Life is difficult for all refugees escaping the on-going violence in Syria, but it is especially hard for women and children. The gendered experience of violence and displacement – the need to flee the increasing violence and discrimination against women, which made living conditions unbearable – is amplified by the discrimination they face as women refugees.
Women who are separated from their communities and families are more vulnerable to exploitation, violence and abuse. Many Syrian women are exposed to sexual harassment simply because of their status as refugees, which is associated with economic vulnerability. Employers and landlords are often harassing women refugees from Syria. The women described being groped, harassed and pressured to have sex.
Syrian women – many of them having lost everything during the war and struggling to survive – are becoming the most vulnerable segment of the refugee community. Many have experienced emotional and physical trauma in Syria, but face a new set of challenges as refugees. Many refugees don’t know anyone in their new country, and it’s hard to find support within the new environment. They struggle to provide food and shelter for their children and often face harassment, discrimination and isolation.
The problem is worsened by weak legal protection, low awareness among women of their rights, cultural attitudes as well as a lack of information regarding the support that is available to vulnerable refugee women.
Many Syrian women are traumatised, deprived and stigmatised; still their ultimate priority remains their and their children’s survival. Their immediate concern is being able to provide a stable environment for their children, as well as find ways to support their families. In this settings, family planning, marital rights, reproductive and maternal health or just socialising is not a priority. But Syrian women need more than shelter and food to meet their basic needs.
Many women, especially those living in urban areas, don’t know how their refugee status effects their eligibility to access health care when they first arrive from Syria. They need services to address their sexual and reproductive health needs. They need access to free contraceptives in a culturally sensitive manner. And they need basic health services that include the provision of clinical care for sexual violence survivors.
Women’s centres, supported by UN agencies and other INGOs, across Jordan and Lebanon provide this safe space for women and girls to gather, to share information on support available to them, and to receive emotional support and crisis counselling.
The centres aim to empower Syrian refugee women by raising awareness on issues relating to health, GBV and parenting, but they also offer training opportunities and informal education. The centres serve to help women who may have been victims of intimate partner violence by providing a safe space where women and girls can access health care services, as well as socialise, learn and talk about issues affecting their daily life in exile.
Zeinab – Lebanon
“We have no women for marriage!”
This is Jihan’s usual response when Lebanese men ask about marrying her 15-year-old daughter Zeinab when they come looking for a bride. Like other Syrian women refugees, Jihan complained how Lebanese men constantly bombard her with marriage proposals or requests to arrange marriages with refugee girls in her neighbourhood.
“I don’t want to marry yet. I like going the centre to learn. I’m taking English lesson there.”
Zeinab loves to study, “at the centre we also learn how dangerous it can be to marry young.” Her mother wants her to continue with her education, too. “A girl needs education,” says Jihan. “If I had been educated, maybe I’d be able to provide for my family in this situation. A boy can find work in places a girl can’t.”
Going to the centre lifts her spirits. Zeinab met new friends. “I miss my friends from Syria, too, but we try to keep in touch with Whatsapp,” she smiles.
Ameera – Lebanon
Syrian women refugees are exposed to sexual harassment more than Lebanese women simply because of their status as refugees, which is associated with economic vulnerability. Indeed, many of the Syrian women refugees mentioned that this stigmatisation and harassment is making their husbands and families overly protective, limiting their mobility. In some cases, ensuing family tensions appear to have led to domestic violence.
When Ameera first came to the centre, she always worried about people knowing she is a widow. She asked her neighbours to warn her if they see anyone hanging around.
“Men often knock on our door and pretend they work with Islamic aid agencies,” she says. She does not answer. Sometimes she calls out, ‘Brother, please check who’s at the door!’ to trick visitors when she’s alone. She lived in perpetual fear of harassment.
“It is difficult to be both the mother and the father at once,” she explained, smiling modestly; her husband died almost two years ago in Syria. Ameera describes her how loving and caring her relationship with her husband was. “My husband and I have been married for thirteen years and we were very much in love. But he’s been taken away from me.” Ameera and her three children now share a small flat in an unfinished building with her brother and his in-laws. Their house is small, cold, damp and overflowing with people. “There is no privacy at home.”
“For a long time, I was very sad. I missed my husband. I was very pale and had lost a lot of weight” say Ameera about the time before she accessed services at the women’s centre. After the loss of her husband and home, Ameera became depressed and increasingly withdrawn. At the centre, she received counselling to help her cope with her bereavement. Here, Ameera regained her confidence and attended therapy and drama therapy sessions. She learned to express herself and talk about her feelings of loss and anxiety. She says of herself that she feels like a new person. “Those close to me, my son and my friends, cannot believe how much I’ve changed. I used to wear black every day, now I like to wear colours again. And I smile more.”
