Four women who fled Syria

Illustrations by Sally Nixon

Americans are often introduced to women in conflict through two media tropes – they’re either shown as victims under siege or damsels beyond distress who are waiting to be rescued. Sometimes, women are fetishized in ubiquitous slide shows of rebel fighters in the Colombian jungle and Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq as gun-wielding warrior princesses. They rock camouflage. They’re hot. And they will kick your ass.

But while reporting on the Middle East for the past five years, especially witnessing the Syrian refugee crisis, I’ve met countless women outside of those manufactured optics. They are on the frontlines of a long, untelevised war, in which the warriors are unsung, the bad guy is often amorphous and solutions are merely the best of several bad options. There usually aren’t guns. And rarely are there cinematic rescues. Often, there are only quiet moments of protracted struggle, of intermittent hope, that form a life when strung together.

Syrian refugee women are survivors of a war that has, by some estimates, killed up to 470,000 people, injured 1.88 million and created the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history. More than half of Syria’s population is now displaced. In other words, the combined populations of New York City, Boston, Washington, DC, and Chicago are scattered, unable to go home anytime soon — if ever.

Many have lost not just their homes, but also their husbands and sometimes even their children. Some have now become the heads of their households, their roles drastically changed, defying a cultural norm in which men are the sole breadwinners.

“If this war is ever won, it will be won by women,” a widowed 31-year-old woman told me two years ago in Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan’s mini-city of 80,000 Syrian refugees.

Here are their stories.

Wafaa, 36
Istanbul, Turkey 

Wafaa can no longer eat oranges. The last time she peeled one was four years ago. Before she could bring it to her mouth, her apartment quaked with a boom. Then came the scream of her 16-year-old son.

Since then, orange is the taste of her whole world falling apart.

On a warm Syrian spring afternoon four years ago, Wafaa’s son was killed by shrapnel while playing soccer on their tree-lined street. Gone, too, were many of his classmates — part of a lost generation, wiped out in seconds.

When you lose a child, Wafaa explains, you lose your vision. You crawl through a nightmare of a fun house, lined with disfiguring mirrors and trap doors. At the time, Wafaa was three months pregnant with her fourth child. She says that was the only reason she didn’t lie on top of her son’s body, begging for her own life to be taken.

They should have left sooner. It’s the first thought she still wrestles with every single morning. Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, her city, Douma, was a hub for anti-government protest and resistance. Just a chant against Bashar al-Assad’s brutal dictatorship could cost you everything. The week before her son was killed, her husband was arrested. One of Douma’s most renowned butchers, he was picked up at a checkpoint on his way home from work. His fate remains unknown.

“In just one week, I lost so much,” Wafaa says. Her daughter was to get married that week, but they canceled the ceremony. What was there to celebrate? It would be a long time before she could come up with an answer.

Her son Adam is now four years old. He often throws temper tantrums in their small Istanbul apartment. They fled to there last year after paying a smuggler $3,000 to get them through checkpoints and on to Turkey, which now hosts two million Syrian refugees. When you ask Adam where his father is or where he’s from, he shrugs. He often pees his pants and punches the air uncontrollably; Wafaa suspects he has post-traumatic stress disorder, but she can’t afford a proper diagnosis or treatment.

Some of Wafaa’s family decided to stay behind in Syria. Her 20-year-old daughter refused to leave. But shortly after Wafaa arrived in Istanbul, she received a voice note over WhatsApp, barely audible through her daughter’s tears. “He’s gone, he’s gone” was all she could say. Wafaa’s grandson, one week shy of his second birthday, had been killed by a sniper. Some of her nieces and nephews had also been killed.

“Life goes on … we must go on,” says Wafaa, as her foot hits the pedal of a sewing machine at a refugee center in Istanbul. She participates in a weekly craft collective along with many other Syrian women, who vary in background and ideology but share infinite grief.

On a recent weekend, the center organized a trip for some families to a nearby beach. Adam had never been to one, and he cried when his feet hit the sand. The organizers arranged for animals from a nearby zoo to come. For a few minutes, a giant yellow-and-green parrot sat on Adam’s shoulder. Initially he resisted, then he began shaking with laughter. Wafaa took pictures and sent them to her family, now divided across Syria and Europe, the promised land. It was the first time in a while she had felt that things were as they should be.

