Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held area perhaps best known as the scene of a chemical weapons attack in 2013, has lived through most of Syria’s war under violent siege. Today, in the center of town, the sounds of mortar shells and bullets are a daily occurrence.
To care for displaced women who are especially vulnerable in the conflict, local residents set up a shelter. It was established after many Syrian women here were left without a male breadwinner or saw their entire families killed. These women, who suffer from acute psychological trauma and live in a dire financial state, face steep daily challenges to survive.
Abu Sleiman, one of the superintendents of the project, told Syria Deeply that the two-story shelter was originally a women’s prison. His team turned it into a more hospitable place, providing financial and psychological support for the women. He shared his experience on the ground.
Syria Deeply: Can you give us an overview of the center?
Abu Sleiman: The center was established in 2013 under the supervision of Umm Sleiman. It was a women’s prison but it was turned into a housing center … a shelter for women who don’t have any [male] breadwinners or who are psychologically troubled or who have been left homeless in other parts of Syria. These women receive medical and psychological support here.
Syria Deeply: What are the services you provide to these women and children?
Abu Sleiman: We provide shelter. We provide medical and psychological support. We provide daily basic needs such as food and drink. We provide a range of activities that train the women in basic skills, such as embroidery, knitting, cooking. However, we provide these within a limited scope given the tight resources we have. With the rising cost of living, we need $5,000 to fully cover our expenses. But we manage to make do with less when we need … just $1,000 a month.
Syria Deeply: How many women are in the center? And what’s the number of superintendents?
Abu Sleiman: Umm Ramez, Umm Mohammad and 10 other women make up the administrative staff. They have taken in 50 women, mostly elderly, sickly or homeless women. We also have five children who have all lost their families.
Syria Deeply: Can you tell us some stories of the women at your center?
Abu Sleiman: There was a woman in her 30s who had fled Daraa and entered Ghouta after her house was destroyed. When the residents found her, they realized that she could no longer speak or hear. They brought her to the center and she had a critical psychological condition. We provided her with shelter and much-needed support. She used to wake up every day crying, but after repeated sessions with a doctor, she started having a normal routine again. She was able to adapt better and she’s still with us, but she still can’t hear or speak.
There was a 40-year-old mother with her 13-year-old son who had run away from her abusive husband. The child was in a bad state due to the consistent battering. When he sat down with the doctor, he said, “If you want to catch my father, send a large force because he’s very strong.” Can you imagine how much this child has suffered to utter such a statement? The mother and child are doing a lot better, and at least they are away from the abusive man.
There was also a 70-year-old woman who had had her house shelled. She was found unconscious and was treated at the medical point in the city. They then brought her to the center where she stayed for three months, getting the necessary medical attention, given that she’s quite old. She then found her family and went to live with them.
Syria Deeply: Can you share the stories of some of the children and younger women in the center?
Abu Sleiman: There is a young child at the center. We aren’t sure if her family members are dead or alive; she was found at a bombed site in Douma. She was only three years old then. We don’t know who her parents are and no one has come around to ask about her. She’s still at the center receiving basic services. We’ve been in touch with our doctor, one of the psychologists at the center, and he’s following up on the case.
Some cases need more intensive attention than others. A lady in her 60s committed her 30-year-old daughter to the psychiatry wing after the latter suffered severe depression due to losing her father and three siblings in the same day.
The 30-year-old was treated for two weeks and I then wrote a Facebook post about it – about how she and her mother were living without any support. An aid organization got in touch with me to get to the lady and her daughter. They took it upon themselves to provide a monthly stipend for the two women as well as payment for the treatment of the elderly mother who had illnesses of her own. She had trouble sleeping and suffered from anxiety.
We believe that the center is the answer for many of the women in Ghouta, especially those who have been made homeless.
Syria Deeply: Who finances the center?
Abu Sleiman: Syrians living abroad and residents of Ghouta. Also, there are associations that send us money to hold various activities in Ghouta. Though with the siege on Ghouta and with many starving to death, it is a priority to provide food and other basics.
The biggest obstacle is the lack of resources, be they financial, medical or service-based. Also, there’s a lack of specialists with social and psychological experience, even though the head director is a lawyer and one of the superintendents is an experienced psychologist. However, we still need more people with a wider range of experience to help us evolve as the project grows.