Dignity in Displacement

Syrian Widows in Jordan Take Charge of Their New Lives

Photo: Sarah Aziza

Amal al-Mugdad was always devout, but as the Syrian conflict engulfed her hometown of Dera’a, her prayers grew increasingly desperate. Rising daily before dawn, the slight young woman unrolled her prayer mat, her ears strained for the sound of bullets. On her knees in the dark, she begged for peace in her country and mercy for her people. By daylight, though, there were few signs that Allah had heard her plea. Regime aircraft rattled against the sky. Neighborhood streets grew inscrutable, blocked by shifting checkpoints and sprawling rubble.

Fear whittled Amal’s world. By 2012, her universe encompassed only three points: her sons, Khalid and Ma’an, then ages two years and six months, respectively; and her 24-year-old husband, Mahmood. It was her husband — the man she married at 19, whom she privately called Hamoodi — that worried her the most. This was a conflict with a particular appetite for young, able-bodied men, targeting them with checkpoints and home raids. By 2015, an estimated 65,000 people were “disappeared” by the regime, forced to enlist in President Bashar al-Assad’s army or vanished into the underworld of government prisons. Others were felled by snipers, for reasons never given.

Amal’s nightmare arrived on a sunny winter’s day. It was December 19, 2012. Mahmood stepped out to call Amal’s cousin to lunch. A soldier shot him through the heart. “I had my boys in my arms,” Amal recalled, five years later. “I don’t remember what I did with them.” She went on: “Then I was in the street. I saw his body. He looked like he was sleeping. I couldn’t stop screaming.” She lunged at the soldier, her brother holding her back. “I cried, Why, why him?” There was no reply.

They buried Mahmoud immediately. Amal was taken, in shock, to a nearby uncle. A few weeks later, her relatives persuaded her to flee, rousing Amal with the one message that could still reach her: It would be safer for her boys, outside Syria. On foot, she followed the stream of refugees south, toward the porous Jordanian border. Ma’an, drenched in winter rain, developed a wrenching cough. “He kept crying and I was crying too, calling out, ‘My God, my God.’ I didn’t know what to do,” Amal told me. As the sounds of war grew distant, Amal was stirred by a new fear: how would she, a woman, shoulder the burden of her fledgling family alone?


The road to Karama leads well outside Jordan’s capital, Amman, past rural neighborhoods, military facilities, and up a isolated hillside. January 12, 2017.

Photo: Sarah Aziza

A dozen miles outside the Jordanian capital of Amman, over 300 Syrians, mostly women and children, work to construct meaning from the fragments of exile. They occupy “Karama,” an isolated strip of apartment buildings atop a rocky hill, run by a local charity to shelter some of the area’s most destitute refugees. Men under 40 are rare; like Amal, most of the women of Karama were widowed or separated from their husbands by the war, and now find themselves at the head of sprawling, often desperate, families. Bereft of their traditional guardians and providers, these women have been forced to reimagine their lives outside the traditional economic and social expectations of gender.

The upending of these norms can create huge anxieties for women, compounding their existing trauma and entrenching them in poverty. For many, survival becomes contingent on their ability to take on new, traditionally male roles, said Bothaina Qamar, who until this month worked as a livelihoods specialist at U.N. Women in Jordan. “Back in Syria, only 14 percent of women were engaged in the labor market,” Qamar said, “especially among rural communities, the men dominate the society outside the home.”

As of 2016, roughly 40 percent of Syrian refugee households in Jordan were headed by women, most of them responsible for numerous children and one or more elderly relatives. Even so, many these now-single women have been reluctant or unable to find formal employment. “Some are raised to believe it is dishonorable or dangerous for women to work outside the home,” said Qamar, “and many are accustomed only to agricultural and domestic work.” Of the more than 58,000 work permits that have been given to Syrians as of last month, 4 percent have been to women.

Many women feel uncomfortable being outside the home without a male relative and feel ill-equipped to make financial decisions. Although Amal attended university before the war, she would never before have considered traveling without her husband, father, or brother. “Before the azma”— crisis — “I never left my neighborhood without Hamoodi or a man from my family,” she told me.

