If all of the world’s displaced people were put together, they would make up the 24th largest country in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.1
Some 19.5 million people on this planet have been forced from their home countries by conflict and persecution. The majority of them are women and children who have been forced to leave their homelands, packing their entire lives into small bags or fleeing with only the clothes on their backs. “It is the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation,” said Brian Hansford, a spokesman for the UNHCR.
In Syria alone, a country torn apart by civil war since rebel groups launched an assault on the authoritarian government of Bashar al-Assad in 2011, more than 4.2 million people have fled across the nation’s borders. “For the most part, people hung on to their homes and property for as long as possible. But once a bombing happened, or other armed groups came into the area, or people did not have a job anymore and did not have any food, we started to see a mass movement of people,” said Vanessa Parra, senior humanitarian press officer for Oxfam, an aid organization that works with refugees. Armed groups including the Islamic State group, or ISIS, as well as fighters from Al Qaeda, have joined the conflict, transforming Syria into a violent hell.
And so men, women, and children from all sectors of Syrian society have packed the cars they once to used to commute to jobs as lawyers or doctors with all that they could carry of their old lives. Women glance one last time at houses where their babies were born. Displaced citizens hundreds of miles away — in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Europe — carry keys in their pockets to homes that have since been destroyed in the fighting. “Refugees are people like us, regular people, ordinary people with jobs, with families. No one chooses to be a refugee, but as one refugee told me, the situation in Syria is ‘worse than desperate,’” Hansford said.
Refinery29 set out to learn about the lives of these people, meeting them on the ground in Turkey and speaking to them by phone from New York, as they struggle to rebuild their lives after desperate journeys to safety. Ahead, the stories of three women refugees, daughters of a vanished Syrian paradise, who hope someday to return.
(See Refinery29's primer on the Syrian refugee crisis)
Noor’s long, soft eyelashes peek out from behind the white of her hijab, even as she conceals her face. She is slim and pretty and wears a long cardigan and black jeans tucked into white high-top sneakers. She has been living in Turkey for almost two years, but she still considers it unsafe to reveal her identity because of the work she has done.
“Honestly, up until last year, I thought a lot about going back to Syria, but as I get used to life here more, I feel afraid to go back and lose the freedom I found,” Noor says.
It is her 27th birthday, and she speaks on her cellphone while riding her bicycle through Gaziantep, a city near the Syrian border, on a November afternoon. Her mother has promised to give her an electric guitar for her birthday, and the thought makes her smile, knowing this would never have happened in Aleppo.
“I couldn’t take my guitar out to the street there, everyone would be looking at me. It’s not something normal or acceptable, especially for a girl wearing a hijab,” she says. “Besides, I would get searched every time I had it out. One time, at the checkpoint, they thought I was carrying a sniper rifle.”
Noor’s grandparents came to Syria from Palestine in 1948, shortly after the creation of the state of Israel, and until she was 13, she lived with them. Noor and her five siblings were “privileged,” she says. Both of her parents are doctors. She graduated from college with a degree in civil engineering and then began pursuing a master’s degree in construction management.
She remembers the day five years ago when she sat watching Al Jazeera as images of a 26-year-old Tunisian vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire flashed across the screen. With that single act, Bouazizi had expressed the frustration of an entire nation. He was protesting the generations-long authoritarian rule that repressed in ways both large and small. Watching from Syria, Noor felt her world was about to change.
“We were all hopeful. The Arab Spring was good news,” she says. “Not just [for] Arabs — but everyone. Even though some Arabic countries aren’t called kingdoms, they are still ruled by leaders who inherit their leadership by blood. For that fact alone, people should rise up.”
Syria was no different. President Bashar al-Assad had assumed power after the death of his father in 2000. Together, one family had ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
But in 2011, as Noor watched popular movements made up of students like herself topple the region’s longest-standing leaders, from Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, she thought this time would be different. This time, it would be Syria’s turn.
Noor waited for the uprising to reach her home in Aleppo, one of the country’s commercial centers, and when it did, she took to the streets to protest with her college classmates in April.
