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'I must save my life and not risk my family’s safety!': Untold Stories of Syrian Women Surviving War (Part 1)

 [May 15, 2013, a screenshot from the video report [May 15, 2013, a screenshot from the video report "Syrian refugees sell daughters in bid to survive." Available at CBS News]

[Part 2 here]

[Spanish translation here

What is now known as the Syrian Uprising began in mid-March 2011 as a peaceful social movement in the context of the so-called the Arab Spring. In a few months the uprising shifted from peaceful demonstrations to an armed conflict, mainly, due to the Syrian regime’s martial reaction to the demonstrations, and Syria became a location for a national, regional, and international power struggle (Salloukh, 2013). While Syrian women were a main segment of the Syrian Uprising, their representations in the global and social media are dominated by an image of a powerless female Syrian refugee who is a victim of her family actions of selling daughters off for money. In this dominant media representation Syrian refugee women are robbed of their agency and are constricted to a representation of a single faceless victim/woman. Such representation is no difference from the longstanding depiction of Arab women in Western media and literature as suppressed sexual objects by oppressive violent men and in need of saving (Abu-Lughod, 2002; Alloula, 1986; Said, 1979; Todd, 1998). Transnational feminists scholarship tackle such themes of representations, power, voice, privilege, and marginalization by deconstructing the dominant discourse of history and knowledge and taking seriously the concept of agency of women in different cultures and geographical locations. Thus, this paper will incorporate transnational feminist scholarship (Mohanty, 1984; Mohanty, 2003; Bhattacharyya, 2008; Nordstrom, 2005) to argue that there is no singular category that fits all “Syrian refugee women” in contrast to the dominant representations of global and social media. This paper focuses on the following three points. First, analyze the generalized representations of Syrian refugee women in global and social media. Second, narrate and analyze six stories of Syrian refugee women who represent different marginalized groups based on the intersection of their class, age, education, family statue, and place of origin. Third, highlights the ways in which online media representations rob Syrian refugee women of their agency and invisiblize their complex and various stories of struggling for freedom, suffering from violence and war, and resisting inequality and injustice. Methodologically this paper is based on a larger research project in which three qualitative methods were used for data collection: interviews, observation, and discourse analysis. This paper mainly covers fieldwork that occurred in Jordan during the summer of 2013. Through purposeful sampling and network sampling, I conducted thirty-three in-depth interviews and I engaged in approximately 100 hours of participant observation. From these thirty-three interviews, I choose in this paper to focus on stories of six Syrian refugee women who represent various class, age, education, family status, and place of origin backgrounds. The purpose of this paper is to contribute to producing academic knowledge that makes visible some of the untold stories of Syrian refugee women in Jordan. 

Transnational Feminism, Representations, and Marginalization
Transnational feminists engage in answering questions of representations, power, voice, privilege, and marginalization. They deconstruct the dominant discourse of history and knowledge, and take seriously the concept of agency of women in different cultures and geographical locations. According to transnational feminists, Western literature, including Western feminist literature, about women in developing countries is located in historical and colonial contexts of Western hegemony (McEwan, 2001; Mohanty, 2003). Chandra Talpade Mohanty (1984) plays a pioneering role as a transnational feminist in analyzing and problematizing the dominant representations of non-Western women in Western literature. Specifically, Mohanty criticizes the “production of the ‘Third World woman’ as a singular monolithic subject” (p.333). Many Western feminists represent the issues and concerns of non-Western women from a simplistic dichotomous understanding. In this view, non-western societies are seen as groups of repressive men and victimized women (Mohanty, 2003). Such a view led to ignorance concerning the complexity of the intersection between class, race, nationality, and sexuality, and also the effects of the unequal global economy and colonial power relations between the Global North and the Global South. Mohanty (2003) also points out that the dominant discourse regarding women in the Global South is not only produced by Western intellectuals but also by scholars from developing countries who adopt the Western dominant discourse.

