Desperation Haunts Syrian Civil War's Widows
Millions of refugees are living amid death and desperation on the edges of Syria’s unending civil war.
“With criminals and rebels helping them on their way, Syria's army of refugees marches by night, in single file and silence, towards the Jordanian border,” reported the British tabloid the Guardian reporter Tara Sutton. “More than 140,000 desperate people, many of them women and children, have sought sanctuary from their neighbor since the uprising in their homeland began 13 months ago and most now face an uncertain future.”
But that report was published two years ago. Now, the number is dramatically higher.
“An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge in neighboring countries or within Syria itself,” reports the Syrian Refugee website. “According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 2.5 million have fled to Syria's immediate neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. Meanwhile, under 100,000 have declared asylum in Europe with a small number offered resettlement by countries such as Germany and Sweden.”
Hundreds of thousands of them are young widows.
“Between bitter autumn weather and unceasing war at home, Syrian refugees at this northern desert tent camp have enough problems,” reports Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald from Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. “But fathers such as Abu Yousef say they must also contend with something else: older Arab men in search of Syrian brides.
''Of course I would rather her marry a Syrian, someone from our community, but what can we do?'' Abu Yousef said of his daughter, whose husband was killed in the Syrian uprising. Although he at first rejected the idea, Abu Yousef said he had consented to an arrangement proposed by a 55-year-old retired Saudi engineer as an opportunity to provide for his widowed daughter, 27, and her three children.
“Because most of the hundreds of Syrians who cross into Jordan each day arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, relief officials and refugees said, offers that include dowries of as much as $5,000 can be hard to resist,” reported Taylor Luck for the Washington Post. “Proponents of the unions said they provide a humanitarian service to the more than 360,000 Syrians displaced throughout the region, often by arranging marriages for Syrian widows who would otherwise struggle to care for their families.”
“Unlike Turkey, Jordan does not have a refugee camp and new arrivals are left to fend for themselves,” reported Sutton. “They escape mostly ‘through the fence,’ too frightened to leave Syria by its official borders. For some, this is because their documents were burned when the army torched their homes; for others it is because they are being hunted by the government because someone in their family is, or was, a fighter.
“In Jordan most of the aid they receive comes from Islamic and Christian charities with limited resources. They get boxes of food from one group; another donates mattresses and kitchen sets. But it is not enough, and many wonder where the international NGOs are.
“Ahlam sits hunched over, as if about to fold in on herself, talking about her courtship with her husband,” writes Raja Abdulrahim in the Los Angeles Times. “At first she was hesitant to accept his proposal because he was a rebel fighter. But as they talked and spent time together, she grew fond of him and they were married last summer. For the next eight months, he divided his time between home with his new bride and the battlefront in Syria's civil war.
“Each time he went to the front lines, Ahlam, 23, would call frequently to make sure he was OK. One day in March, her mind was with him all day and she couldn't focus on anything she was doing. She called him every hour. Finally, he answered. ‘I told him, Take care of yourself,' she said. ‘He said, Forgive me if something happens.' Shortly after they spoke, he was killed in combat.
"I was afraid he would die, and then look what happened," she told the Times. "I would tell him not to go — that there is work to be done in the village. He would say, 'I can't; there is work at the front lines.'"
Now, Ahlam vows not to remarry until the fighting ends for fear of being widowed again. She is like other young widows, reports Abdulrahim, many with pregnant bellies, who bitterly shrug off the suggestion of remarriage with a bleak, "I've learned my luck."
"I don't want the same thing to happen to me," said Ahlam, whose two younger brothers are also rebel fighters. "I foresee that they're all going to get killed. I don't think many of them will return."
“Human rights groups estimate that widows number in the tens of thousands,” writes Abdulrahim, “and that thousands more whose husbands have disappeared are waiting for bad news. At a time when the vicious civil warfare has destroyed so much in Syria — homes and schools, families and communities — there is a reticence to rebuild anything, including marriages, for fear it will be lost again.
“The refusal to remarry collides with cultural norms in a country where marriage and motherhood dominate women's lives and where girls as young as 12 begin receiving suitors.
“It can also lead to financial strain at a time of soaring poverty. Support of a widowed woman, if she doesn't have her own means, reverts to parents or male relatives, one reason some families pressure their daughters to remarry.”
“Just because we have lost our homes, they think our women are free for the taking,” refugee Ibrahim Naimi, 42, told Sutton. “We are going to prove that you cannot buy Syrian women.”
Refugees and relief officials told Sutton that increasing numbers of Arab matchmakers have made their way to the camp, some of them posing as aid workers. They say the problem is growing along with the camp, near the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq, in part because many refugee families are impoverished and desperate.
“United Nations officials said that most of the marriages are brokered and that many are not consensual,” reported Sutton. “The results, they said, include increasing numbers of child brides and marriages that, in some cases, end in abandonment or forced prostitution. U.N. and Jordanian relief agencies estimate that some 500 underage Syrians have been wed this year.”
“We have a very large and growing vulnerable population in Jordan, and unfortunately we are hearing more and more stories of groups looking to exploit them,” said Andrew Harper, the Jordan-based representative of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“This is not exploitation. This is generosity,” disputed Ziyad Hamad. He heads up a charity, Kitab al-Sunna, which is one of the largest organizations helping Syrian refugees in Jordan.
But some aid officials and refugees said there are suitors who are drawn to the refugee camps by the opportunity to consummate a marriage and then divorce or abandon the bride due to a culture in which the women have few rights and men face few legal or social consequences.
“Wealthy gulf men come here and tell us that they want to take care of our daughters and our families, but we all know what they really want: a good time,” Abu Hamad told Sutton. He’s a member of a Zaatari camp committee formed to fend off would-be grooms.
Relief officials say the desperate brides often face uncertain futures when they are taken by their new husbands off to foreign lands where they know no one and are regarded with suspicion by officials and with hostility by local women.
“We are concerned over the possibility,” said Dominique Hyde, a representative of UNICEF, which is working with the Jordanian government to curb the bridal trade, “that many of these women are practically being sold off into a much worse situation.”
Cases of polygamy are also on the rise as married men propose to widows, believing the women have few other options than to become a second wife.
In the refugee camps, visitors hear tragic stories of doomed marriages, sometimes shared as cautionary tales. “One of Laila's daughters-in-law, Fatima Karj, told of a woman widowed three times in less than two years. The women slowly shook their heads,” reports Abdulrahim.
"I assume she would give up hope," Laila told the Times. "I mean, we despair from her situation."
“Wedad Abdulqadir's husband was killed the day after their second anniversary,” reports the Times. “’The young couple had spent their anniversary together but didn't celebrate because of the war and because they didn't have any money. The next morning he woke up and said farewell and then he didn't return,’" said Abdulqadir, her hands tightly clasped in her lap.
Before the Syrian conflict, her father would allow her to go out only to visit relatives or friends. “Now he is encouraging her to work so she can care for herself,” reports the Times.
"A lot of women have been given the chance to work because of these circumstances," Nisreen Risiq told Abdulrahim.
“She volunteers at the clinic but dreams of becoming an opposition media activist, a less socially acceptable job for a woman, especially in a small town like Anadan, reports the Times.
"I took my four kids and traveled to [the central city of] Homs and back," said another volunteer, Dareen Birini, pregnant with her fifth child. "Before this, my husband wouldn't let me take a 10-minute bus ride. The circumstances force you to change."
Publication date: May 29, 2014