Hikayetna: Storytelling from Syria

By Sulaiman Osman

Hikayetna, meaning ‘our story’ in Arabic, is a new art project that brings people together to talk about the human side of Syrian society. For decades, freedom of expression has been absent from our society, but with our words and our stories we can become united, and feel our humanity, to turn fear into hope.

Hikayetna is a non-political and independent initiative that encourages, develops and aids communities in need while promoting tolerance, love, humanity and cultural values. This initiative is about finding common grounds and interests between people, it neither promotes political agendas nor religious ones. Our aim is to put forward personal stories and life experiences to build a bridge of love and humanity.

Through this blog, we hope to spread Syrians’ thoughts, words, and feelings, especially Syrians living in refugee camps. We aim to make their voice heard by different audiences around the world, who would have never had the chance to hear those stories otherwise. All of our stories will encourage building bridges from one heart to another, in order to deliver our voice to the world. We would like to help young people express themselves through poetry, photographs, stories and music. We see writing as great means for people to express their emotions and feelings through storytelling.

The goal of this project is to motivate young people to write and create stories by equipping them with practical trainings. We are therefore inviting young Syrians to help us create and share their stories, focusing on culture, arts, and music. Moreover, this project is a way to encourage young people to learn, socialise, and participate in building civil life and be active actors in it.

All of us share common hopes, fears and feelings, and we live by dreaming and hoping for a better tomorrow. As humanity in our country is destroyed, we are constantly looking for stories of hope to give us optimism, and looking to work together to build our country, promote dialogue and discussion, uphold community values and support community groups and young people through partnership and outreach. In addition, Hikayetna aims to be a hub for stories about the real Syrian lives. Finally, we strive to continually grow and attract diverse audience using different media platforms, including organising events and online workshops.

We hope this project will be a voice for all Syrians, regardless of their views, religion or background. We aim to break the media’s negative images about Syria and to show a beautiful picture of Syria and Syrians.

Gendering the ‘Refugee Crisis’ Conference Sessions

Following the conference held on December 11, 2015, in collaboration with the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance at the Open University, CTDC has made sessions from the conference available to the public via its YouTube Channel. The videos can be used as open source references, and as educational material accessible to those interested in the topic. In addition to the videos of the conference sessions, Dr Nof Nasser-Eddin and Dr Nour Abu-Assab have answered questions during an interview about CTDC’s research findings on the Syrian Refugees in Turkey, and their conceptualisation of gender and sexuality.

The videos are available below and via our YouTube Channel.

 

Behind Concrete Walls: On Remand in Amman

Women’s Personal Narratives of Remand Prisons in Jordan 

By Anonymous

‘You have had the chance to see it from the inside, journalists and researchers would kill for such an opportunity,’ a colleague told me after having spent a night in a women’s remand prison in Amman, the capital of Jordan. I recognised my privileged research access the moment I was taken into custody. I also realised that I had been so privileged knowing that my stay was only limited to a few hours, and my exit would be relatively smooth in comparison to others, whose stories and fate haunted me, ever since I left al-Juwaideh remand prison for women. My incarceration has been due to an administrative matter, which would normally be resolved on the same day. To my luck, however, I was taken into custody on a weekend, meaning that all administrative judicial departments were closed. Before my incarceration, I had been given the chance to make phone calls using my mobile phone in order to arrange for a lawyer to prepare needed documents and follow on procedures. Despite the fact that I was privileged, and I had access to legal support, I still felt anxious and intimidated by the idea of spending a night in prison. To add to my anxiety, none of the security actors explained procedures to me or explained where I was being taken. One of them said: ‘you will spend the night in a room with policewomen, do not worry.’ Another said: ‘you will go to prison, you might want to say goodbye to your family.’ My lawyer and family reassured me that it is only a matter of procedures and that I could have been released the same day had it not been a weekend. I felt slightly reassured knowing that I am not on my own; I had family, friends, work colleagues and a lawyer on my side. Yet the idea of spending the night in limbo was terrifying.

