It’s a sad fact that Syria’s civil war has created the world’s largest refugee crisis. More than half of all Syrians are either refugees within their own country or have fled the country altogether.
Most often, it’s the families’ husbands, fathers and brothers who risk their lives crossing borders in the night or crossing seas aboard unsafe rubber dinghies operated by cutthroat people smugglers.
Their mothers, wives and sisters bear a different but often no less harrowing burden: holding their families together for months or years, waiting for the money or documents that will allow them to be reunited. Sometimes those things never come at all.
The U.N. estimates that 1.7 million Syrian refugees are scattered around the globe, mostly in nearby countries. Nearly 150,000 of them have declared political asylum in the European Union, while thousands more have attempted to make the journey to Europe, wagering their savings and their safety for the chance to be smuggled to the continent by land or sea.
Buthayna is a 45-year-old engineer whose husband left Syria one year ago. He entered Europe illegally by sea, and applied for asylum in Sweden.
“As a working mother, I had always been overwhelmed with responsibilities, but the absence of my husband dramatically increased the challenges I face daily. I had to fulfill the role of the mother and the father at the same time and take care of three kids who miss their father.
She continues: “The absence of one partner doubles the burdens of the other. I work nonstop in order to secure my family’s needs, and I don’t have time for myself anymore.
“Many things make my life more difficult every day. High prices, for example, put a lot of pressure on me. We can barely afford the very basics, such as food, utility and phone bills. We even have to buy drinking water now because of the regular water outages in the Sahnaya neighborhood, where we live.
“My kids had to quit their activities and sports because we can’t afford them anymore. All of this, in addition to my constant fear for their safety – my fear of missiles, death, kidnapping and arrest. I have to deal with all of this by myself.”
In the past couple of years, thousands of people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. In 2014, 220,000 people risked their lives attempting to come to Europe illegally by sea, nearly a third (67,000) of whom were Syrians, according to European border agency Frontex. The Mediterranean Sea is now the world’s most dangerous border between countries that are not at war with each other, according to the Migration Policy Centre.
Buthayna said she feared for her husband every day while he was travelling to Sweden since he was never safe.
“We did not join him because we could not afford the cost. Smugglers charge 6,000 euros per person. Also, it is a very dangerous journey, and he did not want us to take the risk. We were scared for his safety.
“We frantically followed the news about boats sinking in the Mediterranean. We were worried about him getting caught in one of the airports he went through. That is in addition to fear of the smugglers, whom no one trusts. We realized that running away from death in Syria could be more dangerous than staying and facing it.”
Buthayna’s kids are teenagers and they need their father, but they are in a better situation than those whose fathers are missing, detained or killed. Ahmad, her 15-year-old son, said: “I want to go live with my father in Sweden. It will definitely be better than living here. I will miss my friends, but living in Syria has become too scary. I don’t think this war will end any time soon, and in three years, I will have to serve in the army.”
Maria is a 23-year-old mother of two whose Palestinian husband is currently in Turkey trying to figure out how to get himself into a European country. Maria’s situation is worse than Buthayna’s because she has no income. She relies on food aid that she receives from the Red Crescent or other charities in addition to 30,000 SYP that she receives every three months from the UNRWA because her husband is Palestinian. What she receives barely covers her children’s expenses.
“I can’t breastfeed anymore – my breast milk dried up due to stress and malnutrition. I work in houses and clean the stairways of big buildings. What I earn barely covers the rent for one room in Nahr Eisheh, in the countryside of Damascus. My oldest son is four years old. He is frustrated because he misses his father. At night, he wets his bed, he cries a lot and he hits me hysterically.”
Maria moved out from al-Ghouta right before the area was besieged by the Syrian army, and she does not know what happened to her family. The situation in al-Ghouta was very bad. The lack of food, water and electricity, the violence and the random arrests all forced many residents, including Maria, to flee for their safety. She had not finished her education and she had no work experience.
She tells us about her husband, with whom she communicates daily. “He is not happy and he is always angry. He sometimes makes me feel that I am the reason for all of our troubles. Sometimes I worry that we might divorce, if things continue like this.”
Souad is a 25-year-old, pregnant, newly married teacher. She lives in the al-Mazza neighborhood with her in-laws. Her husband recently applied for asylum in the Netherlands and he will apply for family reunion as soon as he becomes a resident.
Souad is a Sunni Muslim and her husband is Alawite, and she suffered greatly until her family finally agreed that she could marry him. “In addition to the high costs of the journey, I did not travel with my husband because he did not want me to take such a dangerous trip, especially when pregnant.” Souad revealed another threat to women whose husbands are away.
“We have become an easy target. Many offer to help us in exchange for sex. Or they simply sexually harass us. Unfortunately, many women yield to this pressure. Sexual and emotional needs are as crucial as other needs.”
“My husband has changed a lot since he left. He has been thinking and speaking in a strange manner. I understand his suffering. I understand that he is alone and that he misses me, his family and his country. So I continue to reassure him that we will be together soon, and that we will finally be able to build the family we always dreamed of,” she said.