She stood on the beach all afternoon, reveling in the short respite. Her friends lounged on chairs nearby and peeled some oranges. They reached over to offer her one. She declined.

Naema, 34
Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan 

First they came for Naema’s husband.

The warning was frightening enough. One evening three years ago, they heard a knock on their door in northern Syria. It was midnight. Masked men entered and searched the apartment. Were they from Assad’s military? Were they from the Islamic State? She didn’t know. She still doesn’t know.

A couple of months later, Naema came home from a long day of work at the salon. Her husband, a carpenter, was supposed to pick her up, but he never showed. When she got home, she saw his half-eaten plate from lunch and his cell phone suspended in motion.

They had returned.

“It was over,” she recalls, the dark memory nearly exhausting her as she speaks. “I knew they came. And I knew they wouldn’t bring him back.”

No one wants to flee to Iraq. The country is in the throes of an endless war and its social fabric is frayed. Yet the country’s semiautonomous Kurdish region is now hosting more than 1.5 million displaced Iraqis, in addition to more than 250,000 Syrian refugees. It’s where Naema lives. She fled with her mother and sister to the northern city of Duhok three years ago.

Back in Syria, she was a hairdresser, the go-to for her village’s brides.

“Curls, blowout, big hair, what can I do for you?” she jokingly asks me on a blistering-hot Iraqi afternoon, tugging at my lifeless ponytail.

People tell her to marry again. She’s still young, they say. She can still bear children, they assure her. Life goes on, they remind her.

But she’s not interested. She serves tea at refugee camps and does some cleaning for aid groups. She avoids conversations with Syrians who want to talk about the latest updates from their respective villages. She keeps the news out for survival, afraid to learn the fate of what she’s left behind.

Most of her days grind on and blend together, but she recalls a recent moment that filled her with joy. A Syrian woman approached her makeshift tea stand and said that she had met her years before. They eventually figured out that Naema had done her older sister’s hair for her wedding. They spent the day talking about their villages back home, the wedding parties that kept them up until dawn. The encounter reminded her that home wasn’t so far after all. She was still just a short trip from Syria’s western border, and even though she tried, she couldn’t shut out every warm memory from her past.

And that’s why it hurt so much.

Ibtisam, 36
Beirut, Lebanon 

“You carry hope in your heart, so it’s always there,” Ibtisam explains as she lays out her famous fried kibbeh balls. Kibbet raheb is her specialty. She fills the dough-like balls with minced meat and parsley and then cooks them in rich chili sauce. Every Saturday, Beirutis line up for a taste. She loves making them because they remind her of cooking in her large yellow kitchen back home in Syria; she dreads making them because they remind her of cooking in her large yellow kitchen back home in Syria.

War came to Ibtisam’s balcony one cold afternoon in the northwestern city of Idlib three years ago. She had delayed moving for a year, but she realized it was inevitable when shrapnel just narrowly missed her three-year-old son. So she and her husband packed their six children on an overcrowded bus headed for Damascus, where they waited for another bus to Beirut. The whole trip, broken by checkpoints and fuel shortages, took almost 24 hours.

Lost in the shuffle of packing up a life was her mazhar — an Arab tambourine. She first picked one up when she was eight. She played it at weddings, at parties. She played it whenever she was happy, whenever she was sad. But she had forgotten hers in the rush to flee. She also forgot her favorite gold-rimmed teacups. She likes to think they’re still being used by people who enjoy them as much as she did.

For the past couple of years in Beirut, she has attempted to piece together her family’s life. Lebanon now has the most refugees in the world per capita, its resources severely strained. What’s more, her husband’s diabetes has deteriorated, leaving her as the sole caregiver for their kids.

When I first met Ibtisam two years ago, she was smiling from ear to ear in the kitchen of a Lebanese restaurant, covered in kibbet raheb. She has found a livelihood and solace there in a culinary-training program for female Syrian refugees. They cook to remember. They cook to survive.

Every Saturday at Beirut’s only farmers’ market, she mans a table of her homemade treats. Customers trickle in. Some are international, many are Lebanese. All hail her, though few — much to her chagrin — ask about her food.

“I want to teach them about Syria through my food. Food is everything … food bridges me and them, you and me,” she says, wiping some sauce off her lips. Her cherub face is always aglow, but one can hear the dark beat of her thoughts between her long pauses and her distracted glances. “Through our food, our heart speaks. We are no longer strangers.”

