Displaced yet determined: Syria's working women fight to provide for families amid poverty and disease
In the midst of abject poverty and with two seriously ill daughters, Wadha Abida, known as Umm Ismael, is busy packing vegetables and preparing food supplies. This work will provide her with a wage that will help contribute towards the family's living expenses, against a backdrop of a record rise in the cost of essential items, adding further hardship to struggling families, alongside the almost total absence of humanitarian aid.
She is among the many women in al-Madina al-Munawara, a camp in northern Idlib, who are determined to work – their resolution to do so pushing many to overcome their everyday difficulties in search of opportunities.
Umm Ismael: Packing vegetables and preparing pastries
Umm Ismael has six children. She tells Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, that her eldest daughter, Isra (20), a geography student, has been diagnosed with uterine cancer. Another of her girls, Alaa (18), suffers from diabetes which has affected her vision: both of them need medication.
"In al-Madina al-Munawara, a camp in northern Idlib, women are determined to work – their resolution to do so pushing many to overcome their everyday difficulties in search of opportunities"
"My daughters are ill because of the constant terror they lived during their childhood. We faced regular bombing raids where we lived in the town of Kafr Nabl. This is what forced us to move to al-Madina al-Munawara in April 2019. The area is part of the camp in Barisha, north Idlib, designated for sick residents," she explains.
She says her husband can't always find work, especially when it rains, and even when he does he won't earn more than 25 Turkish lira (around $1.84). This situation has forced her to work, which she began nearly two months after settling in the camp. A shop owner gives her vegetables and fruit to prepare which she packs into plastic bowls or bags for dried food before returning them to him ready to sell.
She explains that her tasks depend on specific requests from customers, as well as on the season: "For instance, in the summer I will dry peppers, tomatoes, okra and molokhia (Jew's mallow) and make various pickles and jams. I will also hollow out courgettes and aubergines to prepare mahshi (stuffed vegetables) and bake sweet and savoury pastries like maamoul and biscuits when people ask for them."
Umm Ismael hopes that one day she is able to develop her job into a bigger project of her own, though this would require money to buy the necessary materials and equipment. She wishes she could employ other women and expand the venture so others could benefit too – she is well aware that the destitution in the camps and the daily expenses people need to make ends meet are forcing women to work to help sustain their families.
Khitam al-Khatib: Getting creative with a sewing machine
Khitam al-Khatib (36) moved to al-Madina al-Munawara two years ago after becoming displaced from Kafr Nabl with her husband and six children. She soon dazzled the residents with her creative clothes designing skills.
"I started my current work buying second-hand clothes and revamping them so they looked new. I was really pleased with the results, so decided to make more, and then put them up for sale at an exhibition in the camp. The enthusiastic response from other residents who wanted to buy my pieces encouraged me to hold a second exhibition, and now I am preparing for a third," she reveals.
Al-Khatib says by doing this she can help her husband cover their family's living costs and it has also given her the chance to help families in the camp buy clothes, "because most of them are poor, and new clothes are expensive." She started out using a manual sewing machine but has since borrowed her sister's electric one.
"I started my current work buying second-hand clothes and revamping them so they looked new. I was really pleased with the results, so decided to make more, and then put them up for sale"
However, she points out that one difficulty lies in the limited electricity she has access to. This is generated by solar panels and small batteries, which only provide enough power to last from noon to sunset, in which time she can make just three or four pieces.
Umm Salem: Making ends meet in makeshift camps
Twenty five kilometres west of Jarabulus, east of Aleppo, the tents of those forcibly displaced from the al-Waer neighbourhood in Homs huddle within in a camp in Zughara village. No aid relief has reached this camp, and residents face huge challenges accessing water and addressing sewage problems.
The harrowing conditions pushed Rasmia al-Ali (known as Umm Salem) who is in her fifties, to work with a manual sewing machine making clothes.
"I try to help earn the necessary funds to cover my family expenses. I have five girls, three are married and I have one married son," she says.
"As well as this I need to buy medicines for diabetes, high blood pressure and myocardial ischemia which I suffer from. These costs were weighing heavily on me, piled on top of the high living costs all Syrians are suffering. But at the moment I am looking forward to my job becoming easier and improving the quality of the clothes I make by buying an electric machine."
Mazaya: Helping upskill Idlib's displaced women
Ithar Allam, the executive director of Mazaya, an organisation concerned with women's affairs, which has its headquarters in Salqin, north Idlib, explains that though there aren't exact statistics showing how many women are working in the camps, "we estimate them at around 1,000, based on what we have seen in our fieldwork."
She mentions that women suffer hugely from the loss of privacy due to how close tents are to each other in the camps, as well as from the lack of space, both in the regulated camps, where services offered vary, and in irregular camps. Residents in the latter face agonising hardships; the most serious being the lack of basic sanitation, water, electricity and food aid.
"The women's organisation [Mazaya] runs training courses for women in many different areas – professional, educational and academic – and offers technical and marketing support to some of the projects women have started, as well as legal and advisory services"
These irregular, makeshift camps stretch across northern Syria, having been set up hastily as emergency responses to various waves of displacement, therefore their situation is considered to be even worse than the regulated camps, especially in winter. She adds that the high unemployment levels and rising living costs are pushing women to looks for jobs to assist their families.
"In some cases, they have lost their husbands and are now the only breadwinners and in other cases, the husband might be there but can't earn enough to support the family due to the situation here, and the lack of work opportunities. Some women are trying to kick-start small projects inside the camps to contribute anything, even if just a small amount; they are weaving, sewing, selling clothes, and preparing household supplies and other things like that."
As to what Mazaya offers to women, Allam explains that the women's organisation runs training courses for women in many different areas – professional, educational and academic – and offers technical and marketing support to some of the projects women have started, as well as legal and advisory services. It also offers mediation to resolve conflicts between women and runs psychological support programmes for women at its centre in Barisha.
Afghan women outraged by new Taliban restrictions on workhttps://t.co/PqRox4HYBF— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) September 20, 2021
Behind the fabric walls that now separate residents' houses, after the Syrian regime destroyed the original concrete ones, the women of al-Madina al-Munawara are looking ahead with hope that they will be able to achieve their aspirations, their suffering will end, and they will be able to live in safety far from the sound of planes and cannon fire which has left them drained and their children traumatised and afraid.
However, they know that death could still strike them and their children at any moment, even after their escape to the canvas tents of impoverished camps, which fail to offer protection either from the scorching heat of summer or the bitter cold of winter.
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko
This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.
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