From loss to leadership: How a woman in Lebanon is helping her community get clean water

woman sitting in chair
January 16, 2020

There was no clean water when Fatima, 40, and her family arrived at the settlement in Lebanon.

The closest water pump was 984 feet away. But even that short distance, equivalent to 3 city blocks, was a challenge for Fatima and women like her.

“We tried to go at night because it was so hot, and we had so many harassments we decided to do it only in the afternoon. It was dangerous,” Fatima says.

Fatima and her family, five children ranging from one to 12-years-old, came to Lebanon after fleeing Syria in 2012.It wasn’t until a year later that her husband was able to join them. The camp she and her family live in houses 300 people across 30 tents, but far too many people across the camp are struggling to meet their basic needs. When refugees first arrive at the camp, according to Fatima, their most critical needs are first shelter and then water.

“These are the major needs. For us, the bathrooms are more important even than the bedrooms, especially for us as women,” Fatima says.

Safety, again, makes access to clean water and restrooms even more challenging. Fatima recalls needing men in the camp to accompany her to restrooms where doors did not close properly and making toilets out of textiles with other women to help get around the safety risks.

Then, when Mercy Corps came to Lebanon and built latrines with doors that completely closed, Fatima once again felt safe. A feeling that she had gone without for too long.

Woman and child standing in doorway.
Fatima and her daughter, Nour, 8, stand outside of their tent home in Lebanon. Fatima, Nour and the rest of their family have been in Lebanon since 2012, after escaping violent conflict in their Syrian hometown.

Before the crisis in Syria began, Fatima’s family was thriving. Her husband worked in construction, all of her children were in school and, in Fatima’s words, her family had “every kind of support.” They didn’t need any assistance. They had a good life. They were happy.

Then, conflict broke out in her neighborhood.

Fatima knew it was time. Time to leave everything she and her family knew and had behind. After seven years, she still remembers it vividly.

“One night we were sitting there and heard a lot of shooting. When I went outside I saw about a dozen men lying in the streets, killed. I didn’t feel safe and decided that night to pack the whole family and leave,” Fatima says.

After crossing into Lebanon through the border, Fatima and her children settled in the camp they now call home. To protect the children from the truth, she told them they were visiting their uncle for a couple of days. Her uncle did host them for a little bit, while Fatima and her oldest child worked the fields near her uncle’s home, but then he told them they had to leave. That’s when she found the camp.

“The landowner was merciful; he took me and my children and hosted us here,” Fatima says.

Her children are no longer in school. Her husband is able to work for a couple days at a time, but is battling illness. There’s nothing left of the town she once called home.

When asked about how the changes in her children’s lives made her feel, she said: “Put yourself in my shoes and tell me how you would feel. Live a moment in my shoes and you can feel the pain I have for my children.”

A new home brings a new opportunity

Woman and child stand next to agricultural field.
Fatima hopes to one day return to Syria. Even though she calls Lebanon her home, she wants to return to her homeland. But, she’s not willing to return so long as Syria remains unsafe for her and her children.

Today, Fatima is working to make water, sanitation and hygiene programming more accessible to her fellow community members. She is the point-person for all things water, sanitation and hygiene across the camp’s five informal settlements, which house hundreds of Syrian refugees looking for safety and shelter.

Fatima started by distributing tickets that community members could exchange for water without compromising their safety. Fatima took it upon herself to visit people in the community to make sure they were getting their share of drinking water. If they weren’t, she went and got their water for them, leaving it at their doors.

Then, Fatima worked to bring more change to her community. This time, she worked to make sanitation more accessible.

After the camp expanded from a group of tents to an informal settlement, Mercy Corps installed latrines and tanks, providing a safe place for community members to use the restroom. Fatima and the owner of the land that the camp is on worked together to help ensure that everyone visiting the informal settlement is getting what they need.

“There was a discussion among me and the landowner about how to take care of the organizations that were coming. The landowner saw it was appropriate for me to be responsible for that because he knew I could do it. It’s a huge responsibility,” Fatima says.

People in Fatima’s community are thankful for the work that Fatima and Mercy Corps have done to make their home a healthier, safer and more secure place.

“People are very relieved to receive clean water… Now we’re able to take showers and do dishes and do all the stuff we need to do and feel safe,” Fatima says. Even though Fatima works tirelessly to improve her community, from taking trainings to better aid the settlements she’s responsible for, sludging and maintaining latrines, and holding educational sessions on sanitation and hygiene, her community is still in need of help. Extra latrine tanks are needed and so is maintenance on the older tanks that Mercy Corps had previously installed. Her community is also in need of food boxes, shelter for a family who is still living on the Lebanese sand and support for the widows in the camp. Fatima’s leadership is helping hundreds of Syrian refugees rebuild their lives and build healthier and more stable futures for themselves and their children. They’re grateful for not only Fatima and her leadership, but for Mercy Corps and their work to bring water to communities in need.

“...Now we’re able to take showers and do dishes and do all the stuff we need to do and feel safe. Whenever the trucks come everyone knows it’s from Mercy Corps,” Fatima says.

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