Ethnographer On Remand

In 2015, Dignity published a report on Conditions for Women Detention in Jordan. The authors of the report explain that they were not allowed to visit al-Juwaideh temporary detention facility, and that data on that particular facility was very limited. It does not surprise me anymore why researchers and journalists do not have access to this particular facility- the one I had been privileged enough to spend a night talking to and interviewing women detainees. The moment I was informed that I was being taken to al-Juwaideh, I decided to wear my ethnographer’s hat, an act of self-protection and an opportunistic attitude making the most out of my anxiety and misery. I was taken in a police car with another woman, whose story was challenging a traffic police officer making unwelcomed remarks about the clothing of other women with her in the car.

Arriving in al-Juwaideh, we were handed by the policemen to policewomen, who started the process of searching. I had a rucksack on me, containing a book, notebook and a laptop. The search happens over two stages, a search of belongings and a physical search. I was asked to take everything out of my rucksack. I had chewing gum, which I had forgotten about, the policewoman rudely asked me to throw it in the garbage bin. After taking everything out, I was asked to untie my shoelaces, put them in the rucksack, along with the book and the notebook and take my laptop and mobile phone into another room. I asked whether I could take a book to read, or a notebook to write, and the policewoman said: ‘where do you think you are?’ Obediently, I went to the other room, where another policewoman awaits to take the ‘expensive’ belongings and place them into lockers. I had to give up my laptop, my mobile phone and most of the cash I had on me, except for five Jordanian Dinars, as she explained I might need them. Afterwards, detainees are asked to go to a dark damp room for a strip search. I was led to that room, I only remember that there were five other detainees in a corner putting their clothes on and that the floor was wet, because my socks got wet. The woman prison officer addressed me saying: ‘stand in the corner and flash them’. I did not understand at the beginning, but later I realised after her tone became harsher as she repeated her sentence, that I had to flash my breasts. After the flashing of the breasts, detainees are asked to pull down their trousers and underwear, and squat a few times. Putting on my ethnographer’s hat made the search feel less humiliating than it could have been. However, anxiety kicked in once I was taken into the actual detention centre. It was 5 pm, dinnertime at the detention centre; women from all different backgrounds were queuing in a courtyard for a piece of stale bread, an egg and some tea served in plastic cups. One of the women prison guards shouted at me, saying: ‘go to the Arabs chamber.’

Tell Us Your Story

I headed to the room she pointed towards; entering slowly and carefully, I saluted the inmates in the Arab’s room, who greeted me back by saying ‘tell us your story.’ The cold room included eight double bunk metal beds, with small covers on each and a pillow. Some of the beds were not useable, and others did not have mattresses on them. The room was full of beds, except for a small space that does not exceed one square meter in size. Within that square meter women sat on their covers smoking, chatting and telling their stories, which were all a manifestation of a system that under privileges women and places them in precarious situations. The first to speak was a Jordanian woman of Palestinian origin; I will call her Nasma here. Nasma in tears took us back to a time, when she and her husband were living comfortably.

In Nasma’s Words

‘Things were really good, he had a business and we were well off, and we built a family together. Suddenly, he decided to take on a second wife. I accepted it. We lived together. She was his secretary, and we finally grew accustomed to each other. Years went by, and the business started falling apart. He started asking people for debts, and started signing blank checks. A few months ago, the debtors decided to take him to court, and he was imprisoned for failing to pay. I wanted to visit him in prison, with my co-wife. My youngest child begged me not to go and leave her behind that day. I just went ahead. As we entered the prison to visit him, I was asked to provide an ID, and I gave the policeman mine. He looked at me suspiciously, as he entered my name into a computer, and said: ‘Nasma?’ I said: ‘yes, sir, that is me.’ He said: ‘you are wanted by the police.’ I was in shock, I had no idea what was going on, and I still have no idea. The policemen explained that I have been sentenced to prison in absentia for not paying debtors. I never took any money from anyone myself. It must be my husband who did. He took 260,000 Jordanian Dinars, using my name. You know he is my guardian, so he can easily take my ID, and sign checks in my name. The police said I could only get out if we pay that amount, but I do not have that much money. My kids, I worry about my kids…’