“Before I came to the centre, I didn’t know about the different forms of violence against women. I didn’t know it could happen within a family, too. My husband and I were happy, though we got married when I was very young. But after he died I was unhappy, and my family was very controlling. Now, I stand up for myself. And I feel strong enough to talk about my experience. Here, I met my best friend. I learn new skills – I even take English classes – that will help me find work. It’s my dream to have my own place just for my son and me.”
Ghada – Jordan
“Our life in Jordan is hard,” Ghada is a mother of three from Dara’a. She describes her family’s difficult financial situation. They are in debt, behind with the rent of their small flat and not yet prepared for the coming winter.
“It’s only October but the nights are already getting colder. I’m dreading winter. We’re not prepared. Last year, we didn’t have any fuel to heat our flat. We used to go to my parents during the day and when we got home we’d go straight to bed. In Dara’a, we had a beautiful house. Now we don’t even have beds. Just matrasses. Before my children had their own rooms and toys, now we don’t have anything for them. They can’t be carefree here. I take them to the centre so they can play here and have fun.”
Ghada’s youngest son has nightmares almost every night. He doesn’t get any sleep at night and has become increasingly withdrawn. The family first came to the centre to access psychosocial support to deal with the psychological impact the conflict and exile had on the children. The women’s centre offers women like Ghada psychological counselling and support to help her understand her children’s needs and behaviour.
But beyond that Ghada is also worried about her children’s education. She feels that schools in Jordan aren’t prepared to cater for the needs of Syrian children who are either traumatised or at the very least have missed out on education as a result of the ongoing crisis in Syria. “I didn’t think my children benefit from the schools here. The curriculum is very different and it’s hard for them to catch up. My children need a lot of help after school, so they don’t fall behind in class. But I can’t help them with some of the classes. I didn’t take English at school and sometimes it’s difficult for me to help them with their homework. Here at the centre, I’ve started to go to some of the courses. I’m taking literacy classes and want to learn English, too. I’m now better prepared to help my children with their assignments. I think I’m also a good example for them because they see that I enjoy learning and they see me studying for my classes. Now they’re more willing to go to school again.” With the help of the women’s centre in Zarqa, Ghada takes comfort in the fact that her family is slowly adjusting to their new live in Jordan.
Yasmeen – Lebanon
The lack of work is a common concern for displaced Syrian. Jobs are a source of distraction and dignity, but they are difficult to come by, difficult to keep. Female Syrian refugees are particularly vulnerable to unemployment. Most women looking for work in Lebanon are unable to find a job. If they do find employment, they’re earning about 40 percent less on average than their male counterparts.
“I want to learn new skills but I’d also like to contribute here,” says Yasmeen who is expecting her third child. But instead of looking forward to having her baby, Yasmeen is concerned with her family’s finances.
“I worked as an accountant before the war and I would like to get a job and be able to support my family. I’m qualified but I think the skills I learn here will help me find better work in Lebanon.” Like many educated and highly skilled middle-class Syrians, Yasmeen and her husband are struggling to find work that matches their skill level.
Roughly one-third of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are unemployed. Most Syrians, who have found employment, work in unskilled or semi-skilled professions and are earning less than minimum wage. Her husband’s wage alone is not sufficient to cover the expenses of Yasmeen’s young family. Even though she’s pregnant, she feels the pressure of having to contribute to the household income. But the centre offers Yasmeen more than just training to improve her chances of finding a job once she’s delivered her baby. She also found a place of refuge and a support network.
“I try to come to the centre every day. It’s the only time I get to myself. I can meet with the other women, talk and forget about my worries for a little while. We’ve become good friends. And we help each other. I’m going to have my baby soon and I didn’t have any baby clothes. I didn’t feel prepared but my friends gave me baby clothes and blankets they didn’t need anymore. Especially, my friend Um Hadi has supported me during the pregnancy. We didn’t plan to have another child because we feel insecure in Lebanon. But it’s a great relieve to have friends who support me.”
“Life here doesn’t get worse,” she said. “It doesn’t get any better either. We just want to go home.”
Then Yasmeen talks about her life in Nabatieh. “My home is very small. We are eleven people in my house. It’s too many. We can stay at the house until the end of the year but then we will have to move. I don’t know if we can find something that we can afford. And we will have another baby by then, too.” Yasmeen implores, “it’s so important that I find a job.”
Jannah – Jordan
Ever since the family of six fled Syria, Jannah’s husband doesn’t do anything but sit under a tree all day. “He doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t even look work anymore. I provide for him with food,” she said ardently, “I feed him.” Jannah is proud to be able to provide for the family.
The Jordan Valley is an agricultural area. Jannah and her 14-year-old daughter, Maysa, are the only members of the family in employment. They work on nearby farms from sunrise to sunset. The work is hard and the fertilisers used in the farm cause a rash that they haven’t been able to get rid off but she says they don’t care. It’s a steady source of income and it allows Jannah to always have an eye on her daughter. The work pays reasonably well though most of the money to cover the rent, utilities and food. Life in Jordan is expensive and the family doesn’t have any savings left.