“It was the first time in my life I felt I could say anything I wanted,” Noor says. “As girls, we felt so good. In our culture, girls aren’t to raise their voices. In the protests, we were shouting.”
But not for long. In May, the military moved in to crush demonstrations in cities across Syria. When protesting in the street became too risky, Noor and her classmates went underground. The Free Syrian Army had taken over parts of Aleppo, and Assad’s forces responded, in part, by cutting off funding for city institutions, including schools, to put pressure on the population.
“We felt responsible for starting the movement, so we had to do something for the children inside the city of Aleppo, for their education, and for the teachers whose salaries were cut,” she says. “We managed to pay the teachers, and we also worked for the children’s psychological support. We created activities for them, using whatever would distract them from the bombings.”
Noor helped organize an exhibit of the children’s artwork — including scenes of violence, bombings, and the flag of the Free Syrian Army. Then, on September 14, 2013, soldiers raided her house and seized her laptop with the children’s drawings on it. She was arrested, along with her father.
“[My mother] told them, ‘If you take my daughter, I will kill myself.’ And she tried to do it.” says Noor. “She went to the kitchen to grab a knife, and the soldiers were trying to calm her down. I made a promise that I didn’t know if I could keep when they were taking me away: I said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, mama. I’ll be back.’”
Noor spent 50 days in prison in a cell that was only 10 feet by 11 feet, and sometimes housed 30 people. She says she was interrogated every day and forced to sign false statements saying she was a terrorist. She was allowed to take a shower only twice. She says she spent at least 20 of those days in silence, facing the wall of her cell.
“So many times I wished I were dead, only so I don’t have to be there. The only thing that kept me alive is the wish that my mom could see me again,” Noor says.
Then one night, she and other prisoners were ordered to board a bus. She says they were taken to the Lebanese border as part of a prisoner swap. Those who weren’t exchanged, including Noor, were driven into Damascus and released on the street, in the middle of the night.
Noor made her way back to Aleppo with her mother, but she knew she would soon have to leave her homeland, perhaps for good. Her parents weren’t prepared to leave, at least not yet, so she and her brother set off together.
Noor used a friend’s passport to cross into Turkey, and her brother made his way over barbed wire fences with the help of smugglers. The siblings relocated to Gaziantep — and her parents later joined them. Today, she works with an international aid organization, coordinating supplies of water, food and health kits for people still living in Syria.
Her work makes her feel that she is supporting the cause of a free Syria, even from afar, and has also made her feel empowered in ways she simply couldn’t have been while living in Syria, she says.
That’s why she has made some bold decisions about her own future as well.
“I don’t want to lose what I worked for, regardless of the reason. A few weeks ago, my family was suggesting to me that I get engaged to a man who lives in Denmark,” Noor says. “But I said no...Maybe my life would be better off in Denmark, as a refugee with a salary, but I don’t want to leave everything behind me and go. I want to be able to work for Syria, no matter what the job is, as long as it has to do with the Syrian people inside.”
Every morning after her husband set off to work, Najlaa Al-Sheikh would sit on her fifth-floor balcony among the jasmine vines and roses she had named for the local boys, as the sound of vendors making their rounds drifted up from the streets. Neighbors would join her, making their way up to her terrace to sit and drink coffee and gossip.
“Love stories used to be told on our balcony,” she says, sighing as she remembers her home in a suburb of Damascus called Daraya.
“There was a guy named Mohammed. He used to tell me, ‘When this flower blooms, let me know, I want to take it to my fiancée.’ So I would tell them, ‘That’s it, this is for Mohammed’ and ‘This one is for Bayan.’ Before they even bloomed, they would come and name the flowers, reserving them for their fianceés.”
“I miss when my kids would get bored, and I would take them for a walk in the parks of Damascus, where they would play,” Najlaa, 36, says. “And I miss my plants very much. I’m quite sure they’re dead. It’s been three years.”
