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Building communities in Safe Spaces

Karima recalls the gruelling trip she took from Damascus to Cairo with her husband and three children. The family took a flight to Sudan, and then huddled in the back of a truck, along with three other families, headed to Aswan.

“It was a very dangerous route, and the driver was going extremely fast,” she recalls, “The wind was blowing away my headscarf, I couldn’t grab it because I was holding on to my son with both arms.”

The family spent five days on the hazardous road from Sudan to Aswan at the hands of smugglers, Karima says.

The 30-year-old and her family have been in Cairo for nearly two years, she says that she had no choice but to flee Syria and escape the “war and arrests.”

The UN has declared the Syria crisis the worst and largest humanitarian emergency in the 21st century. According to a UNFPA report, the nearly nine-year conflict has taken its toll on the Syrian population, leaving more than 11.7 million people inside Syria in need, with close to 5.7 million taking refuge in neighbouring countries throughout the region.

Of the 11.7 million in need of assistance, 5.9 are women and girls, according to the report, facing the highest risk of gender-based violence. Since the crisis, the report adds, women and girls seldom feel safe due to the increased risk of harassment, sexual exploitation, domestic and family violence, rape, and early and forced marriage.

According to UNHCR, 94 percent of the Syrian population in Egypt have been identified as either highly or severely vulnerable.

Sahar and her family also faced a similar ordeal. After fleeing Syria’s Ghouta, where she said they were trapped and left to starve, the 32-year-old headed to Damascus with her two daughters, from where they took a flight to Sudan and were smuggled to Aswan in the back of a truck.

“We saw death with our own eyes,” she recalls, “the driver was speeding and I almost lost my daughter to the wind.”

The stressful trip took them a week, Sahar says, during which they slept in the desert. They also had difficulty communicating with their smugglers.

“We couldn’t understand what they were saying,” she says, “they took our luggage and dumped it in the desert.”

Karima and Sahar are among the over 200,000 Syrian refugees living in Egypt. Shortly after they arrived to Egypt with their families, they were introduced to the Women and Girls Safe Spaces, supported by UNFPA.

The Safe Spaces are designed for women and girls where they can access gender-bsaed violence response services – including psychosocial, legal, and medical – as well as reproductive health services, and can also socialize and re-build their social networks, receive social support, acquire different skills.

Women and Girls have access to vocational training sessions, where they acquire different skills

UNFPA operates 11 Safe Spaces in seven governorates, hosted with implementing partners such as Care and Etijah, and within youth centres under the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Gender-based violence programming services and case management including psychosocial support, counselling, referrals for specialised needs, recreational and vocational activities and learning experiences have reached over 11,000 beneficiaries in 2018.

“Most of the women here know each other by now,” Karima says, “When we hear about Syrians who are new to the neighbourhood we encourage them to come to the Safe Spaces.”

Karima and her 17-year-old daughter Basma are regulars at the Safe Space in Obour, northeast of Cairo, where they participate in several activities. Karima attended psychological support sessions as well as self-defence classes.

She boasts about splitting a wood board in two with her bare hands.

“I signed it and I keep it at home,” she says proudly.

Both mother and daughter also attend vocational training sessions, where they acquired crochet skills. They both display and sell their products at exhibits or through WhatsApp groups, but 17-year-old Basma aspires to start her own project.

UNFPA Egypt’s humanitarian programme has responded to several crises in the region in recent years. The programme focuses on the provision of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and the prevention, protection and response to gender-based violence risk and consequences among the Syrian refugee population.

Aisha has been in Egypt for five years but has only recently learned about the Safe Spaces through other Syrian members of her community, and has since been a frequent visitor. She says she has made many new friends, including members of the host community.

For Aisha, the psychological support sessions have been the most beneficial.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to vent and release pent up energy,” she says.

The 25-year-old is very vocal during group sessions and credits herself for boosting her peers’ moral.

“I empower the other women in my groups,” Aisha explains, “I remember one of us was really upset one time and I kept joking around with her and made her laugh.”

The psychological support sessions were also useful for 33-year-old Roba.

“I came to Egypt, leaving behind a war so I was emotionally devastated because of the circumstances I was living under,” she explains, “I needed some support, I wanted to feel confident and strong and I wanted to empower myself.”

For Roba, the sessions were a chance to speak about many issues she says she had bottled up.

“I became bold enough to speak up, to see the world and form friendships,” she says.

*The names of the women have been changed to protect their privacy.