There is a Cost: Syria's Widows of War

Authors: Mariana Noble & Bethanie Mitchell Just 20km south of the Syrian border, the city of Irbid, Jordan, is home to one of the Widows of Martyrs Homes that have appeared in the north of the country since 2011, when the Syrian conflict began. The organization that runs the building could be backed by a Kuwaiti sheikh, or maybe a Saudi – the residents are not really supposed to ask, so they gather clues and come to their own conclusions. The residents, women and children who lost their husbands and fathers in the struggle against the Assad regime in Syria, just follow the stringent Islamic house rules, and in return they have a safe place to live, rent-free. For five years now, waves of refugees have been flooding across the border into Jordan, swamping the scanty infrastructure of northern towns like Irbid. In April of 2016, there were some 640,000 Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Command for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan. Perhaps 15% of them are confined to refugee camps where their basic needs are met, but the rest eke out a precarious existence in the towns and cities. The women and children in the Homes for Widows of Martyrs have it a little easier than most of the urban refugees. Each family here is given a flat and enough food to feed themselves. But there is a cost. At the home we are invited to, we are the first westerners allowed to enter. We have to arrive before 6PM, because the doors are locked just after the sunset call to prayer. They don’t open again until 7AM, and only in an emergency can anyone enter or leave during this time. In summer the lockdown is later, say 8:30PM, but in winter it can be as early as 4:30. The residents attend mandatory prayers and Koranic readings, and sign in and out if they are leaving during the day. If they leave too often, the security guards, who are all male, question them about what they are doing and who they are seeing. Some of the women we talked to are OK with the rules, while others chafe. For example, Dalal is 40 and has four children ranging from nine to 18 years old. They are from the countryside around Daraa, where some of the first violence of the civil war took place. Her husband was killed after defecting from the Syrian Army and joining the rebellion. We ask Dalal’s teenage daughters, Rima, 18, and Hanan, 13, what they think about having to stay in all evening, every evening. They roll their eyes and laugh. They hate it. It’s boring and they don’t get to see their friends, they complain. Dalal, though, says she likes it. “I always know where my girls are, and that they are safe.” Amani, on the other hand, pushes the limits as often as possible. An indefatigable volunteer, she gets special dispensation to move around the city, helping out at rehabilitation centers and hospitals for Syrian refugees. She visits the sick, connects the vulnerable with services and shops for her mother, who prefers to stay at home. Sometimes she can’t get back before the curfew, and she simply calls the guards and tells them that she won’t be back. A Muslim herself, she says the home is too Islamic for her, and she hopes to be able to go overseas soon. She is an exception, though. Many of the women we visit with as the night wears on are not as confident as Amani. They’ve always been sheltered and protected by their men. Imagine a middle-class American housewife in the 1950s, whose husband pays all the bills, drives the car, brings home the paycheck and balances the checkbook while his wife raises the kids, keeps the home clean and cooks delicious meals. Then her husband dies and her world blows up around her. Most of the widows are not only ill-prepared, they’re severely traumatized. They’ve seen family members tortured and killed, they’ve stepped over bodies in the streets of their home towns. Or perhaps they ran away before the soldiers arrived, trying to protect their children from rape and bombings. They’ve lost not only their husbands and their homes, but their futures. They’re stranded in a country that’s increasingly resentful of the resources it takes to support them, and they’re afraid to walk out on the street. Yadira is 31. She lives here in a two-bedroom flat with her four children, two boys and two girls. Her youngest was born four years ago, the same day they buried her husband. They are from Hom, and he was fighting in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He was with a friend, and a barrel bomb exploded near them. The friend lost both his legs, and Nura’s husband was killed. Her father is missing, as well. They searched the prisons but never found him. Assad’s forces make people pay for information about their family members, whether they are dead or alive, in prison or not, Yadira says. She says she’s always sad, and thinks about her father and her husband all the time. Yadira doesn’t want to leave her flat these days, even to shop for food. She keeps her kids home from school, except for the oldest, who she hopes will teach the others. She worries about their education in Jordan, but is afraid to be resettled abroad – she’s heard it’s a very bad situation. Sometimes her middle girl simply stops talking, and no one can make her start again. The building’s administration doesn’t want to give them mental health help; they say it’s better just to study the Koran. This Home for Widows of Martyrs in Irbid is one of the last ones left in Jordan. The others have been shut down one by one by the Jordanian government, due perhaps to lack of transparency, as well as to Jordan’s tightening security. When the insurgency in Syria began, it was framed as a rebellion of the people against the brutal Assad regime. As the conflict descended into civil war, the rebels organized into the Free Syrian Army and were considered freedom fighters. If they were killed, they were considered martyrs, and their widows and children given special status and protection. But the lines have become unclear and the designations murky. In 2016, there are at least four parties fighting in Syria – the FSA, Assad’s loyalist troops, the Islamic State (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. Added to those parties are the regime’s backers – Russia and Iran – and the FSA’s backers – Turkey, the Gulf Arab states and the U.S.-led coalition. The refugees themselves have become suspect. Where Jordan used to take in all the war wounded and provide them with medical care, now they want to see proof that the wounded men are FSA fighters, and not from any of the other groups. (We heard of one case where a wounded fighter was taken from a Jordanian ICU and dropped back at the Syrian border because he was suspected of being an ISIS fighter.) Meanwhile, more than 250,000 people have been killed, and millions forced from their homes. The women and children in Irbid’s Home for Widows of Martyrs are just a tiny handful of those whose lives have been blasted apart by the conflict. Where did the other women go when their Widow’s Homes were shut down? Out into the community, Amani guesses. Where services and aid are being cut and patience wearing thin as refugees are perceived to be competing with local people for the scarce resources of a poor country. One of the women that night tells us that some girls will marry a rich Saudi and go off to live with him. Then after a month or two, they’ll return, divorced, with a big sum of money. “Some of the girls don’t mind this arrangement. They take the money and buy a house and move their family into it.” Mostly, though, they want to go home, to Syria. In one of the flats we are invited into, we meet three middle-aged sisters and their mother. They want to go back to their village, but at the moment it’s occupied by ISIS. The home they left is still standing. It’s a spacious and pleasant home – they show us a video. They’re especially proud of their “American” kitchen. They were interviewed by the Canadian government in a first step toward relocating there, but they’ve refused the opportunity. Instead, they’re waiting for a call or a text from friends in their village that it’s safe to come back. They want to somehow buy a gun before they make the trip, so they can protect themselves, since they are women alone. They say that the regime is sitting back and letting the other factions fight each other. When everyone is dead, Assad will step in and rule again. “There’s no law in Syria now.” But still, it’s their home.