Keeping her fourteen-year-old daughter, Maysa, safe is Jannah’s main concern. “Men stop by to ask about my daughter all the time,” says the mother of four. Boys and men in the area harass them constantly. Everybody tries to get to her. And neighbours and relatives advice Jannah to marry her off as soon as possible so she wouldn’t have to worry about her safety anymore. But even though she’s not in a position to send her to school, Jannah believes Maysa is too young to marry.
“There is a Jordanian woman going from family to family. She asked about my daughter trying to arrange a marriage with a local man but when I refused she insulted me. ‘Who do you think we are?’ she asked, ‘I would have paid 100JD for the girl.’ But you can’t buy my daughter!” Jannah is exhausted trying to keep the family together and her daughter safe.
Talking about early marriage, Jannah fervently expresses the bewilderment she feels when she learned that yet another daughter of an acquaintance has been married off at a young age. “I don’t know why these families arrange marriages for their children,” she shakes her head in disbelief.
“I will die before I give my daughter away. I will not marry her off at this age! I’m here. I’m taking her to work with me to work every day. I want to protect her because I can’t leave her at the tent during the day. It’s too dangerous. I need to be with her to protect her.”
“I know of a family whose 13-year-old daughter got married not long ago. They don’t have many children, she was the only girl and they were educated. I wondered how big a burden she could have been for the family? I don’t think they know how an early marriage can destroy the spirit and health of a child. I want my daughter to play. I want her to go to school. She needs someone to take care of her and protect her. She should not have to take care of a family!”
“Our life is not easy and we may not be rich but I love my children. And I want to spend more time with Maysa before she’s getting married,” say Jannah who has already declined a proposal, against her family’s wishes. “It is too early. Maybe love was not an option for my generation; but I want her to be able to choose marriage for the right reasons,” she says with a smile. “It’s my dream for her to go to school. I’ll keep looking for a way to send her to school again. I want her to be able to do the things I wasn’t able to do myself.”
An outreach team approached Jannah and she has learned about the facilities and services of the women’s centre in Deir Alla. “I want to go but it’s too far. I don’t have the money for the bus fare. And it’s too far to walk. I know we’ll be harassed all the way to the centre. But also, we work all day long. If my daughter and I wanted to go, we’d miss out on work and income. We need the income to pay for rent, water and electricity. Who will feed my sons?”
Yara – Jordan
While most domestic violence is a reaction to new surroundings and dynamics, in some cases, abuse that began back home spirals out of control when compounded with the stress of being a refugee.
“It was happening before – but now it’s worse,” says Yara, a mother of five.
In order to combat the problem faced by women and children, the women’s centre in Deir Alla provides one-to-one counselling, as well as dedicated outreach teams who visit refugee communities in urban areas and give workshops on abuse – often detecting cases in the audience.
“At home, in Syria, I didn’t notice it so much because we were living with my husband’s family. Now that we live here on our own, without his family, he’s been shouting more and more.”
In Jordan, their relationship grew tense and her husband became more violent. “He’s mad all the time. And we argue a lot about little things. We also have a lot of money worries. Our rent is 200JD; it’s too much. Even if we worked day and night, it would be a struggle.” Since arriving in Jordan last year, the family has been struggling to get by. The aid they receive barely covers their expenses and without a work permit her husband is only able to work occasionally as a day labourer. Sometimes he sells tea and coffee. The family’s financial situation is further complicated by the fact that Yara has to care for her brother who’s lost both of his legs in the war. He used to care for his mother at home but now it falls to Yara to send her money whenever she has a little to spare. She feels guilty not to be able to take care of her, too. The responsibility she feels for her brother and mother further fuels tensions between the couple. She’s tired and exhausted.
The women’s centres aim to reach people within the environment they’re living in. Social workers and outreach volunteers sit down with families and have discussions with men and women’s groups. An outreach volunteer told Yara about the centre, “she said it was a good place to get information, that I could go there and talk to someone about my problems at home. It’s good to talk. Not just about the problems with my husband but also about my children. They’ve also been affected by our problems and the war back home. My son is always anxious and afraid.” Yara says she’s gaining more confidence knowing that she’s not alone but that help is available for her and her children.
Rana – Lebanon
Some Syrian refugees marry off their daughters at a young age believing that marital status offers a form of protection from predators, rape and violence against women as well as a means to safeguard their daughter’s future. But these girls, who by fleeing the war in Syria have already been subjected to more than any child should, are at risk of mental health issues resulting from social isolation, stress and abuse.
