Lina Al Tiby, a Syrian activist living in Cairo, runs a support network for Syrian women refugees; helps them adapt to life in Egypt; and tries to persuade them not to allow poverty to push them into sex work or unwanted marriage.
Arriving in Egypt with little more than the clothes they are wearing, some Syrian women see marriage as the only means of survival.
"Egyptian men tell Syrian women they will marry them to help them and their families, but… can’t these men help Syrian women without marrying them?" said Al Tiby.
They tell the Syrians that if they marry them they will take care of their needs, a trend encouraged by certain preachers who encourage Egyptian men to marry Syrian refugee women, describing this marriage as a kind of jihad (Arabic).
Such statements have been criticized in Egypt: The Egyptian National Council for Women Rights (NCWR) issued a statement this month saying the marriages were “crimes committed against women under the guise of religion” (in Arabic).
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says 14,375 refugees and asylum seekers from Syria are registered with them in Egypt. At the end of November 2012, the Egyptian government estimated the Syrian community at close to 100,000.
There is no estimate of the number of Syrian women who have married Egyptian men, but Syrian refugees told IRIN the number is on the rise. A similar trend is happening in Jordan.
Laila Baker, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in Syria, who has seen similar things elsewhere in the region, told IRIN the relationships are exploitative: “If there is an imbalance of power based on gender roles, and you take advantage of that, that’s exploitation… They’re picking out young girls, usually under-age. Wealthy people from Jordan, the Gulf, Libya are saying they will take these girls, marry them and give them a better life.”
The issue is a sensitive one in Egypt where few are prepared to speak out about it. But several Syrians told IRIN they felt families were being exploited, and that often marriages were “on the cheap”, without the usual reassurances that the groom can support the bride or even the gifts exchanged at weddings.
“Syrian families living in Egypt are in deep trouble; their financial conditions are very difficult. So when a man comes to propose to their daughters, they immediately agree, regardless of whether this man is suitable or not,” said Tiby.
“Most of these marriages happen with very small dowries; some marriages happen without dowries at all. In this case, these marriages contradict all prevailing customs in both Egyptian and Syrian societies,” she said.
Abu Omar, a Syrian cobbler in his mid-forties, who fled to Egypt last month, lives in the 6 October neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cairo, and says there is a new man knocking on the door of his apartment every day to ask whether there are unmarried Syrian women inside who want to get married to Egyptian men.
"It is becoming both annoying and humiliating," Abu Omar said.
"Egyptians should understand that by doing this they are not helping Syrians, but exploiting their difficult conditions."
A joint assessment of Syrian refugees carried out by UNHCR, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) identified severe harassment, survival sex and forced marriage as some of the protection concerns facing the community, alongside violence, security threats (theft and physical aggression), and deteriorating livelihoods.
Fear of harassment and exploitation is one reason why Abu Omar keeps his 17-year-old daughter hidden when Egyptian strangers knock at his door.
Al Tiby’s Syrian friend Tareq* was not quite as successful in hiding his own daughter, 13: He recently received a call from an Egyptian mosque preacher asking to marry the girl. He refused and now says he is concerned about her safety.
The conflict in Syria has been marked by attacks on women. A recent report by the International Rescue Committee described rape as "as a significant and disturbing feature of the Syrian civil war" and as the “primary” factor in the exodus of women and children refugees to neighbouring countries.
More than 700,000 Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, especially Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Some 3,000 Syrians are leaving their country every day.
*not a real name