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Sumaya from the Shelter: A Portrait of Life in War

Women need a lot of care and attention at a time where everything around them is falling apart.

Written by Alia Ahmad Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

“My life before wasn’t a lot better than it is now, but the one thing that made me feel special and human is gone.”

That’s how Sumaya, 30, described her tough life, and the thing that made her feel special, she tearfully whispered, was “my little house.”

Sumaya is from Hujeira in southeastern Damascus. She and her seven children now live with another family of five in a small room in a school that’s been turned into a shelter in al-Kaswek in southern Damascus.

Sumaya seems a lot older than her age. “When we came to the shelter, they gave us a room for me and my family with shared bathrooms. It was tolerable, but as the number of displaced families increased, we have to share beds in this room, and the men were moved to another section [of the shelter], away from the women’s and children’s quarters.”

Despite the spacious room the two families share, it is unfit as living quarters. The school’s tables and chairs have been removed and thin carpets were rolled out. Old mattresses and a few blankets litter the floor, which are too hot for summer and too thin for winter.

“I lived in hell since my childhood,” Sumaya says. “Before I got married, my father and brothers were extremely conservative about women leaving the house. They didn’t allow my sisters and me to continue our education. I dropped out of school at 12 and got married at 15 in the hope of getting away from my strict family.”

Sadly, Sumaya didn’t find the solution she was looking for. Her husband, while kind, was very poor. To make things worse, she got pregnant with twins less than a year into their marriage. She kept getting pregnant until she had seven kids and was physically unable to survive another pregnancy.

“My husband and his family didn’t accept the option of abortion. A baby is a blessing from God. Abortion is murder and it’s a sin. I believe that, but I was burnt out by all the pregnancies. We can barely provide for our kids, and my husband doesn’t spend enough time with us as he is busy making ends meet.”

Most of the houses in Sumaya’s neighborhood in Hujeira were destroyed, and the family was displaced several times before they ended up in the shelter.

“I discovered after being displaced and stranded that one can endure all hardships as long as I live in my own home, with some privacy,” she said. Now, even that little comfort is gone.

“The windows are extremely big where we live, and no matter how many pieces of newspaper we tack on, it doesn’t provide the needed privacy. The kids are always in and out, and everyone is living in chaos.”

Many women at the shelter feel the same as Sumaya does. They would love the chance to take off their head scarves during the day and wear some comfortable clothes, but that isn’t possible with the lack of privacy and with strange men passing through the vicinity.

“I’ve forgotten what pajamas are! I haven’t let down my hair in months. I take off my head scarf only when I shower, and even that is rare because of the lack of water and the demand for it whenever it’s available. We’re even rushed when we need to use the restrooms!”

Sumaya adds, “My daughters can’t wear what is suitable for their age, and we need to keep an eye on all those around us to protect ourselves from being harassed, because most of the time, women get blamed for it.”

Yet the lack of privacy is only one of many problems facing families in shelters. The disappearance of healthy family ties has left children unfamiliar with the concept of having a stable home and a family. They don’t receive proper care and attention, and they are easily influenced by those around them. They pick up bad habits, and trying to keep up with their educational progress is a nightmare.

“My son, who’s in the third grade, refuses to do his homework,” says Sumaya. “He wants to drop out of school to go to work like some of the other kids here in the shelter. He sees that they make money and he wants to make money too.”

Additionally, her two twin girls, aged 14, have already dropped out of school. Sumaya’s husband has prohibited them from going to school due to the many kidnappings and disappearances that have taken place previously.

“Even though my husband had promised me to allow the girls to continue their education so as not to go through what I went through, the [current] conditions haven’t allowed us to do that. I’m saddened that they now wait for someone to ask for their hand in marriage, and I will witness my tragedy happen all over again with my daughters.”

Sumaya’s story is similar to those of hundreds of women in Syria and abroad, whose rights have been abused and who continue to live a harsh existence. Sumaya and her counterparts are yearning for care and attention, at a time where everything around them is falling apart.

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