FEATURED STORY

Building Self-Reliance

Three Syrian women tell their stories

by Muzna Shihabi, International Medical Corps Communications Officer

The emotional burden for Syrian refugees is great. They are all living with the pain of displacement and loss. Some have lost their husbands who were killed or kidnapped; others fled their cities under heavy bombing. In Gaziantep, International Medical Corps, with support from UNHCR and in coordination with the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), runs a multi-service center for Syrian refugees where they can access medical care, learn new skills or just socialize and release their frustration. Any Syrian refugee can stop in and visit the five-story building located in the center of the city every day. Three Syrian women tell their stories from inside their classes.

When Bassema*, 20, was entering her beauty class, she smiled and immediately whispered, “I come here every day. If in 1.5 inch of snow, I’d come to the center because I feel I belong to this place; it allows me to do many things to keep me focused and positive.” Together with her husband and 6-month-old baby, Bassema fled Aleppo in April 2014 under heavy aerial bombardment to seek safety in neighboring Turkey. Her husband now works as a server in a restaurant in Gaziantep, but if Bassema doesn’t find a job, they will need to leave Gaziantep because the cost of living is very high.

Gathered around a long table, Bassema and six other women carefully watch the beauty school instructor apply foundation to the face of a newlywed woman, and she recalls, “We came here the first day to register as refugees and see if we were entitled to financial assistance. I was amazed by the amount of services offered. I immediately registered for Turkish classes and beauty classes.” Bassema has been attending classes for three months now. “I came to Gaziantep with no means to support my family or to find a job because of language and training barriers. Now I speak Turkish comfortably,” she says. Bassema aspires to become a hairdresser so she can earn an income to ease the pressure on her husband. “The center offered me new skills, a sense of independence, hopefully a new career and maybe a happy ending to my story,” she concludes.

In another room in the International Medical Corps-run center, eight women bend over a worktable learning how to knit clothes. “The women come here every day, start knitting for two hours and take their materials to finish the items at home,” said Samira, the knitting instructor who is a fellow refugee.

Ibtissam, 35, is one of the participants in the knitting class. Though she often feels exhausted by raising her seven children alone, Ibtissam says of the center, “The atmosphere and people here encouraged me to come out of my shell.”

In early 2012, Ibtissam’s husband was caught in the midst of heavy fighting while on his way to open his tailor shop in Deraa. He was injured and sent to the hospital. In August 2014, the family finally decided to flee the continued heavy fighting in Deraa. They chose Turkey as their destination, as other family members were already settled there. To help ensure that Ibtissam and the children could reach Turkey, friends advised that her husband should take a different route than the rest of the family.

On August 10, 2014, Ibtissam safely reached Gaziantep with all seven of her children. She was in phone contact with her husband until he reached Deir Ez-Zor checkpoint, but then his phone was turned off and she did not hear from him again. Fearing her husband had been kidnapped, she left her children with her brother in Gaziantep and made the dangerous journey to Deir Ez-Zor to search for him.

When Ibtissam gave her husband’s name at the checkpoint, she was told they know nothing about him. Though those manning the checkpoint tried to grab her, she was able to escape and get on the first bus back to the Turkish border. She is still hoping to see or hear from her husband again saying, “I am waiting for a miracle.”

Ibtissam is now living with her seven children and her brother’s family in a two-bedroom apartment, trying to console herself with the knitting classes offered by International Medical Corps every day. “Here we meet, share our stories and our passion for knitting. I make useful things. This fleece will keep my daughter warm,” she says, holding up a sweater she made for her 3-year-old girl. “At the end of the training, when I become a professional knitter, I will earn an income and support my family. Thank you because you are helping me to get on my feet again.”

Tales like Ibtissam’s are far from uncommon. After three years of waiting, Nariman finally gets the much-awaited news that she is pregnant, but the good news did not last long. Two days after she announced her pregnancy to her husband, he was killed during fighting near Aleppo. Only then did she realize he was a member of the Islamic State. She said, “I had doubts because he used to tell me I should wear double-layered veils and gloves. And he wanted me to carry a weapon and not to speak because women should not use their voice in front of men!” Nariman categorically refused his demands.

In April 2014, she decided to leave her home and flee with her parents and seven siblings to Turkey. Her baby daughter was delivered in Gaziantep in November 2014, but she still doesn’t feel safe. Her husband’s family came to Turkey and made several attempts to kidnap her 3-month-old baby. “I want to move to another country. I got the approval for resettlement in Europe, but I have to wait for my brother who applied for asylum in the same country,” she says.

Until then, Nariman holds her baby in her arms all night and takes her to the daily beauty class at the multi-service center. She says, “I don’t sleep at night. My life is a nightmare. I see them coming and snatching my daughter from my bed. During the day, I bring my baby with me for her safety. A mother would do whatever she can to protect her child. The beauty classes are a real distraction from all the worries I have to go through. The people I’ve met here are my family.”

Anil Kangar, the International Medical Corps staff member who manages the center, says, “The center is a big success, not only in the quality of services it offers but also in the sense of community it has re-created for Syrians. It is like a ‘Syrian club’.”

Ramadan Assi, Country Director of International Medical Corps in Turkey, confirms this. “It is important for the refugees to feel the comfort of being close to their community. The multi-service center has been such a success that we’re opening a new and bigger one on the outskirts of Gaziantep this coming spring to reach more refugees.”

The Multi-Service Center for Syrian Refugees in Gaziantep started offering services on June 2, 2014. It provides essential services including legal and social counseling, primary health counseling, mental health and psychosocial support activities, as well as referrals to other available services to the Syrian refugees. Since June 2014, more than 52,000 Syrian refugees have been helped at the center.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those featured in this post