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Illustrated stories of women refugees from Syria

Pamela Hart posted

Stories and images of Syrian refugees from Concern Worldwide. Amazing illustrations.

Thank you Hanane Kai and Masha Hamilton.

Support Concern’s Syria Response: Donate Now.
In 2014, Concern traveled to northern Lebanon to hear the stories of Syrian women who fled their homes for…
concernusa.org

In 2014, Concern traveled to northern Lebanon to hear the stories of Syrian women who fled their homes for safety. While we conducted lengthy interviews, Lebanese artist Hanane Kai illustrated the harrowing tales of six women refugees currently receiving support from Concern.

According to the latest numbers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 50.5 percent of refugees from Syria are women or girls. Like the men, they fled their homes under extreme pressure, having witnessed or experienced violence. Often,  they were responsible for small children, or even newborns.

The six women whose stories are below were ripped from stable families and full lives. Carrying little beyond their memories, they made unthinkably long and treacherous journeys for refuge that was neither promised nor certain.

Fedaa

Illustration of Feeda by Hanane Kai.

Fedaa is a divorced artist and mother of two girls.

While most refugees arrived in Lebanon with nothing save the clothes on her back, she brought a number of her drawings and diaries, as well as an empty package of Kent cigarettes. The pack had belonged to her brother, Mustafa.

The two were extremely close from childhood on. Together, they chased chickens and played games, and later he later taught her to smoke. He was part of a group that rescued people from buildings bombed by the regime.

He was killed in a mortar attack. She’s never been able to visit his graveside, as it is located in an area that was too dangerous for her to visit. She showed visitors the cigarette pack and said she continues to imagine he will appear one day at her door.

Amina

Illustration by Hanane Kai.

Amina had just given birth by C-section a few days earlier when it was announced from the village mosque that everyone should flee immediately because the village, thought to be a center for “rebels,” would be bombed.

Most of the men had already fled to avoid arrest. Amina watched the women trudging into the hills with their children, but she didn’t know how she could make the trip with disabled Taghrid, a newborn, and four other small ones. She began to hit herself, telling herself to think harder.

Then she realized, she had to save who she could. She had to leave Taghrid behind. She pulled her baby into her chest, told the four others to follow close, and said goodbye to Taghrid. She began to leave. And then she realized she couldn’t. She returned home, carried Taghrid onto the lawn that had once been a place of childhood games, and sank down to cry, sure she and her children would die that night.

Luckily the village was not bombed overnight, and the next morning, her brother arrived to help the family escape.

Farah

Illustration of Farah by Hanane Kai.

Farah’s husband had already fled to Lebanon but she didn’t want to leave Syria; she loved her homeland and didn’t want to be a refugee.

However, after she argued with a soldier who shot one of her cows, soldiers began routinely entering her home, turning over furniture, throwing dishes on the floor and generally harassing her. Finally, her daughter, so frozen by fear, stopped speaking at all, so she decided to make the trip.

She came from a well-to-do background; she set out at 4 a.m. one morning in low heels and a nice dress, her daughter clinging to her back and her son at her side. She didn’t realize she would have to walk all the way. She didn’t get to Lebanon until 25 hours later. She was exhausted, her shoes long gone, her dress in shreds.

Her daughter spoke her first words in a week on the trip; when they saw a soldier, the girl said, “If you are going to shoot my mama, shoot me.”

Alaa

Illustration of Alaa by Hanane Kai.

After her village began to be bombed, Alaa’s husband and the other men decided to dig caves into the mountains and move their families there: forty women and children per cave, spending most of their hours within its confines.

Even the children bit back the impulse to play in the fresh air — especially when they heard planes overhead. Her kids — all the kids, in fact — began talking about nothing save weapons and war. They screamed and threw themselves onto the ground at the mere sound of an airplane.

At first, the men brought their families cracked wheat and water for sustenance, but then the food began to run out. Alaa and her children began to eat grass to survive.

Eventually they sold everything they had and raised the $2,000 needed to pay their way across the border.

Fadwa

Illustration of Fadwa by Hanane Kai.

Fawda, born crippled, lost her leg to gangrene as a schoolgirl. But her parents taught her to never to feel sorry for herself. She never imagined she would marry so she made sure she was well educated and got a good job.

Then she did meet someone at her cousin’s wedding. They talked by Internet for a couple years as good friends, and he proposed. Now she has two children.

She decided she had to have the strength to leave Syria, leaving her beloved parents behind, after her home was shelled; her daughter’s room was hit but the girl was fine. She stressed that being disabled—like being a refugee—is more a state of mind than a physical state.

Asia

Illustration of Asia by Hanane Kai.

