Syria Crisis: Building Community Between Refugees

Syria Crisis: Building Community Between Refugees

Publication info

Mary Kate MacIsaac

Two years ago Hayat’s* life was turned upside down when her husband was taken by authorities. She has not heard from him since. At the time, they were living with their four daughters in his family’s village near Kobane, Syria. 

Originally from Damascus, she was far from her own relatives and after his disappearance, left to raise their children alone with her mother-in-law. One day last fall, Hayat woke up to find the village abandoned.  

“Neighbors had said they would need to escape quickly if the armed groups were near,” the 31-year-old mother says, but she had not expected them to flee without her. “When I woke up, all of the people were gone. It was so strange. No one remained. We were so scared. We didn’t know what to do, or where to go….”  

“The most terrifying thing for me was waking up alone in the village, and without my husband…” The memory of this isolation causes her to pause. Tears roll down her cheeks.  

She didn’t know where to go, but with few possessions, she led her family from the empty village towards Kobane. “We walked there. We had nothing. Some people we met on the road offered us a ride. We only wanted to escape.” 

From Kobane, she took her four daughters, all under age six, and her elderly mother-in-law toward Turkey. They slept two nights in a field with only one blanket to share between them before finally walking across the border.  

Once in Turkey, the family found shelter in an unfinished commercial building where other Syrian families were staying in some 40 small unused shops. There was poor sanitation and a lack of water, but it was a roof over their heads.  

Life is a daily struggle for urban refugees who may receive little if any assistance. But in this village and others, CARE with support from the European Union and the Government of Canada’s Humanitarian Assistance Fund (CHAF) is working to fill gaps where refugees have been overlooked. In coordination with local Turkish authorities, CARE has been supporting families with vouchers that can be redeemed in local shops for food and basic household items, hygiene kits, and an information volunteer program that is empowering people to keep themselves and each other safe and healthy in a difficult living environment.

Hayat is one of eighteen CARE-trained information volunteers in this community. Once a week she and other volunteers participate in a training with CARE staff, after which they fan out across the community sharing information and messages through peer-to-peer discussions or in group sessions.  

“The words that we take from CARE, we put this information on, like wearing an earring or a part of our clothing. The training has helped me with my communication skills,” Hayat explains. “Now we sit together in the evening every night and discuss important issues.  Even in Kobane I didn’t have this.”

Hayat highlights the psychosocial segments of the training as being among the most significant. “It is too useful for the people here,” Hayat affirms. “We are learning how important it is to help others to help themselves.”  

“The psychosocial training helps couples support each other, and teaches parents to better deal with their children’s behavior, especially after experiencing the war. It helps them a lot,” she says.

She elaborates, using her own family as an example. “My main challenge is our displacement, and my husband missing. We have been so afraid, my children, my mother-in-law. There’s a lot of stress in our lives. Some nights my daughters have nightmares. They cannot sleep. Always my girls ask, ‘When is our father coming home?’  I have no answer for them.” But it is important people are able to talk about these problems, she says.

“When a person can talk about their troubles, they get more rest, because they are no longer holding it deep inside. Before I met CARE, before I began volunteering, I didn’t feel like I had any value in society. Now I can speak out, and speak out loudly to the ones who took my rights from me. Before two years, when my husband first went missing, I couldn’t do anything. I had no value or respect. I’ve gained that back here.  Now I have my dignity, I have respect. Now I have something to live for.”

“These sessions help build trust among us and the community, and they enjoy receiving the messages, too,” Hayat adds.  

“We’ve discovered there is something good inside of us. The people have started to help each other. We’re all feeling less isolated and working more together. We were like small islands before, but now we are like a chain. Now we help each other. We are in this together.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individual.

© 2015 Mary Kate MacIsaac/CARE