You Have Family Outside

As Nasma finished her sentence, and started sobbing, Kamilia said: ‘do not worry you have family outside.’ Kamilia told us her story, and started by saying: ‘look, there are five of us Tunisian women here, and our families are in Tunisia.’ Kamilia explained that some of the Tunisian women in detention have been there for over three months for overstaying their visas. She said: ‘they ask us to pay penalties for overstaying and pay for our tickets back home. Some of us here cannot afford to pay that, so we are stuck in limbo.’ One of the Tunisian women explained that she is married to a man from Gaza, who by law cannot grant her a residence permit in Jordan. She went on to say: ‘I have kids I have not seen, in I do not know how long now. My husband is poor; he cannot help me. The only way out for me is to find someone to pay that money, and I just go to Tunis and leave everything here behind.’

For these women, staying in detention for lengthy periods of time means that their overstay penalties are increasing on a daily basis. This also means that their lives are on hold, they are kept in detention with no agency at all to even manage to get the money they owe the government. Many of them explained as well that they are concerned about their families outside, and that they do not have access to means of communications in detention. One of them said: ‘you know, permanent prisons are much better, food is better, you have a set time for communications, and you know how long you will be staying there, you know when it would end. Here is the worst of all places.’

Home is Worse Sometimes

‘I do not think so,’ Ghada said, ‘sometimes home is worse than here.’ Ghada, resorted to the police to protect her from her family, who are threatening to kill her, because she fell in love with the ‘wrong’ man. In Jordan, due to the lack of shelters and protection facilities, women, who report abuse from their families, find themselves thrown in remand detention centres. Again, the system does not only fail to protect women, but also criminalises them instead. Hours after I had arrived in al-Juwaideh, a woman in her early thirties entered, looking traumatised and panicky. Asked about her story, she explained that three men had raped her, and when her family found out they plotted her murder. She explained that she ran away, and when she resorted to the police, she was thrown in prison. Honour crimes are common in Jordan, and those who murder their female-relatives, claiming that the women broke their families’ honour code, by engaging or being forced to engage in sexual activity, are given a reduced sentence in prison. In so many ways, women are criminalised under such laws, even if they were victims to rape or sexual violence. Whereas these women have become victims to their families, some cases criminalise families, who attempt to protect their daughters.

Manipulating the System

 Towards the end of the night, the room got more and more crowded. More than 30 women constrained to a room that is barely enough for 16. The last arrivals included a woman and her teenage daughter. They were accused of fraud and forging governmental documents. Salma, the mother, said: ‘a few months ago, my daughter got pregnant outside of wedlock. I panicked and wanted to support her. I asked her if she wanted to keep it, and she expressed a desire to have the baby. She had a beautiful baby daughter. By law, you cannot register children born out of wedlock, and my daughter could have gotten imprisoned if authorities had known. I had to register her daughter under my name. On the birth certificate, I told them that the mother’s name was Salma, and I went the next day to register the baby. Authorities heard about it somehow, I suspect one of the neighbours informed the police. Now we are facing fraud charges.’ Salma said that she does not regret doing it, but also expressed fears with regards to the future and the future of the child, who was taken into care by the authorities. Whereas forging governmental document and fraud are serious crimes, it is very difficult in such cases not to sympathise with those who became ‘criminals’ due to a system that oppresses women’s sexuality and places barriers on them.

