BEIRUT — For the first few weeks of her job recycling garbage, Haela Kalawi often went home crying.
It wasn’t just the grungy setting a dimly lit, airless basement where the 31-year-old refugee with a cherubic face slips on plastic gloves and digs into trash-filled containers. It was that as a traditional housewife in Syria, Kalawi grew up believing it was shameful for women to work outside the house. In those days, she wasn’t even allowed to shop for her own clothes or choose what to watch on TV.
Now, in a slum in Beirut, Lebanon, Kalawi is the breadwinner for the family’s four children. She has to be her husband went missing in the civil war back home three years ago. While she still misses her old comfortable life, she has discovered a fortitude she didn’t know she had and discarded traditional notions of what a woman should be.
“I tell my children I’m the man of the family,” Kalawi says, sitting on one of the grey mattresses spread on the floor of the family’s small rented room. “I am the father and the mother. I’m the one who works. I’m the one who buys vegetables. I’m the one who takes them out, and brings them what they need.”
Across the world, women often bear the brunt of wars, such as the conflict in Syria. In Lebanon, about one-third of 240,000 Syrian refugee households are headed by women whose husbands traditionally the providers and protectors are dead, missing or chose to stay behind.
In exile, some of these women feel vulnerable to harassment and violence. However, others, like Kalawi, have become accidental agents of change in a region where it is still relatively rare for women to be leaders in the family.
Kalawi grew up in a conservative community where girls tended to marry young. By the time she was 15, she had already turned down several proposals. But when another stranger, 28-year-old Mohammed Dahla, asked to marry her, she agreed. They wed two months later.
“When I saw him, I liked him,” she said of her future husband.
She dropped out of the 10th grade, even though her husband wanted her to continue, and got pregnant.
She loved motherhood, but soon regretted having married so young. Her husband, feeling she neglected him for the children, became distant, spending evenings watching sports and the news on TV.
He had absolute say in the family. She spent her days cooking, cleaning and going over homework with her older children.
Kalawi’s sheltered existence ended with the civil war. In August 2013, her uncle, his wife and their adult son were killed in a rocket attack. Two cousins later died in rocket and mortar strikes. The couple decided to flee.
Kalawi and the children moved to her grandparents’ home in Damascus, and her husband was to follow once he’d sold the car and other belongings. Instead, he disappeared, a fate shared by thousands snatched from homes and streets by combatants on both sides.
The first months without him were rough.
“I would cry every day for him,” she recalls. “He was my anchor. When he was missing, I felt I have no one, I can go nowhere, I can do nothing.”
When the fighting escalated, the family fled to Lebanon in May 2015. There, Kalawi joined her widowed mother, her divorced aunt and her 20-year-old cousin, whose husband has been missing since he was seized by Syrian intelligence four years ago.
The women, with 10 children among them, live in small rooms arranged around the dead end of an alley in a run-down neighbourhood of Beirut.
Kalawi was the most reluctant to work. Back home in Syria, she would criticize her mother for accepting even occasional jobs sewing bridal gowns.
“I was surprised that my daughter accepted to work,” says her mother, Wujdan Ghazal, 50, who makes $400 a month sewing mattress covers in a nearby shop.
Kalawi says the reason for her change of heart was simple.
“I needed money,” she says. “I hated to ask my mother for money.”
Now Kalawi works six days a week at Recycle Beirut, a company that collects glass, plastic and other materials from about 800 customers and stores it underground. She took her children to a seaside restaurant and an amusement park to celebrate her first paycheque.
Kalawi shares a single room with a daughter and three sons, ranging in age from four to 14. Clothes are stacked behind the door, with tissue stuffed into cracks in the splintered wood. A tiny window hardly lets in any light, and a bare light bulb stays on even during the day.
Money is always on her mind. She has sold her gold dowry over the past three years. Two months ago, she sold her husband’s wedding band. All that’s left is a gold pendant with her daughter’s name, which Kalawi says she’ll never sell because it’s the last link to Syria.
On a typical day, the younger children go to school, and Kalawi and her aunt leave their homes at 8:45 a.m, for a short walk to the recycling centre. There, they are joined by four of Kalawi’s cousins.
The owner has organized separate English classes for his male and female employees. On a recent Friday afternoon, Kalawi copied English verbs into a notebook. She caught on faster than the others, at one point impatiently correcting a cousin’s pronunciation. She looked pleased when the teacher praised her.
After work, the family gathers for a warm meal. The women are proud of their cooking skills and talk about setting up a home catering business, but need an investor.
In the evenings, after the children are asleep, Kalawi watches movies on her small TV, something she couldn’t always do in Syria because her husband controlled the viewing choices.
Kalawi dreams of returning home one day. But she prizes her independence and wouldn’t want to remarry. “I married when I was 15 and I was suppressed,” she says. “I had no personality, no point of view, I had to say ‘yes, yes, yes’.”
“Now, I have a personality, I rely on myself,” she adds. “I used to feel shy about everything. Now I talk freely. I participate. The ones who knew me in my old days would be surprised if they see me today.”