(Editor’s note: names and locations have been changed to protect the identity of some of the women.)
Nada was the most defiant woman I had ever met. Not yet 30, and the mother of two small sons under the age of five she had been displaced not once, but three times, since the start of the war in Syria.
Born into a prominent Homs family, Nada was separated from her husband, a university student turned rebel fighter, early on in the war. Alone with her two boys in the family home, Nada sat for weeks alone in her bare apartment, listening to bombs and bullets pour down, sometimes hiding under a bed in an effort to keep the children safe. She lived on tinned food, afraid to try to go out and scrounge for more. All of her neighbors had fled, but Nada was too terrified to try to take her children to a safer place.
The night Nada realized she had to flee was the night Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers entered her apartment. As they smashed up her furniture, threatened her and her children, Nada made a decision.
“I was alone in my nightgown,” she said. “All I wanted to do was protect my children. I had to go.”
The next day Nada crept out of her bombed-out building to make a dash for her mother’s apartment.
It was only 200 meters away but there was shelling and shooting and she carried one child on her back, the other under her arm.
“I brought nothing but a small backpack—our documents and a change of clothes.”
From Homs Nada took a bus to another city. As her children slept against her shoulder, a group of soldiers entered the bus and singled her out.
They roughly pulled Nada, who wore a headscarf, off the bus. They interrogated her about her husband. They were rough: and while she was not raped, she nearly was.
“I was saved by the bus driver and the other passengers, who would not leave without me until the soldiers finished questioning me.”
In the new town where she settled, Nada found a place to live and a job. She tried to organize the children. But there was no security.
In the middle of the night, a colleague from work telephoned Nada and told her she was soon to be arrested, in relation to her missing husband. Once again, she took the sleeping children under her arm in the middle of the night, and found herself waiting in an eerie and isolated bus station. This time, she went to Latakia.
Finally, after many weeks and many more mishaps—including a few days in jail separated from her children—Nada got out of Syria. She crossed the border to Lebanon.
Nada is alone, in a foreign country, and at risk. But she is one of the more fortunate Syrian refugee women I saw.
Nada has an education, and in some ways, internal resources. She is ready to make a new life, as painful as her reality is.
But for others, there are little or no resources. Last week, the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) launched a crucial report, “Woman Alone: The Fight for Survival by Syrian Refugee Women,” that I helped draft along with a dedicated team of researchers, lawyers and photojournalists.
Together, we spent five months preparing the report by interviewing more than 130 women, all of them heads of households.
Being a single mother in any society is not easy. You are emotionally vulnerable and responsible for all crucial decisions.
But to be one of the Syrian women we interviewed was particularly painful. Many of the women we spoke to in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt were not educated. They came from rural communities outside of major cities such as Homs, Damascus or Hama.
Some of them told me they had never left their homes before to go shopping, let alone run a household alone.
Sybella Wilkes from UNHCR says, “Most of the women are really at the end of their line. They reached the end of their savings, they sold off their gold, and only a very few have relatives they can call on. “
Some had no idea where their husbands were—either they were fighting back in Syria, dead or disappeared.
Their primary concerns are what any mother would worry about: how to get a roof over their heads and how to feed their families. One of our primary focuses was their financial vulnerability.
The findings of the report were startling. Nearly 145,000 women—one-quarter of Syrian refugee women—in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt are heading households alone, and are extremely vulnerable.
Their major hurdle is financial. Only one-fifth of these women have paid work, and that is usually domestic or farm work. Some have to go to drastic measures to get by.
“It’s often calling on the kindness of strangers,” says Wilkes. “And putting themselves and their children at risk in order to survive another month.”
Only one-fifth has emotional or financial support from other adult relatives, some of whom might have crossed the border with them. Some, but not all, get help from local hosts—landlords who help them out by letting them skip a month’s rent or stay for free; or from local mosques.
I talked to many women who had to send their children, heartbreakingly, out to work. In Northern Lebanon, there are children as young as five who do double shifts of farm labor, which of course means that they cannot go to school.
Only a quarter of these women receive cash assistance from UNHCR and other aid agencies; two-thirds of those who got assistance are entirely dependent on it.