“My daughters married for love,” says Rana. “I got married when I was her age , too, so I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
Rana talks quietly about her life in Damascus before the war. It’s only a distant memory now. She talks about her son and her twin daughters, Hala and Malak, who are now seventeen years old. And how the family decided to leave because they were afraid her son would have been drafted into the military soon. Her husband, a taxi driver, narrowly escaped three mortar explosions before giving up work. Three months he was unemployed, not able to find safer employment. They didn’t see future for themselves or their children if they stayed in Damascus.
Malak and Hala got married before her parents left Syria. Rana explains that she let her daughters marry young because she feared for their safety.
“I was so worried about them when we move to Lebanon. What if something happened to them? I thought they’d be safer with a husband.”
Rana is despairing because Malak’s new husband has started beating her daughter. Malak is unable to cope with the sudden responsibilities of wife and homemaker, and she’s been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. The tense relationship with her husband and her in-laws is overwhelming for the girl. “He shouts at her when she makes mistakes. And sometimes she passes out because of the stress this situation causes her. She misses her sister, too; they were so close. She’s pregnant now. I don’t know what can I do to help her.”
Hala wasn’t able to join her family in Lebanon because her new in-laws are Palestinian-Syrian and, as Palestinians, are currently banned from entering Lebanon. “I was happy for her. She was in love. But now…,” Rana pauses, “Now, he’s become another person. They are stuck in Syria. I worry about her. Her husband is very controlling now. He’s not treating her well. She can’t go out or meet friends and he started beating her. She has no privacy in her home. She lives with her parents-in-law and their grown children. Her in-laws insult her saying that she isn’t a good wife. It leads to more arguments with her husband. And I can’t protect her anymore.” Alone in Syria and without her mother and siblings, it was a difficult time for her that was exacerbated by the tensions in her new home. Rana believes that letting her daughter get married was a mistake. “He’s taking his frustrations out on Hala because we are far away and can’t protect her anymore.”
Still children themselves, both sisters are now expecting their first child. Instead of protecting Malak and Hala from harm, marrying at a young age has left them even more exposed to exploitation and violence. Early marriages leave girls vulnerable to abuse. A girl who marries young and becomes pregnant — regardless of the circumstances or reasons — is a girl whose rights are undermined. A married girl is likely to be pressured or forced to leave school. She is denied her right to an education. A girl who is prevented from accessing contraception or even information about preventing a pregnancy is denied her right to education.
“I’m not able to help either of my daughters. I feel there is nothing we can do.”
Rana and her husband wish nothing more than to bring their daughters home but feel helpless. War and displacement have left Malak and Hala exposed to abuse, and in their predicament, Rana and her husband are unable to offer them parental protection.
Abeer – Jordan
“I miss my house in Dara’a. We’ve just finished it when we had to flee Syria in spring last year and hardly lived in it,” says Abeer, a mother of three young children under 5, about her home in Dara’a. “
It was small but it was comfortable and it was ours. We’ve saved for a very long time before we were able to start construction. And my husband did much of the work himself. Family and friends all pitched in to help. Whenever they had any time to spare, they would help us finish the building work. And I prepared special meals to thank them for their hard work and friendship.”
“When it was finished, I enjoyed decorating the house. I loved making it homely for my family. I chose all the furniture. And I tried to make the bedrooms special for my son and daughter. It was supposed to be our forever home where we would raise our children – a place of refuge where my children could always feel safe and protected. I don’t even know if it still stands,” says Abeer.
“You never think this could happen to you,” says Abeer about becoming a refugee. “In the news, you see it happening to other people and you feel for them. You imagine what it must be like to leave your home, your memories and everything you know behind but you never expect it to happen to you. But it did. It happened to us.”
Adjusting to life in exile hasn’t been easy for her and her young family. “We have nothing now. No savings. Only debt. And we haven’t received much aid, only food vouchers. My husband works sometimes but we never know how to pay the rent.”
After settling in Jordan, Abeer has had her third child, a boy is now 5 months old. An outreach volunteer approached Abeer. “I came to the centre when I was pregnant with my son. Healthcare is free at the clinic that’s why I came here first. At the centre, I learned about the rehabilitation programme but also about the recreational and skill-based training workshops. I also made friends here and we attend workshops together to learn new skills. We also talk about our experiences living in Jordan.”
Visiting the women’s centre regularly, Abeer has not only access to healthcare, training and psychological support, she has become part of a wider support network of Syrian refugee women who offer each other encouragement and friendship that helps them adjust to life in a foreign country.
“At first, I was worried about my daughter. I want to enrol her at school next year. In Syria, education is free but I didn’t know if I could afford to send her to school here. At the centre, there is always someone to talk to and ask questions. Even if it’s not healthcare related, they tell me where I could get help. It’s difficult for us refugees; we don’t know where we can turn for advice like this. But at the centre, everybody is very supportive. I’ve made new friends; we visit and help each other. I now feel like I’m part of a community. And with the skills I’m learning at the centre I’m dreaming of starting my own small business soon.”
