‘I have nothing’ cries Syrian child bride as poverty drives more refugee girls to wed

A young Syrian girl, holding a baby, poses for a photo at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek on Feb. 24, 2015. (AFP)
Updated 16 March 2018
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‘I have nothing’ cries Syrian child bride as poverty drives more refugee girls to wed

BEKAA VALLEY: As 17-year-old Aziza sat in her dark tent in a refugee camp, she rocked her baby while her tiny hands adjusted his pacifier, looking down at all she had left from two broken marriages.
Aziza’s parents arranged for her to marry her cousin when she was 14. Her mother, Rashida, said it was normal for girls her age to become brides in their Syrian tribe as it protected them from harassment and reduced pressure on the family budget.
“I regret that I got married,” Aziza, who declined to give her full name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as her eyes welled up with tears.
“The girls that are my age are now studying. They have ambition. I have nothing. I am totally destroyed.”
A growing number of girls among the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon since 2011 are becoming wives amid rising poverty, aid groups said on the eighth anniversary of the conflict.
Around one in five Syrian girls aged between 15 and 19 in Lebanon is married, according to the UN children’s agency (UNICEF), which fears more young girls will be married off by families that cannot afford food, rent and medicines.
More than three quarters of the refugees in Lebanon are living below the poverty line and struggling to survive on less than $4 per day, UNICEF said.
Kafa, a local rights group, is calling on Lebanon to pass a law to make 18 the minimum age for marriage.
There is no minimum age of marriage in Lebanon. Religious communities’ personal status laws can allow girls younger than 15 to marry, according to Human Rights Watch.
The rights group said Lebanon is behind many other countries in the region that have set 18 as the minimum marriage age, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia and the UAE.
“It is escalating ... because they are living in a very closed community,” said Salwa Al Homsi, a spokeswoman for Kafa.
“The parents, they cannot afford to support their children.”
Aziza lives with her mother, father and five siblings in a small tent covered in plastic sheets in eastern Lebanon’s fertile Bekaa Valley — home to more than 300,000 refugees, the most densely populated area of refugees in Lebanon.
They escaped their hometown of Aleppo five years ago.
“My life in Syria was beautiful,” said Aziza, whose small-frame and adolescent features make her look younger than her years — a striking image of a child holding a child.
“I used to go to school ... and wanted to be a doctor,” said Aziza whose favorite subject was Arabic.
Her father and two of her sisters earn about 6,000 Lebanese pounds ($4) a day, picking grapes and potatoes seasonally.
“I have four daughters, I can’t give them everything they need,” said Rashida, adding that poverty was one reason they decided that Aziza should marry her 17-year-old cousin.
Aziza said she did not oppose the marriage at first, but she divorced after one year because of troubles with her mother-in-law and moved back into her parents’ tent.
When other refugees in her community started to “gossip” about her because she was divorced, she said the shame drove her into a second marriage, aged 16, to a 30-year-old Syrian man.
“I didn’t like him. I only married him because people were talking,” she said from inside her family’s tent.
Aziza said she left the man after about a year because he physically abused her. “The younger a girl gets married, the more at risk she is of domestic violence,” said Jihane Latrous, a UNICEF child protection specialist.
“It is an extremely worrying factor because they aren’t able to deal with such situations.”
Nearly 35 percent of women aged 20 to 24 in Western Bekaa surveyed in 2016 were married before reaching 18, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
Beyond setting a minimum age for marriage, education of girls is key to break the cycle of poverty, said Latrous.
“The less this young generation is educated, the less they are able, themselves, to bring up their children in a way that will empower their children,” she said.
As the oldest girl in her family, Aziza was adamant that her sisters learn from how she “suffered” and do not marry until they are 20 or older.
“Don’t get married and finish school,” is her message to fellow Syrian refugee girls.
As Aziza looked down at her five-month-old son, she imagined a better life for him.
“When he gets older, I want him to be educated and not be like me, not knowing how to read and write. I want him to know Arabic and English,” she said with a smile.


‘Homegrown Islam project’ could lead to new Ankara-Berlin tensions

Updated 26 March 2019
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‘Homegrown Islam project’ could lead to new Ankara-Berlin tensions

  • Markus Kerber: “What we need now is an Islam for German Muslims that belongs to Germany”
  • Germany’s new plan aims to counter foreign influence on the Muslim community

ANKARA: Germany has reportedly initiated a campaign to push German Muslims to develop a new interpretation of Islam, the Financial Times reported on Monday. 

