Picture this: Your life, torn up from its roots, has suddenly turned into the norm in a world that only pays you lip service. Your family has become all that you can rely on, salvaging what little normalcy can be found between raids, shootings and bombings as you struggle to stay in one home. Then one night, you hear a rush of voices, loud pounding at the door and see weapons waving about; your husband is torn from your arms; your children are crying around you. You hear nothing from him for weeks, and the little you know leaves you mourning for what you once had. You’ve lost stability in the house, but your children can’t know that. Packing up what little you need, you take your children and leave your home and town, sure of only two things: Your family’s safety is what matters most, and you won’t be of help to anyone if you stay.
You’re now one of more than 4 million Syrian refugees, a woman solely in charge of taking care of her family and surviving the conflict, all at once. By now the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, the Syrian conflict continues to escalate. Humanitarian needs are climbing; population displacement is spreading, and an entire generation of children is being exposed to war and violence, increasingly deprived of basic services, education and protection. One thing is clear: Syrian women are keeping the threads of the scattered refugee crisis tight, mending them one day at a time. The most-affected victims (and survivors) of the Syrian crisis, these women are integral to the future of the tattered nation — and the world.
The nearly 5-year-old conflict began as a revolution for democracy. In Daraa, a southern city that’s a stone’s throw from the Jordanian border, teenagers who had spray-painted pro-revolution messages at school were arrested, brutally beaten and tortured in February 2011, prompting protests a month later. The demonstrations began peacefully, but took a tragic turn when authorities responded with violent and deadly force. In a matter of days, more than a dozen protesters were killed and dozens more were injured, numbers that would swell as Syrians nationwide — hundreds of thousands come summertime — joined the demonstrations. Police and military troops killed hundreds. Some dissenters organized into armed rebel groups; clashes deepened into civil war through the second half of the year.
From the start of the unrest to April 2013, according to a U.N.-commissioned report, upward of 90,000 Syrians had been killed. With government-deployed chemical warfare and massacres, not to mention the rise of ISIS, the death toll mushroomed. A later U.N.-backed report measured the conflict’s total economic losses at $202 billion by the end of 2014, noting that 80% of Syrians lived in poverty. The most recent U.N. count, released in August 2015, measured some 12 million Syrians displaced and more than 250,000 slain.
With that in mind, how do Syrian mothers move the world forward? The Islamic Monthly spoke with Nadia Alawa, president and executive director of NuDay Syria, a humanitarian relief nongovernmental organization focused on empowerment through stability efforts for women and families.
“The Syrian mother is resilient and deeply loves her children — but not at the price of losing her dignity and that of her family,” Alawa explained. “It has been very humbling to be able to help and provide relief to mothers who stand by their children and their right to live and believe in freedom.”
One particular case study demonstrates just how resilient Syrian mothers are. NuDay Syria’s Outreach and Empowerment Center in the Turkish city of Antakya provides refugee mothers, who may have lost everything except their pride, a venue to earn money on their own and learn skills, gain independence and renew their self-esteem. The center is also a school for refugee children, and NuDay Syria is raising funds to expand their educational endeavors at an additional location.
“What makes our center run so smoothly is the fact that it is run by a mother who herself was an active participant of humanitarian efforts inside Syria. This woman is also a grandmother and is now the guardian of her orphaned grandson,” Alawa shared. (Her name is not being shared out of concern for her security.) The two narrowly escaped getting caught by the Syrian regime as they fled the country, making their way across a river to Turkey in a barrel.
“Refugees do not leave their home country unless they really have to. In the case of Syrians, often not until their homes have gotten bombed, and the regime is actively targeting them. In the past two years, Syrian mothers are now also escaping ISIS, so they are running from two evils,” Alawa said.
Yet with survival, comes resilience. Because of her experiences, the center’s manager ensures that young refugee mothers feel some relief, that they can unload their sorrows onto someone who understands. Her humanitarian experience also ensures that she’s able to use her abilities to “empower and aid fellow Syrian mothers,” Alawa noted.
It’s easy to generalize the Syrian refugee crisis as being one and the same as other crises, but the staggering death toll, widespread displacement and mounting number of women who have been left in charge of their families’ survival have made it another story entirely. Historically, Syrian women were creative and economical when it came to running their households, so for NuDay Syria’s efforts, Alawa found it integral to bypass the humanitarian works typical of other relief organizations. Rather than focusing on short-term emergency initiatives, NuDay Syria has discovered first-hand that there is more that can be done with an expanded focus on self-esteem and sustainability.
“Ensuring that [Syrian women] became empowered instead of victimized further by both the poverty and aid processes meant consequently that the resources would be used optimally and with a long-term outcome,” Alawa explained.
The organization works in a besieged area near Damascus, Syria, with a mother-activist on the Syrian regime’s Most Wanted list. (Her name is also not being cited for her security.) Rather than standing back and disempowering herself — and in effect, those around her — she’s taken charge leading humanitarian efforts in an area with “several hundred widowed mothers and their orphans,” Alawa said. “We work together to ensure these families get food. Getting caught would likely mean torture until death. It is for mothers like this activist and those that she helps that inspire and drive me to keep going and to keep working towards being able to help as much as possible.”
That’s extremely telling. In a political climate where more than half of America’s governors oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states, there’s much to be learned from the tenacity, hope and drive that Syrian mothers possess for their children, and in turn, for the world around them. There too is hope in this lesson, at least in Alawa’s eyes. “There is no doubt that the future of Syria lies with its children and thus its mothers, so helping to boost their backbone will eventually ensure peace and a productive future for the children, the country, and us all globally.
“These mothers want the same things we all want for our children: Freedom, happiness and choices in life. Their wants are so simple, yet we complicate them by hatred, power and greed — so much so that we forget who the victims really are.”
This article appears in the Winter 2015/2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.
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