Photos by Jodi Hilton
REYHANLI, Turkey — The bombs fell so often in Idlib, Syria, that Nour Alyousef began to take her son outside to play anyway. His constant pleas and the endless drone of Syrian regime planes wore down her resolve.
“Sometimes I take him out and the planes are in the sky and I don’t care,” Alyousef says, with her youngest, Layan, a 3-year-old girl, wriggling in her lap.
Alyousef, a dermatologist, and her husband, an ophthalmologist, saw the worst of the war in Syria, with her treating chemical burns and him removing shrapnel from people’s eyes. The war ultimately took her husband, who died of a heart attack at the hospital in his surgical scrubs in 2016.
She decided the war would not take her three young children’s childhood, too.
Today, some 30 miles away from Idlib in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, they still suffer the trauma of growing up with a warzone for a playground. Alyousef’s son, Bakar, now 7 years old — roughly the same age as the Syrian war — didn’t speak until he was almost 4.
Alyousef tried three times before she finally succeeded in smuggling her mother and children over the border in 2016. They joined the more than 3.6 million Syrians living in Turkey, the largest refugee population in the world. More than 1.6 million are women and more than 1 million are children younger than 10, according to Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management.
As the international community effectively concedes that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has won the war, Syrian women are conspicuously absent from negotiations to end the fighting.
But in Turkey, Syrian women are carving out new lives apart from conflict.
Due to patriarchal systems in Syria and Turkey, women often already face gender-based discrimination and violence. In Turkey, they also confront greater structural challenges in accessing labor markets, housing, social services and health care, especially reproductive and mental health resources, according to the Istanbul Policy Center, a research institute. With many of their male partners and relatives either remaining behind in Syria, or dead, many are taking on the role of primary earner, in addition to the more traditional caregiver, hastening a transformation: It’s Syrian women leading their communities across Turkey.
Hande Paker, an associate professor at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, says Turkish discrimination against Syrian refugees can be “very gendered,” explaining that women often face harsh judgement for working outside the home.
At the same time, Syrian women are organizing themselves, enlarging their community and lessening their domestic isolation. “The more they are out there in the public sphere,” Paker says, “The better it is in terms of empowering women.”
Alyousef is studying to take the Turkish medical exam. She’s talking about starting from scratch in Turkey when Layan, her 3 year old, falls face first. She quickly pulls herself up, unfazed, and Bouthina Rehal, our translator, chuckles. A teacher and community organizer, Rehal has lived in Reyhanli for the last six years since she fled Idlib herself.
Many Syrian women here are watching warily as Turkey struggles to maintain a buffer zone with Assad’s Russian allies around Idlib, the rebels’ last holdout and the final refuge of their husbands, fathers and sons. In September, as Syrians poured onto the streets in Idlib to call for a ceasefire, one woman held a poster reading: “Women of our revolution are not less brave than men.”
In neighboring Turkey, their bravery is of a different kind. Even as Turkey and other host countries increase the pressure on Syrian refugees to go home, these women are fighting for a future.
In nearby Antakya, a historic city in Turkey’s southeast, Hanan Hardan’s youngest, 5-year-old Ilif, points a toy gun in her baby cousin’s face. “She learned because of living in that environment,” Hardan says.
Hardan, her three girls and her husband lived in Latakia, a coastal regime stronghold. The Syrian military conscripted Hardan’s husband, but after they fled the city, he began volunteering as a first responder. In late 2013, Hardan went into labor with Ilif, and rushed to the hospital — only for the foreign doctors there to evacuate amid rocket fire.
A month later, her husband was injured responding to another attack. He died in her arms.
She left immediately for Turkey with her girls. While she cleans Turkish houses, she’s forced to lock in her kids, leaving her eldest child to babysit. Work is inconsistent and insufficient, she says. Many Syrian women in Turkey, in particular widows, are part of a growing underclass, unable to normalize their status and work legally.
