Syrian-Lebanese economist Rouba Mhaissen was awarded Norway's Rafto Prize on Thursday September 26th for her efforts to defend the rights of refugees and migrants, the Rafto Foundation said, according to AFP.
Mhaissen, 31, is the founder and director of Sawa for Development and Aid (SDAID), a civil society organisation that since 2011 has helped Syrians displaced by the war in their country and living as refugees in Lebanon.She also heads Sawa Foundation UK, that supports forced migrants in Europe and the Middle East.
"Rouba Mhaissen has contributed locally to improving the lives of people living as refugees in Lebanon in ways that protect their dignity and right to self-determination," the Rafto Foundation said in a statement.
She is "a vocal and courageous front figure, speaking out against mounting pressure for the forced return of Syrian refugees, using insights and documentation of the experiences of those that have returned," according to the foundation.
The $20,000 (€18,270) prize will be formally presented to her at a ceremony in Bergen, in western Norway, on November 3rd.
Named after the late Norwegian human rights activist Thorolf Rafto, four previous winners of the prize (Aung San Suu Kyi, Jose Ramos-Horta, Kim Dae-Jung and Shirin Ebadi) went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which is also awarded in Norway. The Nobel laureate for 2019 will be announced on October 11th.
She was one of the panellists at a dialogue co-hosted by United Nations Women, bringing together Syrian women and international policy makers to discuss issues of humanitarian action, resilience and peace, held on the sidelines of the Syria Conference 2018 in Brussels.
“In 2011, I heard about the first 40 Syrian refugee families that arrived in Lebanon. We started first as an initiative and then ended up being an organisation. Working with women was not a choice, it was organic because, in the majority of the cases we worked on, women were the head of the household. When we started going to the refugee camps, it was usually the women who came up front with specific demands so we organically developed women-targeted programming and mainstreamed gender across all of our programmes and approaches,” Mhaissen said during the conference.
She focused on the role of women in the peace process, saying “I believe Syrian women should have a central role in addressing all facets of the conflict. I want to move away from linking women only to the peace process. Women have been playing a central role at all stages; from fighting for their rights during the war, to keeping the family together during displacement, all the way to being actors in peace.
“I very much agree with the slogan ‘no women, no peace’ because in Syrian society specifically, women are the backbone of the family, the heart of the community. So, it is just a matter of putting them at the forefront of this fight and putting them centre stage.
“It is important to build Syrian women’s resilience and support them in acquiring the skills they need to be independent agents. On the other hand, policy-makers should focus on ending the war. If the war ends, they will ultimately improve everyone’s lives, including women’s lives,” Mhaissen said.
Lebanon, which has four million inhabitants, says it has welcomed between 1.5 to 2 million Syrians, including one million listed as UN refugees, often living in wretched conditions. In August, Amnesty International accused the country of "forcibly deporting" nearly 2,500 Syrians refugees back to their war-torn homeland.