Behind Concrete Walls

It was very difficult to tell what time it was, when we heard Um Hussein, an eighty-year old Palestinian woman, shout and cry in the courtyard. Um Hussein was brought in charged with begging, despite her bad health and old age, the officers who found her had no regard for that, and she had to spend the night in a room with no space or mattresses. I tried to ask the prison officers for extra mattresses for the increasing number of women in the room, but the officer shouted at me and said: ‘do you think you are in five star a hotel?’ I went back to the room disgruntled, and one of the Tunisian women said: ‘you know we are lucky; they treat non-Arab women even worse. I witnessed a Sri Lankan woman being tortured, she was thrown onto the floor, kicked, beaten and they threw cold water over her.’ Behind these concrete walls there are stories, many stories that need to be heard. Issues that need to be addressed, and an overall system reform is required to guarantee women basic rights. Behind these concrete walls, I spent the night listening to women’s stories. The early morning hours waiting to be called by officers to be released after sorting out my papers were the most difficult and longest. They called my name, I would say around 10:30 in the morning the next day. I picked up my belongings from the prison officer and was taken into a police car to the judicial administrative unit. On the way, a police officer said: ‘if you have mobile phones on you, call your families and lawyers, because if they are not there already, you will be sent back to detention.’ I panicked despite my trust that my papers had already been prepared. I tried to switch on my out of battery mobile phone, for what felt like hours. The police officers would not allow anyone to use their phones. The half an hour drive felt like two hours, but as soon as I arrived I saw my lawyer and my release papers. My name on my identity card resembled another woman’s name wanted for so-called justice. And, that left me wondering, how many victims to the system are there who will never achieve justice for themselves? How can we break these concrete walls and hear their real stories?

 

Women's Detention in Jordan

Women’s Detention in Jordan

Al Rafah Social Care in Palestine

Ageism is a real problem in all societies, as the elderly and senior citizens often face economic and social marginalisation. The manifestations of this form of discriminations differ across societies, as in some societies respect for the elderly is engraved in their cultural codes. In others, the elderly are deemed as old fashioned and their judgments are deemed unreasonable. One of the main forms of marginalisation facing the elderly in Palestine is a considerable lack of public and private funding in relation to homes for the elderly. This lack places pressure on organisations supporting the elderly to continue working to provide for their target group. Al-Rafah Social Care, meaning welfare in Arabic, is currently one of the leading charitable organisations providing Palestinian elderly in Ramallah with support services that focus on their well-being.

 

The two Palestinian women, Ms Khawala Alkurd and Ms Sarah Nasser Eddin, who co-founded al-Rafah Social Care in January 2009, felt the need for such an initiative within the Palestinian community. The co-founders aimed to create an organisation that does not only provide shelter, but also a home where senior citizens feel safe and loved. In their own words: ‘we are aware of the vulnerability of the elderly in our community and society, so we decided to establish a home, where the elderly live with dignity and respect. We make sure that our residents are comfortable, and we always try to make they adjustment to their environment smooth’. Initially, the initiative aimed to create a safe space for the elderly, however, the initiative developed into a home for people with physical and mental disabilities, including cases of Alzheimer and dementia. Those cases are considered difficult to deal with, and al-Rafah’s ability to attend to such needs distinguishes it from many others in the field. Al-Rafah provides shelter in some cases for women who faced abuse. For instance, a 24-year old woman with a physical disability was admitted to al-Rafah. The woman’s family was not able to care for her, and the woman’s life was at risk as her father had physically and sexually abused her on a number of occasions. During an interview with the co-founders they stressed that they have an open door policy to anyone in need of care. They stated: ‘we take any humanitarian case that does not have anywhere else to go’.

 

Loneliness and isolation are some of the problems the elderly face in all communities, and this contributes to their feelings of vulnerability and lack of safety. For this reasons, senior citizens homes, such as al-Rafah, are really important for their well-being. Al-Rafah does not only provide its residents with physical and medical support, but it also provides them with psychological and social support. This type of support helps them reintegrate into the community, and reduces their feeling of loneliness. Al-Rafah organises social activities that aim to engage their residents, and the nature of those activities are dependent on the residents’ health conditions. Al-Rafah, for instance, organises trips to different Palestinian cities, and also organises in house activities and celebrations, such as national holidays and even residents’ birthdays. Al-Rafah is home to 15 permanent residents today, however, they also host individuals between the ages of 24 and 94, who are in need of care. There are many services available to all residents and guests, including psychosocial support and counselling, a 24-hour nursing service, physiotherapists, and a kitchen providing organic and healthy food.