Wuroud – Jordan
“I found a purpose and stopped feeling sorry for myself,” she says. “Now day after day I feel stronger. I take strength from the people around me as well. We help each other out.”
Before the war, it was Wuroud’s dream to become a teacher but when she was expecting her first child she had to put her dreams on hold. Then the war started and everything changed. During her flight from Dara’a Wuroud was separated from her husband and thought she may never see him again. She waited for him and the border and luckily they were reunited. In Azraq RC, Wuroud has been able to regain some of her confidence.
“You can’t compare it to before the war though. But here I have the chance to work, help others and make a contribution. I teach literacy skills to 11 women. Those women were never given the opportunity to learn before but are now able to read and write because of the centres. In fact, we all start learning new things. Without the crisis, we wouldn’t have moved away from home but now we learn new things and learn about things we didn’t know about before. Being able to socialise with other women from all over Syria who went through similar experiences is a source of strength for me. And it’s a great opportunity.”
Shahd – Jordan
“Jordan is very expensive. We get food vouchers but you can only buy a limited range of products in designated shops. Only groceries and no hygiene products, luckily we can get those here at the centre,” Shahd, a mother of three, laughs. “The prices of the marked items you can get with the vouchers are very expensive. I’ve seen much lower prices in the regular market.”
The family’s finances and capacity to provide for her family are Shahd’s main worries. Everything else is secondary.
“I wish my children could just be children, and play with their friends in the afternoon. But my two boys work in a shop selling electric appliances after school. They earn 50JD each,” Shahd is a shy talking about her children having to contribute to the family’s income. “But it does help us pay the rent. My husband doesn’t always work. And we don’t get much help.”
Shahd tries to be strong for her family but it is evident she wishes that life would be easier for her children’s sake. “I would have preferred to stay in Syria but that was impossible. We’re from Yarmouk and we just got out in the nick of time. We could have all died there.” Shahd talks about her last days in Syria. Fighters burned her home in Yarmouk, Damascus while she was visiting her parents with her children. They lost everything and have nothing to remember their former lives by. “When I got to the house with my brother, I saw that were looting my house, they took everything we had. Then they attacked us. They beat my brother in front of my eyes. And he urged me to run away. I took my children and escaped to Jordan without being able to take anything. Just the clothes on our backs. No savings. Nothing. We just had each other. I was so relieved when we reached safety. But my brother died that day. I think he saved our lives and miss him.”
The trauma the war and flight has caused her daughter to lose her hair. She doesn’t sleep because of recurring nightmares and is withdrawn and quiet during the day. “It breaks my heart. I came to the centre to get help for my daughter but now we all see a counsellor and take part in the activities, too. The children are not so afraid anymore. They love coming to the centre and they like the staff, too. My daughter said the centre is the best thing about Jordan. For me, it’s good to have a place where I can talk about my experiences. I feel more supported now. I’m not alone with my problems anymore.”
Even in the absence of direct exposure to the brutality and loss of war, the breakdown of stability can trigger emotional distress in children, resulting in feelings of profound fear, panic attacks and other forms of anxiety, disobedience, nightmares and regressive behaviour such as bedwetting. It can have serious long-term effects on the mental health of children, which often manifests in social isolation, aggression and depression.
In the refugee setting, parents tend to limit children’s mobility outside of the home and are not always able to provide attention to their children’s needs. Their parent’s main concerns and sources of stress are security, meeting basic needs, their children’s safety and access to healthcare. However, the main factors affecting the wellbeing of children are a change in the behaviour of parents, lack of access to education and recreation.
But the resilience of children must not be underestimated. Providing opportunities for children to interact socially with other children is a critical aspect of ensuring children’s psychosocial wellbeing. Psychosocial support activities in a safe environment provide children with a sense of normalcy. It enhances their ability to cope with the situation and improves their long-term emotional and social wellbeing, which can lessen lasting psychological damage.
Habeeba – Jordan
“Before the war, we had a good life. My children were doing well in school. We weren’t rich but for me, it was like heaven. Our family life was happier, too. I only left Dara’a to keep my children safe.”
Now there’s a lot of tension due to the family’s financial situation. Her oldest son has recently found work but as a result, the family was excluded from the food aid programme. “I don’t know why. My son is the only one who works and he only ears 250JD. It’s barely enough to pay for rent and bills. We need the vouchers. I’m not sure how we can manage without them.”
“Discrimination is normalised,” Habeeba explains.
Many Syrians experience discrimination, especially from informal and formal authorities such as landlords. Landlords often ask for rent in advance, pushing or threatening vulnerable Syrian families out of their accommodation. The other day the man responsible for running water came to her house and asked for money in advance, even though they had just settled their previous bill not long ago. When she refused to pay because of her lack of funds, he replied: ‘You Syrians are always unreliable.’
