Widowed, divorced, abandoned — Syrian refugee women forge new lives in Jordan

They fled Syria while she was pregnant with her second child, a small family trying to escape, like so many others, the civil war ravaging their country. 

They landed in a one-bedroom apartment in Amman, the Jordanian capital, where their only furniture — two beds and two storage closets — was donated by an orphanage. In time, her husband returned to Syria, abandoning her and their two children.

“He’s not a good father. He mistreated his children,” the young woman said, trying to hold back tears. “I am their father. I am their mother. I am everything to them.”

Her story is all too common. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, women head 66,000 — or around 35% — of the 188,000 Syrian refugee families registered with the agency in Jordan. Widowed, divorced or abandoned by their husbands, these women have become their families' sole breadwinners, roles traditionally held in Syrian society by men.

The young mother recounted her journey to Jordan through an interpreter while she registered at a UNHCR processing center in Mafraq, some 50 miles north of Amman. Fearing reprisals for family in Syria, she wanted to only be identified as um Saif, meaning “mother of Saif,” the name of her fourth-grade son.

She fled Syria four years ago when the bombing became too much. “I was very scared,” she said, but the risk was worth it. “I wanted to save myself and my children.” 

She receives $232 a month from the UNHCR and uses World Food Program-issued coupons worth about $14 a person, per month, to buy food. But heading a family meant doing something she had never done before: getting a job. She now works part time in a clothing store.

Working out of the home adds stresses and difficulties to already difficult lives.

“Culturally, Syrian women are raised to be caretakers of the home, have dinner ready, the house cleaned, raise children,” said Tahani Sa'di, program coordinator for the Arab Women Organization. Many women feel that working outside the home could possibly “ruin this role,” Sa’di said.

Bothaina Qamar, an Amman-based livelihoods specialist for UN Women, a United Nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, said the concept of women working was “generally perceived as a negative coping mechanism by Syrian families.” She added that “some women report feeling resentment that they must be the household’s breadwinner as well as their other roles.”

Women in female-headed households, and those single and divorced, were more likely to hold jobs than women living in male-headed households, she said.

Some refugee men, unable to provide for their families and humiliated at having working wives, feel inadequate and emasculated, humanitarian workers said. 

“Domestic violence is very common among the Syrian refugees because of the level of frustration,” said Layla Naffa Hamarneh, director of projects for the Arab Women Organization of Jordan.

Entering the workplace also puts women at risk for harassment, violence and exploitation, humanitarian workers said. 

Asma Khader, president of Sisterhood is Global Institute Jordan, a feminist human rights group, said her group’s counseling center receives up to 20 calls and letters each day from women who have been victims of abuses such as unpaid work or gender-based violence, or who are dealing with divorce or forced marriages.

Officially, a minuscule number of female refugees work in Syria. Of the 25,455 work permits issued to Syrians since January, only 357 of them went to women, according to the Jordanian Ministry of Labor, as of Sept. 19.

Societal and cultural pressures discourage women from looking for jobs, but some women fear they will lose humanitarian assistance if they seek a work permit, Qamar said. Age is another obstacle. Most companies in the sectors qualified to hire refugees seek women younger than 40, Helene Daubelcour, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Jordan said in an email.

“These most often have young children and rely on child care,” Daubelcour said. “Some employers understand this need and started providing kindergartens, but it is not available everywhere.”

Most refugee women who earn a living rely on home-based activities, often making and selling food at tables or mats they set up outside their homes.

Selling pastries is what Reem Mahmoud Sofraji has to do. The widow and mother of five children, ages 4 to 14, fled Syrian three years ago after her husband, Abdulkafi Sofraji, was killed.

A baker, he was hospitalized after a bomb dropped on his shop, Sofraji said. Syrian government soldiers raided the hospital, arrested all the male patients and took them to prison, she said. She never saw him again and later learned he died in jail. That’s when she made a run for the border.

She now lives in Mafraq with her brother’s family — 10 people sharing three rooms.

Sofraji contributes to the rent using the $169 she gets from UNHCR each month, and supplements that income with the $15 or so she makes a week selling pastries and breads. She uses World Food Program coupons to buy the ingredients.

“It’s not easy,” Sofraji said, her lips quivering as she wiped away tears. “I hope I don’t lose my ability to provide for my children. I want them to feel like they have a father.”

Some groups are trying to break the taboo against working women. Sa'di, of the Arab Women Organization, said her group conducts sessions to raise awareness about women in the workplace.

Another effort is These Inspiring Girls Enjoy Reading, or TIGER, an effort by the Massachusetts-based Open Learning Exchange which focuses on improving the literacy, numeracy and social skills of adolescent girls. A key component of the program is getting girls ready to work.

“They have to have a vision and a plan and a way to build the future,” said Richard Rowe, the organization’s chief executive officer. “Just getting a high school diploma is not enough. They have to be ready to go from there.”

One girl participating in TIGER at the Zaatari refugee camp, 11-year-old Nebal Wael Abusaloo, giggled as she recounted the fun she has in TIGER activities. Nebal, whose family fled the Syrian town of Inkhil three years ago, proudly showed off her skills in basic English. 

So what does she want to be when she grows up?

“I want to be a doctor to help the suffering people,” she said.

ann.simmons@latimes.com

Funding for this report was provided by a grant from the United Nations Foundation

For more on global development news follow me @AMSimmons1 on Twitter

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