When the war broke out in 2011, the Turkish government granted displaced Syrians “temporary protection,” offering them some access to education and public services, but not officially recognizing them as refugees. That year, fewer than a dozen cities offered free medical care to Syrians; in 2013, Turkey officially extended this access nationwide, but only to those registered with the government. Language, geography and discrimination still prevent many Syrians from utilizing the state health-care and public-school system. Turkey also limits Syrians to under 10 percent of employees in any workplace. Increasingly, desperate Syrian families are “selling” their daughters into early marriage, and Syrian women are wedding already-married Turkish men, not knowing that polygamy is illegal in Turkey.
Though Hardan says Turks often take advantage of her, she doesn’t consider getting remarried, joking, “I already fled injustice.”
But asked what she’ll do if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes good on his pledge to return Syrian refugees, her face hardens. “If I am forced by Turks to go back to Syria,” she says, “I’ll go to the top of the building and throw myself off with my family.”
In Reyhanli, Amina Tlass lives in a government-subsidized apartment designated for widows, which she has painted with colorful underwater scenes to cheer up her two kids. It is not her first widows home — her advocacy for refugees has gotten her into trouble at other such residences, designed for single women to live apart. She’d prefer private housing to the home’s strict rules, which forbid her from working, but she wouldn’t be able to afford it.
“I am a woman who will not be silent about these things,” she says. “Here, we are in prison.”
She says she was “the queen” of her ornate, upscale home in Homs, Syria. Her husband was a high-ranking officer (part of one of Syria’s best-known military families). In 2011, his superiors instructed him to fire on protesters and he refused. Tlass received a call from regime agents, ordering her to come to the security center where he was being held. Fearing a ploy to detain her, she refused. They sent her what was left of his body.
“I want to take revenge for my husband,” she recounts thinking. “I will be the killer or be killed.” But ultimately, she says, “My children prevented me.”
She fled for Turkey, but says Syria’s neighbor has not been the savior for which many had hoped. “I see my children’s future in another place,” Tlass says. “Their generation is lost here.”
Many of the Syrian women in Turkey face the unknown. Mona Barka, founder of the Good Fingerprint Club, a Syrian community organization in Reyhanli, says her husband disappeared in 2012.
He and Barka both worked with the opposition in Damascus. From her rooftop, she reported on regime movements. In 2014, a close opposition member was arrested, but as Barka readied to escape to Turkey, a friend asked her to meet. Instead, Barka was met by regime agents, who put her in prison for 5 months.
Upon her release, she and her son made it to Turkey. Her organization focuses on Syrian women and children, and she hopes to help them assimilate with Turkish and computer classes. Her husband’s disappearance and her imprisonment, she says, “only made me more determined to continue the work.”
Mysoon Kadi peers over her seafoam glasses into the open mouth of a Syrian woman, who is clutching a purse to her black chador. Kadi’s nonprofit clinic in Antakya provides services for free, and she is proud to treat Syrians who were forced by the war to neglect their teeth.
Kadi and other women who had steady professions in Syria may be better off, but they often work informal jobs far below their qualifications. Her position in Turkey is more secure than most; she is among the rare Syrians who have obtained citizenship. Since 2011, more than 50,000 Syrians have become Turkish citizens — roughly 1 percent of the total Syrian population in Turkey.
It took Kadi and her family about six years.
The Turkish government has sought to fast-track Syrians for citizenship who have wealth, education and “needed” skills — such as medical training — waiving a five-year residency requirement and enabling them to vote. But amid an economic crisis and rising tensions between Syrian refugees and their local hosts, Turkish politicians have distanced themselves from such plans.
“They are very clever here,” Kadi says. “They want to take the professional Syrian people.” For the rest, it’s: “How can I push you out without pushing you out?” But after years of contributing to Turkey, “How will they tell us after that they don’t want Syrians?”
Kadi left Aleppo in 2011, because she and her husband, a teacher, feared for their four sons’ future. Now they are top students at Turkish universities. But they aren’t necessarily safe in Turkey, either; in 2013, in Reyhanli, two car bombs exploded just a few vehicles away from Kadi. The Turkish government blamed the Syrian regime.