Asia and her husband ran a market from home, and Asia was a guiding light in her community on issues of childcare and cooking. One Friday in March, with two feet of snow on the ground, Asia was boiling ten gallons of milk to make yogurt when a loudspeaker warned villagers they would be shelled before two hours had passed.

“We didn’t even lock our front door,” Asia said. “We ran out within 15 minutes. People were like ants, walking in the snow.” That night, the family slept in a mosque about seven miles away —but not far enough to be out of the range of the shelling, which they heard.

After the fourth night in the mosque, she decided to go look once more at their home, though they’d been warned more shelling was likely. It was a difficult visit. Theirs had been a two-story home, spacious and comfortable. Now nearly everything stood destroyed.

The only item she found intact was a wall clock that a relative had given them as a wedding gift years—a lifetime—earlier. She tucked it under her arm, never looking back. Now it hangs in her refugee shelter.

*Names have been changed for the safety of those interviewed. 

 

 

 

Drawing on the Memories of Syrian Women

Concern Worldwide and illustrator Hanane Kai gather the recollections of Syrian women refugees in Lebanon — and illuminate the lives they left behind.

 

Fleeing their homes, many Syrians left behind middle-class lives; most arrived with none of the mementos that stir memory.

Fedaa was different. She brought things. Diaries. Drawings. A pillowcase that she’d used since childhood. An empty pack of her brother Mustafa’s Kent cigarettes.

How best to explain what Syrians have faced over the last four years?

Numbers tell part of it: More than 191,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011, a third of them civilians, according to the United Nations’ human rights office.

An estimated 9 million (a bit less than 50% of the population) have fled their homes (4 million to neighboring countries, and 5 million within Syria).

Photographs offer frozen moments that hint at a larger story, such as those showing the wrapped bodies of Syrians killed in the Damascus suburbs in August 2013 by the nerve gas sarin.

But researchers say recall and storytelling work on the brain in unique ways.

As one person recounts a memory to another, functional magnetic resonance imaging scans show the same parts of the brain light up in both the storyteller and the listener—parts, scientists say, that would be activated if both were experiencing the events in present time.

Over recent days in northern Lebanon, I worked with Concern Worldwide’s Taline Khansa and a Lebanese illustrator, Hanane Kai, to capture the lives of Syrian female refugees being supported through Concern’s work.

We hoped to move beyond “el azmeh,”—”the crisis,” as they refer to the fighting that sent them from their homelands—to a more complete understanding of their memories.

Fedaa was born into a comfortable home in Homs, Syria, but her first recollections were of trouble. Before her birth, her then-five-year-old brother was killed by a mentally unstable uncle, and she remembers seeing her mother, years later, hysterically pull his bloodstained clothes from drawers.

Her mother, pregnant at the time of the killing, was hit in the shoulder by a bullet from the same gun that killed her son. The baby was stillborn. Fedaa was born next, and two years later, Mustafa.

There were 9 children in all then, and she and Mustafa were especially close. They played together, made spears from sticks and sharp rocks, chased chickens together.

Later, he taught her how to smoke, and still later, they whispered of politics, and fears and hopes for their futures.

Fedaa was an artist from the start, winning first place in a competition when she was six years old.  She stayed in school until 9th grade, when her father pulled her out. She was engaged a year later to a man 11 years her senior, chosen by her father. She felt conflicted, but did as she was told.

It was a simple wedding because the groom was not well off. He was very conservative; he insisted she keep her face covered all the time. She got pregnant quickly, spent two days in labor and then gave birth to Nabigha. “My daughter was my doll,” she said. Fedaa’s second daughter was born two years later.

 

By then, though she couldn’t imagine living with the shame of divorce, she’d begun to pray that God would create a way for her and her husband to separate.

Eventually, she began leaving her husband for short periods to return to her parent’s home. Finally came the day she told her parents she was too unhappy to return. In response, her husband prevented her from seeing her daughters for extended periods.

Then began “el azmeh.” Her brothers formed a group to rescue people after a rocket attack. “Mustafa and I were still very close—I think I was closer to him than his own wife,” Fedaa said. “Sometimes he would return home with blood on his shirt from trying to save friends. At first I avoided the demonstrations. But I changed. I started to become political.”

Then came the day Mustafa, along with two others, was killed by a mortar shell. Speaking of it now, Fedaa’s words slowed and her eyes went unseeing. Mustafa, she said, was buried near a checkpoint in a gravesite she’s never seen.

To this day, she imagines him appearing at her door. “I see him often in my dreams,” she said. “He’s always wearing the clothes he wore when I saw him last. At first after he was killed, I told myself he’d made a sacrifice for freedom. I no longer think like that.”

After Mustafa’s death, time seemed to speed up. Only two months later, her youngest brother, Mohammed Muktar, disappeared. Two months after that, her oldest brother Omar was killed. Six weeks later, 16 young men from their area—nine Muslims and seven Christians—were killed for no reason that anyone could decipher, and Fedaa’s father decided to take what remained of the family to Lebanon.