The balcony where morning coffee once flowed is gone, too. Free Syrian Army fighters destroyed the building after government snipers began using it as a roost, she says. Najlaa’s memories of home are also her memories of the revolution, one she took an active role in.
When men filled the streets outside to protest the Assad regime in 2011, Najlaa was the first woman to join them in their anti-government campaign. “I’ve been active since the beginning of the revolution, from the first day they shouted ‘Freedom!’” she says, her round face and almond-shaped brown eyes framed by a white hijab tucked into a button-down shirt.
She was motivated by how her family had suffered under both Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000. Her father-in-law was arrested by the military for being a political dissident in the 1980s. He was sent to Syria’s Tadmor Prison, tortured and then executed.
Najlaa brought her two sons, Hussein and Amr, to the protests, and rallied other women to join her. What began as a few women marching down the streets in traditional chadors chanting slogans and waving placards, quickly evolved into an energized women’s movement. And with recognition came risk; Daraya became a hotbed of revolutionary activity — and a target for government forces.
Najlaa’s husband, Hasan, was arrested in front of their children, and Najlaa believed she would be next. “My house was on the fifth floor, so I hid in the elevator shaft on the sixth floor, on the roof, with my kids. I stayed until the next day. I was covering [my kids’] mouths so the security won’t find out that I’m there,” she remembers.
Friends smuggled Najlaa and her children out of the building, and they made their way through Army-controlled territory to Aleppo. She counted as they crossed 37 military roadblocks. “I would almost faint every time we would arrive at a barricade,” she says.
In Aleppo, Najlaa worked with the injured and made signs for the rebels before moving on to the town of Azaz. When her 9-year-old son, Amr, was injured by an improvised bomb, she knew that she had to flee.
“We left to Turkey urgently because my son was hurt,” Najlaa says. “[But I thought] it was impossible for me to stay in Turkey, that I was going to return to Syria. So the first obstacle for me was accepting that I was outside my homeland...I saw Turkey and it was beautiful, nice, and heaven on earth, but it has no soul. I want my homeland.”
Newly arrived with no way of contacting anyone, Najlaa says she did not know her husband had been released from prison and gone to look for them in Daraya. The military had taken over the entire neighborhood; Hasan could find neither his wife nor his children.
In August 2012, Syrian government forces militias massacred hundreds of people in Daraya, according to eyewitnesses.2 Najlaa, who did not know Hasan had been released from prison, was desperate to find her husband. Finally, an email from her brothers-in-law in Qatar relayed the news to Hasan that his family was alive in Turkey. Two weeks later, he arrived.
“When I met him in Turkey, it was like a meeting in an Indian movie, I was crying,” Najlaa says. But she quickly realized that the three months Hasan spent in a Syrian prison had taken their toll. He had lost 60 pounds and bore the psychological scars of torture.
As Najlaa cared for her husband and children in Kilis, five miles from the Syrian border but a world away, she watched other female refugees line up each day for bread and diapers. Seeing the women of her homeland unable to feed their families spurred her to action, she says. The only way to deal with the heartbreak of her exile was to keep busy helping others.
“They say that women make up half of the community, but from my experience, I feel that they are the entire community,” Najlaa says. “I personally feel that the woman is the person capable of truly achieving something.”
That’s how the Honorable Women’s Center was born. Housed in a traditional home once owned by a rich family, the center helps women prepare to attend college and find skilled work. Twenty recent graduates of the center’s employment programs now have jobs as seamstresses, she says. Their achievements are her only source of joy these days, the thing that gives her hope aside from her desire that, someday, she and her family will return to a peaceful Syria.
“The war will end,” Najlaa says. “Nothing lasts, the war will end, and it will then be clear to women that the more work they put in, the more they will harvest.”
Najlaa’s harvest already surrounds her. In Turkey, she sits with her neighbors, sipping coffee and talking, just as she did on her balcony in Daraya. Behind her, a garden grows. And these plants, too, have names.
