Now entering its 11th year, Syria’s conflict has taken a massive toll on every single Syrian, but most particularly women and girls. About 1.7 million displaced Syrian women and children are living in overcrowded camps or unfinished vacant buildings. Extreme weather, like floods and frigid winter temperatures, put their lives at risk.
In northwest Syria, displaced Syrian women and girls who live in camps in Idleb, are defying the embedded social and cultural norms that prescribed their lives as war continues. Day after day, the European Union and World Vision are helping these women and girls with healthcare and support to overcome violence, trauma, and ensure their safety.
“The resilience of Syrian women as their lives took a turn for the worst due to conflict and economic hardship is nothing short of admirable,” said Luigi Pandolfi, Head of EU Humanitarian Aid Operations in Syria. “The European Union is committed to helping the girls and women who need it most to be safer, healthier, and gain more control over their lives.”
World Vision has joined British illustrator Paul Blow to bring the empowering stories of women and girls to life through animation, and to visualize their courage to challenge norms as it shines through their remarkable determination and decisions for a better life.
What drives them to live another day, despite the myriad of dangers? What gives them strength to disrupt the social norms that limit them? To bravely share their feelings of leaving home and building a new life? The reasons behind their smiles?
Finding their voice to end child marriage
Conflict and displacement made conditions even worse: Parents in desperate situations were forced to make even more desperate decisions as they lost their homes and livelihoods. Child marriage became a common practice.
Aisha*, a 20-year-old literature student and the eldest of 13 siblings, shares: “I was afraid, frustrated and broken [when my father married me at 14]. I had hopes. I refused until my wedding day when I told them [father and uncle] to get me out of this dress, get me out of this coffin. [….] It was very ugly. Although it only lasted for 20 days when I found the courage to leave this new family and go back home. But those 20 days were enough to destroy me for 20 years ahead.”
Child marriage instead is accompanied by significant physical and psychological harm, mental health challenges, increased domestic violence, early withdrawal from education and poverty. “I had to marry when I was 15 and now, I have 2 children; but faced major problems in the home with my husband and his family who was abusive. I knew I had to escape. I was too young for this, but was afraid to lose my children. He [the husband] took everything from me – my childhood and children,” says 24-years-old Khadeeja*. She was displaced from her village two years ago, and is now enrolled in university, where she is studying medicine.
The power to believe in themselves is what pushed them to say no and break from a cycle of violence that was ripping them off of their childhood. It was also the reason that encouraged them to empower other women to overcome this pain.
“The hardships I went through, being subjected to violence by my husband when I was barely an adolescent [girl], getting divorce, and then, being deprived of my children, made me adamant to follow my goals. My dream is to stay strong and get my children back and regain my place back in society [without being discriminated for having divorced]. And I tell the same to the other girls in my small community [that they can put an end to child marriage]”, further explains the young mother, Khadeeja.
Aisha speaks with a similar sentiment. “With my education, I can help many girls as a teacher, which is a source of strength for me. You are still struggling but you are overcoming [these fears] and are helping others. This is a great feeling. I feel powerful and useful when I raise awareness in the university and the camps against child marriage and violence against women [and girls].”
Thirty-eight-year-old Dunia*, a former child bride and mother of eight children, was displaced from her village six years go. She found a way to empower other women: “I started meeting with the female neighbours in the evening [after attending the mental health sessions]. We drink tea and talk about our problems. I [now] advise younger women not to despair and look for help to solve problems and be strong, and not give in to this reality. I learned that life requires perseverance and struggle and that a woman can overcome her problems if she wants to; I believe that if a woman wants someone to help her, she must first help herself by going out to face life, being strong, and learning new things.”
Winning the battle against depression
Half of Syria’s children have known nothing but violence and war, growing up in one of the most dangerous places for a child. Adolescent girls who have children of their own live in constant fear for their lives due to chronic stressors and the uncertainty of the future while access to simple things is continuously increasing the severity and scale of mental health needs.
Many are experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD. For single mothers with dependent children, self-care is elusive, further deepening their challenges. “It was so hard for me [seeing him sick]. I often used to put the Quran over him for God to protect my boy. It was tough and frustrating—no medicine, no hospitals, Covid-19 cases appeared and [there was] bombing non-stop. I can’t put it in words – it affected my mental state”, says Rahaf*, a displaced mother of seven. She hasn’t felt settled since her displacement nine years ago.
Rahaf was able to receive psychological support from World Vision in Idleb. It changed her life and her children’s too, she says. “The parenting and mental health and psychosocial support sessions helped me deal with my children. This gave me positive energy and helped me give something new to them – the mother they had before the war started. Now, I advise and help other single mothers in my area [how to cope with stress, and fear]. I want their children to have happy mothers too”.
Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable as they are stigmatized, they cannot find jobs to support their children and lack safe spaces. They usually get abused and overworked, which, coupled with the conflict-inflicted trauma affects their mental health. But these are also the women who transform their lives as role models.
Like 39 –years-old Lila*. She is blind, works two jobs in muddy camps, and is no stranger to hardship. “But […] what makes me the proudest is that despite all the hardships, I am able to make my children smile, make their dream of a better life a reality and make the situation better. They have hope, at least.”
Her determination helped her recover from her trauma having to leave the security of her home – “who leaves their home?” – and transform her passion to support her community in the camp. Now, she is a role model for the other women advocating and supporting them find new job opportunities and live a dignified life by being the main providers in the family. “Jobs can ease the hardships they [women] go through and helps them decide how to live their lives, opens doors for a better life, and helps them do activities that makes them happy.”
