Syrian Women Share Stories of Resilience

Rasha constantly worries about her parents, who are still in Damascus [Priyanka Gupta/Al Jazeera]
Priyanka Gupta | Al Jazeera
The UN talks on Syria are due to begin in Geneva on Friday, and an often overlooked aspect of the conflict has been its disproportionate effect on women, who have been caught in a cycle of violence and displacement.

More than 50 percent of the registered Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are women.

“These are incredibly resilient women, but resilience and the ability to cope are like a rubber band. Each step – the sheer brutality of the war, the loss of family and friends, the fear for one’s life­ – all of that pushes one’s ability to cope to the maximum,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s crisis response director, tells Al Jazeera.

Here, three women living as refugees in Lebanon share stories of love and fear, beauty and brutality.

Jenan’s story: ‘The only thing left to sell is the stove’

Jenan is six months pregnant with her fourth child, but is worried about how she will be able to keep a roof over their heads [Priyanka Gupta/Al Jazeera]
These days, Jenan’s small rented apartment is almost empty. A few tattered rugs lay on the cold floor. There are some old wooden chairs and dusty cushions in the corner. It means that there is enough room for her three boys to run around, but little for them to hide behind in a game of hide and seek.

Jenan is six months pregnant with her fourth child. Her husband, Muhammad, left for Germany four months ago. Her three-and-a-half-year-old son, Hassan, suffers from a congenital disease that requires constant treatment.

“I have to pay a rent of $250 every month. I have no money left any more. I have been selling furniture, the fridge and whatever is left to sell for food, medicine for my children,” she says.

“The only thing left to sell is, perhaps, the stove,” she concludes as her eyes take in the bare room.

Before Muhammad set out on the refugee trail from Turkey to Greece, and the longer journey northwards to Germany, he gave Jenan $300 and a promise that he would bring her and the children to join him in Europe as soon as he could.

After four years in southern Beirut’s Burj el-Barajneh camp, the dangerous journey to Europe was his last desperate attempt to build a more stable future for his family.

Muhammad is from Deraa in Syria, but Jenan is a Palestinian refugee from Burj el-Barajneh. They met before the war when Muhammad would come to the camp for construction work. The camp was established in 1948 to house Palestinian refugees, and its residents are among the poorest in Lebanon.

Jenan’s parents died when she was young, so she lived with her uncle. A few days after he saw her in a neighbour’s house, Muhammad asked Jenan’s uncle for permission to marry her.

He made enough money from physical labour to promise Jenan a life of comfort away from the camp.

“Growing up, my childhood was rough without parents. I had a general lack of emotion,” Jenan remembers. “But my heart always craved for someone to evoke those feelings and desires in me. I wanted to feel love. I wanted a family and someone who could care about me.”

During their two-month-long courtship, Muhammad would buy her gifts; they would talk about their pasts and dream about their future together. To Jenan, he seemed to promise the financial security and stability she never had growing up.

“Muhammad told me ‘I will make up for what you have lost when you were a child. I will be there for you and take care of you’,” she says. “I decided he is the man for me.

“The only thing he asked me was to wear a hijab after marriage, and I thought that since I was getting married, I wouldn’t mind it at all.”

After they were married, Jenan and Muhammad moved to Deraa. A year later, the bombings began.

“The situation in Deraa was very frightening. The children were scared of the constant attacks. Nobody knew who was killing whom. We barely had enough food to eat.”

They decided to return to Burj el-Barajneh.

Now, with Muhammad in Germany, they are only able to communicate through voice messages.

Their messages mainly revolve around their frustrations: Muhammad complains about the food and tells her how much he is missing her cooking. She tries to comfort him. But she too is worried – particularly about what the future will hold for their unborn child.

Her thoughts are interrupted by a loud knock on the door. A woman comes inside and surveys the house. Jenan’s eyes follow her nervously.

The woman leaves and Jenan closes the door behind her. She explains that it was her landlady. She had come to tell her that another family would be coming to see the house that day, and Jenan might soon have to vacate it.

Jenan looks worried. Her children have eaten nothing but rice with lentils for days, and she sometimes skips meals altogether in order to feed them. It is taking a toll.

“My son had a high fever yesterday, and I didn’t even have money to take him to a good doctor,” she says.

“I think I need to sell other things for the rent before she kicks me out, but that won’t be enough. I don’t know where to go. I have three children – no one will take me in.”

The light on her phone blinks. Her face lights up and, for a moment, the worry seems to disappear. It is a message from Muhammad.

