The Red Umbrella, an organization focused on empowering at-risk women, is now seeking to aid female refugees fleeing the Assad regime in Syria.
Based in Dallas, Texas, The Red Umbrella strives to help female refugees in the Middle East and raise awareness about their living conditions to the rest of the world, Lissette Handal, founder and CEO of TRU told The Christian Post.
"The perception people have of the Middle East here [in the U.S.] is of terrorists and the Islamic extremists. I think [Americans] forget that [these people] are also human beings just like you and me," Handal said. The political perception of what is the Middle East overshadows the human aspect."
Handal, who recently traveled to Lebanon to work with some of the women with TRU, said she could relate to many of them, as they have shared desires and the common need to care for their children.
TRU employs education as the main tool for empowering the women it encounters, and works with them within their own faith and culture. The organization was even able to work inside a local mosque with Muslim women where they were able to hold their classes for the Syrian refugees.
Handal explained that it took nearly 45 minutes just to engage these women in conversation and get them to open up. They used hobbies as an ice breaker and subsequently discovered that a majority of the women were primarily concerned about cooking, cleaning and taking care of their children.
"They don't have a sense of identity separate from their families and religion," she added.
Handal told CP that the husbands of many of the women have been killed by the Assad regime, and with that comes the loss of their identities. They travel thousands of miles to places such as Lebanon on foot to escape the persecution, but have a new need to rediscover themselves apart from their former lives.
The Red Umbrella divides the women by ages and creates separate curriculums for each group. The class for ages 11 to 17 is quite basic, while those who are 18 and older learns more about establishing themselves independently.
"For the [younger] girls, the curriculum will be much simpler. We're going to teach them life skills, about their body and how to communicate," she said. "For the women, we're really helping them to have a voice. We're going to teach them that their identity is separate from their families and husbands."
TRU also allows the religious leaders in the community, normally Muslims, to look over their curriculum to make sure it doesn't violate their cultural norms.
Meeting these refugee women where they're at in life involves TRU workers following some Muslim customs, such as wearing the hijab.
"Out of respect, we wanted to show them that we are willing to integrate into their culture and meet them where they're at," she said.
And even though the organization aims to empower the women and help them with their self-esteem, they also recognized a deep mistrust within Arab culture and hope to convey a sense of community to the refugees.
"They are living in communities as refugees, but they are not living in community with each other," she said. "They don't have support systems. There's a lot of mistrust. Not just because of what they've been through, but because the Arab culture is one of mistrust."
Handal cites this mistrust as one of the main reasons for many Arab cultures intermarrying. She also addressed the perception of the Arab and Muslim cultures in the U.S., and suggested that meeting them where they're at is more effective than trying to westernize them.
"Just because women are wearing a hijab, and just because they're [strict] Muslims doesn't mean they can't be empowered," she said. "[Americans] have an idea that Arab men and Islam oppress women, but there's a [better] way of looking at [their culture]."
She explained how men in the Middle East must "do everything" when it comes to the family. Most of the non-educated women only cook and clean. The immense pressure put on the men to provide could cause them to "crack" and be abusive, according to Handal. She also believes empowering women within that culture could improve their living conditions with their families by giving them a voice.
"I think women can be empowered within that," she said. "If women understand that they are separate, that they have an identity, then they can have a voice, and if they have a voice then they'll know how to use it. And if they know how to use it, then they'll make a difference."
The Red Umbrella will be opening empowerment camps for women and girls in Lebanon and will equip local females to teach the refugees. The organization is also working to open The Red Umbrella School for Girls in Abu Dhabi in the fall of 2016.
More information on the organization can be found at theredumbrella.org.