Since I last saw Ibtisam, she has lost 35 pounds. She shows me by giggling and tapping on her hips as though she were tapping on her long-lost tambourine. In addition to cooking, she has picked up a sales job at the LA-founded nutrition and direct-selling company Herbalife. But she admits to sometimes supplementing her shakes with meat.

“I’m Syrian,” she says. “I can’t just stop eating our food!”

Her 15-year-old daughter Asmaa joins her at the market on most Saturdays. She hasn’t been to school for three years; there’s no room for her in the local Lebanese high school. She says she fears she has forgotten everything she learned in Syria.

Still, a glimmer of hope: a couple of years ago, Ibtisam registered her family for asylum and relocation in America. Last month, she received news that her application had gone through to the next level.

She says as soon as she gets the final word, they’ll be at the airport immediately. It will take only minutes to pack up their lives.*

“Do you think they’ll like me?” she asks her daughter with a nervous laugh.

Asmaa doesn’t say anything, but pats her mother’s arm.

They soon packed up their farmers’-market stall and headed back to their temporary home, where they wait for a less-temporary one. Beirut was in spring bloom, even they were in bloom, hand-in-hand — despite it all.

*A day before this piece was set to publish, I got word that Ibtisam has been resettled in Columbus, Ohio.

Ruqia, 33
Idomeni, Greece  

When Ruqia reached the Greek Island of Lesvos, she exhaled. What do you do with so much blue once you’ve seen it? She had been delaying the dreaded boat ride to Greece for months now. She can’t swim and couldn’t stop thinking about the thousands of refugees who had already died at sea. How could she forgive herself if her children drowned?

Back in Syria, Ruqia worked at schools and hospitals as a child psychologist. She led a comfortable life. She and her husband would take their two sons to the nearby Latakia beaches for weekend picnics. They had been saving up for a big trip to Turkey and had always dreamed of traveling to Europe. That was then.

This is now: long, languid days on the Greece-Macedonia border; she and her two sons are tucked away in a glum, gray tent stuffed with creaky bunk beds and rotten fruit.

Five months ago, her husband never came home. She heard through a chain of whispers and rumors that government forces had arrested him. She could never piece together the story. And she stopped trying, to preserve her own sanity.

She used all the energy and savings she had to get herself and her two sons to Turkey. They lived there on the border for a couple of months, until her relatives who had already reached Europe could wire her money to pay a smuggler to sail them to Greece. In Turkey and en route to Greece, people chided her for being unaccompanied by a man. “What are you doing traveling alone with two boys?” they asked.

“What do you think I’m doing?” she told them. “I’m saving our lives!”

They had had plans to take the migrant trail all the way to Germany. But two months ago, Macedonia closed its border with Greece, leaving Ruqia’s family stranded at the gate. If they had arrived just one week earlier, they’d most likely be in Germany. Now, almost 15,000 refugees don’t know where to go.

So the psychologist, known for her perma-smile and bright head scarves, spends the days in a makeshift camp listening to a slow drip of miseries. She has learned more about the human mind in one month than she ever did in school. She often intervenes in her fellow refugees’ problems and jokes she should start charging for advice. There’s the woman who might leave her husband. Her advice: Don’t. Wait until you’re out of this camp, until you’re somewhere you can breathe and think. There’s the 16-year-old who has received a marriage proposal from a 26-year-old man who promises to protect her. Her advice: Don’t. Your freedom is worth more.

She spends some of her days volunteering at an NGO center in the camp. It’s teeming with restless children with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

On a recent day, she sat on her bunk bed, donning leopard pants she procured from a “fancy mall” back in Syria. She caught a scant Wi-Fi signal in the camp and seized the opportunity for a quick scroll through her Facebook feed, a scrapbook of departures and arrivals.

She posted a quote with pink block letters on her wall: “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not people or things.”

When I asked her what her goal was, she sat for a moment.

“I want to be proud of myself,” she eventually responded. Later, I asked her why she wasn’t already. She had undertaken a heroic modern-day odyssey with two little boys in tow.

“When I get my boys under an actual roof, when they are in school again … when they don’t have to be reminded of their past … then I’ll be proud of myself,” she said, waiting in line for their afternoon meal of stale bread, rice, and a mush of peas and carrots. The afternoon drizzle began thickening to drops. “Until then, I’m just doing my job.”

A version of this story also appeared in Lenny Letter on June 10, 2016