The last time 15-year-old Asma sat in a classroom she was ten-years-old. She was a child who went to school in her native city of Aleppo as children do all around the world.
Then the war in Syria intervened. Schools became targets and parents worried for their children’s safety. Classrooms closed and girls she knew ended up staying indoors. “It was a hard decision to leave,” said her mother, Fatima, who has a warm smile and twinkling eyes that invite you to share her laughter. “The children were afraid of the planes — you would be sitting there and hearing the sound of the bombs.”
They were a family of eight, but two sons were lost to this war.
Asma’s family ended up fleeing the barrel bombs, ISIS occupation and constantly shifting front lines of Syria’s civil wars. Her family lost more relatives and finally fled Syria for Turkey. In leaving Syria they joined more than four million of their countrymen who have fled their homeland since the war started nearly five years ago. More than two million Syrians now live in neighboring Turkey. That number is expected to keep climbing as the conflict grinds on and neighboring Jordan and Lebanon struggle to allow in all who are fleeing the carnage of Syria.
For girls like Asma, refugee life promises isolation and depression along with relative safety. Girls her age are often kept indoors by relatives fearful of both the influences and the individuals that lie beyond their doorstep. Marriage is sometimes seen as the best option to keep daughters fed, alive and safe, by parents overwhelmed by refugee life’s perils and its costs.
No good data exists to track the number of Syrian girls facing child marriage, but stories abound of girls forced into marriage by families who felt they had no other choice in the face of poverty, insecurity and the uncertainty of refugee life.
But sometimes lifelines appear. And in Asma’s case, it came when she and her mother wandered into a community center run by the NGO Mercy Corps. The center brings together Turkish and Syrian families — often women and children — for coffee and community and the chance to learn. To learn to read, to learn about their own legal rights and to get together in a safe space where they can talk about what they have seen and survived.
“For me and for my daughter, for our situation emotionally and mentally, this center helps us,” Fatima says. “We were sitting at home, we were in a strange country with no one to understand us. A neighbor told me about this place and I came here and my spirit and my personality changed. I thought there could be a future for us.”
And for her daughter, that future will include study. She quickly dismisses the idea that Asma will become someone’s bride any time soon. Instead, she says of her children, “I want them to start living.” Marriage is no option for a girl as young as her daughter, she says, even if she herself was married as a child.
“A lot of people come to ask for my daughter’s hand and I say, ‘no, she is going to study,’” Fatima says.
Asma smiles and starts to speak over her mother, saying how thankful she is that her mother is strong. She and her mother both know girls that are far less fortunate.
“One family, the father and mother forced their daughter to marry a married man,” Asma’s mother says. But her daughter is fighting against the despair of refugee life to see a future that offers hope, not just for herself, but for her community.
“I want to study,” the teen says. “I want to be an English teacher and then I can teach others kids so that they don’t suffer like I did. I want others to have the chance to study that I didn’t have.”
That dream starts with English lessons she hopes to begin soon at the community center. Looking at her teacher, Asma beams. “We are so lucky to know her because she changed our life.”
And she says that in her quest to return to being a student rather than becoming a wife, her mother is her inspiration.
“I thank God I have a mother like this,” Asma says.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the New York Times best seller “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.”