UK aid and the IRC: providing a safety net for Syrian women in Lebanon

Syrian and Lebanese women hold up a fishing net made as part of a project funded by UK aid in Lebanon. Pictures: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

UK aid and the IRC: Providing a safety net for Syrian women in Lebanon

A group of women sit cross-legged in a circle, chatting and laughing, sometimes even breaking into song, all the while delicately weaving together a giant fishing net with needles and hooks.

It may look like a traditional image of women from a bygone age, but it’s not.

These Syrian refugees and Lebanese women are learning how to make fishing nets, because it’s a skill which will hopefully help them find work along Lebanon’s northern coast — an area reliant on its fishery but which suffers the highest unemployment rates in the entire country.

Learning how to knit fishing nets might not seem the most urgent priority for refugees who have fled Syria’s civil war. But providing people with skills and tools like this to help them find work is a vital way to help them be able to support themselves.

The scheme is being run as part of a co-operative supported by the International Rescue Committee with funding from UK aid. IRC is one of many aid agencies that the UK is supporting to provide assistance to thousands of refugees like these across Lebanon, as well in other countries in the region, and inside Syria itself.

Nahed is from Homs in Syria. She fled to Lebanon with her husband and young daughters, but her older sons remained behind.

“I was living happily there before the conflict started”, she says.

“But after it began, the situation became too dangerous. We decided to come to Lebanon, because I was afraid for my children. They were traumatised by what they had seen and heard.”

“The cooperative and IRC offered us this work making fishing nets here. The training is good, it’s great.

“I hope to be able to sell the nets to get some income, to be able to support my family.”

The women also learn how to finish nets by sewing weights and floats to them. The nets are then ready for sale to local fishermen. There’s certainly an art to the craft; it takes months of practice to become expert. But once fully trained it is possible for one woman to knit a 100-metre (300 foot) long fishing net in just three hours.

Amani*, aged 24, was a teacher in Syria. When the conflict started her school had to shut as it wasn’t safe. She taught students in her home for a while but over time that became unsafe too. Eventually she too fled to Lebanon with her husband and young child.

“All I really want to do is go back to Syria”, says Amani. “As soon as the conflict is over I will pack my bags and go home.

“This training is good. There are lots of fishermen in the region I’m from in Syria, so even if I can’t work as a teacher, I might be able to make fishing nets instead.”

Riyan*, aged 19, is another member of the scheme - but unlike most of the other women, she’s from northern Lebanon. She is in college but is also receiving the fishing nets training as part of the co-operative. She wants to go to university and is hoping that the income she can make from selling nets will help her to pay for her studies.

Some UK-funded aid programmes are supporting both Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese citizens, in order to help community relations in the country. More than a quarter of Lebanon’s population is now made up of Syrian refugees, meaning there is huge pressure on — and competition for — jobs and services.

The UK has committed over £1.1 billion to help those affected by the conflict in Syria — our largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.

In addition to livelihoods projects like this one, UK funding is providing support including food, medical care and relief items for over a million people — those who have been affected by the fighting but are still inside Syria and those who have fled the country and become refugees in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

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