To counter the dominant representations about women from marginalized groups, transnational feminists promote alternative ways of knowledge production. Such alternative ways aim to make visible the stories of women from marginalized groups by writing and incorporating the struggles and experiences of those women in the academic work. Transnational feminists challenge the dominant representations about women, especially in the Global South as a singular powerless victim. Mohanty (2003) invites us to take seriously the concept of the agency of women in different cultures and geographical locations. Representing non-Western women as a homogeneous group “robs them of their historical and political agency” (Mohanty, 2003, p.39). These representations objectify women in the Global South, and exclude as well as distort their long history of different resistant experiences against power hierarchies. Mohanty further highlights the continuous domination of the singular, monolithic representation of women from the Global South in discourse about globalization. Mohanty admits that there is an emerging image of active women from the Global South, such as images of female “human rights” activists and advocates, yet she invites feminists to critically examine the new binary representations of victimized/empowered Global South women. In this sense, Mohanty raises the question of what systems of power and privilege among Global South women make a few voices seen as empowered and a majority of voices represented as victimized.

Times of conflict are a repeated example of a situation where women are represented as faceless, nameless, and powerless victims. For example, Nordstrom (2005) discusses that despite the participation of women in the 1983 riots against the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the media representation of these women was limited to an iconic image of a nameless pregnant woman disemboweled by terrorists. Nordstrom (2005) argues “the use of this image as an icon effectively obscures all the many women and girls who die and fight without recognition” (p.400). Similar to Nordstrom, Bhattacharyya (2008) assures that emphasizing the diverse and complex experiences and roles of women in war complicates and reveals the propaganda of the political powers in the West in claiming to rescue women in the Global South. Drawing on transnational feminist perspective, I will analyze in the following section representative examples of global and social media dominant representations about Syrian refugee women.

Dominant Representations of Syrian Refugee Women
The representations of Syrian refugee women in global and social media are dominated by an image of a powerless female Syrian refugee who is a victim of her family actions of selling daughters off for money. I analyze three representative examples of global media’s dominant representations of Syrian refugee women’s issues in Jordan based on a Google web search of the phrase “Syrian refugee women.” The first article was published by BBC (McLeod, 2013, May 10) under the title "Syrian Refugees Sold for Marriage in Jordan," the second article was published by CBS (Ward, 2013, May 15) under the title “Syrian Refugees Sell Daughters in Bid to Survive,” and the third article was published by ABC (Mark, 2013, May 22) under the title “Syrian Refugees Selling Daughters as Brides.” The titles of these three articles explicitly identify that Syrian families are selling/marrying their daughters off for money. These headlines tell the readers that, on the one hand, Syrian refugees are a backward people who sell their daughters at the first hardship they face, and on the other hand, Syrian refugee women are powerless victims of their uncivilized/barbaric society.

The BBC article is divided to three sections. The first section tells the story of Kazal, a young Syrian refugee woman who had been sold for marriage: “Kazal says she is 18 but looks much younger. She has just got divorced from a 50-year-old man from Saudi Arabia who paid her family about US $3,100 (UK £2,000) to marry her. The marriage lasted one week” (McLeod, 2013, May 10, para. 2). The article illustrated that Kazal’s eyes are blue to emphasize her Caucasian race “ Her huge, blue eyes fill with tears when she talks about the marriage” (McLeod, 2013, May 10, para.4). The second section of the BBC article is an interview with Andrew Harper, the Representative of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jordan who expressed his feelings of disgust for people who are engaged in marriage for money "I can't think of anything more disgusting than people targeting refugee women…You can call it rape, you can call it prostitution, you can call it what you want but it's preying on the weakest" (McLeod, 2013, May 10, para.10). The third section of the BBC article is an interview with Um Mazed, a matchmaker who earns income by arranging marriages between Arab men and Syrian refugee girls. 