Supporting their communities
Over 1.5 million people – most of them children – are now living with permanent, war-related impairments inside Syria. Some children are disfigured or like Sara*, look frail. Faced with a culture that commonly discriminates against children like Sara, who get bullied at school, life poses greater challenges. In some cases, this can be life-threatening.
When Sara*’s mother was supported with parenting sessions and a safe space to talk about her challenges as a mother of five who is displaced by war, she expressed gratitude in finding a supportive group. “I feel that happiness started to knock at my door again and enter my new life when I went back to school, which is close to our house. That happened after the caseworker spoke to the school manager and agreed to allowing me to go back to school without charging my parents. Although I had to stay behind a couple of grades, I will achieve my dream from the beginning and go on to live a beautiful life”. Sara’s mother never revealed her age to protect her from bullying. Among other activities, World Vision provides with specialized treatment, disability awareness sessions, medical equipment and specialized care to protect these children.
Keeping dreams alive
Those who fled their homes treasure the happy memories of the past, and their dreams. Children tell us how they still dream to be teachers, doctors, artists despite the traumatizing journey they had to embark on as they saw their homes destroyed. Jamila* says the most important thing for her is to go back to school and make her dream come true – be a teacher and support her family with money.
The now 15 years-old Jamila left her home when she had only started her first grade. But her parents and the caseworkers at the World Vision centre made it possible for her to go back to school. “I have new friends in the camp, and they help me read and write and they take me to school with them and encourage me to study. I hope the teachers will continue to support us and teach us to become better and I dream that all children will go back to school and work on their dreams.”
Risking their lives to save lives
The effects of the war to date on education and health have only worsened the already extraordinarily high costs of conflict in Syria, even if the war was to cease immediately. The human capital costs are enormous. This means that today’s children will bear the greatest responsibility for the country’s reconstruction and growth once war stops, without even having enough hospitals from which they can seek life-saving services to allow them to be “present” for their future.
595 attacks have been reported against medical facilities between March 2011 and December 2021. Medical staff like Rahmeh* are risking their lives every single day to protect those fleeing war and persecution. Previously a nurse, and now a midwife, the 44-years-old displaced Rahmeh had to pass her medicine study exams while bombing was destroying her village and her house. “The bombing would start, and my husband and children were hiding in the bathroom; but I had to do the exam and could not join them. I knew women would need my help more than ever.”
Syrians get displaced up to 12 times sometimes, and, although Rahmeh considers herself lucky for having been displaced only once to where she is now – east of Idleb -, her family and herself were living apart while attacks were destroying her home village. “In the Castle [name of home village], we were always displaced. We were weekly displaced [ from our house] and then we would return [when the bombing was stopping]”, she explains.
But there is life in the displacement camps that keeps Rahmeh motivated. She does what she most likes – helping women deliver babies safely. “Sometimes when we are with the women in labor, we go in to support them deliver healthy babies. People only hear talking, celebration and laughter [from inside the room]; they say, “there is no way the woman is giving birth; you were just talking to her, right?”; then, they add that I should work at the psychological support centre. Well, I actually work there”, Rahmah happily adds.
Disrupting beliefs to achieve their dreams
Former child bride, and now, 23-years-old Samar*, speaks of the same motivation that helps her keep strong each day in the camp. Now she is a medical student who dreams of becoming a dentistry doctor to help those displaced in spite of being uprooted from her children. “The difficult circumstances I went through, from being beaten by my husband and then getting divorced to being deprived of my children, these really determined me to achieve the goals that I was deprived of because of my early and failed marriage”, she tells.
Divorced and widow women in Syria are often discriminated and they struggle to re-define their place in the community. They usually need to reinvent who they are, both by breaking out of harmful marriages they were forced into, or by disrupting the social norms that marginalizes them.
“My dream is to stay strong and get my children back with me. I want to prove my role in the community [because] people criticize [divorced] women if they try to obtain their right to complete education or pursue a profession, because they believe it is not permissible to live without a man”.
Sheltering their children’s dreams from war and fear
Children feel safe when their mothers are safe, and doing well; despite bombs, having less than they had before or having to rebuild their new life in the camp, and make new friends, this too can be possible. Aida* who got displaced 4 years ago only with her three children, describes the power of being listened to and supported.
“What is making me happy here are my children, and that there are people who listen to me and support me. I love coming to the centre where I also feel safe”. Aida, managed to find the strength and support she needed at the women safe spaces provided by World Vision; she regained a sense of dignity in the camp where she lives now, in spite of her disability (blindness). She is happy, so her children are too.
Since 2019, thanks to European Union Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) funding, World Vision has been delivering protection and health services in Northwest Syria to affected displaced women, men and children since 2019. In the last year alone our teams on the ground have reached more than 110,000 children and 136,000 adults in Idleb and Azaz, through our implementing partners. Since June 2021 alone, almost 14,000 Syrian girls and boys received the care they needed. Our work ranges from delivering medical by supporting hospitals and health care facilities as well as COVID-19 preventive items, to helping people recovering from trauma, PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) thanks to a dedicated team pf psychologists and case workers.
World Vision together with the European Union, are alleviating the suffering of women affected by gender-based violence, ensuring they recover, and are empowered to achieve their dreams, and of their children. To this end, our protection staff on the ground conduct parenting skills and psychosocial support sessions for parents and caregivers, while their children are looked after in the community center services where we work.