“When I started this project, I asked every woman to bring a tiny seed or plant, and plant it in a pot. They asked me, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘So when you decide to leave us one day, you have a root here,’” Najlaa says and smiles.
The future isn’t something Reem Mohammed takes much pleasure in thinking about, but she doesn’t have much of a choice. She is 29, pregnant, and 200 miles from home. Reem keeps her face partially covered, and asks that her real name not be used. She still has family in Syria, she says, and she fears for their safety. It has been just over eight months since she fled, but she knows things have not gotten better in her seaside home of Jableh.
On a clear day in late August, Reem prepares tea on a single ring of flame hooked up to a blue propane tank in the room she and her husband both sleep and cook in. She pulls two cups from the handful of pots and pans she was able to find since arriving in Turkey, and heads outside to sit beside her husband on a mat on the concrete floor.
“I wasn’t all right with the idea of having a baby here. We went through so much, we’re not going to bring a child to go through the same circumstances, which could last for — who knows when it will end,” Reem says. “We don’t [want to] raise a baby in a room that’s also a bathroom, and a kitchen, where he will inhale gas from the heater.”
But a world away in Jableh, Reem was once excited to become a mother. She was newly married and teaching school in her hometown. She hoped that after more than a decade of Assad’s rule, Syria might be different.
“I was for the revolution,” she says. “We were looking at the uprising in the streets. How people from all ages were rising up — the educated, and the worker, all types of people.”
But she says she did not dare to speak out herself, or take to the streets.
“We all had something inside us that we couldn’t express,” she remembers. “Most of us from my region didn’t participate because of fear. But inside us, we were optimistic that change will bring better life.”
Then the Syrian army informed her husband and her brother that they were being called up for mandatory military service. “My other brother was taken to prison,” Reem says. “We tried to ask about him, and look to see where he had been taken, to at least know where he was. It was all in vain. Every department would send you to another.”
Reem was pregnant with her first child when the couple decided to flee. She went first, and her husband followed the next day, in case the authorities recognized him. After a terrifying journey through countless checkpoints, she reached a house near the border with Turkey. She spent two days hiding there, waiting for her husband to reach her. She struggled to stay calm.
“[I thought] if he got caught, what would they do to him? I was very stressed and under so much pressure by myself. And to be honest — all of the stress, and the pressure, even physically enduring the trip — caused me to have a miscarriage. All of those things caused me to lose my first baby,” she says.
Jobless and mourning their loss, the couple at first struggled to find a way forward.
“It was very difficult [but] then we started to adapt,” Reem says. “We tried to make things better; I tried to keep working in my field. My husband did the same…I heard about the summer school for Syrians, so I registered and, thank God, I was accepted.”
Today, Reem is a teacher in an elementary school for refugee children in Turkey. A row of eager-faced 6-year-olds sit in her classroom, learning to form Arabic letters as Reem carefully traces each one with a red marker on a whiteboard. Six-year-olds bend over their books, learning to read as children all over the world do.
But Reem’s students have not had the childhoods that many of their peers around the world have enjoyed.
“Even when they’re drawing to express their feelings, it’s mostly about the war,” Reem says of her pupils. “Even if it’s colorful, it’s full of blood, killing, explosion, and destruction. That child, in his imagination, when I ask them to draw something like their country or home, instantly it has something to do with the war, bombing and killing.”
“The Syrian child needs a lot of time and care to be — to feel — normal again…to be able to live their childhood in its normal phases, like any other child in the world would live,” Reem says. “Some of them have lost their father or a mother, and are still determined to learn. We try as much as we can to continue with [their] education, because education is the foundation. And every child should be educated and enlightened to know their rights.”
Reem and Hasan are also starting over. Their hopes for the baby she is carrying are the same as their dreams for their homeland. “Later on, when he grows up a little bit, hopefully we will be in Syria, so we can send him to school and educate him [there],” Reem says. “As a teacher here, for the Syrian children, my feelings are overwhelmed. I feel proud that, despite all those circumstances, we are still carrying on with our message to educate those children.”