[Figure 1: The BBC image of Kazal]

The CBS article is divided into two sections. The first section tells the story of Um Majed, a matchmaker who exactly can be identified as Um Mazed from the BBC article. Actually the article’s writer just changed one letter in the woman’s name (z instead of j). The CBS article start with "Um Majed's cell phone rarely stops ringing these days. She calls herself a marriage broker; in reality, she sells Syrian girls to men looking for brides at bargain prices" (Ward, 2013, May 15, para.1). According to the article, Um Majed does not take any responsibility for her actions, and she blame the girls’ families for selling their daughters. The second section of the CBS article, tells the story of “Seventeen-year-old Aya fled Syria with her family just under a year ago. She was sold to a 70-year-old man from Saudi Arabia for $3,500. He left her after a month” (Ward, 2013, May 15, para.7). This description is exactly like the BBC article’s description of Kazal except Aya is 17, not 18; was married off to a 70-year-old man, not a 50-year-old man; for $3,500, not $3,100; and the marriage lasted one month not one week. The woman in the image that is posted in the CBS article of Aya (Figure 2) matches the woman in the image of Kazal (Figure 1) that was posted in the BBC article, a niqabi blue-eyed young woman with exactly the same make-up on her eyes. 

[Figure 2: The CBS image of Aya]

The ABC article is an interview with Andrew Harper, the UNHCR's representative to the Kingdom of Jordan, who was interviewed for the aforementioned BBC article. The article starts with an opening about how Syrian women are being sold in Jordan: “Reports are emerging in Jordan that some of the Syrian women and girls in refugee camps there are being sold as brides. In some cases it seems, it's their families who are selling girls aged 16 and younger for just a few thousand dollars to men from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States” (Mark, 2013, May 22, para.1). Later in the article when the writer asked Mr. Harper, “And now we're hearing stories that some women and young children indeed are being sold, they're ending up in arranged marriages, how is it working? What's happening?” Mr. Harper, the UNHCR's representative in Jordan, clarified that

Sold is probably a very strong term. There is situations of dowry which is fairly traditional in many parts of the world and there can be agreements between families. But it is a situation where often the families will, due to their dire circumstances, see that they're not in a position to continue to care for the girl and they do get offers from other families or men who come along who sort of say 'look we wish to marry your daughter (Mark, 2013, May 22, para. 6).

What is described by Mr. Harper is a form of early marriage that commonly happens in rural communities in Syria. However, the ABC article ignored the information that was provided by Mr. Harper and echoed, in its title and in its opening, the same dominant discourse that was manifested in the BBC and the CBS articles.

Similar to the global media dominant representations, mainstream Syrian social media activism regarding Syrian refugee women’s issues robs Syrian refugee women of their agency and constricts their sorties to a representation of a single faceless victim/woman. For example, on September 2, 2012, the Refugees not Captives (RNC) campaign management team posted “statement number 2” explaining why they chose “Refugee Not Captives” as a name for the campaign (Lajiaat Lasabaya, 2012). The image (Figure 3) that accompanied the text portrayed a faceless profile of a woman and under the woman’s head there are just two words “Refugees/ Lajiaat in Arabic” and “Not Captives/ Lasabaya.” The faceless profile space of the woman and the words “Not Captives/ Lasabaya” are in red to emphasize the powerless victim status of the Syrian woman. The abstract image of the woman’s hair and the word “Refugees/ Lajiaat in Arabic” are in black to symbolize the flowing passivity and the femininity of the weak state of being a refugee. 

[Figure 3: The RNC image that accompanied “Statement Number 2”]

The text of “statement number 2” defended and explained why the RNC team chose “Captives/ Sabaya” in the campaign’s title. Here it is useful to mention that the Arabic language like the French language includes gender for all nouns and most pronouns. Sabaya “Captives” is a noun that was used in ancient Arab history to describe the female spoils of war who, based on their gender, were enslaved by the winners of any conflict. Sabaya “Captives” have historical sexual connotations that the women were enslaved in a war context for sexual purposes. This word is not used in contemporary Arabic language similar to how words such as “Negro” are not acceptably used in the American context after the success of the civil rights movement. In “statement number 2”, the RNC campaign management team explained that they chose the word Sabaya “Captives” to, first, “cause shock for all people who feel empathy with the Syrian people”, second, “to fight those who want to marry Syrian women in exchange for money” under the pretext of rescuing them from being refugees. In fact, the RNC team stated that these marriages are enslaving women in the same way as if they were spoils of war. I recognize the good intentions in the RNC campaign discourse when the RNC team claims to defend the Syrian women’s rights in marriage, and when they ask Arab men to donate money to build schools for young girls instead of marrying them off. However, similar to the BBC, CBS, and ABC representations, the RNC team used dominant representations to generalize about Syrian women and men. Syrian refugee women are robbed of their agency and constricted to a representation of a single faceless victim/woman. More importantly Syrian women’s concerns and stories were not only minimized to forced marriage in exchange for money but also there was exaggeration of the volume of the forced marriage phenomenon and ignoring of the power relations that rule refugee families. To challenge the dominant representations of Syrian refugee women, the next section is devoted to actual Syrian refugee women’s stories.

