The tough circumstances and challenges faced by Syrian women in Zaatari Camp don’t stand in the way of Um Jamal, 39, now a single mother after her husband decided to remarry and return to Syria, leaving her with five young girls and a 17-year-old boy.
Despite the challenges, Um Jamal decided to acquire new skills that would help her survive in the camp by participating in awareness sessions planned by humanitarian organizations. Now she’s helping other women living on her street by sharing what she knows about the problems faced by women, including the issue of marriage at a young age.
Zaatari Camp, located 12 km from the Syrian border, is the second-largest refugee camp in the world—after Dadaab Camp in eastern Kenya—and the fourth-largest city in Jordan. The camp was divided into squares and streets, with each street housing an average of 250 families, with a total population of about 110,000 refugees, half of whom are women. These women live in fear of rape and sexual harassment, and face difficulty securing even the most basic services and standards of living, according to a report issued by Amnesty International in October. This adds to the psychological stress they already suffer due to trying to adapt to a difficult, new environment.
Um Jamal remembers her painful journey from her native Daraa to Jordan a year ago, after the death of her sick infant.
“I lost my seven-month-old baby right at the doors of a hospital in Daraa,” she said. “We were kept waiting for hours at regime checkpoints, but when we got [to the hospital], he had died.”
The family didn’t know what hardships awaited them in Jordan after fleeing there to seek shelter and suffering the trauma of their baby’s death.
“In Syria we had a large house, but now we live in a trailer in the middle of the desert,” said Um Jamal.
Um Jamal’s experience as a nurse hasn’t stopped her exploring other ways to earn a living: she turned a corner of the trailer she shares with her children into a beauty salon in order to secure her family’s basic necessities and to live with dignity. She named the salon after her five-year-old daughter, Linda.
“I have some small experience in hairdressing and applying makeup,” she said. “I thought of this after I saw that the humanitarian organizations were not offering enough to meet my children’s needs.”
Um Jamal earns about 50 dollars for full bridal preparation, including styling hair and makeup and renting out the wedding dress.
“In the beginning I depended only on hairdressing, but when I saw how many weddings were taking place in the camp, I decided to expand the salon and open a section for renting out simple evening wear, which I bought from the main market here,” she said. “I also ordered some beauty products and haircutting kits from outside the camp.”
Um Jamal explains that the humanitarian aid she receives and the income from the salon is not enough to secure the basic necessities for her children, who require at least 300 dollars per month. Um Jamal expresses her fear about work slowing down as winter approaches and many refugees act on the desire to return to Syria or to settle outside the camp. She expresses her dreams for the future by emphasizing her own desire to return, for, as she puts it, “Syria is my soul.”
Tahani, 22, was a second-year student in journalism when her family decided to flee Daraa for Jordan last year, robbing her of her educational future. After she spent four months away from her university and the dream of acquiring a degree, she decided to take part in a training exercise that gathered together 30 Syrian women between the ages of 17 and 25. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss issues such as sexual harassment in the camp, early marriage, family planning, and how to deal with parents and service-providers in the camp.
As she tells it, the training, something she would have never had the chance to do in Syria, brought new opportunities for her to pursue volunteer work with several international organizations present in the camp, opening new horizons before her. Today she explores her creative talents by writing plays and songs performed by the children at different events in the camp, all while she gains new training skills in order to raise awareness among women of different ages in new ways.
“Using my spare time to train women in the camp in handicrafts and embroidery and raising awareness about their rights has made me feel fulfilled,” said Tahani. “My joy is indescribable when I see the works produced by women and girls I’ve helped train displayed for sale at the bazaars.”
In addition to her social work, Tahani is also studying to improve her English, in the hopes of acquiring a scholarship to pursue her education outside of Jordan and to fulfil her dream of becoming editor-in-chief of her own magazine.
Lubna Abdel Karim is an independent trainer who works on gender equality and life skills. Abdel Karim says she has trained more than 1,000 women at Zaatari Camp over the course of a year, and says such activities help combat “the boredom and the monotony of women’s lives in the camp.” The training, she says, teaches and empowers women to undertake small economic projects and to operate them independently should they ever decide to return to Syria.
Abdel Karim describes how one of the difficulties she and other women faced was men’s refusal to have women participate in any volunteer work proposed by the international organizations under the pretext of fearing for them. But those issues were overcome to a certain extent by holding educational sessions for the women’s relatives to talk about the importance of such activities for the whole family.
One issue that has gained widespread media coverage is that of early marriage. A UNICEF report issued in June indicated a number of marriages of girls less than 16 years of age (the legal age for marriage in Syria) in Zaatari. The report suggested that many marriages have been motivated by a Jordanian law that allows Syrians to leave the camp after securing sponsorship from a Jordanian guarantor. In contrast, however, and also according to the report, many families refuse to marry their daughters off to Jordanians or men of other nationalities who might not show enough respect for the girls.
Um Jamal, who runs the beauty salon, says that most of the brides she sees are between the ages of 17 and 19.
According to Abdel Karim, media played a negative role in the coverage of the issue of early marriage by focusing on problems related to low dowries and marriage to other Arabs and prostitution rather than concentrating on the reasons that push families to marry their daughters off at such early ages.
Abdel Karim said some families fear for their daughters’ safety, which results in pushing to marry them off. She says this doesn’t diminish the real dangers associated with marriage in the camps. Most of the marriages between Syrian refugees in Jordan, and particularly at Zaatari, are not officially registered. Such a thing, according to Abdel Karim, only serves to further constrain a woman’s rights, and makes it difficult to register any new births and to access services provided by the office of the UN High Commission for Refugees. Abdel Karim doubts how long these marriages will last, citing the fact that most of them take place without the girl’s consent, and considering the immaturity of both bride and groom due to their youth.