Persecuted Maids – In Beirut a rare sanctuary from violence

(The Daily Star, December 15, 2010)

Jacqueline Hajjar has been on a one-woman crusade on behalf of victims of domestic abuse in Lebanon for 30 years. Her most recent endeavor is Beit al-Hanane, a center for women who have suffered abuse in Beirut.

“I love Lebanon and I love to do something for the people. I got involved with this kind of work because of my students. I had so many students abused, I had to do something,” says Hajjar of her motivation.

The center, which Hajjar founded with her sister Evelyn Accad, opened three months ago, but Hajjar has been taking in abused women since she was a professor of comparative literature at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in the 1990s.

“The first woman who I really took care of was a 17-year-old who ran away from home. She had been raped and beaten by her eldest brother and her father. They would grab her hair and bang her head on the wall. She heard me talking in a church saying that I was at LAU. She didn’t know where else to go.”

The university’s security guard did not want to let the young woman on campus, Hajjar says. “She had been beaten and had cried a lot and her hair was messy. She had been roaming the streets and God knows where she had slept.”

Hajjar was on her way out to attend appointments with her husband, the vice president of finance at LAU. She ran a bath, put food on the stove, handed the girl fresh linens and told her to make herself at home until she returned.

“My husband was shocked. He asked if I locked up any of the valuables,” laughs Hajjar. “But I felt the urgency in her voice. I saw her and I knew immediately that she was really in a bad state.”

Later, Hajjar realized the girl had attempted suicide. “She had marks where she had tried to open her veins. I had just taught my class and when I came home she was there ready to jump. I ran like a crazy woman and grabbed her. I don’t know how I got the strength to pull her in.”

The girl stayed with Hajjar for four years. She has now moved abroad and is married with children. She and Hajjar still keep in touch.

Hajjar’s efforts to help women could certainly be considered unorthodox, but she does not see an option other than getting personally involved.

“I’ve been attacked twice by husbands trying to get to their wives by force. I put myself in the middle.”

She is very mindful of the security of the center. Women find her or the home by word of mouth or through other women’s organizations and shelters that partner with Beit al-Hanane.

Beit al-Hanane serves as an emergency home for female victims of abuse. The center can accommodate up to 12 women at a time and provides services from a psychotherapist and a doctor. The women are also connected to job training programs which Beit al-Hanane subsidizes if they cannot afford the cost.

In extreme cases, when women’s lives are at risk, the center will connect them to hidden shelters to preserve their safety.

The home is yet to assist many women since its recent opening, but Hajjar recalls numerous incidents that convinced her of the need for such a sanctuary.

“Years ago I found a woman who had been beaten almost to death and I took her to the police station. The police told me to send her back home. He said, ‘I also beat my wife, it’s allowed in the Koran.’ I told him that she’s not an animal.”

“Can’t a husband talk to his wife? Does he have to beat her?” asks Hajjar. “I took the woman home and took care of her.”

In 1992, Hajjar encountered a difficult case when she found a newborn baby on the street in Beirut.

“It was the third of June, which is my daughter’s birthday, when I found her. She was not even two kilos.” Hajjar feared the baby had been abandoned because it was the product of rape and possibly incest.

“I took her to the doctor and the doctor said she would not survive. I had to give her milk through a dropper. She was premature and she had epilepsy. I was always afraid she would break or die in my arms.”

Eventually the little girl recovered and was adopted by a family in the United States that Hajjar had found.

“Once a year she sends me pictures and I call her on her birthday. She’s completely healed now.”

Hajjar has lost count of the number of women she has taken in over the years. She receives around 30 emails a day from the women whose lives she has touched. “I have 20 women at the moment who know they can call me or come any time.”

For Hajjar, the quality of care the women she sees receive is as important as the number she helps.

“I usually follow the women until they really heal because I feel what’s the use of the quantity?” she asks. “You give them a little, feed them for a day and then what? I want them to be able to support themselves. I want them to be able to heal inside.”

Hajjar also wants to see progress on legal protections for victims of domestic violence. “There is no law forbidding a husband from beating his wife. He can do whatever he wants to her in the home.”

She is an advocate for the law against family violence, currently in the Parliamentary committee stage, which would criminalize domestic abuse.

Beyond legal advances, Hajjar’s hopes for the future lie in education.

“The older [generation] will not change easily. We might be able to make them pass some laws but the young generation has got to be taught. I try to reach people through teaching. I try to make them aware of abuse, women’s circumcision, all these things through literature.”

Hajjar, 68, retired from academia this year, and has put all of her retirement benefits toward Beit al-Hanane.

“This home is open to anybody. Any religion, any background, any nationality, any color of skin. I don’t want discrimination of any kind. Abuse affects all kinds of women. This is the home of tenderness. I want tenderness because these women never had it.”