Photography, Journalism, Photojournalism
Rayada, 40 (center) is pictured with her two daughters Fatima, 18 (left) and Raida, 13 (right). She has two boys as well, Ahmed, 12 and Hassan, 9 (not pictured). Her husband was formerly allied with the Assad regime, but broke with the government and joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He was killed shortly afterward. Rayada’s 12-year-old, Ahmed, is “famous” here – he is the oldest and biggest boy at the center. Soon he will be forced to leave, since the center’s rules allow no males who have reached puberty. Rayada says the whole family will go together.
Maha, 24 is pictured with her daughter Reena, 5. Maha’s husband returned to Syria and married another woman. Maha was forced by her family to drop out of school and marry him at the age of 16, even though she was a promising student. Her father fought with the FSA and was killed, and her little boy died in the hospital in Amman. She has no one to take care of her and is considering third-country resettlement.

Nura, 31 (right) is pictured with her four children. They are from Homs, which saw some of the fiercest fighting between government forces and the Free Syrian Army between 2011 and 2014. Nura’s youngest son Mohammed was born on the day her husband was buried, four years ago. A fighter in the Free Syrian Army, he was killed by a bomb. She is afraid of third-country settlement because she has no husband and has heard it is difficult, but is now considering it for her children’s education.

This Syrian mother, 75 (center) lives in a flat with her three unmarried daughters. They were previously in a UAE refugee camp, but the mother has medical issues, so they are allowed to stay at the center. Their home – with a “big American kitchen” – is still standing, but is located in an ISIS-controlled village. They are waiting for word that the village is safe, so they can go back. Before they do, though, they would like to get a gun for protection.

This 11-year-old girl lives at the Widows of Martyrs Home with her mother, who, neighbors say, is not a widow at all. Before she would be photographed, she insisted on covering herself, though Syrian girls who are that young are not required to cover.