Untold Stories of Syrian Women Surviving War
The dominant representations of Syrian refugee women invisibilize the political and economical relational issues as well as structural inequalities that impacted the ways Syrian women experienced the process of becoming a refugee. This article aims to make visible untold stories of Syrian women fighting for freedom and surviving the war. I narrate and analyze six stories of Syrian refugee women in Jordan who represent different marginalized groups, based on the intersection of their class, age, education, family statue, and place of origin. The six stories of Syrian refugee women include: Rim (26) is an activist who descended from a middle class Damascene family; Karima (40) is a housewife from a lower class Homsi family; Mona (30) is a warrior from a small village in Dara’a Governorate; Sima (52) is a fashion and crafts designer and trainer from Al-Tall, a small city in Rif Dimashq Governorate; Hala (21) is an activist and citizen journalist from a Damascene upper middle class family; and Maha (40) is a housewife from a poor small village in Dara’a Governorate.  Methodologically, these stories are based on in-depth interviews with each individual Syrian refugee women, which occurred in Jordan during the summer of 2013. For the interview process with Rim, Hala, and Sima, I interviewed them in public or private places that they identified, but I also accompanied them as they went about their activist activities. Unlike the previous three interviewees, I met Karima and Mona once and Maha twice. I interviewed Karima and Mona at their homes; Karima’s interview was facilitated by two members of the Molham Volunteering Team, and Mona's interview was facilitated by one member of the Relief Syrian Refugees in Jordan group. Maha's interview took place in the Za’atari refugee camp with the assistance of Syrian humanitarian activists who helped me gain access to the Za’atari camp in order to interview women within the safety of the Qatar Red Crescent. Through the process of interviewing and communicating with refugee women, my own positionality as a Syrian woman and human rights activist, who left Syria in the summer of 2012 and currently resides in the United States to complete graduate studies, played a significant role in building trust to share mutual stories about surviving the conflict and fear of loved ones who still are in Syria. The analysis of the following six stories highlights what it means to be a refugee woman in Jordan and emphasizes that there is no singular category that fits all “Syrian refugee women” in contrast to the mainstream online media representations that robbed Syrian refugee women of their agency and invisiblize their struggle, suffering, and resistance.

Rim’s Story
Rim (26) is a representative of students and young people who participated in the social movements of the Arab Spring. When the Syrian Uprising arose, Rim was completing her post-graduate studies in Accounting at Damascus University. She immediately engaged in organizing peaceful demonstrations, citizen media activism, and humanitarian aid activities to regions under attack and siege by the Syrian regime forces. Her middle class Sunni Damascene family knew about her activism, and they supported her choices regardless of the fact that none of her parents are politically active. Rim is a middle child in a family consisting of five children, two boys and three girls. In April 2012, Rim and her activist friends were about to drive back to their homes after a successful demonstration in Damascus City. While Rim and her male friend entered the car, Rim looked back toward her two female friends to check why they did not get into the car yet. She saw her two friends dragged away by their hair by a police officer. It was a decision of life or death. Helping the two girls meant not only to endanger themselves but also their families and networks. Rim’s friend drove away. During that month most of Rim’s network who worked in media and humanitarian activism were arrested. The security forces twice broke into her parents’ house, where she lived, searching for her. At that time Rim lived with the daily challenge of communicating with her friends’ families to inform them that their children were arrested or died under torture. Rim’s last day in Syria was May 8, 2012. She left Syria irregularly:

