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Thinking it Through: Refugees

Hear what geography researcher Karen Culcasi found when she interviewed women in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

Leila was from the small Syrian city of Dera’a. When I met her in July 2014 in the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, she was 21. Like all the women I met and interviewed while doing fieldwork on how Syrian women refugees are coping in Jordan, Leila experienced immense struggles and trauma, but she also exhibited incredible resilience.

Leila spoke of depression, of wanting to return to Syria to die. Like many refugees, Leila lived with debilitating worry and guilt about the well-being of her family that remained in Syria. Though outside of the immediate danger of the civil war that raged on just 10 kilometers (about six miles) to the north, Leila felt insecure in the refugee camp. She worried particularly about theft, harassment, diseases and the lack of clean water. She bemoaned her family’s loss of income, independence and pride, and she was particularly regretful of her loss of privacy and hope for her future. 

Just before the outbreak of the war in 2011, Leila had been accepted to college and had intended to study computer science. But she was unable to enroll in classes because of the war and her forced displacement. Leila’s story is painful. My hour-long interview with her was emotional, with many tissues being shared. 

I interviewed Leila in the beauty salon that she worked in. A small 20-by-10-foot prefabricated trailer was converted into a salon. It had one small window and two counters in which hair, nails and makeup were done. Leila learned cosmetology while in the camp and now works in the salon for 20 or 30 hours a week. Working has given Leila a place to take her mind off her hardships, to laugh and share stories with other women. Working has given her a sense of purpose and a small income. She explained, “I feel better now. Before the salon opened, I was broken. I just wanted to go back to Syria, but now I feel like I have a reason to stay here. I meet new people every day.” 

And I can attest through my personal observations that, in the salon, women laughed, had fun and supported one another. The Syrian refugee women I met in Jordan had different lives and different stories, but their struggles, losses and resilience were remarkably similar.

The salon was indeed a social place and often quite busy because a lot of marriages occur in the camp. Some of the marriages are for love. But many others are “early marriages,” in which young girls are married off because families struggle to provide for their young women. 

During times of conflict, we typically hear about casualty statistics and the violence on the battlefields. Such reports are, of course, relevant and important. But the ways in which war is gendered and pervasive in daily life are all too often overlooked. 

The Syrian war is a multidimensional crisis with immense human suffering. Approximately 400,000 casualties have been documented, and an estimated 10 million Syrians have been forcibly displaced. These numbers, as grim as they are, indicate only some of the effects of the war. Statistics tend to gloss over the human, personal side of conflict and the effects that war has on women outside of the battlefields. 

Indeed, women generally experience conflict quite differently than men. Gender-based violence in the form of early marriages, taking of multiple wives, forced prostitution, rape and verbal and physical harassment often become heightened during times of conflict and displacement. Women who are heads of households or living without a male guardian (as is often the case in times of war when men are commonly injured, deceased or fighting the war) are often subject to frequent gender-based violence. 

By telling a small part of Leila’s story, my goal is to show the human side of the conflict. War is part of everyday life even though one is outside of the battlefield. Moreover, the effects of war and displacement are long-term and highly gendered, like the life-changing practices of early marriage. 

Karen Culcasi is an associate professor of geography whose research and teaching uses critical and feminist geopolitical frames to examine contested places and identities. Her work focuses on the Middle East and Arab world.