Auxilia in Syria: How international cooperation allow women to take back their lives

Photo of Massimiliano Fanni Canelles

The war in Syria is not new. Since March 2011 there have been thousands of victims of a fratricidal conflict that sees the central government of Bashar al Assad opposed by many representatives of various groups, often simply referred to as “rebels”, but whose ranks are marked by the clash between profoundly different groups.

As always when there is a war, it is the civilians who are the first victims. Today in Syria, it is also difficult to get a count of deaths, displaced, missing people. The many eyes of humanitarian organizations focused on the region have denounced over and again the abuses and violations of human rights carried out on all fronts. From rapes of women and girls to the recruitment of children: the situation is a real humanitarian disaster. It is impossible for people whose raison d’être is the respect of human rights, like us at Auxilia, to stand aside. To stay silent. To look the other way.

Our work started from the need to help victims of the conflict: the first project was the support of children of the Iblib region, the border area between Syria and Turkey, an isolated area abandoned by other international organizations. After the first few visits, we found that, as often happens unfortunately, the worst injuries were those suffered by children and by women. However, we also noticed that the women could be the key to unlocking the situation and could trigger a small positive change.

We are accustomed to thinking of women in the Arab world as submissive, hidden, marginalized. Instead, especially in countries like Syria, there are emancipated women, armed with a strong university education, women who already before the war did not give up their freedom. Furthermore, the conflict may also stimulate those who had not had many opportunities before to get out. It is the women in the Middle East, even in such a fragile situation, who can take action to try to make a terrible situation more humane.

The action of Auxilia aims to re-establish a form of stability for the population living in Iblib and Atma. The cooperation activities encompass different fields, always placing special attention on women’s development: a school was created to involve children, to reintegrate people who were working in schools before the war, a small health center was opened becoming a landmark and women were offered the opportunity to care financially for their families through micro-enterprise projects.

Indeed, these projects deserve further attention. How is it that in the midst of a terrible conflict like the one in Syria there is room for micro-entrepreneurs? What can you produce with so few resources? How can products be sold and to whom? It is in this context that opportunities arise when international cooperation is structured, designed and built in an effective way, addressing the needs of the area where it operates.

In 2013, a project of female micro-entrepreneurship was started. The aim was to provide women from Idlib and Atma sustenance for their families through the production of scarves. Just scarves, an object used by many, lots of women around the world. What is special is the point in which they are made: it is a knot that is called “love knot” from which the name of the product and the project: “love scarves.” A knot that is the precious bond that binds Italian women with Syrian ones.

At the women’s center in Atma, we organized a workshop open to all, where we delivered 100 kg of wool, which then increased thanks to some private donations. The production of scarves is particularly suited to the conditions of the area because they can be produced almost anywhere, including in some tents or at home. The idea to make women economically independent in Atma was developed together with Maram Foundation, a British organization that is our partner in Syria. The scarves produced are then imported into Italy and elsewhere where they are sold at charity markets and awareness events. The goal, which has been partially realized, is to transform a refugee camp into an active community, where you can work, learn and grow. In this way, women and Syrian children can begin, slowly, to regain possession of their lives.

It is not only the humanitarian project that we wanted to vigorously carry out in Syria and in the Turkish border. In collaboration with the Department of Human Sciences, University of Trieste, Maram Foundation, and with the support of the Autonomous Region Friuli Venezia Giulia, we have implemented the project “Aurora in Syria” consisting of vocational training, conflict mediation and reconciliation.

Within this frame, we have promoted some courses in various areas: mediation, negotiation, post traumatic stress disorder, sewing, and knitting. 150 refugees of Atma from 15 to 50 years old, in particular widows, abused women, women with low education, and disabled women, have learned small jobs and they strengthened themselves through their participation to the micro-credit activities.

Recently, thanks to the Church Valdese and Autonomous Region Friuli Venezia Giulia, our activities have increased in order to provide additional support and space for action for Syrian refugees. Al Bayti, which means “my home”, will soon come to life as a female youth center at the orphanage Al Bayti (Reyhanli – Turkey), to provide women of the area a meeting place where they can engage in specific activities and talk. The hope is that it becomes a space where micro-entrepreneurship projects can be carried out thanks to the psychosocial support also offered to participants.

At the same time, we also started the WomenNet project, aimed at creating a local network and support tools for refugee women. In this case, the primary objective is to offer psychological support to cope with the post-traumatic stress disorders that are often, unfortunately, invisible wounds of war.

Choosing to support women is not a choice like any other, it is not the result of chance, but it is a concrete response to the humanitarian emergency. Women have a fundamental role in every society and even more in a community plagued by violence that forced them to escape far from home and to face enormous obstacles. Women can turn into an exciting and vital fulcrum. Most women are away from the logic of physical violence, less corruptible, and more sensitive to suffering. This way, even remotely, you can help those who need it most in a concrete way, so that the tragedies and bombs of the past will remain but leaving room for a safe and bright future.

Report at International Conference at the University of Padova on Rethinking the transition process in Syria

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