“This article was produced within the project «Empowering the Next Generation of Syrian Women Journalists» in partnership between the «Syrian Female Journalists Network» and «UntoldStories». This article was produced under the supervision of journalist Alaa Mohammed.”
Samira, 35 years old and mother of four, who has been living in Al-Bal camp in rural A’zaz Northern Syria for almost five years, says: “I wish I could go and exercise at the gym, move around and engage in conversations different from the ones we hear in the camp.” She complains about the harshness of life there, the loss of privacy and safe spaces for women, as there is “no comfort and no security.”
Media coverage and reports tend to reflect the suffering of displaced men and women in camps in terms of poverty, difficulty of living, and the absence of resources. They rarely address the loss of privacy for women there. This does not seem to be a real issue.
Under the tents
The conversations among women in the camps of Northwest Syria about their bodies and private spaces is almost non-existing. For example, they express the desire to be able to monitor their bodies as well as ensure that they are healthy and fit, just like the women they see on their phones and on TV. They dream of having the luxury to talk about healthy meals or a safe living environment, away from their lives that do not offer them the minimum level of privacy. They can’t speak, only whisper; they can’t act, only dream.
The women we met shared that they don’t engage in these conversations to avoid ridicule and mockery from camp residents, especially from men who have different priorities. In other words, because the needs and desires of women are not considered a priority, they prefer to live them out in their imagination.
“Whenever I refuse to eat a certain meal to avoid gaining weight or suggest to my neighbours that we work out or share my dreams of having a gym at the camp, I feel ridicule. They mock me and my imaginative ideas, laughing as if I’ve just told them a joke,” says Samira.
Nour, a 27-year-old woman living in Al-Bal camp, describes her and her friends’ situation there. “Most of us are mothers; we weigh above 85 kgs. We constantly have to consult doctors for knee pains, high blood pressure and diabetes. I also suffer from thyroid issues, like many others. My friend had a herniated disc, and the doctor refused to operate on her until she loses weight. This was impossible because the food available is not suitable for a diet. There are also no spaces for walking nor for exercising. My friend has developed nerve compression and can no longer walk. Today, she is half-paralyzed.”
In camps, there are no spaces for women to pursue their hobbies. Even if such spaces exist, they need to be logistically equipped for them to engage in different activities, such as sports, which usually help people maintain their physical fitness and mental well-being.
Rahaf, a 33-year-old woman living in the Tal’aldaman camp in Termanin planted a bunch of roses in an empty spot next to her tent. She enjoys contemplating them while sipping her coffee and considers that they significantly improve her mood. A widow and mother of four, she considers this small plot of land “one meter by half” to be her only haven.
Every woman must remain ready throughout the day, wearing her veil and modest clothing, even within her tent, as if she were a “soldier donning her military uniform, carrying her weapons, and awaiting orders from her commander to engage in battle.” At any moment, someone might enter or pass by her tent, transforming the idea of “privacy” to be beyond achievable, based on what women have shared and our own observations.
“We sometimes forget that we have hair to take care of and to comb because the moment you sit freely (meaning without the veil), you have to be aware that you are exposed to your neighbours,” says Fatima, one of Al-Bab camp residents. She adds that it’s challenging for a group of women to gather freely in one tent, as there’s usually only one meter separating one tent from another. “If we want to have coffee together, the first thing we do is to close the door and then lower our voices.”
Samira emphasizes that living in a tent means losing the simple pleasures of life for women. She says with regret: “I long to see my hair, to comb it for as long as I like, to remove my veil for at least two consecutive hours, to wear summer clothes with short sleeves, and simply, to feel at ease. But how would this be possible when I live in a tent that reveals every move I make? I can’t even stretch out nor take a nap. I am always ready for visitors and feel like someone is monitoring my every move throughout the day.” Samira mentions that she cannot raise her voice during conversations because neighbours can hear all of her family discussions. They will then, undoubtedly, become the talk of the camp for several days. Fatima responds sarcastically to Samira’s words and says: “Femininity is weeping in the corner.”
The Miracle of Cleanliness
Samira leads a harsh life inside the camp, struggling because of her distance from the camp water tank, especially during winter when she has to dive into muddy pits to wash her family’s clothes. After doing laundry, she sits and observes the clean clothes that she spread outside the tent; clothes that take several days to dry. Consequently, her children only bathe once every two weeks if soap is available. During this time, they don’t change their clothes to minimize the amount of laundry and the subsequent hours it takes to wash them.
Samira describes herself as both the mother and father, as she faces many challenges in securing water and household essentials such as cleaning supplies and food. Like other camp residents, she suffers from the lack of private bathrooms because everything is shared. One can only bathe in a small corner inside the tent. She mentions that organizations “do not distribute cleaning supplies, while we are unable to buy all necessities. This is why we use traditional items that might not clean and sanitize as well as they should.”
