The lonely strength of Syria's refugee women

The lonely strength of Syria's refugee women
Feature: The women who have fled Syria's violence find the experience isolating, traumatising - and empowering.
6 min read
01 May, 2015
The women leaving their homes behind face a life filled with challenges [AFP]
Women forced to leave Syria and their families behind report experiencing exile in a variety of ways.

"When a woman is alone, she has to break down barriers to achieve her goals," explained one Syrian refugee woman. "She has to be strong to defend herself, her children and her home."

Many reports have addressed the status of Syrian women in refugee camps. Here, we focus on the difficulties and challenges faced by women living outside the camps.

In Lebanon, these women face immense financial and social burdens.

Mayyada al-Hayek, a 44-year-old pharmacist from Damascus and a divorced mother-of-two, faced problems over the legal guardianship of her children. 

"In our society a woman is not recognised as her children's legal guardian," she told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

After divorcing, Hayek was placed under her brother's guardianship. However, he treated her badly and she left his home with nowhere to go. After living with refugees she finally found a place for her and her children, and worked as a pharmacist.

Different experiences

In Turkey, the problems are a little different.

They are more personal, having to do with living in a society that is different from one's own and facing difficulties especially in terms of language and work. Even though there are several Syrian civil society organisations in Turkey, many are still incapable or have fallen short in creating programmes that actually support Syrian women - especially those living on their own.

Rouba al-Shoufi is a Syrian activist and translator from al-Suwaida. Having to leave the country, the 30-year-old decided to go to Turkey alone.

She hoped to meet other young revolutionary activists so she could work and remain in contact with people inside Syria.

"In addition to the sense of loss that our forced displacement and exile creates, we have to bear an additional burden," she said. "My involvement in the revolution and the resulting circumstances are the main reason for leaving the country and coming to Turkey alone.

"I have always been a rebel and that makes some people respect me - but it makes others think they can take advantage of me, because they see me as a person who broke many taboos, so they justify to themselves going too far with me, given that there is no one to help or defend me."

Shoufi was shocked by the behaviour and inhumane attitudes of some of her educated friends.

"A lot of transgressions happen against women daily at various workplaces... because they put up with offensive behaviour that may amount to harassment.

"My experience has been a rich one, despite these difficulties. It has added to my knowledge and maturity and has been a major challenge on a personal level. But it's definitely harder on other women.

"I have always believed that I am equal to men in the choices and decisions I make and the responsibilities I take on, and that my sense of balance stems from within me and not from the circumstances surrounding me."

Gaining confidence

Yasmine Merhi is a journalist from Homs, living and working in Gaziantep, Turkey.

"Living on my own outside Syria has been both positive and negative," said the 30-year-old.

"Looking for work and a place to live has been the hardest part. The positive aspect has been the experience and self-confidence I gained. Being deprived of my family and not being able to return to Syria remains the most painful part of my experience."

     These women should be a top priority for organisations and institutions whether official or independent.
- Yasmine Merhi, journalist

What about the suffering of Syrian women living on their own in Turkey?

"Many of these women are suffering under terrible living conditions, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation," said Merhi.

"That is why we should focus on them and give them special attention. Unfortunately, there aren't any organisations that help women who are living on their own, although there are developmental Syrian organisations specialised in teaching women artisanal skills... These women should be a top priority for organisations and institutions whether official or independent."


In Europe, which has been the destination of many Syrian men and women, the difficulties are of a different nature compared with Lebanon or even Turkey.

Here, the countries hosting refugees often provide housing and salaries that protect them against want and more. The main difficulty, however, lies in an overwhelming sense of loneliness.

Rima is married and a mother-of-two who recently sought refuge in Germany.

"The decision to go through this experience on my own was not easy at all," said the 28-year-old. "The journey itself, especially that horrifying sea voyage, was not easy either. I am not used to depending entirely on myself and that is the most difficult challenge I face today."

Rima explained that she went through her ordeal to keep her family safe in Turkey. "But I feel lonely and vulnerable, despite everything I gained from this experience - especially the strength I discovered in myself, which I wasn't aware of before...

"This is the hardest experience of my life, but I hope that, through it, I can provide a different kind of life for my kids."

Traumatic experiences

Dr Jamal Sobh is a psychiatrist who works in Aachen, Germany. "There is no doubt that the war conditions and the fact that a large number of Syrian women refugees have gone through bad and traumatic psychological experiences such as detention, war, displacement, abuse and loss of family members, makes us believe there is a prolonged and possibly severe impact on the psychological wellbeing of women in general," he said.

"We can't turn a new leaf as easily as some may believe. Going through traumatic psychological experiences could lead to many psychological and physical problems that might develop into mental illnesses, requiring pharmacological and psychological-therapeutic intervention. Surely, women who are on their own or who lost their social safety net or who are the sole breadwinners are affected by these conditions more acutely than other women."

What about the difficulty of living in new societies? "Refugees need the ability and the initiative to understand the mechanisms and nature of relationships in a host country. But they also need the cultural and social ties provided by the relationships between members of the small Syrian diaspora community. You cannot carry on with your life in a European host country the same way you're accustomed to in Syria," he said.

He stressed "a measure of flexibility [is needed] in dealing with and openness towards the other is better than closing in on oneself and isolating oneself within one's community".

In Lebanon, Sabah Hallaq is a researcher of women's issues and a member of the Syrian Women's Association and the Syrian Association for Women Citizens.

"Many Lebanese and Syrian civil society organisations work with Syrian women refugees, including mothers and breadwinners," she said. "They focus on teaching women some skills such as sewing, hair styling and nursing. 

"Teaching women these skills is pointless, due to the lack of marketing - and because these programmes do not empower women socially and do not enable them to step outside the confines of the family and engage in civic activities. We, on the other hand, focus on providing psychological support and raising awareness about gender and violence against women."

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.