Still, Kadi says Turkey is home. She laughs, “There is no way to return me now.” By December, the government had closed Kadi’s clinic, part of a pattern being repeated across Turkey.
Not far from where the car bomb exploded in Reyhanli, a roadside encampment underscores the narrowed options for lesser-off Syrian women. Overwhelmingly, Syrians in Turkey are living “unsheltered” in cities, rather than formal refugee camps. Refugees face greater obstacles accessing services in urban areas, and greater still if they’re women.
Deep in the warren of blue tarp, a gaggle of kids looks on as Yasmin, a shy 18-year-old in pink, talks about the encampment where she’d lived for 4 years, since fleeing Homs. The family asks that only first names be used, for privacy. Yasmin says she wants to be a doctor, but she hasn’t attended school for years.
A few months before, she had moved out of the camp, and married a neighbor’s elder son. But they had some problems she declined to define, so she returned home. Her older brothers abruptly stopped the interview, saying it had become too personal.
Mayada Abdi, who works for the nonprofit Maram Foundation, says one of their main aims is fighting child marriage, increasingly common among Syrians in Turkey’s southeast. Abdi, who fled Aleppo in 2013, managed Maram’s orphanage in Reyhanli before the Turkish government recently shuttered it.
“Every child has a story of war,” she says. “I fear for these children in the future.”
Rehal, our translator, ushers us into the Syrian Women’s Club of Reyhanli, which she helped found in 2015. Posters show Syrian prisoners transformed from smiling men into skeletons. They sharply contrast the group’s banner: A woman with hair that flows into butterflies.
“It refers to freedom,” Rehal says. “All women look for it.”
It’s an accomplished group: A teacher; a lawyer; a pharmacist; a child psychologist; and an Islamic-scholar-turned-motivational-speaker, after she lost her leg in a bombing. All are mothers. Each has lost family in the war; one miscarried amid a rocket attack. Most believe they’ll never return to Syria, but they struggle to find work in Turkey. They express anger at the international community for abandoning Syrians, especially the United States. Weeks later, in December, President Trump tweeted he’d decided to pull U.S. troops from Syria.
The Reyhanli club members estimate upward of 800 women in the area have accessed their activities, which are mostly self-funded.
“Our center is the only one for awareness and empowerment, to rebuild women again,” notes Iman Musri, the motivational speaker.
Women and children are the best investment in refugee integration long-term, according to Paker, the associate professor. Unlike men, she says, “They can participate more in the space organized by civil society to bring together host communities and newcomers.”
Batoul Haj Mousa, the lawyer’s 15-year-old daughter, also attended the group’s meeting. Mousa speaks fluent Turkish, Arabic and English, and plans to go to an American university — so that she can work at NASA, and become the first Syrian woman astronaut.
“I want to go to space, to Mars,” she says, “or else be a doctor.”
Dropping Rehal off at home, she insists we come in for a moment — which, according to Syrian hospitality, means impossible-to-refuse dinner. After days translating other women’s trauma, she has her own story to share: Her husband, an engineer, helps organize the opposition in Idlib. In 2012, they decided Rehal would take her five sons to Turkey so they could avoid prison and military conscription and continue their education. He refuses to leave Syria.
“I support him, hope to be near him,” Rehal says. “He says my duty is with my children.”
Over dinner, Rehal introduces a young woman as her daughter-in-law. Rehal’s husband had just smuggled her over the border into Turkey, before returning to Idlib. She begins to cry, and Rehal explains she is trying to join her husband, Rehal’s eldest son, in Norway. With the son unable to sponsor her, Rehal is contemplating trying to smuggle her there, a potentially deadly journey.
In late November, Rehal writes that after paying a smuggler more than $11,000, her daughter-in-law arrived safely in Norway.
“You know this amount means many things to refugees who have nothing,” she says, adding simply, “There is no other way.”