I could not stay any longer! I considered staying inside Syria a selfish decision that put my whole family under great danger. My family was very worried when I was living my every day hiding in different places. They tried to check whether I can leave the country regularly, but my name was publicized on the border checkpoints in the Syrian regime wanted-people lists. Two days before the day I escaped Syria an activist friend of mine was arrested while she was trying to regularly leave Syria to go to Lebanon. I contacted some activists in Dara’a and went there through side-roads to avoid the regime’s checkpoints alongside the main roads.

Rim stayed in Dara’a for four hours. She was alone. She did not know any one. The group she escaped with included mostly families, with many single mothers and their children. Rim said, “the mothers tried to look strong and relaxed; they did not want their children to feel fear and insecurity.” The group started their trip in the dark guided by moonlight. There were a few men from the Syrian Free Army walking with them for protection. It was Rim’s first trip outside Syria. Rim described her feelings:

It was a nightmare! I wished I could wake up and see myself in my house among my mother and siblings! Or in my bedroom looking at Qasioun Mountain! We were walking in orchards not knowing on what we were stepping. The Jordanian Army was at the border to help us cross into Jordan. There was a small hill that we had to climb, and a Jordanian soldier held out his hand to help us up it. When the soldier extended his hand, I wanted to pull my hand back! I wanted to go back! But I did nothing! I knew I must save my life and not risk my family’s safety!

Similar to all other refugees, when Rim entered Jordan, she submitted her Syrian ID card but she kept her passport because she was planning to leave Jordan to go to Bahrain with her elder brother who works there and would come to Jordan to meet her. At 4 a.m Rim arrived at Al-Bashabsha Camp[1]. She was “psychologically devastated.” She bought a mobile phone card and called her brother. He had come from Bahrain, but could not come immediately and pick her up. Her brother did not know when she would arrive, and now asked her to spend the night at the camp and said that he would come to meet her in the morning.  

Rim was both the only Damascene person in the refugee camp and the only single young woman. The other refugees were either from Dar’a or from Homs. To make Rim feel secure, a woman from Homs invited her to join her and her children in their room. Rim slept in the Homsi woman’s room, “I slept very deeply! I do not think I have slept so deeply since that night! I was so tired and sad wishing to go back to Damascus.” The rest of Rim’s family, her parents and siblings, followed her to Jordan. Now, all of them live in a rented apartment in the suburbs of Amman. When I interviewed Rim in June 2013, she had been in Jordan for one year:

One year goes so fast! I surpassed my psychological devastation through volunteer work! I feel that volunteer work filtered my soul! When I help someone to smile, I feel positive energy and that I am continuing my activism for the Syrian Revolution! I feel that I am participating in building Syria’s future!

Rim’s strategy to survive the Syrian War and to cope with everyday life in her refugee destination was to actively volunteer in different humanitarian activist organizations which work in the Za’atri Refugee Camp and Amman region. Her work is mainly focused on psychological support for women and children. She sought training in this area with one of the international organizations in Jordan, and she also developed psychological support expertise through her work with her colleagues in an informal Syrian activist organization in Jordan. As a young, educated woman who descended from a middle class Damascene family, Rim’s privilege continue to benefit her in Jordan. Such privileges make media coverage of Syrian refugee women’s stories invisiblize Rim as a refugee woman because she does not fit dominant representations about refugee women as powerless poor victims. However, stories such as Rim’s story have relative visibility in media coverage about Syrian activism; nevertheless one should keep in mind that such visibility is generally introduced to the audience out of the context of the refugee crisis.