“What we need now is an Islam for German Muslims that belongs to Germany,” Markus Kerber, the government representative responsible for relations with the Muslim community under the German Interior Ministry, reportedly told the Financial Times.

The move of Europe’s economic powerhouse is expected to influence Turkey’s state-led diaspora engagement with German-Turks as well as its state-level relations with Germany. But experts do not anticipate relations to further deteriorate as they say they are already as bad as they can get. 

Turks, mostly from the conservative section of society, have been emigrating to Germany since the early 1960s; originally as guest workers during the economic boom. They have since become the largest Muslim community in the country. 

Germany’s new plan aims to counter foreign influence on the Muslim community and provide homegrown training to all imams preaching in Germany. 

The largest Islamic organization in Germany is the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, which is affiliated to Turkey’s state directorate for religious affairs. Turkey is sending imams to Germany who are paid by the Turkish government and who are preaching in Turkish in 900 mosques funded by Ankara.

According to Yoruk Halil, a halal butcher living in Frankfurt, Germany’s new move will be beneficial for the Turkish Muslim community. 

“Those imams coming from Turkey do not benefit Turkish youth in Germany because these young people have been raised with a totally different culture and they mostly speak German, so they cannot establish a healthy dialogue with those imams,” Halil told Arab News. “In order to reach out to the Muslim community, including Turks, there is a need to use homegrown imams. 

My 15-year-old son has been going to the mosque for five years and he even told me that he has better communication with imams being trained and educated in Germany,” he said. 

There is also a continuing debate over requiring Muslims in Germany to pay a worship tax.

Turkey is against any “Germanification” of Islam and considers any redefinition of Islam for Germany against the universality of the religion. 

Germany’s move intends to further integrate Muslims’ daily routines into German society, to boost the loyalty of the 3 million members of the German-Turkish community.  It is therefore considered a move for breaking the Turkish community’s ties with their national and religious identity as well as their traditions.

Last year, German police recorded some 578 hate crimes against Muslims between January and September, while about half of Germans think that Islam is incompatible with the values of their nation, according to recent research by pollster YouGov.

“Turkey has been developing diaspora politics since the mid-2000s, and Turks in Germany have been put at the center of it,” Murat Onsoy, an expert in Turkey-Germany relations at Hacettepe University in Ankara, told Arab News. 

However, for Onsoy, the presence of imams in Germany who have been appointed by Turkey is a socialization factor for the Turkish diaspora — who show relatively low rates of crime — and to maintain their links with their home country. 

“If Germany rejects Turkish funding to these mosques, they will face serious difficulties in covering their expenses,” he said. 

Germany has a community of about 4.5 million Muslims worshipping at about 2,400 mosques, and the number is expected to rise with the refugee influx from Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Sy The German federal constitution, called Basic Law, gives autonomy to Muslim communities to receive funding and religious officials from abroad to operate mosques in Germany. 

“It is unlikely that this article of the constitution would be easily amended. Various provinces would react to such a move, resulting in widespread protests. The Turkish government would raise the issue at the intergovernmental Islamic organizations, and the German government would be obliged take a step back,” Onsoy said. 

He, however, draws attention to the timing of the debate. 

“It coincides with the upcoming local elections in Turkey this Sunday, and in the past we witnessed that such potential crises with Western countries have been used by the ruling government to consolidate its voters through engaging in international polemics and assuming the role of the defender of external Turks and ‘Islam’ worldwide,” he said. 

Ayhan Kaya, professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, said that the move in Germany to bring a homegrown reading to Islam had already been on the table since Angela Merkel’s initiative in 2006. 

“Although it contradicts with the Sunni Islam rhetoric, what Germany did is a counter-move against the lobbying strategies of Muslim countries such as Turkey, Morocco or Algeria within German territories,” he told Arab News. 

Kaya also noted that in the past Germany and Turkey developed joint projects to train imams who would be appointed in Germany by providing them with linguistic and cultural-integration skills. 

“This latest move is a dialectic result of the political maneuvers on the diasporas by countries who are sending and receiving migration,” he said.