Shyma and Israa have both taken upon themselves greater responsibilities than most girls their age. But their shared hardships fostered a great friendship. PHOTO: DRC / Sebastian Rich

Friendship is stronger than stereotypes

In Lebanon tensions are growing between Syrian refugees and local host communities who are both struggling to make ends meet. But two teenage girls discovered that despite different nationalities they had too much in common not to be friends.


”What is the normal range for someone’s blood pressure?” asks first aid teacher Mohammed Dandal.

“90 over 60,” a girl answers. 

Dandal goes on to show how to measure blood pressure using a sphygmomanometer. In front of him sit 10 teenage girls and young women with note pads and pens in front of them. It is the middle of July and schools are closed, but this group of students is attending classes in health and home care at DRC’s newly opened community center in Machta Hammoud, a village close to the border with Syria.

Among the students are Israa Dandal and Shyma Oayed, both 17 years old. Shyma is a refugee from Syria while Israa is Lebanese and from the area. But on the first day of the class the two girls discovered that their nationality might be the only thing they do not have in common.

“We met at the centre. Israa was telling the class that her father is sick. Then I told her that my mother also has a bad health condition,” says Shyma.

Israa adds: “From the first day we felt we had a lot in common. Our parents being very sick brought us closer. We share the same concerns and worries. Every day, when we meet on the bus on our way to the centre, we talk about our parents’ health.”

Israa Dandal Lille

Israa Dandal says she has always dreamed of becoming a nurse. PHOTO: DRC / Sebastian Rich

Both girls have from early age had to care for sick parents. Shyma’s mother has osteoporosis, a very serious bone-eating disease, which among other things have affected her vision. In 2011, shortly after the war broke out, her parents decided to leave Syria.

“If my mom’s situation deteriorated, we couldn’t take her to the hospital because of the shelling,” she says.

Shyma 17 yrs Syrian

Shyma Oayed's parents left Syria to make sure her mother, who is sick with osteoporosis, could get treatment. PHOTO: DRC / Sebastian Rich 

Shyma, then 11 years old, didn’t want to leave her school and friends and initially stayed behind with her grandparents, but a year later, they were also forced to flee as well.

“It was very hard to leave my country. I left everything there and came to Lebanon,” says Shyma and explains that the worst part was leaving school. It took three years before she was able to continue her studies, and she was starting to lose hope that she would ever be able to get an education. Now she is doing everything she can in order to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a nurse.

“Nurses are essential in people’s lives. Helping those who are sick is a humanitarian mission,” she says when asked about her career dreams.

Israa nods. Having to care for her father has also added to her desire to become a nurse and they are both grateful for the skills they are learning at DRC’s center.

“Caring for our parents, we are taking a big responsibility at a young age,” says Israa: “Now, we are able to measure blood pressure and temperature. Our parents took care of us when we were children - now it is our turn to help them. It is like we are returning the favour.”

Both girls have roles and responsibilities that go beyond most girls their age. For them the classes are both essential in their everyday lives and useful in their pursuit of future careers. But the class has also had a third advantage – bringing them together and bringing down stereotypes.

Throughout the past six years, Lebanon has taken the highest number of Syrian refugees compared to its size. More than one out of five of the population is a refugee and especially the areas bordering Syria have absorbed vast numbers of families fleeing the violent conflict. This has put a major strain on these areas, which are also the country’s poorest. Syrians desperately looking for ways to feed their families are willing to work for less than the local causing growing frustrations in the Lebanese community.

Neither Shyma nor Israa are deaf to the frustrations expressed through slander and hostility in both the refugee and host community but it’s important to them, not to let it impact their friendship.

“We are friends, we don’t care about these stereotypes,” says Israa who believe that fostering friendly relations are vital: “Friendships between Lebanese and Syrians relieve tensions. When both sides get to know each other well, they overcome the stereotypes.”


DRC’s Community Centers

Northern Lebanon is the poorest region in the country. The large influx of Syrian refugees has put a major strain on the local economy. Both refugees and the host population are fighting to meet vital needs such as health care, shelter and food. The pressure on the host community is increasingly creating tensions. To support the areas that have received the vast majority of Syrian refugees, the Danish Refugee Council supports the most vulnerable families among both refugees and local host population.

In our Community Centers both refugees and members of the local communities can receive help and assistance. The centers provide safe havens for children and women, which are vital to ensure the integration of the displaced in the host communities. In addition, the centers offer different activities and trainings depending on the requests from its users.

The DRC has activities in 30 Community Centers across the MENA region – several of the centers have been supported by the Ole Kirk Foundation.