“Our life has to continue. If there isn’t just a little bit of normality, then we’ll have nothing,” says Habeeba who is determined to keep her children in school. After hearing from a neighbour about its services, Habeeba turned to the women’s centre to help her and her children to adjust to their new environment. “My two youngest children don’t go to school because they get bullied there. The call them ‘Syrians’ like it’s an insult! I worry what is going to become of them without an education.”
Being a parent is one of the most important and rewarding but also one of the hardest jobs there is. The hours are long, and there is not a lot of gratitude. All parents want to do their best for their children but for many, living with disadvantage can severely compromise their ability. There are many factors that complicate life as a refugee. Poverty, unsuitable and insecure housing, domestic violence, lone parenthood, and being a young parent can all disrupt a parent’s ability to cope. Families under stress need extra support.
Farah – Jordan
Women are the sole providers for one in four Syrian refugee families. They struggle to provide food and shelter for their children and often face harassment and isolation. Many refugees don’t know anyone in their new country, and it’s hard to find support within their new environment.
Access to financial resources to cover basic household needs is a major concern for many Syrian families. Female heads of households, in particular, find it difficult to generate an income as they struggle to balance the need to work with socio-cultural factors that sometimes limit women’s interaction in public. Traditionally Syrian men work while women stay at home. Now those women must find ways to provide financially, often while raising children as well as caring for family members with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
Farah is a mother of four from Damascus. In Syria, Farah and her husband owned their home. She did not work. “It was a peaceful life,” she says, “until the fighting began.” Her husband went missing amid the crisis. She doesn’t know what happened to him. She heard rumours from neighbours but she can’t be sure. Farah is clinging to the hope that he’s still alive and that they’ll be reunited again.
In Jordan, the aid her family receives isn’t enough to pay for rent, bills and food. Farah is the sole provider for her four children and elderly mother. She faced countless obstacles trying to find a job. She has never worked before and feels a lack of experience and skills is holding her back. Hoping to improve her skills and chances for better work, Farah participates in training programmes at the women’s centre in Zarqa. Since attending the counselling activities, the pressure of providing for her family doesn’t weigh as much anymore.
“Coming to the centre has helped me gain a new perspective. I have made friends and I learn new skills. I can get support when I need it.”
After visiting the centre regularly for weekly counselling activities and socialising with other Syrian women, Farah identified an opportunity to increase her income. Farah is now preparing meals for women in her neighbourhood who, due to the overcrowded and unsuitable housing, don’t have access to a kitchen of their own. “Without the centre, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to approach my neighbours and offer to cook for them. I didn’t even know many of them.”
“We have to discover hidden strengths in ourselves. I have to be stronger. I’m often tired, and I struggle, but I’m providing for my family,” says Farah proudly. “Syrian women are smart. Things have changed and now we are the providers of the household.”
Jihan – Lebanon
“After my son, Zubair was arrested, the fighting got worse and worse. We didn’t want to leave our house because we didn’t know what had happened to Zubair. I didn’t want him to be released and have nowhere to go. He was only a child when he was arrested.” But their security situation deteriorated and the family was forced to leave their home eventually.
“We were internally displaced for three and a half months. We were trying to find safety but there was nowhere in Syria that was safe. We were exhausted and we had small children with us, so we decided to return to our house, even if it wasn’t safe.” With a heavy heart, the family went home under sniper fire and shelling. “We thought it was better to live under bombardment than starve on the road.”
The family couldn’t imagine that the situation could get worse than it already was. The fighting intensified and the family was trapped in their neighbourhood surrounded by four fiercely contested frontlines. They lived under an impenetrable siege cut off from any humanitarian aid for seven months.
“At first, there were still some streets, narrow winded passages that were open. For a while, my husband would be able to venture outside and come back with food and water for us. But then we were cut off completely. There was no route left to leave the neighbourhood. We were trapped without any access to supplies.”
“My daughter was two and a half years at the time, and I was still breastfeeding. Otherwise, I don’t think she would have survived. I used to cut up any fabric I could find to keep her clean. We didn’t have any food. We would go out and try finding something, anything in the abandoned and destroyed houses in the neighbourhood. We risked our lives to go out, there were snipers hiding who shot at anything that moved. After a while, we weren’t able to find any foodstuffs anymore. We were starving.” Jihan describes her situation bluntly, “When there was no food left, we would go out and look for animal faeces. We would break them up and look for undigested grains. And we gave those washed grains our children to eat.”
“At the end, we had no running water and it was impossible to go out and scavenge for anything edible. We were encircled by the frontlines and trapped. There was no end to the siege in sight.”