Samira mentions that she cannot raise her voice during conversations because neighbours can hear all of her family discussions. They will then, undoubtedly, become the talk of the camp for several days.
Sahar, a mother of four, talks more about the bathing corner, which is the only facility available within the tent. However, she explains that “there is no door to the bathroom within the tent. If my son wants to shower, my daughters and I leave to give him some privacy,” and this is what happens every time.
Sahar, like many other women, shares the struggle of widespread fungal infections. “All of the women here complain of fungal infections on their bodies. The doctor diagnosed most of them as a result of humidity,” she says. Women do not have the opportunity to air and sun-dry their undergarments outside the tent; they have to keep them inside. Only outerwear as well as men’s and children’s clothes are hung outside.
Women’s Needs are not a Priority
Every camp has a director who oversees it, reviews its problems and calls for services from organizations and authorities tasked with improving residential conditions and securing basic needs for the displaced. In addition, they are responsible for showcasing patients’ cases in the media to find treatment for them, either in local or in Turkish hospitals, after obtaining permission to cross the border. Moreover, there are efforts to attract teams of volunteers to raise awareness and engage in activities for specific groups to help them address their problems and teach them certain skills.
Um Ahmad, a supervisor in one of the rare camps managed by women in rural Idlib, informed us that she constantly issues appeals to all organizations operating in Northern Syria, especially those supporting women, financially and mentally, to secure projects that benefit women in camps. She adds: “organizations do not develop women’s skills in camps in any way. Instead, they offer awareness and training sessions based on policies of funding institutions, regardless of actual needs.”
Within Um Ahmad’s camp, there is a large tent for recreation, but it requires logistical equipment and a specialized team to conduct activities that suit the needs of women in the camp. According to her “women living a normal life require continuous support. What would one then say about women in Northern Syria who have experienced war and the hardships of living inside a tent, in addition to the repercussions of the 6th of February earthquake? The needs of women for psychosocial support increased, and it has become essential for them to go out and take trips that distance them from the camp’s atmosphere. Women should also get to know each other and share their stories, which fosters a sense of creativity and desire to work. For instance, women can collaborate together to establish small businesses that might help relief financial and psychological burdens.”
According to nutrition specialist Bayan Haidar, the stress, fear and anxiety faced by women in camps, in addition to discomfort, instability and external problems all lead to “hormonal imbalances resulting in diabetes and thyroid disorders due to all of this stress and fear. Therefore, it is imperative not to give in to those negative emotions to maintain one’s health and weight as most diseases result from problems or increased stress.”
Bayan also emphasizes the importance of engaging in physical activity for around 150 minutes per week. She also suggests planting vegetables and leafy greens if the space allows it. In addition, the nutritionist advises monitoring vital signs and symptoms such as fatigue, paleness, dry skin, constipation, diarrhea, hair loss and noticeable weight gain. In such cases, it is important for women to visit medical centres, which are often free of charge, to undergo appropriate testing, identify the cause of imbalance or deficiency and address it.
In this context, social expert Wadha Al-Othman explains that women in camps are going through a tough period. “In the past, they had access to many activities. However, displacement and forced migration deprived them from their hobbies and led to the loss of their independence and privacy.”
Wadha considers that the presence of recreational spaces is both important and necessary, not only for entertainment, but to help women lead normal lives. “It is essential for a woman to feel that there is something that supports her mentally and physically, allowing her to move despite challenges and difficulties. Such centres would enable her to boost her positive energy through meeting new people and feeling that she is helping both her body and herself.” Al-Othman emphasizes that camp management should seek to create spaces for women: sports clubs, cultural cafes or other facilities – depending on the cultural level of the women residing there.
Samira dreams of simple things when she thinks of her needs and her children’s. For example, she imagines “a small space where children can play; a clean space free of stones and mud puddles. She also dreams of having a small medical team inside the camp that can provide first aid for children and organizations that distribute hygiene products for women and healthy food baskets for widows.” Samira wishes to work out on a treadmill if possible, due to insufficient spaces for walking within the camp. If those spaces are available, they are filled with dust in the summer and muddy water in the winter.
Salma, the director of the “Safe Space” centre in one of the camps in the North says that the general environment, weather conditions and living factors do not allow for the establishment of sports clubs or recreational facilities due to insufficient space and the prevalence of tents.
Samira contentedly follows online sports and yoga trainers without actually participating herself, like she used to do at home. This is due to limited space within her tent and the lack of privacy everywhere. “The biggest obstacle is the community itself and its criticism when I bring this topic up because they consider that it’s not a priority because we are in a tent. They also accuse me of being an unfit mother, leaving my children to take care of myself".