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In Syria's continuing tragedy, dignity is the latest victim

Have you ever asked yourself what you'd do if you got really desperate? It's something Syrians are pondering with increasing frequency.

Have you ever asked yourself what you'd do if you got really desperate? It's something Syrians are pondering with increasing frequency.

One Syrian, Reema, a 21-year-old university student before the war in her country, is now doing a job she never imagined herself ever doing. "I am now a nanny, to three children of a Lebanese family," she told me over the phone.

Before the war, which has killed thousands and displaced over a million, Reema was studying to become a dentist. But her university has been bombed, leaving her future uncertain. No one really knows what happened to her records, and the records of many students just like her. Her dental career, it seems, is just another casualty. In fact, there isn't a single area of Syrian life that hasn't been touched or harmed in some way.

Now, Syrians' dignity is taking a hit.

Until the crisis, Reema always had big dreams. She recounted how she and her family fled from one neighbourhood to another in Damascus, until they decided it was no longer safe anywhere in the capital. "People were shooting everywhere, almost like they were not looking at any specific target, just firing," she said.

So the family fled to Lebanon. Lured by a promise of shelter by relatives, they've instead been forced to live in an old shack, with no electricity and no running water. "I couldn't shower because there was no water," Reema said. "I felt degraded and ashamed of how my life turned."

This is when a friend of mine comes into the story; upon seeing the poor living standards of a few Syrian refugees near her home in Tripoli, she decided to give a few of them jobs.

At first, when she told me the kind of jobs she gave Reema and two others, I felt sad. I couldn't imagine Reema being happy with a glorified title of a maid, and I can't imagine the other two - a cook and a driver - being happy either, especially when I learnt the cook had been a teacher in Aleppo, and the driver owned stores and was actually well off until the crisis.

But I know my friend, and I know her heart is in the right place. She gave them jobs so they could get back on their feet.

"Why should I hire someone from another country to do these jobs when there are Arab neighbours who are desperate for food and water?" my friend explained to me recently."I am giving them full trust, as there are no papers or agencies to back up any of their claims. But they are our brothers and sisters, and this is the best I can do for them now."

After so many stories of trafficking and abuse of women, of families fleeing to refugee camps, perhaps this is currently the best option for displaced Syrians, until things finally settle down in their country.

Reema might not be using her medical education, but at least she is safe, and making money. Other Syrians have it much worse. It is now common, for instance, to see Syrian children selling gum and tissue boxes on the side of Lebanese roads.

But life is ironic. During the Lebanese civil war roles were reversed; my friend's family fled and it was a Syrian family that opened their home. Both families emigrated to France, and didn't look back.

"If Arabs helped each other more, there would be a lot less misery," my Lebanese friend said.

Yet asking for and receiving help can cause its own set of troubles. In Reema's case, taking a housekeeping job might be viewed in a negative light. Stereotypes and stigmas in the Arab world stick; I wouldn't be surprised if by end of the war, Syrians who fled across the border to take these jobs will be discriminated against when they go home.

In Lebanon, for instance, many people talk disparagingly about domestic help. Rightly or wrongly, Reema and other Syrians will have to confront similar talk.

Perhaps a title change is in order. She is now the governess, like those in 19th-century English novels.

Or maybe we just need to change our perspective. Reema is safe. How many other Syrians, their lives in jeopardy on a daily basis, wouldn't trade places with her?

 

Rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @ArabianMau

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