Her head wrapped in a black and white keffiyeh – a scarf traditionally worn as a headdress by Arab men – Alya makes her way confidently between the tents of an informal settlement in the northern Bekaa Valley region of Lebanon.
The 50-year-old refugee from Syria checks on the other refugees in the settlement. She is the leader around here, also known as the “shawish”, a role traditionally assigned to refugee men supervising and managing informal tented settlements in Lebanon.
“This gives me strength,” she said proudly.
In Arabic, “shawish” – a masculine word – has been used to refer to men managing foreign labour in Lebanon. But since the onset of the Syria conflict and the influx of more than a million refugees into the country, the word has found a new meaning.
In informal tented settlements, a shawish is the person nominated by other refugees to act as the settlement supervisor and decision-maker. Most of the shawish in Lebanon are men.
Ayla’s role is exceptional, and she attributes her leadership qualities to her upbringing. “I get my strength from my father,” she said. “He taught us to be strong, to stand up for our rights. Even if a man is arguing then we should reply.”
Born and raised in a traditional and patriarchal society, Alya said her father inspired her to be brave. “He was criticized by everyone, including his own brothers, but he really wanted his daughters to be equal to men.”
Alya, a single woman, fled Syria with her three sisters and orphaned nephew more than five years ago. They crossed to Lebanon from the bordering region of Qusayr, seeking refuge in the northern Bekaa Valley. They settled in a small informal tented settlement with about six other refugee families, most of them headed by women who had lost their partners to the war.
While in some refugee settlements the position of shawish can lead to exploitation, Alya is different.
"I would never trade her for a male shawish."
“They all wanted me to be the shawish,” she explained. “They said I could manage and preside over the settlement and attend meetings.” Alya’s job involves her acting as a focal point with local organizations and the authorities, as well as UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and other UN bodies.
Alya ensures that aid is equally distributed among the refugees in the settlement. “If there are any conflicts between refugees then I bring them together and solve the issue,” she explained. The refugees love her, men and women confide in her, and her door is always open to those wishing to pass by for a coffee or a chat.
“She is our mother,” said Bakra, a single mother-of-two residing in the settlement. “She is so calm and respectful of everyone, we trust her, I would never trade her for a male shawish.”
Alya rarely leaves the settlement. She cannot work as she has been suffering from high blood pressure and a heart condition, preventing her from working in farming, where her sisters and most other refugees in the area make ends meet.
When she is not managing the settlement, she takes care of her nephew who lost both of his parents to the war. “My sisters support us, but it’s hard. There is a lot to pay for and not enough income.” Alya is among the many vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who after years in temporary exile are struggling to make ends meet.
She does not get paid to do her job as a shawish, “I do it to help others,” she said. “It can be challenging sometimes but it gives me a tremendous sense of purpose and pride.”