Karima’s Story
Karima (40) is not the type of Syrian heroine that the mainstream media would like to interview. She did not participate in the Syrian Uprising. She did not lead a demonstration. In fact, she did not have anti-government sentiments in the first place. Karima is a Syrian woman from Homs City who lived a “simple life.” She got married early in her life, around age 15, as many of the girls in her poor, conservative neighborhood would face as a destiny. Therefore, she did not finish her education. Karima had five children include two girls: Soha (20) who is married, Lama (15) who Karima indicated proudly in several occasions that she is extremely smart and good at school and three boys: Mahmmod (18), Raheem (11), and Kamal (5).

On Mach 12, 2012, Karima’s life would change forever. Around noon she heard that a mission from the Syrian Army is searching the houses in her neighborhood for armed men. She prayed that they would not take her boys and husband because they were not involved in any military activities. Around 2.00 p.m. the mission entered their apartment asking them to surrender their weapons. Her husband declared that they had no weapons. The officer ordered his fellows to take her husband out. Another officer took her eldest son Mahmmod (18) and he forced him to prostrate himself to Bashar al-Assad photograph in front of his mother and siblings[2]. Then, they commanded Karima and her smaller children (a girl and two boys) to stay inside while they took the father and the son Mahmmod with them. In few minutes, Karima and her children heard gunshots. Karima held herself together because she was worry about the safety of her younger children.

Her husband’s dead body was left next to their flat door, and her son was left dying on the stairs after they shot him in the head. Karima remembered how his flesh and blood had dispersed and adhered to the walls around him. Her daughter Lama (15) tried to give Mahmmod water before he died because he was muttering “water,” but he could not drink it. Karima told me this with a big sigh that even her son last wishes did not come true: “My daughter came back inside, her hands were covered with Mahmmod’s blood. I kissed her hands and I smelled my son scent.” When the army mission finished investigating the building, they came again to Karima’s apartment. She locked the door. They unlocked it by shooting it. Karima described her feelings at that movement:

I thought that our lives have come to an end. They were confused and shouting what they will do with the women. Thanks be to god they did not touch my daughter or me. I tried to strength my young boys. They were shaking and traumatized. The soldiers kept us for a half hour and after that wandered in the building. When they finally exited our building, they shot Mahmmod in the heart. He passed away then. I decided to leave my house under cover of the dark.

Karima described her daughter Lama actions proudly: “Lama was so brave. She pulled the bodies of her brother and father into the house and covered them with white sheets. Around 5:30 p.m. we left our house forever. We left the door open hoping that good people would find the bodies and bury them.”

It was winter and dark, and Karima, who has no experience in public spaces, felt scared and decided to stay the night at one of her neighbor’s houses. When they entered her neighbor’s house, they saw another dead body of a stranger. Karima learned that the regime forces killed all men in her neighborhood, and they randomly threw all the dead bodies into neighbor’s houses. They do so to ensure that the rest of the families are terrorized and humiliated and other anti-regime regions would look at this example of consequences for rebelling against the regime. Once again Lama covered the dead body with a sheet, so the small children would stop looking at the body exploded by bullets. Karima continued her story:

At 6:30 in the morning we left the neighbor’s houses, the regime forces were shooting toward our feet and screaming at us to go back. I gestured with my hand that it is impossible to go back. We kept running through the shooting, and sometimes we hid in some buildings, but there were dead bodies in every building. When we passed our neighborhood, we met armed rebels. I expressed my disappointment with the rebels because they did not confront and fight the regime troops. But the rebel leader told me to thank my god because no one touched my daughter or me and we had escaped with our honor. He said in the nearby neighborhood most women were raped.

From that point Karima’s displacement journey went through many stops.