 

In addition to al-Rafah’s distinguished work, and their ability to provide a safe haven for the elderly and the marginalised, they have also been working on raising awareness with regards to the social stigma of elderly homes. At the moment, al-Rafah mainly depends on food and clothes donations, and most of its residents come from disadvantaged and impoverished backgrounds. Some residents are capable of paying for their residence, which provides a source of income for al-Rafah to cover some of the institution’s expenses. Having said that, despite all of their efforts and work, al-Rafah is in constant need for financial support to cover the rent, salaries and utility bills, and due to the huge gap in private and public funding for the elderly, there is a real threat to such institutions, which could prevent them from continuing their work. It is very important, to support al-Rafah and other similar institutions, for the private and the public sectors, as well as the local community, to come together to help such initiatives in order to create a society that aspires for better living for all.

Al-Rafah Social Care

Al-Rafah Social Care

 

Gendering the ‘Refugee Crisis’ Conference

In collaboration with the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance at the Open University, CTDC has organised a half-day conference, on December 11, 2015. The conference offered a pressing critical reflection on the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe. In light of recent heated debates and widespread coverage of Europe’s border controls and the flow of refugees, the event offered a space to critically think through the gendered politics of refugee and forced migration, and its intersections with nationalism, geopolitics, and global patterns of inequality. In exploring the gendered dimensions of refugee and migrant life, and the differential experiences of women migrants, this event aims to facilitate a pertinent conversation between feminist activism and refugee struggles transnationally, while highlighting the existence and experiences of refugees outside of Europe.

The event included a number of different speakers, practitioners, academics and a woman refugee. Nasma, the refugee from Syria, opened the day with her personal experience and journey. Nasma’s experience highlighted the gendered aspects of refugee hood and migration, as she stated in her talk: ‘we had to leave Syria because we feared for our lives. We were threatened that women in our community will be raped by regime supporters.’ She also highlighted the difficulties she is facing in the UK, as a Muslim woman wearing the hijab. Her visibility as a Muslim makes her prone to anti-Muslim threats and abuse.

Academics at the conference also highlighted different experiences of women refugees and migrants. For instance, Dr Umut Erel explored experiences of motherhood among women migrants in the UK, while Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh problematized notions of sorority and sisterhood among refugee women. Looking at Sahrawi refugee women’s experiences, Elena exposed how the International Community plays a role in creating a model of a ‘good’ refugee, among refugee communities. Dr Ruba Salih talked about first generation women Palestinian refugees, who experienced the 1948 mass expulsion of Palestinians. Ruba explored untraditional and unconventional ways women express their memories of the expulsion. Ruba highlights the embodiment of refugee women and shows their experiences as women, and not only refugees. Professor Heaven Crawley showed us how in some cases the focus of women refugees as abused and fleeing violence, creates a negative image of the refugee man, who is automatically and unjustifiably portrayed as a perpetrator.

CTDC directors, Dr Nour Abu Assab and Dr Nof Nasser Eddin, presented research findings from the field on the experiences of Syrian refugee women and Palestinian refugee women. Nof’s presentation looked at Palestinian refugee situation from a gendered perspective and how women’s experiences are different from men’s experiences because of their gender identities. Nour’s presentation highlighted the importance of looking at the experiences of refugees outside European borders, especially that the largest numbers of refugees in fact reside in neighbouring countries. Both papers, demonstrated that it is problematic to think of refugees coming into Europe from the Middle East, and forget the extent to which the Middle East has historically provided a haven to several flows of refugees, such as the Circassians, European Jewish immigrants, Chechens, Armenians, and Bosnians, among others. The

papers showed that the Middle East has also witnessed internal waves of migration and refuge, for social, political, economic and security reasons. Due to the occupation, the Palestinians have been displaced within Palestine, and have sought refuge in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The Iraqis following the so-called war of liberation sought refuge in Jordan and Syria and other countries. The Syrians are currently seeking refuge in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon and even in Gaza.

