I lived in Syria last year, and I made a few amazing friends despite the ongoing war. I still keep in touch with them and am surprised how I could meet so many fine people in so short time.
One of them, we can call her Sarah, had made an incredible journey in life. Coming from a working class conservative family, she had been married off against her will when young. The marriage had been abusive, something she was not unused to: in her world, as she described it, “almost all men hit women”. But the violence Sarah had been subjected to had been of the extraordinary kind.
When she left her husband it was because she knew she wouldn’t survive if going back. Trauma to her head had made her loose parts of her memory and she had suffered three miscarriages as a result of the abuse. When leaving her husband Sarah had to leave her children behind and was not allowed to see them. She had the right to visit her children but was deeply traumatized, had no support from her family and no lawyer to help her access this right.
At her family’s house noone spoke to her, they didn’t approve of her leaving her husband. She stayed most of her time in a dark room, often not remembering the day before or where she was. She knew her family wanted to get her into a mental hospital, and she also knew that if they were able to make her admitted there she would never be able to get out.
“How did you make it?” I asked Sarah the one evening she opened up and told me her story, which I would have had no clue of if she hadn’t told me, despite her sad eyes, this pretty girl in modern clothes and pastel earrings. We had been hanging out for a while and were drinking wine in one of the laid back cafés in the inner city of Damascus.
“I just had to”, she said. “I read every book in the house… And I tried to remember the books I read.”
She became able to make appointments with a psychiatrist at a public hospital. She gradually became better and was able to enroll in a beauty school. One day when she was well enough she left her family’s house. She had been making money by working in beauty saloons in downtown Damascus, saving so she could rent a small flat on her own.
“You’re not allowed to move out!” her brother had told her. “You’re nothing but a whore if you live on your own!”
But the verbal abuse didn’t take hold of her, she was so used to it.
Sarah took off her abaya and hijab (“I believe in God, but I never wanted these”). She started going to the gym, started going out, started dating. After a few years she was strong enough to fight for her kids. In the meantime her ex husband had remarried and had a new child with his second wife. And the war had started.
Sarah got a female lawyer who threatened her ex husband with legal actions if he didn’t allow Sarah visitation rights. The legal system was weakened and they might not have been able to push it further, but her ex husband got scared and gave in. The children slept next to her each time they visited and cried when it was time to go back to their dad, desperate not to go.
War dragged on and effected everyone, even the people living in the regime controlled capital. Sarah wasn’t able to make a living despite working 12 hours a day. Her employer paid her a small sum of her salary and said “It’s war, I have no money to pay you”. In the breakdown of the system there was nowhere to go to claim your salary. Benefits didn’t exist. Sarah had to move back to her family, and they didn’t accept her children coming to visit. Her ex husband was happy and Sarah was back in confinement again. The war had made her loose all her rights. But worse was yet to come.
The other day she called me and told me her children were back with her. Great news! But how had it happened?
Her ex husband had been taken by the authorities and noone knew where he was. His new wife had refused his extended family to see the children. But the childrens’ uncle had spoken to them on Skype and seen them having bruises and marks on their faces. Something wasn’t right and in the end he called Sarah and told her to try take the children. He didn’t want to take them himself as the war made him having enough financial constraints with his own family.
There was no legal system anymore that would support Sarah’s attempt to get her children back. Instead she called the woman and asked if she could invite her and the children to a nice restaurant. When they met, Sarah was all smiles with the woman. In the middle of the meal she got up with the kids to go to the bathroom, then rushed them through the back door of the restaurant, and jumped in to a taxi.
Sarah’s family in the end accepted the children staying with them when they learned that Sarah’s ex husband was gone. The truth about what had happened to the children unravelled when back in Sarah’s care. Sarah’s ex husband’s new wife had abused them already when her husband was still present, probably as a revenge for the abuse she herself suffered in the hands of her husband. The children had told their father what their stepmother did but he didn’t believe them. When he disappeared the abuse escalated: she had tortured them with electricity and starved them. If Sarah hadn’t intervened I don’t know what had happened.
“They are so angry”, Sarah said. “And hungry. It’s like they hadn’t had food for weeks. You can’t believe how weak they are.”
“So what will you do now?” I asked when we were on the phone.
“I can’t do anything, Jenny. There is nowhere I can go.”
She can’t report the woman to any police authorities. There is hardly nowhere to take the children for psychological counselling. If her ex husband comes back and forces the children to return to their abusive stepmother, there is nowhere for Sarah to turn for legal help. She’s also no longer financially independent and has no control over her own life, she’s back in the hands of her own abusive family. In Syria, once a functioning country with a stable infrastructure, everything is collapsed.
When I speak to Sarah on the phone there is nothing I can say that will help her. That’s why I write about this on my blog. I want everyone to know what it’s like to be a woman or a child in Syria during this war. That’s all I can do.