In Homs Governorate, Karima and her children went first to Safsafeh village, but she did not feel safe there. Thus, they moved to Khaldiahe where there were mortar shells falling in the area. So they moved to Baiiada and then to ‏‏KafrAya where Karima’s family live. Karima stayed at her parents’ house for 40 days, but the daily sounds of shooting made her more nerves. She psychologically broke down. She informed her parents that she is leaving Homs Governorate and moving to Set Zaynab in Rif Dimashq Governorate where her sister-in-law has an available empty house where Karima and her children can stay. Karima stayed there for a few weeks and finally was able to sleep at night without shooting sounds. However, Karima said that in the summer of 2012 around the second week in the month of Ramadan[3], Syrian regime missiles started falling in Set Zaynab, and 300 people died. She was displaced again with her children to khan Alshe[4], where they stayed for 17 days at a school. Many schools in Syria were transformed from their original mission to be a refuge for the displaced people who have no place else to sleep. The living conditions were so frustrating that Karima decided to go back to Homs Governorate. For two and half months she stayed in Eastern Al Jadidah in Homs, an area that was under the Syrian regime control. Soon, a checkpoint for the Syrian regime troops was build right next to her house. From this checkpoint the soldiers launched missiles into the opposition neighborhoods. Despite these obstacles Karime and her children stayed for a little bit until an additional challenge faced them.

Karima’s described the day when her life destabilized again. She smiled slightly as she reported to me that her daughter Lama was watching Addounia TV[5]:

I was walking with my two little boys in the public garden next to my home. My daughter Lama was alone at home watching Addounia’s series “Sabaia”[6], when I saw soldiers entering our house. I was terrified that they will do something to my daughter. I ran to the house to see that they are interrogating my other daughter Soha who had just arrived with her husband for a visit. I whispered in Lama’s ears to delete all the TV channels and turn the T.V off[7].

Karima clarified to me that now she can tell these stories and she is fine thanks to the love and support of the Molham Volunteering Team[8], but at that time when Lieutenant “Samer” investigated her, her eyes were always red and her face was extremely tired. Lieutenant Samer asked Karima where her husband is, she replied that he was working in Lebanon[9]. Samer accused Karima of being a lier, a killer, and a terrorist, and he told her to appear for an in-depth investigation at his office in two hours. Karima said good-bye to her children thinking that she is going to her death. She went to Samer’s office with her son-in-law. Karima felt terrified and shy at the same time while she was entering Samer’s office and the soldiers were looking at her with judgmental eyes. Karima described her experience with Samer:

He was feeling bored and wanted to mock someone for fun and he found me. He kept accusing me of being a killer and a terrorist. I kept silent first. I am not used to speaking with men! In my community women do not generally communicate with men or confront them. But later, I negotiated with Samer. I told him ‘okay, if I am a killer, why do you not let me go back to my home and keep an eye on me until you confirm that I am a killer’. He agreed with my suggestion, but then tried to start interrogating my son-in-law who was so afraid that he did not say a word. To rescue him, I interfered and claimed that he is deaf. Samer believed me, and we went back home alive.

With tears in her eyes, Karima said that she kneeled to god half an hour to thank him for surviving again[10]. After this incident Karima decided to leave Syria and go to Jordan’s refugee camp. She did not change her mind even when the next day First Lt. Zaidon called to try to make up with her because of Samer’s annoying behavior (Karima clarified that he is Samer's boss and that he, like Samer, is Alawite by sect) Karima described her meeting with First Lt. Zaidon the next day:

First Lt. Zaidon asked me to forgive them. He had his six-year-old son with him, and he asked me to pray for his son. First Lt. Zaidon is a good man not like Samer. But, I could not trust him and I did not open my heart. When he kept asking me to tell him my wishes and he will try to make them come true. I told him my only wish right now is to leave Homs and go to Damascus. He said that I can leave and that he wishes me to meet good people on my way for the sake of my orphaned children.

Karima did not wait until the next morning to leave. In the afternoon of that same day she left Homs City and headed to Jordan with her children. Their trip lasted a few weeks from Homs to Kazaz in Damascus to Jordan. In Damascus, they waited for 12 days because the road was closed due to explosions. Then they continued heading south toward Dara’a Governorate where they traversed Tafas, Al-Ajameh, and Tiba where on November 5, 2012 they crossed the border into Za’atri Refugee Camp in Jordan. Karima who had grown up in a city described her experience in the Za’atri Refugee Camp in the desert:

It was a shocking experience! I stayed in Za’atri for three months and ten days. There I met the Molham Volunteering Team, who used to visit me and help me financially. They are like my children! After three months and ten days, my tent crashed from rain and we could not live in it anymore. I escaped from Za’atri irregularly with the help of another Syrian family. My refugee tent was my life tragedy!