Lucy Cracknell, protection adviser for the International Medical Corps in Jordan, said these single women often have real reason to worry about safety as refugees in Jordan. Both women and children in female-headed households face greater risk of sexual harm and gender-based violence, a fact that often drives women to self-isolate. This compounds poverty, creating severe economic straits that can lead to “negative coping mechanisms,” Cracknell said, including “child marriage or child labor for their children, sex work, other risky behaviors.”

For all the stigma and fear some Syrian women feel about working, most of them are in urgent need of an income. As of 2016, four out of five Syrian households in Jordan live below the poverty line, and among female-headed households, the situation is more grim. As of 2016, at least 10 percent of these families faced immediate eviction from their homes, and one-third were in debt to their landlords. According to another recent study by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 63 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan were “vulnerable to food insecurity,” and 22 percent were “food insecure” with female-headed households suffering some of the greatest deprivation.

Amal, following the example of fellow refugees, registered with the UNHCR, according to her papers, and numerous charities upon arriving in Jordan. She received a modest food voucher for 30 Jordanian dinars (roughly $50) per month. For a time, Amal found shelter in the Jordanian city of Salt with in-laws, where she lived in a fugue state and subsisted on U.N. aid. Later, when her relatives left Jordan, Amal faced the dreaded prospect of transferring to one of Jordan’s overcrowded refugee camps. “I had no hope,” Amal recalled.

In early 2015, however, Amal’s fate took a rare, fortunate turn. Her application for housing assistance won her a spot at Karama, which had recently been expanded by the projects’ sponsor, the Islamic Charity Center Society. The young mother moved in April, bringing 11 relatives with her, including her ailing mother and several nieces and nephews. An ICCS bus drove them out of Amman, past a run-down military airport, and up a rocky hill to a row of solitary, sand-colored apartment buildings. This, they told Amal, was her new home.

In her new apartment, Amal, Ma’an, and Khalid took one of the three small bedrooms. After unpacking her family’s one suitcase, Amal sank to the floor. “Everything looked black, dark. There was no future,” she recalls, “My soul was tired. My soul was sick.” For the next several months, she would remain inside the crowded apartment where she seldom spoke and shed her tears in secret.

Amal’s sons grew fitful, clinging to her at times, lashing out at others. Three-year-old Khalid was frequently awakened by nightmares of approaching planes and soldiers. “The boys would ask, ‘Where’s Baba? Where’s Baba?’ For a long time, they thought he was still in Syria. They didn’t understand what death is.” But, she added, “They know now.”


Yousra, right, rouses students and parents alike at a community gathering during Ramadan in 2017.

Photo: Sarah Aziza

Yousra Mofalani also struggled in the early days of her displacement. She and her sister, Somia, fled Syria for Jordan in 2012, leaving behind 10 siblings and their father’s grave in the yard of their childhood home. On a winter’s day in 2017, Yousra, who is 43 years old, and I strolled up Karama’s single, dusty lane. Recalling the first leg of their journey, Yousra’s brown eyes deepened with tears, her thick brows arching to constrain her emotion. “That was the house my father built with his hands, where we all grew up. It was harder to leave that house than to leave the country itself,” she said, “Without our ahl” — one’s people or family — “we feel lost.”

The women spent their first months as refugees in Mafraq, where they rented a poorly maintained apartment from a Jordanian landlord at exorbitant prices. Winning a spot at Karama was a huge financial relief, but the location — far from central Amman — left them feeling more isolated than ever. “There was no one around,” Somia said, “At night, it was totally dark — and so quiet.” Most of their fellow residents were widows, too, many strapped with young children and ailing elderly relatives. An air of despair prevailed. “It was like life stood still. Everyone was in shock, many people were injured or had halat nafsiya” — a phrase that loosely translates to psychological problems. “We were all in shock. And for the women, they were afraid to go to town or even leave their house.”