While all of them get food assistance in some form or another, a third of the women say they do not have enough to eat.
“Back in Syria, we lived on a farm,” one woman told me. “We had orchards. Fruit trees. Cows for milk and cheese. Chickens. We had vegetables and fruit.” Now she worries that her children don’t have enough nutrients to grow.
In a dark hut near the infamous Za’atari camp in Jordan, now the fourth largest city in the country due to the refugee crisis, another woman sat with me on a bare mattress and described how she fed her family.
“It’s bread and cheese for breakfast,” she said, “Bread and cheese for lunch. And bread and cheese for dinner.” She said her children yearned for roast chicken, a dish they often had back home in Syria.
“But a chicken, or a tomato, has not entered this home in months,” she said.
How did she survive? She pointed to a white mark on her tanned skin. “I sold my wedding ring,” she said, then collapsed into tears. “And right after I did, I found out my husband, who was missing, was dead in Syria.”
There are other pressing issues when one is thrust into a new country. Children have trouble getting into schools because of local overcrowding. In Lebanon, where the government infrastructures are already under siege, this is a sensitive matter. There is also the question of medical care. Most of the refugees simply cannot afford the prices charged by doctors, and find themselves in countries where they know no one and cannot fend for themselves.
In another home in northern Lebanon—where there are not official refugee camps, but rather settlements that are set up that the refugees pay for themselves—I met two sisters, Xeinab and Hanaa, who had both been stricken by polio when they were young girls.
They could not walk, and lived in a hut at the end of a dirt road that got flooded by rain and isolated in the winter. Both were in wheelchairs and could not crawl to a bathroom at the back of the hut by themselves.
Their caretaker was a 10-year-old boy, the child of one of the sisters, Abdulkarim, who was kept out of school to take care of the women.
He sometimes got lessons from the local imam, but his world was confined to a dark room where he cooked, cleaned and tried to be the man of the house. He is only 10 years old, and the weight on his shoulders is enormous.
When the sisters described their life before the war—difficult, because of their handicaps, but sustainable—they said what they missed the most was seeing other people. In their new world as refugees, they are utterly isolated.
What we found as time went by and we gathered more information was that the greatest solace for these women was to use each other as a de facto therapy.
Near Tripoli, Lebanon, I met a young mother, Kafa, who has seven small children and was living in a small tent-like hut she had built on a settlement. It was a cold day when I saw her, and her children lay huddled under blankets in the middle of the day.
“All they do is sleep,” Kafa told me. One of her younger boys was fiercely protective of his mother, recognizing that as a woman alone in a male world, she was highly vulnerable and preyed upon sexually.
“I don’t even dare go out of the tent,” Kafa said. One way she found of coping was by having another young woman come in to share their tent. Although the living space was overcrowded, having someone whom she knew was a comfort and a solace.
It also gave her a sense of physical security. One of the most difficult thing for these women, many of whom had been married since their early teens, was to be alone fending off male attention.
Sixty per cent of the women interviewed expressed feelings of insecurity, and one in three were too scared or overwhelmed even to leave their homes. Many of them told us how they were harassed verbally, sometimes physically, by taxi drivers, local shopkeepers, or men in their settlements—both Syrian and local.
In Egypt, we found many of the women were often harassed simply when they took public transportation, and sometimes treated badly because they were Syrian women.
There are now 2.8 million refugees from the Syrian crisis, and by the end of the year it is expected the figure will rise to 3.6 million. That does not count the many who are internally displaced within Syria—those who have fled the brutal fighting in Aleppo, in Homs, in Damascus, and who struggle to maintain some semblance of normality in their lives.
In traditional Syrian society, women are the glue that holds the family together. If this unit is broken down and destroyed, then the entire framework of society is fragile.
What will happen to them? Is there more that can be done?
“These women are holding one-quarter of Syrian families together,” says Wilkes. “If Syria is going to find peace, these are the families that will be putting it back together.”
“But many are at the end of the limits of their endurance. Their resources have run out…We have to invest in these women,” says Wilkes. “We have to offer them something. Training or just financial support so they can turn around a desperate situation. Without that help, we are quite frightened for them.”