Employment Programs Are Helping Syrian Women

A Syrian Refugee Woman and Her Daughter Outside Their Tent in Turkey (Photo Credit: EU Director General)

By Monique Tibbs and Nusaiba Mubarak

This article was made possible by the Study Abroad Think Tank project sponsored by Georgia State University.

Umm Muhammad called a small boy, who was no more than ten, to bring her purse, while repeating to us in Arabic, “I just really love girls.” Once the boy brought her purse over Umm Muhammad took out two pairs of silver earrings and handed them to us. It was a simple act of kindness for two guests, but it was also a gesture that took Umm Muhammad, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey, many hours of hard work to afford.

The Face of Syrian Refugees in Turkey Is Female

Syrian women, like Umm Muhammad, have been disproportionately affected by the Syrian war, which has caused over ten million people inside Syria to flee their homes. For over four years now, Syrian refugees have been arriving and settling in neighboring Turkey, bringing their traumatic experiences but little in the way of material possessions.

An estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees are currently living in Turkey; seventy-five percent of this population is made up of women and children. According to various NGOs working with these refugees, many Syrian women have lost their husbands or other male family members, who served as sole wage earners. In 2013, AFAD (Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı- the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey) found that 22 percent of heads of households outside of Syrian refugee camps in Turkey are women.

In the Turkish city of Urfa, we spoke to a group of widows whose husbands had been killed in the conflict and were living ten people to one house. They had made the journey to Turkey all the way from Deir ez-Zour, a city in the east of Syria, just two weeks before and were happy to be safe and together, even though their new home was an abandoned storefront with concrete floors. They proudly had their children write out the Arabic and English alphabet for us; one toddler began taking countless photos using our photographer’s camera.

Syrian Women Work Out of Necessity

Syrian refugee women, like these widows, have not only had to adapt to a new environment, but also provide financially for their families, without the benefits of an adequate education or marketable skills. Whether through their own will power or with help from NGOs, these women are finding their way toward economic independence.

Umm Muhammad is among many Syrian women in Turkey who independently provide for their families and have started small, informal businesses since arriving in the country. She created her catering company “by the will of God,” as she says, along with help from several young Syrian men, whom she refers to as her sons. After an entire day’s work, from 6:30 am until 10:00 pm, at her catering business, Umm Muhammad usually earns about 50 Turkish Lira (TL), or nearly $19 USD.  Though the sum may seem meager, Umm Muhammad is proud of the fact she has not taken a single lira from the government or received international assistance since reaching Turkey.

Umm Muhammad is not only supporting herself financially. She is also caring for her chronically ill husband, paying for his medicine (costing about 23 TL per day), and raising her three young children.

Umm Muhammad’s children are among the lucky ones. Thousands of Syrian children in Turkey do not attend school in order to work and help provide for their families. According to a private Syrian school in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep, only 12,000 of the 45,000 school-aged Syrians in Turkey are currently enrolled in school. UNICEF reports that in the countries neighboring Syria where many Syrians have fled, 73 percent of children outside of refugee camps are not enrolled in school.

NGOs Are Providing Marketable Skills As Well As Safe Spaces for Women to Socialize

Umm Muhammad represents an ideal of economic independence and self-confidence. But, most Syrian refugee women do not have the talents and resources Umm Mohammad enjoys. A few NGOs are responding to this deficit with programs specifically designed to help these women develop desperately needed technical abilities.

The classes and services provided by these organizations do double duty, as a safe space for women to socialize and obtain emotional as well as economic support. A local relief agency in Gaziantep, which asked to remain unnamed, reported that 60 to 70 percent of Syrian women in Turkey need psychological services, but have difficulty approaching counselors because of the social and cultural stigma associated with mental health problems.

In Gaziantep, several relief agencies are offering women both skills training and services in the beauty industry, including cosmetology classes and hair and beauty salons. A case worker at the local agency in Gaziantep said many women requested these educational and service provisions because hair care and beauty regimens were a regular part of their lives in Syria. In addition to developing their skills, these classes also provide participants with a safe space to discuss their problems, fears, and concerns with those who have experienced similar traumas and setbacks.

In addition to cosmetology, group classes on embroidery, knitting, and even nursing are also available to Syrian women in Gaziantep. For many women, creating items such as bed covers and prayer rugs with other Syrian women, who are facing similar challenges, is also a form of social support and indirect therapy.

The video below shows women in an embroidery class in the Gaziantep location of Takaful Alsham (Syrian Solidarity), an independent relief organization that operates in both Turkey and Syria. After the designs are completed, Takaful Alsham sells the products in local art exhibits and returns the full cost of the products to the Syrian embroiderers.

[Click here to view the 26-second video in a new window.]

Umm Muhammad is a symbol of entrepreneurship, independence, strength, and patience in a time of extreme difficulty. Her generosity and perseverance are reflected in countless other self-sufficient Syrian women who work every day to better themselves and their families in the most difficult of circumstances.

Whether embroidering in a group or running a storefront catering business, Syrian refugee women are retaking control of their lives and their destinies.

from Muftah (http://muftah.org/syrian-women-have-been-disproportionately-affected-by-the-syrian-war-but-employment-programs-are-helping-them-retake-control-over-their-lives/#.VaP9Z7VMCRk)