Beirut, Lebanon - Safa Bashar al-Shtawi, 21, was three months into her pregnancy and anaemic when she needed to find a job. The young mother-to-be had escaped the shelling near her former home in the Sbeineh Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus in the spring of 2013.
Together with her husband, mother, and in-laws, the family of eight found their new home last April in a three-room apartment that includes a kitchen and bathroom, in southern Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp. The monthly rent: $400.
Desperate for income, Shtawi walked for three hours every day, approaching one business after another, to ask if they would hire her. She persisted through frequent dizzy spells caused by exhaustion and anaemia, but time after time, she was met with rejection.
"It was such a tough time," Shtawi says of the transition. "I was pregnant. My husband didn’t have a job. We had no money and it was very difficult to find work." Five months later, a school near her home was looking for a kindergarten teacher, but at eight months pregnant, the school refused to hire her because she was due to give birth.
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Shtawi is one of thousands of Syrian women who face employment barriers and harsh working conditions in Lebanon, according to a recent study by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Surveying more than 2,000 refugees, the ILO found that women are "particularly vulnerable to unemployment", and noted that, "In many cases, women have become the household’s main breadwinners, yet they face major obstacles in accessing work, including limited opportunities, the burden of family and childcare, and poor skills – all of which curtail their productive capacity".
When Syrian women do find work, the ILO report says that they earn significantly less than their male counterparts, who are already earning 40 percent less than Lebanon’s minimum wage ($448 per month). On average, a male Syrian refugee earns $287 monthly, while women earn 63 percent less, with $165.
When we know there is a Syrian working without a permit, we ask the business owner to stop employing them, but we cannot wage war against them.
Lebanon's Labour Minister Sejaan Kazzi said Syrians are not entitled to a minimum wage, and those registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) are not permitted to work because they already receive monthly cheques from the UN of approximately $200, depending on the size of their family.
Kazzi told Al Jazeera he is aware that many Syrian refugees are working illegally in Lebanon, but there is little the government can do to stop them. Many enter the country through illegal border crossings, making it difficult to track their movements, and Syrian refugees are attractive to Lebanese employers precisely because they are not protected by Lebanon’s minimum wage law, he said.
"What can we do?" Kazzi added. "When we know there is a Syrian working without a permit, we ask the business owner to stop employing them, but we cannot wage war against them."
Lebanon issued 1,752 work permits to Syrians in 2013. Although the government lacks concrete data showing how many Syrian refugees are employed in the informal labour market, Kazzi believes there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians working illegally in Lebanon.
The ILO report supports the labour minister’s estimate, finding that 92 percent of Syrian refugee workers do not have a formal contract and that many are employed on a seasonal, weekly or daily basis. Nearly half of them - 45 percent - work in unskilled jobs such as farm labour, driving, and custodial and domestic work. About 43 percent work in semi-skilled jobs such as carpeting, metal works, and food processing.
The report points out that approximately 70 percent of women tend to be employed in unskilled positions while men have more opportunities in the semi-skilled labour market, including wholesale and retail trade. Only four percent of Syrian workers are represented in higher skill-level occupations that require a college degree, according to the ILO.
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Ghada al-Khous, 36, has been living in the suburbs of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon since November 2013 with her three children, aged 11, 13, and 16. She used to buy oils and essences to make perfumes and sell them in her hometown of al-Zabadani, north of Damascus near the Lebanese border. Her husband delivered gas tanks to households.
After her family’s village came under the control of rebel forces, and violence became frequent, the family moved to Damascus before leaving Syria for Baalbek. "I get nightmares," said Khous. "Whenever I am reminded of the war in Syria, I get cramps and panic attacks, and I am unable to talk."
In Baalbek, she tried to re-start her perfume business, but didn’t find a market for it. She also lacked the needed capital, raw materials, and equipment (totalling about $300). And so, like Shtawi, Khous set out on foot, knocking on shopkeepers’ doors, in the hopes of getting hired. After several months without a job, she has now found occasional work cleaning people’s homes, and works from one to 10 days each month, earning about $10 a day.
She gets her 13-year-old son to sell used clothing - his income is about the same as hers - but refuses to let her 16-year-old daughter work, fearing that she may be sexually harassed.
Such concerns are not uncommon, according to Roula Masri, manager of the gender equality programme at the Abbaad Resource Centre for Gender Equality in Beirut. Masri said that some of her clients have complained about being sexually harassed at work, particularly if their employers know that the women are living without a husband.
I did not think that coming to Lebanon would be this difficult. I wish I could go back to even one-third the level of life we had in Syria.
Masri explained that many Syrian women, particularly from rural areas, never had to work or even leave their houses before coming to Lebanon, and that being thrust into the role of primary breadwinner is not always welcomed.
"We thought it might be empowering for the women, but they think it’s an extra burden," Masri said. "They still have to take care of their children and all the household responsibilities, as well. So, they are not in favour of this change in their role."
Khadija al-Khatib, 55, is also struggling. She came to Lebanon after her husband was killed when their home was bombed during clashes between Syrian government and opposition forces. While the family once sold eggs and pressed olive oil on their farm in Daraa, Khatib is now unable to find work.
"It’s a very bitter feeling," she said of every time she gets turned down for a job. "I did not think that coming to Lebanon would be this difficult. I wish I could go back to even one-third the level of life we had in Syria."