[Published here August 4, 2014]
Since the beginning of the conflict more than three years ago, Syria’s death toll sits horrifyingly somewhere over 120,000. But the real number of destroyed lives is much higher: Three million refugees, scattered throughout the region, escaped the war alive. Though they survived, their homes have been demolished, their memories faded, and their dreams rendered impossible. Painstakingly, some women who turned into widows or single parents have tried to reassemble their lives, readjusting hopes and goals to fit a harsh new reality. Here is one story of a women-led household—a rare occurrence in the Middle East—inside the Domiz refugee camp in Iraq.
I met Bushra while wandering through Iraqi Kurdistan’s Domiz camp in the pouring rain. Carrying grocery bags and strolling through the camp’s grid of mud alleyways in flip-flops, the chubby, middle-aged woman grinned at me. “Do you want to come in from the rain?” she asked cheerfully.
After guiding us through several swampy boulevards, Bushra led us to her corrugated-metal home, pulling back the makeshift door and ushering us in. We quickly went from howling wind and torrential downpour to a snug and dimly lit single-room home. Several layers of rugs kept the tent dry and warm, and flat cushions lined the walls. Kurdish flags and posters of Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, hung from the walls.
Bushra returned from the improvised kitchen area of her tent, proudly gesturing through her new home. “This is our home. We’ve been here for two years. We built it ourselves, with our savings,” she said, handing us hot tea. “My father worked in construction.”
Bushra was the perfect image of a matronly woman. She donned a floral hijab and a bright dress that hugged her plump belly and hips. She plopped down on the cushion closest to the door, motioned for us to do the same, and began to tell us her story.
“I walked here from Syria. Two years ago, my entire family—who live in this tent—and I walked together across the border. Before we had even gotten to Iraq, I fell and broke my hand,” said Bushra, who hails from the majority-Kurdish town of Qamishli in northeast Syria. She, her sisters, her sisters-in-law, and all their children trekked across the border in the snow. “I had to walk the rest of the way with a broken hand.”
After being processed through the crossing at Semalka, Bushra and her family were transported to the Domiz camp, located in Iraq’s northern province of Dohuk. Domiz has now become, for all intents and purposes, a small city. Its unpaved alleyways each have street names and are lined with grocers, cell phone shops, and even jewelers. Residents are given permits to work in the city of Dohuk, just outside the camp.
As the oldest in the family, Bushra has become the matriarch. Her toddler son, who was following her as she brought in her groceries from the rain, sat curled at her lap. Her nieces and nephews popped in and out of the tent, asking her questions about impending meals and locations of other family members. She politely refused to answer our questions about the apparently missing elder males in the family—including her husband—but was keen to explain how she helps support the family.
“I make these handicrafts,” she said, proudly bringing out small knit hats, gloves, and other accessories. Bushra teaches community classes to the other refugee women on how to make the small crafts; she sells her own work in Dohuk to feed her children.
But as soon as our conversation turned to her family’s former life in Syria, Bushra’s bright face clouded over, and her tone grew darker.
“We’re all here; almost no one is left in Syria. We were dying of hunger there,” she said, rushing through her words.
“Syria’s gone. It’s just rivers of blood.”
As Bushra told us about her new life in Domiz, her daughter came in from the storm with a tattered sack of schoolbooks. At almost 18 years old, Iman should have been finished with high school and applying to college in Syria. Her short curly hair was pulled back from her sly eyes, and she wore a two-piece school uniform. Iman, whose name means “faith” in Arabic, had dreamed of being the first university-educated woman in her family, then going on to become a teacher.
But fleeing Syria and settling in Domiz interrupted her goals, and for two years, she languished in the camps without any lessons.
“I used to really hate my life here, and I wasn’t happy,” she told us. Just three weeks prior to our conversation with her, Domiz had opened its first high school. As one of the first 100 students, Iman said she has “calmed down and feels at ease,” and has tried to pick her dream up right where she left off.
Still, it’s not quite what she had in Syria. When asked about the quality of the classes, Iman waves her head back and forth, as if to say “so-so.” The school is set up in coordination with Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Education, which means the curriculum is different from the Syrian system Iman is used to. Classes are taught in Kurdish, while Iman’s courses in Syria were in Arabic. Some teachers, according to UNHCR, think corporal punishment is acceptable in a school environment. Iman said it’s not perfect, but she’s happy just to have classes.
Apart from her memories of school, Iman, like her mother, finds it hard to reminisce fondly on her old life in Syria. For months, rockets rained down on their home in Qamishli, destroying the top floor. Everyone moved downstairs, living all together in a cramped first floor. “They started kidnapping girls,” Iman said, without explaining who “they” were. “There was no communication, and we weren’t able to go anywhere.” The final straw for the family was when their home was entirely demolished by Syrian army tanks. With nowhere to go, and no other family to turn to, the clan headed to Iraq.
Iman put on a brave face when I asked how she’s been adjusting, but the strain showed through. When we spoke to her, the Kurdish feast of Nowruz—the festival of lights—was less than two weeks away.
“I don’t feel like celebrating when we’re here and we’re supposed to be in Syria… When everyone is here, together, it’s a little better. But there’s not much to celebrate.”
Iman’s tall and lanky younger cousin, Jilan, rolled her eyes and tugged at the sleeves of her faux-leather jacket. She had emerged from the improvised kitchen shortly after Iman entered and sat quietly next to her, eyeing us suspiciously.
Jilan and Iman couldn’t be more different. Jilan’s slender face is the opposite of Iman’s stockier and blunter features. Sixteen years old, Jilan wears mascara and faded lipstick, tight jeans and a black jacket.
And, more than anyone I’ve ever met, Jilan contradicts herself. It was as if she was struggling to remember the Syria she loved, the one she lived through, and the life she could have led.
“I like to study, not work, but my brother won’t let me do either,” she complained. Minutes later, she insisted she was glad that the camp doesn’t require school attendance, because she’d prefer work to school. She alternated between telling us how much she misses Syria and how she was the first one in her family who wanted to come to Iraqi Kurdistan, years and years ago.
Still, she seemed to be the only one who remembered Syria in a positive light. “We moved to al Sham [Damascus] and lived there for six years. It was terrific. Everyone works there,” she beamed. Even she, as a young teen in Syria, had dropped out of school to work odd jobs in restaurants and retail. “Working, making money, meeting people, and being out at night. I loved that life,” she said.
Jilan’s fresh, fond memories of Syria made her bitterness at being in the camp all the more clear.
Most of her overwhelming discomfort in her new life stems from the verbal sexual harassment she said she faces here. Although she said she’d like to get a job in Dohuk, Jilan hates going into town because Iraqis—even those who are ethnically Kurdish—shout “bad things” about Syrian female refugees. “One Kurdish Iraqi in Dohuk said he wanted to marry six Syrian women: marry one for a bit, divorce her, and marry another one,” she told us.
Even within the camp, Jilan doesn’t feel safe. “There are just more men here,” she explained. She doesn’t like walking through Domiz because the other refugees don’t approve of her attire: Her tight-fitting clothes and makeup draw male attention to her. But Jilan, in all her teenage rebellion, refuses to change the way she dresses. Instead, she locks herself away in her family’s tent, watching foreign films and shows on the family’s tiny, crackling television.
Sitting cross-legged on the rug floor of the tent, Jilan looked around her home. Perhaps because she’s the youngest of the three women we were speaking to, she was the most outspoken about her resentment toward this new life.
“I don’t have my friends. I don’t have anything to do. I don’t have a life here.”