The event concluded with a screening of a short documentary film produced by CTDC, in collaboration with the Hope Projects, Anti-Type Films and 12.01 Project. The film shed light on the experiences of women asylum seekers in the UK. The event was sold out and was very popular and received positive feedback from attendees and speakers. Video sessions from the conference will be made available online to give the chance to share it with those who could not attend.

16 Days of Activism

CTDC has participated in the 16 Days of activism campaign aiming to raise awareness about violence against all women, including trans and lesbian women. 1morecup in collaboration with Mosaic and in partnership with Royal Norwegian Embassy in Beirut, Intersos, Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration, Mawjoudin We Exist and Mesahat for Sexual and Gender Diversity, produced two video products narrating the stories of two women, who experiences sexual and gender based violence in Lebanon.

Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) are still a problem all women face, including gender conforming and gender non-conforming women. Trans and lesbian women face multiple discriminations, not only because of they are women but also because of their gender identity and sexual orientation. The videos aim to show first hand experiences of two women, aiming to raise awareness about the severity of the issues they face.

16 Days of Activism: II

16 Days of Activism: I

Women Asylum Seekers in the UK – Short Film

In collaboration with Hope Projects in Birmingham, Anti-Type Films and the Twelve 01 Project, CTDC has produced a short documentary film about women asylum seekers in the UK and the challenges they face awaiting their case to be determined. The film is based on interviews with women asylum seekers, academics and practitioners.

It highlights many of the issues women face including destitution, sex work and lack of material resources. Research for this film demonstrated that the issue of destitution is particularly challenging and showed that asylum law indirectly encourages women to have children, while waiting for their asylum, in order for them to not become destitute. This film also shows that the experience of women asylum seekers is different from men asylum seekers, and that it is particularly challenging for women, if they come to the UK as dependent on a male relative or partner.

The film does not only explore the processes of asylum and how it affects women negatively, but it also shows how women also face other challenges, which are in most cases not talked about within conversations about asylum. For example, women feel a disconnect from their countries, communities, and families of origin, when in the UK, especially when their asylum process takes sometimes up to ten years, if not more.

The film is available on the centre’s YouTube Channel.

Training Workshop for Syrian Women in Reyhanlı

Funded by the UN Democracy Fund, CTDC has provided a training course on women’s rights issues to Zeytuna Project implemented by MANDAT International targeting Syrian refugee women in Reyhanlı. The training course covered topics including the international discourse on women’s rights, local discourses on women’s rights, the construction of gender and sexuality, sexual violence and the importance of women mobilisation. The workshop included around 40 women, over a period of two days. Following the workshop, women attendees in Reyhanlı formed a women’s committee to provide support to each other and to raise awareness about gender and women’s issues. The workshop was run in a participatory manner, which allowed women safe space to talk and to share their experiences. CTDC is planning to issue a report based on some of the information and experiences shared by women attendees, to shed light on the suffering of Syrian women refugees in the south of Turkey.

Training Workshop for Syrian Women in Reyhanlı

Reclaim the Night – Coventry

In March 2015, CTDC has contributed to organising and sponsoring Reclaim the Night Event in Coventry. Reclaim the Night is a women-led event fighting for the right of all women to be out on the street and in public spaces without fear or threat of violence. The event took place on Saturday 7 March 2015, the women-only march took place around the centre of Coventry, starting from Broadgate, and ending with a women-only rally and celebration at Transport House on Short Street.

The event aimed to provide a women’s only safe space, where readings and poetry took place by women and for women. The tradition of reclaim the night started in the UK on November 12, 1977, and they were a protest by women against sexual harassment. Ever since, reclaim the night has been organised by women all across the UK, and in many other countries.

RECLAIM THE NIGHT - COVENTRY