North Africa, West Asia

Radio Hakaya Podcast, episode 7: Labeeba - the female shawish

Episode 7 of a podcast series about the socio-political climate faced by Syrians and their host communities through their own eyes as the pressure rises for refugees to return to Syria.

Radio Hakaya
20 March 2019
Illustration by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.

Radio Hakaya is a community radio project started by Brush&Bow in a refugee camp in North Lebanon. Radio Hakaya's podcasts feature individuals whose communities have been directly affected by the war in Syria and the displacement of Syrians to Lebanon. Each podcast presents a subjective opinion that, combined with the rest of the series, provides a mosaic of differing perspectives and experiences, exploring the reasons why people fled Syria, the living conditions in Lebanon and what the future might hold.

All recordings are taken, translated and edited with the help from members of the local community.

Interviews and Editing by Roshan De Stone & David L. Suber.

Editing and Translations by Fadi Haddad.

Illustrations by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.

This is the seventh podcast of an 8-part series. It is an interview with Labeeba, a female Shawisha of a Syrian refugee camp in Akkar, the northern most region in Lebanon.

The word Shawish - a masculine word in Arabic - was traditionally used in Lebanon to refer to men who managed migrant labour in Lebanon. However, since the start of the Syrian war and influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the word is now used to refer to the person nominated to act as a leader for each camp.

As there are no official refugee camps in Lebanon, each camp is built on land Syrian families must rent from Lebanese landlords. To manage the relation between the Syrian residents of the camp, Lebanese landlords and NGO distributing aid, most camps choose a Shawish as a leader figure, responsible for making sure that all communal issues in the camp are dealt with fairly.

Most Shawish are men, and often rule the camp to their own advantage, taking a cut of peoples rent, syphoning off aid and controlling where people work.

However, just off the main highway that runs from Tripoli to Tartous is a camp run by a woman. Labeeba is a special if not unique case in the region, covering a position of authority which is nearly exclusively reserved to men. Further, the camp is also owned by a female landlord.

Interviewed by Radio Hakaya in the tent of her neighbor in their refugee camp, Labeeba tells Radio Hakaya of her role and duties, alongside other women from the camp who explain more about life in a camp run by women. Labeeba speaks of the hardships of being a female Syrian refugee, a narrative too often excluded from narratives about the situation of refugees in Lebanon.

Her experience represents only a fragment of the very complex puzzle of memories and positions Syrian women have of their displacement in Syria and their experience in Lebanon. As such, it should be heard in relation to the contents expressed in the previous and forthcoming podcasts.

Listen to the podcast in English or in Arabic below

Read the transcript

Podcast #7 Labeeba: The Female Shawisha


Welcome to Radio HAKAYA – حكايا the official podcast series of Brush and Bow. These podcasts report on stories and challenges of the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian communities in Lebanon. By focusing on individual stories, we hope to convey the complex realities of life here in Lebanon: people’s memories, present experiences and hopes for the future. We would like to remind you that the views published on these podcasts are the participants alone and do not reflect the opinions of Brush and Bow.

Today’s podcast is an interview with a female Shawisha named Labeeba. The word Shawish - a masculine word in Arabic - was traditionally used to refer to men who managed migrant labor in Lebanon. However, since the start of the Syrian war and influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the word is now used to refer to the person nominated to act as a leader for each camp. Most Shawish are men and often rule the camp to their own advantage, taking a cut of peoples rent, syphoning off aid and controlling where people work. However, just off the main highway that runs from Tripoli to Tartous is a camp run by a woman. In this podcast, Labeeba tells us what it is like to be a woman leader of the camp.


Labeeba: My name is Labeeba, I am from the countryside of Hama.

Roshan: When did you come to Lebanon?

Labeeba: We came in 2014, me, my father and my sister.

We don’t have any work here in Lebanon, most of the time we just stay at home.

Roshan: Do you have children?

Labeeba: No, I am single, and because of this people here asked me to be the Shawisha.

When we first arrived we were only 2 or 3 tents. But later our relatives came from the Beqaa valley and they made me the Shawisha.

There are no men in this camp – well, just a few. But mainly we are all women in this camp! And as I am single, I fit to be in the position of Shawisha, because a married woman is more restricted by her children. She can’t go to the UNHCR center if she has kids at home to look after. Also, of the few men who live here, most of them are at work and therefore cannot be in the camp all the time, whereas I can always be here.

Roshan: And the men? Where are the men, are they at work, or still in Syria?

Labeeba: Some are in Syria and some are searching for work, but they are not here in the camp, they are never here.

Other woman: Labeeba is always present here with us in the camp. When we feel sick she takes us to doctor, she brings us things. Anything we need, she does it for us. For example, if we can’t bring water to our tent she gets it for us. Not only for me, but for all of the camp.

Labeeba: Of all the charities, only the International Solidarity Committee came to the camp once, to install the bathrooms and level the camp’s ground with stones. No other organization came to see us. We’ve done everything on our own, providing medications, going to the doctors, all without aid.

David: There is no organization that provides other supports? The UN or any other?

Labeeba: No, none at all. If we go to the clinic we pay between 2 to 4 dollars according to the medicine the doctor prescribes to you. We don’t have a school here. So to send the children to school we must pay the busses ourselves. Some families can’t afford it, some can. As for the journey on local busses it costs nearly 15 dollars a month and some parents can’t afford it - if you have four children how can you afford 60 dollars a month?

Sometimes I call the landlord to tell her there a new family arrived in the camp, asking if they can live in a tent.

Also the landlord is a woman here.

Roshan: Really? All women here for real!

Labeeba: If there is a woman its better. Because you can talk and act freely with her. With men, this can’t be done. Dealing with women is much better.


Labeeba & Other women: The future will be difficult. Our situation is so bad both here and in Syria. In Syria we have nothing left, our houses are destroyed. If the situation doesn’t get better there, we’ll have to remain here. There is no future in Syria, what should we do?

Before the war, things were good in Syria. We had our own lands, we grew crops, had free water supplies and lived in our own houses. Here a tent costs 30 dollars per month, with electricity bills of 30 to 60 dollars per month.

Other woman: I am in debt of about 300 dollars for my rent and electricity bill.

Labeeba: The landlady says that if she cannot afford to pay, she will be forced to move out and find another place.


Other women: We already have women in the military in Syria, but not a woman president or any women of a high level in the military. Those are only places for men.

But to have a woman Shawisha here is much better. A Shawisha for example, would never take stuff from other people or wrong others. But a man would.

David: Who faces more problems living in Lebanon, men or women?

Labeeba: The men are more free, they can move and work, but the woman where can they go?

Recently a woman with her husband went to Syria to see a doctor in Damascus, but her husband was arrested at the border checkpoint and taken to the military compulsory service. She is alone now.

Other woman: Who?

Labeeba: Nadra. He’s with the army, and she…

Other Woman: Nadra left?

Labeeba: yes, Nadra left since a month and a half!

Other Woman: For God’s sake, why?

Labeeba: She had to see a doctor because she can’t have children.

Surely the man’s situation is better than women’s’.

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