"It Could Be Any One of Us:" Supporting Syria's Women Refugees

Thursday, May 17, 2012
Asmaa Donahue for the International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

Violence against Syrian civilians escalated again this weekend, with more than 100 people killed in Houla according to the U.N., including 34 women and 49 children. The IRC continues to support displaced Syrian women and families in Jordan. Learn more about our work below from Asmaa Donahue, a technical advisor with the IRC's Women's Protection and Empowerment Team.

I'm from a small town in the American Midwest, but sitting and listening to the stories, I couldn't help but feel that these women and girls could just as easily be my mother, aunts or cousins — their patience worn thin by worry, implacable toddlers, and the endless effort to provide for their families.

I was in the Jordanian border town of Mafraq, where I met with dozens of Syrian refugee women and girls to assess their protection needs. Thousands have crossed into Jordan — alone or with family members — since the outbreak of violence in Syria more than a year ago. There are now an estimated 30,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, about half of them women.

So many of the women's complaints are easy for me, as a woman, to relate to: not being able to pay the rent or access decent pre-or antenatal care. And others are (I hope) very abstract—such as not knowing the fate of loved ones, and the trauma that lingers after fleeing an armed conflict in which women and children have been attacked and targeted. Somehow, however, I felt reassured by these strong women who were obviously distressed, but still put their own needs last. And of course, as strong women keeping the proverbial home fires burning, they do put their own needs last.

Many of these stalwarts are quite young, like the three teen mothers in black abayas (robes) and niqabs (face veils) that I met waiting their turn with their children at a health clinic. Like many of the refugee women I met, they were as smartly dressed as their reduced means allowed: Clean clothes and a hint of style being the first line of defense in their strategy to keep it all together at a chaotic time. My colleague Rama and I cooed over a baby and struck up a conversation with his 19-year-old mother. She looked stressed and a bit lost. She told us she had two other toddlers and needed baby formula, as she hasn't been able to breastfeed. While local Jordanian charities have been impressive in their response, it's clear they're struggling to meet the needs of expectant and new mothers that continue to arrive.

The three teen moms (we learned not to ask for names as most of the women fear retribution against relatives or themselves when they return home) told us they were sisters-in-law, married to three brothers. They had been in Jordan for two months, three young couples and their children — totaling eleven household members — in a three-room apartment. Like the majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan, they live in crowded apartments, and try to remain below the radar. After a week of home visits and focus groups, Rama and I became familiar with the scenario, and nodded when the young women told us that they pay three times the normal rent and have no hot water, only a rooftop water tank that they can rarely afford to fill.

What struck us most was the tremendous resilience of these women. Even in those packed apartments, somehow Syrian and Jordanian women found each other and connected, opening their homes and hearts to each other to share their news, their insight, and their solidarity.

Sadly, one group remained isolated even in the warmth of these gatherings. It's something I've seen time and time again in armed conflict. Due to the stigma attached to rape, survivors of sexual violence can be surrounded by supportive friends, neighbors and family, yet still be unable to share their pain. A key International Rescue Committee goal is to break through this isolation, offering both physical and emotional space where survivors of sexual violence and trauma can find the confidential services and the support they require to heal. We are currently working on setting up such spaces, partnering with a Jordanian aid agency to open a pair of health clinics in two border cities. While the clinics will provide primary health care, medicine and referrals to refugees and vulnerable Jordanians, they will also provide what we call psychosocial support- emotional healing for women and girls in need, after the horrors of war.