During the war, Yousra had braved the occupied streets of her city, Dera’a, during curfews to gather food for her extended family; rebuilding her life as a refugee would require a new kind of courage. “I told myself, remember how much strength you have, that God has given you,” she said. “And that’s what we forget — we women — how much strength we have in ourselves.” As she roused herself from her depression, Yousra began searching for ways to channel this strength into agency.

A few months after her arrival at Karama, Yousra approached the ICCS administrator of the housing project, Ibrahim Salah al-Rawajeh, who goes by the honorific Abu Omar, with several requests. “I told him the women here need things to do and so do the children,” she told me. “We need activities, we need to keep learning, so we can feel that our lives are not over.” Abu Omar was struck by the small, vigorous woman. “She’s a natural leader,” he said, sitting in his cramped office at Karama. In his many years of humanitarian work, Abu Omar has become accustomed to seeing dejection and apathy. “I never thought we’d meet a woman like Yousra here. These are some of the most unfortunate refugees, and when they came, most of them looked like they had given up hope. But she had a vision.” And, says Abu Omar, her vision aligned well with the goal of the ICCS: “We named this place Karama” — which means “dignity” — “for a reason: we wanted to help Syrians feel human again, by giving them control over their lives again.”


A group of young Karama girls perform a dance at a Ramadan celebration, wearing matching dresses hand-made by Yousra, Somia, and other neighborhood women, on Jan. 12, 2017.

Photo: Sarah Aziza

Yousra’s first requests were simple. She wanted permission to use the ICCS office space for community gatherings “so the women could meet and strengthen one another.” She also asked Abu Omar for educational programs, pointing out that most of the Syrian children had fallen years behind their Jordanian peers in school. Together, they found qualified Syrian teachers among the Karama residents and arranged to offer remedial math, Arabic, and English classes to Karama’s 90-plus school-age children. Abu Omar also gave Yousra free reign over the ICCS multipurpose room, which Yousra hoped would serve as a gathering place for the neighbors.

Coaxing the bereaved women out of their apartments would prove the largest hurdle. Even Yousra’s own sister had lost heart, spending entire days lying flat on her mat, fixated on memories of her late father and lost home. Like many of her neighbors, Somia was terrified to go outside. Each morning, she implored Yousra not to leave the house. Yousra, on the other hand, had already moved on to her next campaign: lobbying Abu Omar to set up regular transportation to and from the Jordanian neighborhood where Karama’s children attended school. With time, Yousra began to embark on quests of her own, taking a series of shared taxis and public buses to travel to Amman proper in search of the Islamic books she liked to study. These errands gave her a sense of power. “Even in Syria I never took the bus!” she recalled. She continued, “Every morning I’d tell Somia, ‘Come on sister! You’ve got to get up and live your life. Just get out of bed. Do you think Allah let you survive the war for nothing? There is still so much left we can do.’”

This was Yousra’s message to Amal, too, when she came knocking on her door. Yousra was struck by the young woman’s pale, wilted features. “She wasn’t eating,” Yousra recalled. “She could barely speak.” Still, Amal valiantly followed custom, inviting Yousra in, guiding her to the deflating cushions that served as the family’s furniture. Over tea, Yousra gently prodded Amal with questions about her hometown, smiling when she discovered they’d both come from Dera’a. Yousra told her that many of the Karama residents came from Dera’a and urged her to join them in one of the social gatherings she and Somia organized in the multipurpose room down the road. Amal thanked her quietly and murmured the customary response, “Inshallah” — God willing. She found her visitor kind but was glad to see her go. Weeks went by. Amal stayed inside.


The ladies — and children — of Karama’s preschool surprise Amal with a cake and song for her 26th birthday, on Jan. 15, 2017. She cried.