Muntaha’s story: ‘My home, my rock’

Muntaha keeps a piece of concrete to remind her of her home in Deraa, Syria [Priyanka Gupta/Al Jazeera]
Sunlight trickles through a thick web of cables as faint peals of laughter fill the dark, dank staircase.
Muntaha and her friends, Rasha and Magdalene, have gathered for their afternoon cup of coffee at her apartment in Shatila, an old Palestinian refugee camp south of Beirut. It has become home to hundreds of Syrian refugees since the war started.

Muntaha smiles easily and laughs warmly as she pours the coffee. The friends swap stories as their children play outside.

This small circle makes these women – who are from different parts of Syria but share experiences of war and displacement – feel at home in a foreign country, where they say they encounter nothing but hostility.

Muntaha came from Deraa four years ago.

“I had only packed for 10 days when I came to Lebanon. I thought I would be here only for a few days because things would be back to normal. But I haven’t been back since,” she says.

Her husband used to own a supermarket, but it was destroyed during a bombing. The family lost everything, and her husband has struggled to adjust to their new reality.

“My husband was very romantic,” she remembers.

“Before our marriage, he used to wait outside the school where I used to teach. One day, he asked my neighbour for my number and called me. He asked me if he could get to know me better,” Muntaha laughs.

“We used to dress up and go out a lot. But since the war began, my husband has always been anxious and nervous. My poor husband – I worry a lot about him,” she says.

“You know, I try not think about the past, but …” Her voice trails off as she tries to hold back her tears.

Rasha and Magdalene know her pain all too well. They came to Lebanon around the same time – from Yarmouk and Raqqa – with just a few bags and the hope of returning soon.
It has been three years since Rasha last saw her parents and 10 siblings. Her youngest brother, 17­-year­-old Muhammad, was imprisoned by the Syrian government. They do not know if he is still alive.

Rasha says she is constantly worried about her parents, who are in Damascus.

Unreliable telephone connections and safety concerns mean that she can talk to her family only once or twice a month, and when she does not hear from them she spends her days in a state of anxiety.

“My husband and I don’t have time for each other. All we do is worry about our families back home. I have problems with my family and he has problems with his,” she says.

Magdalene wonders if she can ever go back to Raqqa, which is now the stronghold of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

“We just want to go back. Syria is my home. We want the Syrian air. If I can go back to my country and my home, I will choose that over Europe … [any] time,” she says.

Muntaha does not have a home to go back to. She still remembers the day her house was bombed and how her mother-in-law pushed her and her children into a taxi, urging them to escape to safety in Lebanon.

The bombs were pouring like rain, she recalls.

But as the taxi started to pull away, Muntaha made the driver turn back. She climbed out of the car, ran into her damaged courtyard, and grabbed a broken piece of concrete from her home. She held it in her hand for the duration of the journey to Lebanon. She still has it now.

“I didn’t take any jewellery with me,” she reflects. “For me, this rock was everything.”

Sana’s story: ‘The women are so beautiful’

Sana begs with her children on the streets of Beirut [Priyanka Gupta/Al Jazeera]
Every evening, 20­-year-­old Sana brings her three children with her to Hamra Street, a bustling Beirut neighbourhood lined with offices and roadside cafes.
She places pieces of cardboard neatly on the pavement and begins begging.

Sana was one month pregnant when her husband died in an explosion in Idlib.

“At first, I was ashamed,” she says. “I came only during the night so that people can’t see my face properly or recognise me. My neighbours don’t know what I do.”

Somebody has left new toys for Sana’s children and they begin to enthusiastically tear off their packaging.

Teenage Syrian boys with shoe­shine kits stand idly on a corner, exhausted after a day spent persuading tourists to pay for their services. One of them promised Sana that he would find some work for her.

Sana dreamed of opening a beauty salon in Syria [Priyanka Gupta/Al Jazeera]
Two Lebanese women come with a wooden tray full of muffins for her and her children. Her eyes light up as she eats them. Other children start milling around her and Sana shouts at them: “What do you think is happening? Go away, go.”

A young Syrian girl shouts back­: “What’s your problem? Can’t you see I am working? I am begging.”

As her two sons chase a toy truck, Sana’s eyes linger on the smartly dressed women who walk past, their heels clacking on the pavement.

“Lebanese women are so beautiful. I love the way they put on make-up and get dressed,” she says.

After a minute’s pause, she adds: “I wanted to be a hair­dresser once. I used to dream of opening a beauty salon.

“Sometimes I feel so sad when I see all these people so well-dressed and happy. I see children dressed up and playing around me, and I look at my children and they don’t even have …” The tears take over and Sana can speak no more.


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