“Then I heard a rumour that the Red Cross was able to evacuate women and children. It was a difficult decision to make because we had to leave my husband behind. But if we wanted our children to survive I needed to leave him. He’s still in trapped in out home. I haven’t seen him since. It breaks my heart that this happened to our family.”
When the family tried to flee their neighbourhood for a second time they were detained at a checkpoint. They tried to detain Zubeir’s younger brother and other boys but luckily the Red Cross staff was able to intervene and released the children. Finally, Jihan and her three youngest children were able to leave Darayya.
“Once we left Darayya we were placed in a shelter for internally displaced people. The Red Cross provided food but we weren’t able to leave. Eventually, we were able to get bailed out and we left to Lebanon straight away. Zubair was able to join us here when he was released.”
“We arrived in Lebanon on November 10, 2013. My sister was already in Lebanon and we stayed with her at first. At last, we’ were safe.”
After leaving her sisters small home, she found a room but wasn’t able to afford the rent on her small income. “They asked us to leave when we couldn’t pay the rent. Money is our biggest concern. I found a work as a cleaner and my employer lets us use this room for free. Before the war, we were well off and had a comfortable life. The war changed all that. Now I live in this small room with my children. It smells. We have no running water and there is no bathroom.”
“We always need money. The food coupons are never enough. Sugar is a luxury we haven’t had for years. Even at ‘Eid, I didn’t even have any candy for my children. The winter is coming and the little ones need new shoes. Nothing you see here is ours. Everything is borrowed. We own nothing anymore. Even the blankets are borrowed,” she sighs. “My kids are always sick. We’re always cold. They have difficulty breathing because there is no ventilation in the house. And the smell…”
“I went to the centre because I thought they distribute food. I always try to go to places that offer aid. I need to for my children. When I went, there was a workshop taking place and they distributed hygiene kits to the women. I talked to the staff and they told me about the therapy. I go every Thursday now. And Zeinab goes, too. I would like Zubair to join us. Maybe he will eventually. He’s gotten a bit better, though.” Jihan pauses. “Zeinab and I have learned a lot at the centre. I’ve learned how to manage my emotions and I think I can relate to my children better, too. I hope that because of what I have learned that I’m more patient with Zubair. He’s not as withdrawn as he used to be. He opens up more now. But I know he didn’t tell you everything about his time in prison because I was here. He doesn’t want me to worry but I know what he tells his friends.”
Najwan – Lebanon
“I think the war has changed my life. Before I was dead but now I’m alive,” says Najwan, a young mother of four who fled Syria with her young children and in-laws when her husband went missing.
Najwan describes a difficult childhood and a loveless marriage. “My parents got divorced when I was nine years old. My father took my sister and me away from my mother and he left us with our grandmother.” Without a loving parent to look out for her, Najwan was groomed by a neighbour soon after she moved in with her grandmother. For three years she had to endure the abuse of a trusted neighbour and family friend. Najwan was too young to understand what was happening but when her grandmother eventually discovered the abuse it was her who was punished not her abuser.
She was only thirteen years old when her family rushed to marry her off to an older man. Her in-laws took advantage of her youth and insecurity. She was a traumatised child overwhelmed by her new responsibilities and her family’s expectations. Her mother-in-law especially vented her frustrations and anger on Najwan. Instead of guiding the child, she punished her for every mistake. “I didn’t know how to run a household and didn’t know how to cook. My mother-in-law always pointed out my mistakes and hit me and insulted me. My husband never interfered or asked his mother to be more understanding with me,” remembers Najwan.
She felt she didn’t deserve better.
“Then the war started and things began to change,” says Najwan. “Before the war, my husband was working hard to provide for us. But when the war started there was very little work and fighting everywhere. One day, he went out looking for food for our family. But he never came back. We didn’t know what happened to him. The family was desperate to find him. There was no food. No water. No electricity. We were in a miserable state. My children kept asking me, ‘where is daddy?’ I told them that he was travelling. Every day bombs hit our neighbourhood. There was no place we could go to for safety. This is why we fled. Even here in Lebanon, I’m thinking that my husband may still be alive. Only recently we heard what happened. Our neighbours said he was arrested and they believe that he has been killed, but they can’t be sure. I have not him yet mourned. I don’t know if I can believe what I’ve heard.”
When Najwan arrived with her in-laws in Lebanon, Najwan was mentally and physically exhausted. The family doesn’t have any savings and they’re struggling to earn enough money for the rent. Najwan was especially worried bout the wellbeing of her youngest son. “Emad is only 4 years-old, he doesn’t know anything but this crisis. He doesn’t have the same childhood my older children had before the war. He can’t play outside, it feels like I’m keeping him in prison.”
A friend in the neighbourhood told her that the women’s centre could help her and her son. “We started seeing a therapist. And I’m feeling much stronger.” Even her friend says she’s a different woman now. “She’s not the person, she was before.”