Photo: Sarah Aziza

By the end of her first year in Karama, Yousra had knocked on each of the 55 apartment doors in the housing project. Slowly, over shared meals and endless cups of tea, she had learned the stories of her compatriots. Her bedazzled Samsung phone became the local switchboard, lighting up with everything from news of an ailing neighbor — she’d be at their bedside within hours — to speculation over the latest developments in Syria. With the support of Abu Omar, Yousra and Somia hosted several town hall meetings, polling the women on their needs and urging them to recognize the importance of organizing. “We lost our families in Syria, and so many of us are women with no men, but we can strengthen each other,” Yousra explained, now sitting next to a smiling Somia in their clean, spare apartment. The smells of cooking rice and boiled chicken legs wafted from the tiny kitchen, where Isra’, their sister-in-law, stooped over a double-burner. Her two young daughters quietly scribbled in a notebook nearby. “When we come together,” Yousra went on, “then we can see what needs there are and we can take care of them ourselves.”

Bothaina Qamar, the now-former U.N. Women official in Jordan, says this kind of community organizing is key. “Humanitarian interventions are no longer what these communities need. It’s time to shift to development.” And getting Syrians to participate in making decisions for themselves is crucial, she adds. “When they feel they can make a difference in their lives, and they develop a sense of self-pride.”

Syrians across Jordan are finding a growing need to claim this kind of agency. With the Jordanian government beset by debt, many Syrians around the country are deprived of basic services, like sanitation, public transportation, and education. As many enter their fifth or sixth year as refugees, some Syrians, particularly in the Zaatari refugee camp, have begun forming neighborhood committees to represent their needs to local government and NGOs. Yet, so far, women are seldom included in these spaces. Women-only circles, like the one Yousra formed in Karama, are crucial entry points for women to gain a sense of confidence. “When they feel safe, they speak up,” said Qamar, “and when they speak with each other, they start to recognize they have many of the same problems.”

At Karama, one issue became apparent at the first meeting: There were gaggles of young children skirting between the gathered women, many of them fretful, clinging to their mothers or sucking on their thumbs with an unnatural urgency. “We realized we needed to do something for the very young children,” said Yousra. “They had so much nervous energy, and because their mothers stayed inside, the children were stuck there, too. We told Abu Omar we wanted to open a preschool.” After some persuasion, he granted the women permission to convert an unused garage into a classroom.


One of the Karama students “reads” a book of the Arabic alphabet at the Karama preschool, on Jan. 12, 2017.

Photo: Sarah Aziza

The preschool opened in 2015 with roughly two-dozen students. At first, said Somia, most of the time was spent managing the symptoms of trauma. “Children would cry, or hide in the corners, or sometimes fight,” she said. “When we’d draw pictures, the drawings were always tanks, planes, blood, martyrs.” The school quickly morphed into a site of psycho-social triage. The ICCS brought in social workers to instruct the teachers in the basics of counseling and art therapy. In the last year and a half, said Somia, most of the children have shown remarkable improvement. “They’re changing,” she said. “They’ve started drawing things like animals, trees, and planes — not warplanes, but planes for traveling.” After hours, Somia uses the preschool’s space to teach classes on self-esteem and emotional health to teenage girls.

The services for mothers have grown, too. Yousra is insistent that the women in her community continue to develop their skills and self-reliance. In 2016, the ICCS made it possible for women to apply for small loans to support at-home enterprises. One of the first recipients was Maysa Nessar, who received several grants and loans from the ICCS and affiliates, as well as relatives, totaling about 800 Jordanian dinars. She used the money to begin an at-home operation making traditional yogurt and cheese for sale in local markets. Recounting her experience to me roughly five months into the venture, the 36-year old mother of four beamed. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said. “In Syria, I was just a housewife. Now I have my own business!”

Maysa considers herself blessed as one of the few women in Karama whose husband, Ahmed, is neither dead nor disappeared. However, Ahmed is paraplegic and unable to find traditional work, leaving Maysa to take the lead on many aspects of the business. “He’s my partner. I never dreamed I’d say that — my husband and I are business partners,” Maysa said with a laugh. She makes most of her money selling to Jordanian grocers. For her fellow Syrians, she said, she lowers the price. “Because, you, our people are in a hard situation,” she explained. She has plans to expand and has apprenticed herself to a male neighbor who makes and sells pickled vegetables. “It’s a lot of work, of course,” she said, as she cradles her 5-year-old son. “But when you work hard, and then you see that you accomplished something — you feel like a human being.”


