”
Driven by her own experience, Lubna decided to fully dedicate her career to helping her fellow Syrian refugees and others struggling with trauma. “Because of what I went through, I want to bring healing to myself and to my patients. When I am with my patients, it is their pain and their feelings that matter, not mine. When I am alone, I read Mahmoud Darwish’s poems. Poetry is my therapy for psychological well-being,” she explains.
Her hope for the future? “I hope to go back one day to Syria and to have my own psychosocial clinic where I will provide Syrian victims of the conflict with psychological support. This is the way to make me feel I would help Tarek. I don’t want to return to Syria now. I am afraid to put my leg on a spot where Tarek may be buried.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of those featured in this post