“The centre has helped me a lot. I’m learning new skills. I’m going to all the classes they offer at the centre. I want to learn everything. I missed out on school because I married young but here I have a chance to learn again. And I’m enjoying it so much. I have attended all the communications workshops, too.”
And I have started to stand up for myself. For the first time, I have said ‘no’ to my mother-in-law,” Najwan is radiating as she describes the ways in which the centre has helped her.
After working with a social worker and attending intensive counselling sessions and workshops, Najwan has gained a confidence she’s never had before. “I’ve decided to say ‘no’ to anyone who wants to hurt me.” The day Najwan decided to be more assertive, her life turned around. “I’m now strong enough to politely say ‘no’ to my mother-in-law, and she stopped bothering me. My in-laws are not as controlling as they used to be. They don’t like me coming to the centre but they can’t stop me.”
At the centre, Najwan has been able to become more assertive and independent but she’s also found a strong support network in the other women who visit the centre. “We’ve become very good friends. I feel loved and supported for the first time. They are like family to me.”
“It’s my dream to have a job and my own house for my children and me. I’ve never imagined that I would have to work or want to work. I used to see myself as a homemaker and mother. But because of the war, I’m a refugee, a widow and have to provide for my children. The situation forced me to rethink. And with the support from the centre, I’m more confident and more capable. I like the idea of working now because I know I have friends who love and support me. I’m not alone anymore. I don’t have to face my problems alone anymore but can talk about my feelings and problems with loved ones. And I’m happy to support my friends with their dreams, too.”
Hajar and Ibrahim – Jordan
“Homs is a city of horror,” says Hajar a mother of four from Homs. All of her children but her oldest daughter are living with her and her husband, Ibrahim, in Zarqa, Jordan. “There was the smell of explosives everywhere, there were fires burning that filled the air with black smoke. I used to go to work every day and hear the sound of snipers’ bullets. The worst thing was the fear of kidnapping,” she says. “Sometimes we didn’t take out the rubbish for days for fear of being in the street.”
“It’s hard, especially for the children,” adds Ibrahim. “Our main worry is their welfare. As an adult, you can cope, but the little ones don’t understand what’s happening. They are afraid of sudden noises and if a door slams they jump.”
When the fighting came closer and closer to their neighbourhood he thought, “We either die here or we get out of Homs now. Before heading to Jordan, we went to Damascus to stay with my daughter and her family but their neighbourhood wasn’t safe either. There was fighting everywhere, and I decided we must move on,” says Ibrahim sadly. “My son-in-law didn’t want to leave Damascus, and at first, my wife didn’t want to go either because of my daughter. It was difficult for us to leave them in Damascus. It was the last time we saw our daughter and our grandchildren.”
When Hajar talks about her daughter her eyes tear up. The couple and three youngest children left their home in Homs two years ago but their daughter and grandchildren are still in Syria. “We talk every day. I worry about her. It’s not safe. I wish she was here with us in Zarqa.” Ibrahim says that all their financial worries pale compared to the concern about their daughter and her young family.
“Our family is scattered all over. We have relatives who are now in Turkey, Lebanon and here in Jordan. Only my daughter is still in Syria.”
“My mother recently died. I didn’t see her and now my daughter has no family left in Syria,” a tear fell down her cheek. “My daughter tells me they only have electricity a few hours a day. And I fear it’s not safe for her to stay there but…,” Hajar’s voice breaks. “That the family is separated is very hard on us.”
“Everyone comes with a story,” says Hajar about the women’s centre in Zarqa.
“So many of the stories are tragic. Women who have lost their husbands in the war or even a child, and families that are separated, like ours. Here at the centre, we can talk about our experiences, we share our sorrow and we support each other, too. Before I came to the centre, I didn’t leave the house very often and I didn’t even know my neighbours. The loneliness made it difficult for me to cope with my emotions. An outreach volunteer visiting the neighbourhood told me about the centre, the health care services there, the hygiene kits but also that there are recreational activities and courses, too. Since I visit the centre, I’ve made friends, I get out of the everyday routine at home, I can learn new things and I’m feeling more even-tempered.”
One of the most profoundly disturbing aspects of refugee life outside of the camps is the extreme isolation experienced by most of the women and girls. There is often a deep mistrust of both their Jordanian and Syrian neighbours, coupled with codes of modesty and a lack of opportunity, that has exacerbated the isolation of many Syrian women and girls who spend their days closed away in their small rooms rarely if ever leaving the building. Creating spaces where Syrian women and girls can feel safe and supported eases concerns over safety or perceived threats (such as street harassment) and ensures more access to services. Women’s and child-friendly centres promote a sense of safety, facilitate the development of community networks, and allow children to gain more confidence and help address the various psychosocial challenges that children face.