Yousra cracks up while MC-ing a Ramadan celebration at the community center in Karama. on June 9, 2017.

Photo: Sarah Aziza

It would be Amal’s love of prayer that finally drew her out of her self-imposed exile. After their first meeting, Yousra persisted in her efforts to coax the younger woman out of her apartment, inviting her to lunches, seminars, and neighborhood meetings. Undeterred by her consistent rejections, Yousra dropped by one day to tell Amal of a new Quran class she’d organized for the women of Karama. Amal was intrigued by the prospect of learning tajweed, the art of Quranic recitation. Since childhood, Amal had practiced reading and memorizing the Quran with her uncle, and the holy book was her one remaining source of solace. “Something happens to my heart when I hear the Quran,” she told me. “It makes my heart quiet down. It feels like peace.” When the class met the following Friday, Amal was there, her small body fitting perfectly in the school desks Yousra borrowed from the ICCS classroom. Amid her 20 classmates, Amal’s timid presence was easy to overlook.

The course was taught by Amal’s neighbor, a widow who lost three sons to the Syrian war. Halfway through the class, she called on Amal to recite a portion of the Surah of Maryam. Amal’s lilting, articulate voice brought a hush to the classroom. “Mashallah, she has a real gift for the tajweed,” Yousra told me. A few weeks later, the teacher and Yousra asked Amal to become an instructor for a Quran class of her own, teaching younger girls. Amal agreed. Soon, she was at the ICCS center multiple times a week, teaching as well as studying, staying long after class to discuss favorite ayat, or verses, and offer girls extra pointers on their diction. Not long after, she began bringing Ma’an and Khalid to the preschool. At first, the boys clung anxiously to her knees, so Amal stayed through class to reassure them. Before long, she was helping manage other children, too. Somia saw an opportunity. “She has a gift with children,” she said. Somia soon recruited Amal to join the team of single women — today eight in all — who run the school.


Amal teaches a geography lesson to group of Karama children including Ma’an, on Jan. 12, 2017.

Photo: Sarah Aziza

Now, during daylight hours, Amal is rarely at home. Her days swing by quickly, mornings and early afternoons filled with teaching duties. After work, she frequently joins her neighbors for tea, bringing her boys along to play with their own newfound friends. Often, the trio will stay for dinner, Amal joining her hosts in cramped kitchens to help create elaborate Syrian dishes. She’s a faithful attendee of ICCS-sponsored classes, including a module on single parenting, and another on “life skills development.” Along with Yousra and Somia, she’s working toward a teacher certification, administered via Skype and annual visits by a British educational specialist. “When we finish, I’ll have a diploma — a real diploma, with my name. This is an amazing thing for me,” Amal said, her voice reverent. “Not just any girl in Syria could get a diploma. I can’t believe that this is what Allah has brought me, even when I thought my life had ended.” At this, she allowed herself a rare, private smile.

Even so, for Amal all roads still lead back to her country. “One day, inshallah, we will return to Syria,” she said. “But we can’t go with empty hands, weak and broken down. Syria has been destroyed, broken down to zero, less than zero. We must work on ourselves, make ourselves stronger, to rebuild our country. This is what Yousra has been teaching me.”

There are still nights, she admitted, when she is shrouded again by grief, but when the morning comes, she finds courage in her sons. “Who knows why this war came to us. But I know one thing, the children did nothing wrong. So, I cannot give up. I want to finish my teaching course and then, when peace comes, go back to Syria and start a school. I want to help the children of this war get back what was stolen from them. I want them to have a future in Syria.”

Top photo: Somia, left, and Amal, right, lead a group of Syrian refugee children in a series of songs at their community-run preschool in the Karama refugee complex in Jordan on Jan. 12, 2017.

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