Fedaa packed up some of her diaries and paintings, the key to her bedroom, the pillowcase she’d slept on as a child, and a now-empty pack of Kent cigarettes that had belonged to Mustafa.  After all, he had taught her to smoke.

She and her family arrived in Lebanon on Oct. 17, 2012, at 1:34 p.m.—she marked it in her diary. Quickly, Syria became “a faraway dream.” Today, she and her family are among the 13,500 Syrian refugee families living in Concern-supported housing in northern Lebanon. Some 1.1 million Syrian refugees are currently living in Lebanon, making up one-quarter of the resident population.

Concern works in Lebanon with Syrian women and their families to provide shelter, safe water, education for children and protection services for all, but also to support their voices. “Concern will continue to amplify the voices of these women,” says Concern Country Director Elke Leidel, “to make their stories heard, and to prevent the Syrian crisis from being forgotten.”

Masha Hamilton is Vice President of Communications at Concern Worldwide, a global humanitarian organization committed to eliminating extreme poverty and improving the lives of the world’s poorest.

She is a novelist and former journalist who has reported from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Russia.

She founded two non-profits, the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, and worked in 2012 and 2013 as Director of Communications at the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. She can be found on Twitter at @MashaHamilton

Hanane Kai was tagged in Concern Worldwide US‘s photos.
12 hrs ·

Lebanese illustrator and artist Hanane Kai visited Concern NYC for an evening of conversation and storytelling. After light bites and refreshments provided by The Cafe Grind,

Hanane sat down with VP of Communications Masha Hamilton to share the very real Syrian Refugee stories that have inspired her work.

Concern Worldwide US's photo.
Concern Worldwide US's photo.
Concern Worldwide US's photo.
Concern Worldwide US's photo.

Stories of 13 million refugees from the four corners of the world: 3 million from just Syria

And what Hanan reported

Half of Syria population of over 20 million has been displaced in the last 4 years of internal/external wars on its territory.

3 million took “refuge” in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. 8 million are internal refugees and cannot return to their hometowns.

And the US is still deliberating on “how appropriate it is” to coordinate attacks on Da3esh with the elected Syrian government.

We have refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Yemen…

And Lebanon is barely receiving crumbs from the world community to aid the refugees.

And the children of refugees (far more numerous than Lebanese children) who need to join our rickety and badly funded school system.

And refugee mothers giving birth in far greater numbers than Lebanese mothers… in our rare public hospitals, which are barely funded

Half the population in Lebanon are refugees of some kinds

And the other half took refuge in other countries, just to enjoy basic human rights and facilities.

Hanane Kai posted a few weeks ago on FB:

I spent the day yesterday in Halba (town in north Lebanon in the Akkar district) listening to the stories of women Syrian refugees for my illustration book.
For me stories like this existed only in the movies and on TV.

To hear a woman talking, for one hour, about her 10-hour barefoot walk from Syria to Lebanon, carrying on her shoulders her 6 year old daughter and next to her, her 9 year old boy, and all the things that happened on the way…

To hear another woman say that at some point she even thought about leaving behind her disabled child so she could save her other 4 children, but she couldn’t.

(It actually happened for the Yazidi minorities on mount Sinjar in north Iraq, fleeing ISIS Islamic extremists)

To hear a woman tell us about the prefect relationship with her sweet brother, and how she heard about his death on the news, with the word terrorist attached to his name.

To see a woman cry to the thought of the situation she’s living in now, compared with all the lands and houses and pride she had in Syria.

To hear about how all these women had to leave their lives behind to save their lives, is just overwhelming!

These women are strong!

They are strong even to have shared what they have shared with us.
What hurts even more is that one of the hardest thing they are facing now is the way Lebanese look at them, the way Lebanese look at Syrians.

Their wishes? To go back to their homes, farms, lands and businesses in Syria, even if they are demolished.
After all, women say الحمد لله ‘thank god’ we have a place to live now, and we are able to eat.

After this day, I go back home, and I’m thanking god I have a home.

I open the door and William smiles at me, and I thank god I have a partner, I have a family, I have friends.

I thank god for everything my parents had gone through to provide me with food, care, support, and what they believe is the best education.

Lebanon is the country with the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide.

I understand that this is hard on us Lebanese, though it’s way harder on the refugees.

The least we can do is respect these people, put ourselves in their shoes for at least one single moment.

PS: yesterday I was part of a team working on a project to make the voices of Syrian refugees heard.

It’s a beautiful project with the American journalist Masha Hamilton, through Concern Worldwide, an NGO that works with the world poorest people to transform their lives. More details about the project very soon.


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