Jomana Qaddour writes: This decade has revealed the scores of women leading protests in Egypt, insisting on constitutional freedoms in Tunisia, and supporting Syrian families when men have joined armed groups. It has become an unspoken rule in the international aid and policy community that resilient societies in the Middle East are guided by strong women. The reality is that even if the international community has only just taken notice of Middle Eastern women and their capabilities, it does not mean those women have been absent. On the contrary, women in the Middle East have always been dynamic actors in their communities; and since the Arab Spring women have facilitated significant societal change that has forever altered the region.
My grandmother is an illiterate, petite, 70-year old Syrian woman living on the outskirts of Damascus, yet she is the heart of her family — the lifeline — and what has kept the family together in the midst of a war that has uprooted and displaced over 11 million Syrians. She, like many Syrian women, has planted a garden big enough to feed her extended family, ensuring that they are not dependent on international aid groups to survive. She rushed to seize my uncle from a checkpoint in Damascus — arguing with regime soldiers — moments before the Syrian army shipped him off to Aleppo to fight against the rebels. My maternal aunt is the sole breadwinner in her immediate family, working as an accountant and traveling almost four hours a day to and from work because her family’s survival depends on her. [Continue reading…]
Khaled Hosseini writes: I recently returned from Jordan with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, meeting Syrian refugees and hearing about their experiences. Each encounter reminded me anew of the role of stories, why sometimes they can be more useful than numbers, why we need the tale of a Tom Joad to understand a Great Depression, why Rudyard Kipling said: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
Let me introduce you to Khalida, a bespectacled 70-year-old woman with jutting cheekbones and a schoolgirl’s laugh. Before the war, she lived a Syrian mother’s dream, surrounded, loved and supported by her nine grown children. But then war broke out, and Khalida learnt that armed groups were forcing young men to fight for them by threatening to assault and abuse their mothers. Khalida made a painful, and to me, stunning choice. She decided to deny the militants this leverage.
“I didn’t want to be the reason my sons had to fight,” she says, “so I left everything I had.”
She left her children, her home, her city. Alone and illiterate, Khalida tore herself from Syria and now lives on the outskirts of Amman, renting a nearly empty one-room apartment at the bottom of a steep hill.
In this new, tabula rasa existence, she is forced to fend for herself entirely. Her greatest expense is rent, and she pays for it with help from a kind Jordanian woman – though soon Khalida will be receiving help through UNHCR’s cash assistance programme, an initiative targeting the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.
Every day, Khalida climbs steep, battered steps uphill to the main road. She travels to a community centre in Madaba, a 40km trip taking over an hour, requiring her to hitch two car rides and board two buses, where she takes literacy classes in a room full of other Syrian women and young girls.
Khalida is the oldest and most enthusiastic student in the class, because for her, literacy is now an indispensable survival skill. She needs to read street signs, bus destinations, her medication labels. Despite a marked hand tremor, she has diligently filled entire notebooks.
Khalida misses Syria. She misses her home, and most terribly, her children. But she would rather live alone, with nothing, in a foreign country, than go back to Syria and put her sons at risk. [Continue reading…]