In comparison with other Syrian refugee women, Karima’s story had a happy ending. Later, the Molham Volunteering Team contacted her and helped her to rebuild her life in Amman. They matched her with a Palestinian-Jordanian family who officially sponsored her, gave her an available apartment that they owned, and helped her to register her children in school. Additionally, the Molham Volunteering Team found a Qatari woman who provided monthly financial support for Karima's family. 

Karima’s strategy to survive the Syrian War and to cope with everyday life in her refugee destination was to challenge her traditional gender role and lack of experience in public spaces and resist long stages of injustice and internal and external displacement. As an uneducated mother from a poor urban region, Karima went through a significant, mostly depressing transformation when she became a female head of a household. Thus, Karima represents one of the categories of Syrian refugee women most in need of help and support from organizations that provide financial and psychological resources. One should note that in comparison with the other five Syrian refugee women stories that are presented here, the place of origin plays a huge role in Karima's suffering and in her long internal and external displacement journey. Coming from an urban poor conservative Homsi environment, Karima’s life experiences were limited to the border of her house. Although women, like Mona[11], also came from a poor, conservative environment, their rural origins equip them with experiences in the public space through mainly working in farming. Additional challenges related to the place of origin are the geographical proximity of Jordan’s borders. Travelling from Dara’a, Rif Dimashq, or Damascus governorates was relatively more manageable than travelling from Homs Governorate especially because, depending on the time and place of departing, the sectarian tension and armed confrontation in Homs were comparatively higher than in Dara’a, Rif Dimashq, or Damascus.

Karima generally tried to sound strong while I interviewed her, especially because two members of Molham Volunteering Team accompanied me during the interview, and they tried to maintain a friendly environment that kept Karima comfortable.

[This article was originally published in an issue of Syria Studies entitled "Sympathetic Stereotypes: The Syrian Uprising in Western Media and Scholarship." Jadaliyya is republishing the article as two parts]


[1] This camp is the first refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan. A family called Al-Bashabsha donated buildings they own for Syrian refugees. With the increasing flow of Syrian refugees, the UN took over operation of the small camp. Then, the UN established the Za'atari camp to accommodate the continuing influx.  

[2] This is a practice that the regime soldiers force people to do to humiliate them.

[3]Ramadan: is the holy month for Muslims where they believe the Quran was revealed. Muslims fast during Ramadan’s days from dawn to sunset. According to the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar, Ramdan is the 9th month. In 2012 when Karima was at Set Zaynab, Ramadan occurred between July20 - August 18.

[4] Khan Alshe: is a historically Palestinian refugee camp.

[5] Addounia TV is a private television station that is famous for promoting the Syrian regime’s propaganda. I believe Addounia TV ‘s role in the Syrian conflict is similar, to some extent, to the role of RTLM Radio in the Rwanda Genocide. Thus, when Karima mentioned that her daughter was watching Addounia. My reaction was: “Really?”. Karima said that she don’t mind, because she loves her daughter to watch and do the things that make her relaxed and happy after all the suffering that they went through.

[6] “Sabaia”: is a popular Syrian TV series that was produced before the start of the Syrian conflict. It is similar to the American HBO series “Girls” and even the translation of “Sabaia” from Arabic to English would mean girls.

[7] These spontaneous reactions reflect the fear from the media censorship of the regime who consider TV channels such as Al-jazeera and Al-arabiya conspiracy tools against Syria's security.

[8] Molham Volunteering Team: is an informal activist organization of young Syrian volunteers who fled Syria after the Uprising and now work with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and inside Syria.

[9] The reason for Karima’s lying is the fear that if Lieutenant Samer knew that Karima’s husband is dead so he will think that he was a rebel and that will endanger her family.

[10] During my interview with Karima, she did not cry, with one exception, when she told her story about Samer. This reflects the humiliating effects that have stayed deep in her heart.

 [11] Please see Mona’s story in the following section ( Part 2 coming soon).



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