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Syrian women in Egypt work to build strength out of hardship

Six years into the devastating war, Syrian women who sought refuge in Egypt have become stronger and acquired new survival skills.
Syrian refugee Reem al-Sawaa, 28, originally from Daraa in southern Syria, sits with her one-year-old son Khaled at their home in the Helwaan district of the Egyptian capital of Cairo on November 1, 2013. Reem fled Syra with her four children and husband Yussef al-Talha, who works as a computer technician.  AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Positive changes may stem from cruel experiences, and indisputably wars represent one of the hardest experiences.

Armed confrontations in Syria, now entering their sixth year, have surely shaped the personality of the Syrian people. The war has taken its toll on all Syrians, especially on women, and this may be seen clearly by taking a closer look at the lives of some Syrian women who sought refuge in Egypt.

According to an April report issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Egypt now hosts 122,228 Syrian refugees.

According to another UNHCR report last updated on June 1, over 5 million Syrian refugees are registered in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, 48.5% of whom are female.

On May 23, the Souriyat Association opened its newest branch in Alexandria, the first outside Cairo. The nongovernmental organization aims to develop the skills of Syrian women and help them become qualified to find jobs through training workshops. The association was founded in April 2013 under the umbrella of the Syrian community in Egypt and the Arab Organization for Human Rights.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, the association’s general coordinator, Mufida al-Khatib, said, “The association was established against the background of some Egyptian media channels describing Syrian women in a demeaning way and portraying them as beggars. It also comes after talks about Egyptian men increasingly seeking to marry a Syrian refugee in return for a dowry not exceeding 500 Egyptian pounds to protect honor. This pushed us to establish an NGO to empower Syrian women.”

Khatib added, “In 1948, an NGO known as Souriyat Association operated in Syria but was disbanded in 2007.” She said there are five branches in Egypt, one in Germany and two in Turkey. Khatib explained that the association’s main objective is developing women’s capacities. “The association is based on the vision that women are the main pillars of society, and the development of their capacities contributes to the advancement of society," she said. "Syrian women in Egypt now are becoming the main breadwinners in families that lost their male heads of households during the ongoing war in Syria. It is necessary to qualify women to be able to get a job.”

The association has provided a number of training courses in Cairo, mainly cooking and sewing, in addition to coaching sessions on positive energy and psychological rehabilitation given by a group of male and female trainers.

Khatib told Al-Monitor, “The association seeks to find jobs for its female members. Some Egyptians refer to us to find female workers or employees, and after a background check of the employer we give a list of possible candidates.”

The director of the association's Alexandria branch, Amani Darwish, told Al-Monitor, “The new branch will espouse the same mission as the association’s main branch in Cairo and will focus on older women and will also provide training to women who have received financial support from other NGOs such as Caritas to help them establish their small enterprises and market their projects and products.”

Darwish is from Damascus and studies business at an educational institute there, but she didn't have a job in Syria. “I did not need to work. When I needed something I would ask my husband,” she said.

She first came to Egypt in 2013 at the age of 40 and settled in Alexandria, where she had to do many tasks on her own without depending on her husband, who was working abroad, mainly in Sudan and Turkey. “I had to obtain official papers and enroll my children in schools," she said. "Then, I discovered that I can do things on my own. I now travel to Cairo to obtain papers for my relatives and carry out their formalities.”

Darwish said that when she first arrived in Egypt, she was impressed by the Egyptian women who work and rely on themselves. “Egyptian women saw difficulties as the natural price for their success,” she said.

After settling in Egypt, she began volunteering for groups that serve Syrian refugees. She further expanded the scope of her activities to assume the position of prison medical emergency responder with the UNHCR implementing partner for mental health care, Psycho-Social Services and Training Institute in Cairo, which she described as a qualitative shift in her career.

Darwish told Al-Monitor, “I deal with refugees from different nationalities — Iraqis, Eritreans and Sudanese. My job is to provide psychological support to refugees detained on charges of illegal immigration. This is no walk in the park, as I have to respond immediately whenever illegal migrants are caught.”

On why she volunteers, she said, “I had a lot of free time and I love helping others. When I reached Egypt, I had little information about the situation and conditions of refugees. The concerned NGOs helped me learn a lot about Syrians in Egypt. My goal is to pass on this information to other Syrian refugees who recently reached Egypt.”

Khatib told Al-Monitor she hopes the association will work on empowering Syrian women on the political level. She said, “Before the war, I worked as a teacher and I was a member of the Syrian al-Ghad movement. I have always believed that women are not represented in the Arab political arena, and this is why I seek to qualify women to work in politics. I underwent the training sessions offered by the Arab Women Organization, and I will do my best to transfer what I acquired to others through the association.”

Roqia Darwish, 32, who works at the association in Alexandria, studied English translation in Syria for two years but did not complete her studies since she got married and was busy raising a child. She left Syria in March 2013 and has since settled in Alexandria.

She told Al-Monitor, “Back in Syria, I only left the house with my husband or my brother, since this was imposed by the tradition in my country. But things changed when I came to Egypt. I started volunteering at various NGOs to teach Syrian refugees English. I now have three children, but I am determined to keep working in the public service field. I gained many friends, and this activity helped me assume responsibilities.”

Amani Darwish did not think her life would be like this. “Before the war, I never thought I would have a career. I only thought about building my children’s careers and futures, but now I am looking forward to developing and expanding my work,” she said.

She added, “My plans for my daughter's future have changed. I do not want her to be just a housewife. I hope she will get a job and even do volunteer activities. I want her to go to university and graduate. No one knows what the future holds.”

Roqia Darwish said, “My family will always be my priority, and my husband — who is a barber — will always be the breadwinner who assumes all responsibilities of the head of household. Even if he does not participate in my activities, he helps me a lot and constantly encourages me to achieve my ambitions. When I am busy he also helps me with the housework. He is just happy I am realizing my dream.”

This association seems to shed light on some of the qualities and skills that Syrian women have acquired in Egypt and other countries in which they have sought refuge. When the war ends, Syria will not only become a new country, but its women will also have new characteristics.

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