Marta Dusseldorp, acclaimed Australian actor and Special Representative for Australia for UNHCR, recently travelled to Jordan and Lebanon to meet Syrian refugees and learn more about UNHCR’s work on the ground. Here she shares the stories of resilient women holding their families together in the face of tragedy. 

Can you tell us about some of the refugees you met in Jordan and Lebanon?

One woman, Hadeya, lost her husband suddenly just six months ago. She has four children, three girls and a boy who she cares for on her own now. She told me about life in Syria before the war, with her husband. They were soul mates, she said, and they did everything together. 

It was totally unexpected for her when he died. He was ill, but had hidden how sick he was getting because he refused to spend any money on medicine. He wanted everything to go towards the children.

I met another single mother, Noor, and her three children. They share just two rooms between the four of them. Sadly, her son has completely stopped speaking outside of the family unit. I imagine it’s due to trauma.

The children had no friends in the neighbourhood because Noor was too scared to let them go out to play. As a mother I can completely understand how, after everything they’ve been through, she would be afraid to let them out of her sight.

Marta meets Syrian mother of four Hadeya in Jordan. © Australia for UNHCR

Noor said what she missed most about life in Syria was that when the children would ask her if they could go to the park and have an ice-cream, she could just say yes, and take them to play and buy them a treat. But now, whenever they ask, she has to tell them no.

Noor was an incredible and brave woman. She has been through so much, but when she smiled the twinkle in her eyes lit up the whole room.

What does UNHCR’s Lifeline program mean to the refugees you met?

The families I met desperately needed it. Some of them told me it was the difference between life and death for them. It’s certainly what stops them becoming homeless. I really don’t know what mothers like Hadeya and Noor would do without the Lifeline program – they are already living below the poverty line and only just hanging on as it is. 

All the families said they spent the assistance mostly on rent. They use the rest for food, clothing, school books and things like that. 

The war in Syria is in its seventh year – that’s a long time for a family to live with uncertainty, in poverty, and dependent on assistance to survive. And that’s the thing about the Lifeline program, it gives people the dignity to withdraw the cash on their own, take that money to spend at a shop, interact with the community, give to the community, and the community gives back to them.

Did your trip change how you saw the situation?

It was an absolutely humbling experience. I was completely astounded and delighted by the Syrian people. They are dynamic. They are invested. They are creative. They are completely involved in the moment. I didn’t meet anyone who said “What about me? What about my life?”

"I was completely astounded and delighted by the Syrian people."

Before I went, I have to admit I was quite afraid of coming to the Middle East. The unknown scares everyone. And then I arrived, and I was ashamed. I was ashamed of my ignorance. I was ashamed of my comfortable life that I didn’t feel like I wanted to interrupt. I think it’s okay to accept that, and understand that it’s okay to live the way we live. But it really reinforced how important it is to give to people who don’t have what we have in Australia.

Actor Marta Dusseldorp meets Syrian refugee Hanidi and her baby son in Lebanon © Australia for UNHCR

What would you say to Australians about how they can help?

I can’t tell you the hope our visit gave to people. It showed that Australia was watching and that Australians understood and acknowledged them, and were supporting them. They were so appreciative of the international efforts to assist them. When you donate to help Syrian refugees, then a little bit of your soul becomes a part of their life.

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Marta travelled to learn more about the challenges facing refugees living in urban areas of Jordan. © Australia for UNHCR

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