Homeland

Syrian mothers tell harrowing tales of being “stateless” in a war-torn country

A former BBC reporter, pregnant with a baby girl, has returned to Syria. Her passport is set to expire, imperiling her baby’s future

Mervat Alsman, Syrian Refugee, Zaina Erhaim, Journalist and Syria Project Coordinator, Institute for War and Peace Reporting on Voices From The Edge Women In The World London Summit, Cadogan Hall, London. 10/09/2015

Zaina Erhaim is several months pregnant with her first child. She knows now that her daughter will not only come into a dangerous world but will be born without an official identity — stateless in a conflict that appears to have no end.

Mervat Alsman is a mother of five, torn from her four eldest children because she felt compelled to save the youngest, and has little hope of being reunited unless an end can be found to the conflict in Syria.

Their experiences stilled and entranced Cadogan Hall Friday during the Women in the World Summit. The similarities in the stories of a young Muslim journalist from Aleppo and a former beauty shop owner from Damascus were more compelling than their differences.

Mervat, a single mother, made the dangerous journey from the bombed-out Syrian capital in the back of claustrophobic lorries and crammed, leaky boats when her home was destroyed and her son’s school bombed — “the final decision.”

She told the audience through interpreter Kafa Almaghrabi, herself a Syrian refugee, how she first traveled to Libya with three children but was forced to leave when it became obvious that they couldn’t survive. She had money – $3,000 saved from a successful career before the war — to pay smugglers for passage on a boat bound for Italy. But it made little difference as she and her 9-year-old daughter found themselves crammed onto a boat with 700 other desperate men, women and children.

“I was very afraid, my daughter couldn’t swim, but I knew I had to be a strong and brave woman to save my family,” she said through the interpreter. “I didn’t feel I had a choice.”

The boat almost capsized — passengers panicked when the Italian coastguard tried to throw food and water, some refugees hurling themselves into the sea in a bid to be saved. Eventually they were brought ashore but the journey had only just begun.

Mervat made her way through Italy and France to reach Calais, where more smugglers waited, demanding another $2,500 to get mother and child inside a food truck bound for Dover. They almost suffocated in the sealed truck, the driver ignoring their cries for help until another passenger used a cell phone to call police.

Mervat and her daughter have now lived in Bradford for a year, and one son has managed to make it independently to Manchester. But she has not seen the other three whose entry into the UK has been denied. All she can do is hope.

So too does Zaina, who was a successful BBC journalist before resigning so she could go back to her home city, even though she was an enemy of the Assad regime. While others were understandably fleeing, she felt compelled — “responsible” — to help others because of her privileged education in London and her journalism skills.

She has now trained about 100 citizen reporters inside Syria, one third of them women, and has helped establish independent newspapers and magazines in her war-torn homeland. She is also the Syria project coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), an international organization that supports journalists in countries undergoing conflict, crisis, or transition.

She had seen death in the street and worked with people shattered psychologically by war, like the woman forced to watch a man being raped. If she blinked or prayed, then she would suffer the same fate.

On a personal level, her husband had been arrested twice, on one occasion beaten and tortured for seven weeks. He was bed-ridden for six months after being released.

Her mother, who lives in Turkey, keeps the bed sheets her daughter uses during rare visits unwashed in case her daughter is killed: “At least she will have the smell of me.”

What is daily life like in Aleppo? “It’s hard. It’s war. We have maximum two hours of electricity a day, we struggle for food and water, but people are still trying to live, sending their kids to schools in basements.”

“I have witnessed bombings of schools, at night the kebab shops turn their lights out and hope their barbecue members can’t be seen. They are trying to find ways to go on.”

Zaina will be presented with a major journalism award in a few weeks. The Peter Mackler Award, presented by the U.S. branch of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Agence France-Presse for courageous and ethical journalism. The presentation will take place in London but her thoughts are very much with Allepo.

And her baby? Zaina shrugs: “My passport runs out soon so I will be stateless. So will my baby. There are an estimated 500,000 children in Syria who are already unregistered. Putin’s intervention has just made things worse.”

Mervet Alsman and interpreter Kafa Almaghrabi also think about going back to Syria. Britain may be a safe and friendly haven, but it will never be home.

Related:

Syrian women speak out against men who are fleeing the country

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